The Shakespearean drama Othello renders less to the female gender than it does to the male gender. All the women characters are victims – unjustly so. Let’s talk about the obvious sexism throughout the play.
Susan Snyder in “Othello: A Modern Perspective” expounds on the sexist notions typical of Venice:
The pervasive notion of woman as property, prized indeed but more as object than as person, indicates one aspect of a deep-seated sexual pathology in Venice. [. . .] Fear of women’s sexuality is omnipresent in Othello. Iago fans to flames the coals of socially induced unease in Othello, fantasizes on his own about being cuckolded by Othello and Cassio. In an ideology that can value only cloistered, desireless women, any woman who departs from this passivity will cause intense anxiety. (295)
Can the sexism within this play be regarded as insignificant, or is that trivializing something important? Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine comment in the Introduction to Shakespeare: Othello that sexism is a big factor in the play:
At this point in our civilization the play’s fascination and its horror may be greater than ever before because we have been made so very sensitive to the issues of race, class, and gender that are woven into the texture of Othello. [. . .] The issue of gender is especially noticeable in the final scenes of the play – with the attacks on Bianca, Emilia, and Desdemona – which are vivid reminders of how terrible the power traditionally exerted by men over women can be. (xiii-xiv)
Even the noble general yielded to the sexist remarks and insinuations of his ancient, thus developing a reprehensible attitude toward h…
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Mowat, Barbara A. and Paul Werstine, ed. Introduction. Shakespeare: Othello. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993.
Pitt, Angela. “Women in Shakespeare’s Tragedies.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Reprint from Shakespeare’s Women. N.p.: n.p., 1981.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. In The Electric Shakespeare. Princeton University. 1996. http://www.eiu.edu/~multilit/studyabroad/othello/othello_all.html No line nos.
Snyder, Susan. “Othello: A Modern Perspective.” Shakespeare: Othello. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993.
Wayne, Valerie. “Historical Differences: Misogyny and Othello.” The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ed Valerie Wayne. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.
Built on a broad base of multiple themes, Othello is one of William Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies. Let’s sift through the themes and try to rank them in significance.
In the Introduction to The Folger Library General Reader’s Shakespeare, Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar consider the arch-villainy of the ancient to be the most potent theme:
Othello avoids all irrelevancies and the action moves swiftly from the first scene to the denouement. We never get lost in a multiplicity of incidents or a multitude of characters. Our attention remains centered on the arch villainy of Iago and his plot to plant in Othello’s mind a corroding belief in his wife’s faithlessness. (viii)
A. C. Bradley, in his book of literary criticism, Shakespearean Tragedy, describes the theme of sexual jealousy in Othello:
But jealousy, and especially sexual jealousy, brings with it a sense of shame and humiliation. For this reason it is generally hidden; if we perceive it we ourselves are ashamed and turn our eyes away; and when it is not hidden it commonly stirs contempt as well as pity. Nor is this all. Such jealousy as Othello’s converts human nature into chaos, and liberates the beast in man; and it does this in relation to one of the most intense and also the most ideal of human feelings. (169)
Helen Gardner in “Othello: A Tragedy of Beauty and Fortune” agrees with Bradley, saying that “its subject is sexual jealousy, loss of faith in a form which involves the whole personality at the profound point where body meets spirit” (144). Of course, jealousy of a non-sexual nature torments the antagonist, the ancient, to the point that he ruins those around him and himself. Francis Ferguson in “Two Worldviews Echo Each Other” describes:
On the contrary, in the “world” of his philosophy and his imagination, where his spirit lives, there is no cure for passion. He is, behind his mask, as restless as a cage of those cruel and lustful monkeys that he mentions so often. It has been pointed out that he has no intelligible plan for destroying Othello, and he never asks himself what good it will do him to ruin so many people. It is enough for him that he “hates” the Moor. . . .(133)
Act 1 Scene 1 opens with an expression of jealousy and hatred: Roderigo is upbraiding Iago because of the elopement of the object of his affections –Desdemona — with the Moor: “Thou told’st me thou didst hold him in thy hate.