In William Shakespeare’s tragic drama Othello, the wife of the protagonist, Desdemona, is the main female character. Secondly, there is the ancient’s wife, Emilia, who is morally ambivalent. Thirdly, there is the girlfriend of Michael Cassio, Bianca, who makes her appearance later in the drama. This essay will analyze the roles of these three women.
At the outset of the play Iago persuades the rejected suitor of Desdemona, Roderigo, to accompany him to the home of Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, in the middle of the night. Once there the two awaken the senator with loud shouts about his daughter’s elopement with Othello. This is the initial reference to the role of women in the play – the role of wife. In response to the noise and Iago’s vulgar descriptions of Desdemona’s involvement with the general, Brabantio arises from bed. Iago’s bawdy references to the senator’s daughter present a second role of women – that of illicit lover. With Roderigo’s help, he gathers a search party to go and find Desdemona and bring her home. The father’s attitude is that life without his Desdemona will be much worse than before:
It is too true an evil: gone she is;
And what’s to come of my despised time
Is nought but bitterness. (1.1)
Here is seen another role or function of women in the drama – that of comforter for the aged. Brabantio is the old father, and he hates to lose the comforting services of his Desdemona. The daughter’s husband Othello expresses his sentiments to Iago regarding his relationship with the senator’s daughter, saying
that I love the gentle Desdemona,
I would not my unhoused free condition
Put into circumscriptio…
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…y true!” and accuses him of lying:
You told a lie, an odious, damned lie;
Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie.
She false with Cassio! (5.2)
Then she accuses him of causing murder: “And your reports have set the murder on.” Emilia’s stunning interrogation and conviction of her own husband as the evil mastermind behind the crime results in Iago’s killing her. Despondent Othello, grief-stricken by remorse for the tragic mistake he has made, stabs himself and dies on the bed next to his wife.
Thus it is seen that the roles of women are many and varied – and are key to the successful development of the story.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. In The Electric Shakespeare. Princeton University. 1996. http://www.eiu.edu/~multilit/studyabroad/othello/othello_all.html No line nos.
Othello’s Ranking Now and Then
Othello’s Ranking Now and Then
From Burbage’s day till the present, the Shakespearean drama Othello has ranked high on the charts. But how high? And when? And why?
Kenneth Muir, in the Introduction to William Shakespeare: Othello, explains the popularity which this play had at the time of its creation:
Richard Burbage, the leading actor in Shakespeare’s company, played the part of the ‘grieved Moor’ and it was one of his greatest successes. We are told by Shakespeare’s neighbor, Leonard Digges, that audiences were bored with Jonson’s tragedies:
They prized more
Honest Iago, or the jealous Moor. (12)
The ranking of this famous play is not cut and dried, totally clarified and undebated. A. C. Bradley, in his book of literary criticism, Shakespearean Tragedy, describes the equivocal ranking which some critics give this play:
Or is there a justification for the fact – a fact it certainly is – that some readers, while acknowledging, of course, the immense power of Othello, and even admitting that it is dramatically perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest triumph, still regard it with a certain distaste, or, at any rate, hardly allow it a place in their minds beside Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth? (173-74)
To many of the audience, Othello would appear to have a beauty about it which is hard to match – thus ranking the play high. Helen Gardner in “Othello: A Tragedy of Beauty and Fortune” touches on this beauty which enables this play to stand above the other tragedies of the Bard:
Among the tragedies of Shakespeare Othello is supreme in one quality: beauty. Much of its poetry, in imagery, perfection of phrase, and steadiness of rhythm, soaring yet firm, enchants the sensuous imagination. This kind of beauty Othello shares with Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra; it is a corollary of the theme which it shares with them. But Othello is also remarkable for another kind of beauty. Except for the trivial scene with the clown, all is immediately relevant to the central issue; no scene requires critical justification. The play has a rare intellectual beauty, satisfying the desire of the imagination for order and harmony between the parts and the whole. Finally, the play has intense moral beauty. It makes an immediate appeal to the moral imagination, in its presentation in the figure of Desdemona of a love which does not alter ‘when it alteration finds’, but ‘bears it out even to the edge of doom’.