Literary texts are always concerned with the construction of gender and the meaning of belonging to one sex or the other. In the play Othello, by William Shakespeare the gender construction is used to define the roles of men and woman during the time in which the play was written, the Elizabethan era. The characters of Othello, Iago, Desdemona and Emillia are utilized to represent the different aspects of these roles with in their particular social circumstances .The issues of power, class, occupation and ideology are constantly made reference to illustrate the characters conformance or non-conformance of the social expectance during this time.
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In the play the character of Othello is used by Shakespeare to represent the stereotypical image of men during this time period. Venetian men as was expected were seen as the holders of power within society and woman were seen as insignificant. They controlled all aspects of life and were seen to hold greater power by the positions with which they held in the army. A general would out rank a lieutenant as a lieutenant would out rule an ancient or solider. This aspect possibly made Othello the greatest power holder within the play, as he was a general .He believed in the ideas of honesty and justice and did not hold back in relinquishing his power on those who seem to challenge it, Cassio, I love thee, But nevermore be officer of mine (Ln 243 Act2, 3). His ability as a leader was exceptional as was his ability to dominate situations of conflict Were it my cue to fight, I would have known it With out a prompter (Ln 84 act 1,2). Othello may be seen as a non-conformer to the traditional views on woman as he treats his wife with great respect and recommends her highly. This how ever is only to an extent and may be seen as an extremity of the relationship between man and woman or husband and wife. Othello shows this when he murders his wife because of the accusations of adultery against her, he kills her in the name of love and to salvage his own honor, An honorable murder, if you will: For naught did I do in hate, but all in honor. (Ln 291 Act 5,2). This course of action was seen as the acceptable thing for a man to do in such a situation. Through out the play Othello acts out of honor, justice and duty, but towards the end his mind becomes corrupted and he begins to act against the acceptable behavior of society. Jealousy and greed have taken over as pointed out by Lodovico when Othello slaps his Desdemona in public, Is this the noble moor, whom our full senate call all-in-all sufficient? (Ln 266 Act 4,1). Through the construction of gender and with the use of the character Othello, Shakespeare has been able to clearly define the roles of men during the 1600s in society.
The character of Iago is another male character used by Shakespeare to construct the imagery of men during the 1600s. Iago is seen through out the play as the under dog or evil aspect of the play solely causing all of the deception and conflict. This coarse of action he follows is seen as contradictory behavior by every one around him as is his inability to accept responsibility, Demand me nothing; what you know, you know I will never speak word. (Ln 305 Act5, 2). He too like Othello follows certain criteria, which are expected and followed by society. His standings as a ancient do not see great powers bestowed upon him, hunger for such power over runs his life. This causes him to obtain power through any means even disloyalty to those around him, O, sir, content you. I follow him to serve my turn upon him. (Ln 38 Act1, 1). Both male characters ideology towards woman may at first seem very different but are in fact similar. They both believe that woman are inferior to men and that they should obey them without question. Iagos feelings may too be seen as an extremity towards woman as he sees them as nothing more than animals or objects of amusement, I would drown myself for the love of a guinea-hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon. (Ln310 Act1, 3). Shakespeare has once again used a male character, Iago to support the ideologies of men during the 1600s. These similarities between Iago and Othello have enabled the reader to obtain a clear understanding of what it means to a male in such a society.
Shakespeare through the use of Desdemona explores the female aspects of the play. It is in this character that the stereotypical image of woman during the 1600s are exposed and explored. Venetian women were seen to hold little power or respect in society in general they were wives and child bearers. Woman were to be seen and not heard, A maiden never bold; Of spirit so still and quite that her motion blushed at herself (Ln Act1, 3). Woman owed obedience to their male counterpart weather it be their fathers or husbands. Once married they left the security of their fathers and owed loyalties solely to their husbands in which they never questioned. Desdemona is introduced to the reader as a non-conformant to the ideologies of society as she has deceived her father, Look to her Moor…She has deceived her father, and my thee. (Ln 289 Act 1,3). Although Desdemona follows closely the ideal image of a lady once she is married she, is still a woman of free spirit and determination qualities not sort after within a woman. This can be seen when she interferes in the military business of Othello , she speaks on behalf Cassio who was been demoted and tries to have him reinstated , tell him I have moved my lord on his behalf , and hope all will be well. (Ln 20 Act 3,4). This action contradicts the standings between husband and wife as it was expected that woman remain out of the business of their husbands and do not question their authority on such matters .This image of Desdemona changes through out the play as she is a loyal wife to Othello and even accepts her death at the hands of her husband for a crime she did not commit, O, who hath done this deed? Nobody-I myself-farewell (Ln125 Act5, 2). This illiterates the loyalty and respect she had for Othello even in death as was the expected behavior of a woman in her situation. Shakespeare has through the use of Desdemona created a character, which may in some instances go against the norms of society but overall gives an accurate image of the position of woman during this time period and the way in which they lived their lives.
The use of another female character Emilia by Shakespeare is used to further enforce the social criteria, which were seen as admirable in a woman . Emilia through most of the play illustrates the typical ideology of married women and does not confront or question her husband ,Iagos authority even when it is clear that she should, ..you have been so earnest to have me filch it? Why ,what is it to you? (Ln310 Act3,3) . Scenes like this were common as wives had little involvement in their husband s affairs as most marriages were in essence ones of convenience. Contradictory to that of Othellos and Desdemona one of love. Emilia is a conformant to the general rules of society and it is when she turns against these rules that she is killed by her husband for talking out against him , Good gentlemen ,let me have leave to speak Tis proper that I obey him , but not now. (Ln190 Act5,3) .This illustrates the importance of obedience expected by men from their wives, if they were defiant death may have been an acceptable punishment at that time .Shakespeare has used Emilia to illustrate another female aspect of the play although, she may differ slightly from Desdemona she is still a woman .This has allowed the reader to visualize a detailed description of what it means to be a woman in the 1600s which was a male dominated world.
In the play Othello, William Shakespeare has utilized the construction of gender .Through the use of his male characters Othello and Iago and, with reference to their power ,class, occupation and ideologies a clear representation of what it means to belong to the male sex in 1600s is constructed .Men were the holders of power and were in constant competition to increase this power within society. The meaning of what it is to be a woman is express and explored through the use of Desdemona and Emilia . Their actions and thoughts allow the reader to imagine the hardships endured during this time .Woman were seen as little more than object of affection who s purpose in life lay in marriage and raising a family .They played a little role in controlling even their own lives as they did not make their own decisions but simply followed orders from their superior male counterparts .Through this Shakespeare play has allowed the reader gain a insight into the meaning of belonging to one sex or the other in society during the 1600s.