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Critical Analysis of the Plight of the Women in Othello

“Othello: The Moor of Venice” is one of the four greatest tragedies written by Shakespeare. The other three include “Macbeth”, “Hamlet” and “King Lear”. In “Othello” the author describes the relationship of two people: a young lady Desdemona, who is the daughter of Venetian Senator Brabantio and Othello, who is the general in the defence in the city of Venice. Desdemona charmed by Othello’s tales about his brave campaigns and glorious victories secretly escapes her father’s palace and marries the old moor Othello. Though Othello occupies a rather significant post in the city, he is hated by the majority of men, and especially Iago and Roderigo, both of which pretend to be Othello’s friends. Directed by envy and hate Iago develops a guileful and ominous plan, according to which the moor has to suffer very much. In order to succeed Iago cooperates with Roderigo, who is very much in love with Desdemona, and hatches a plot against Othello. The main goal of Iago is to make Othello jealous of his wife, and thus make the moor loose his mind. To cut a long story short, it is necessary to say that Iago succeeds and Othello kills Desdemona after accusing her of having a love affair with Cassio, who is the lieutenant of Othello in the Venetian defence forces. The young lady is totally innocent, representing the best example of dignity, chastity and fidelity; however, all of her positive qualities don’t help Desdemona to remain alive. Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting and Iago’s wife Emilia is very much troubled by the death of her mistress. After finding out what has happened Emilia disowns her husband and tells everybody the truth about the handkerchief, which appears to be “the weightiest evidence” of Desdemona’s guilt. When Othello realizes that it is Iago who developed the whole scheme, he very much regrets of what he has done and kills himself. But before that Iago kills his wife Emilia and escapes.

The tragedy ends as any tragedy should dead. Three dead bodies lie on the bed, which used to be nuptial for Othello and Desdemona. Everything seems logical. Desdemona was killed because Othello was jealous of her, and Emilia was killed because she sort of betrayed her husband, while indeed she just told the truth. But what seems abnormal, is that in reality, Desdemona was innocent, and nobody protected her from such a cruel murder. This is how it often happened with women during Elizabethan Age, when women could be insulted, beaten or even killed by their husbands; and such violent actions towards women were considered normal.

The current paper was designed to speak about the plight of women (Desdemona and Emilia) in “Othello: The Moor of Venice” by Shakespeare. The paper will focus on the relationship of man and women described in Shakespeare’s tragedy and disrespectful and violent behaviour of husbands towards their wives.
According to Ruth Vanita, the author of the article “Proper” Men and “Fallen” Women: the Unprotectedness of Wives in Othello”, there are a lot of plays written during Elizabethan and Jacobean Age, which are devoted to the relationship of husbands and wives, and the majority of which end up in wives’ death. Speaking modern language, these plays describe certain cases of domestic violence, when no one besides a husband and a wife can interfere in. And this is very striking. Women are being abused, sometimes even publicly, like it happened in the First Scene of the Fourth Act of “Othello”, when the moor hit Desdemona in the presence of Lodovico and Iago. Though Lodovico tries to say something in order to protect Desdemona, he can do nothing to help the poor girl.

While reading “Othello” it is possible to determine a deep contrast between Othello and Iago, because the first one is very much in love with his young wife. He adores her and calls her an “angel”, while Iago just seems to bear living with Emily, whom he considers too garrulous and not very smart:

Desdemona. Alas, she has no speech.
Iago. In faith, too much;
I find it still, when I have list to sleep:
Marry, before your ladyship, I grant,
She puts her tongue a little in her heart,
And chides with thinking. [1].

Though the men seem very different, the women are exposed to the same violent actions despite being loved or not. Othello kills Desdemona because of his strong love and jealousy, caused by the rumours spread by Iago; and Iago kills Emilia because de doesn’t love her and in reality wants to be with Desdemona, because he is also charmed by her beauty and noble manners.

Trying to defend herself, Desdemona seeks help from the people she knows, but nobody besides Emilia, who is in the same position, is willing to help her. “A woman’s lack of “parties” and “alliances” to come to her aid against a murderous husband renders her an easily available victim”[2]- this is how Ruth Vanita describes miserable position of wives in “Othello”. According to Ruth Vanita it is not only Othello’s or Iago’s fault that their wives die. Of course they are direct executors of the two murders, but other men should also be considered guilty, as they don’t interfere and don’t help the innocent women. “Emilia’s death at her husband’s hands is again attributable to the onlookers’ non-intervention” [2] – writes the author, meaning that two other men Montano and Gratiano were also present in the bedroom of Othello and Desdemona and couldn’t prevent the murder of Emilia. “Emilia is not killed by Iago alone, as Desdemona was not killed by Othello alone. The other men present, by their inaction, literally create the space, as Lodovico did metaphorically, wherein a wife can be killed by her husband” [2].

However, Emilia dies not because she is unfaithful to her husband, but because she doesn’t support Iago’s ideas and chooses “to be loyal to Desdemona rather than him” [2]. While Desdemona shows extreme patience and respect towards her husband even when being called a “whore”, Emilia constantly shows her discontent and fills with indignation after getting to know how Desdemona is treated by Othello. The reason for such behaviour of Emilia is her awareness of Desdemona’s dignity and fidelity. Being her closest friend, Emilia spends the majority of time with her mistress, and thus knows everything about her relationship with Othello, Cassio and other men. She is perfectly aware that Desdemona loves no one besides Othello, but nobody listens to her words, because the words of men appear to be more convincing than those of women.

This play serves as good example of men’s and women’s inequality, which continues to exist nowadays. As any form of violence, violence against women doesn’t allow the humanity to achieve the equality among its members, it is a significant barrier preventing the humanity from living peacefully. Because of violence, women are unable to use their rights and freedoms to the full extent; it makes them feel as they occupy a lower position in society. Since the ancient times and until the modern period of time, the main function of women was to serve men. They could do nothing besides it: they didn’t study, didn’t work, and didn’t have any entertainment; while men were always busy with something giving their wives very little amount of attention. However, before Iago accused Desdemona of infidelity, the relationship of Othello and Desdemona were sort of exceptional for the given period of time. The loved each other despite the fact that Othello was rather old and unattractive and Desdemona was very young and beautiful. The girl was willing to give all her love to the old moor, but he preferred to listen to his “friend” rather than to his young wife. And Desdemona didn’t have any means to justify herself, though she wanted to continue living and loving Othello very much.

The tragedy by Shakespeare touches one of the basic principles of the society of Elizabethan Age. The principle is non-interference in family life. However, it is also relevant for the modern society. The difference between Elizabethan and modern women is that the latter have more rights nowadays in comparison with women living earlier. So, why the playwrights depict violence against women in their plays? Ruth Vanita gives a clear answer to this question: “Most domestic tragedies’ presentations of the torture, self-abasement, and death of the guilty wife were intended as a warning to women, and often display a near-sadistic delight in the woman’s sufferings” [2]. Desdemona and Emilia are both killed by their husbands, despite of the fact that both of them were chaste and loyal. Two women have different origins; however, they are united by their tragic fates. The author depicts Desdemona and Emilia lying on the same bed, meaning that “great lady and ordinary gentlewoman are equally defenceless as wives, yet retain their dignity in death” [2]. For this reason Shakespeare shows the resemblance of two women’s deaths.

Being a murderer Othello still gives rise to sympathy from the side of readers of viewer, because everybody can see his true love towards Desdemona, but even this didn’t save her life. Obviously, Othello’s jealousy is much stronger than his love and trust, and he believes Iago as his loyal servant and friend. In her turn, Desdemona remains a sort of silent creature, words of whom nobody really listens to. She pledges her allegiance to Othello, but he is made blind by the jealousy he feels.

Having spoken about the plight of women in “Othello” and the relationship of husbands and wives during Elizabethan Age it is necessary to make a conclusion. The problem of violence against women appeared as early as ancient times, and continues to exist till nowadays. It was especially noticed during Middle Ages when all women in spite of their origin, position or age were treated as some sorts of belongings rather than human beings. At that time husbands used to have a full control over their wives and could do anything they want. And what is the most striking is that men’s violent actions were legal, while it was forbidden to anyone to interfere in private life of a family. There are a lot of facts that women experienced violence from the side of their husbands, and women in “Othello” would make a good example of that. Desdemona and Emilia are two innocent victims who were killed by their husbands in a burst of anger, while nobody even tried to protect them. Hopefully, some day the world will reach such level of its development, at which all women would be able to receive equal rights with men, and facts of violence will be only found on pages of the old plays rather than in statistics of criminal justice.


1. Shakespeare, William. “Othello: the Moor of Venice”.
2. Vanita, Ruth. “Proper” Men and “Fallen” Women: the Unprotectedness of Wives in Othello”. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 34, 1994 Can Write a Critical Essay on Othello by Shakespeare!

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