Paper on the Suggestion that Character Desdemona From Othello Suffers at the Hands of a Patriarchal, Male Dominated Society. Or is She a Temptress?

Paper on the Suggestion that Character Desdemona From Othello Suffers at the Hands of a Patriarchal, Male Dominated Society. Or is She a Temptress?

Desdemona is one of the most important characters in ‘Othello,’ not because of what she has done, but what she hasn’t. The simple fact of Desdemona’s innocence from the supposed ‘crime’ (5.2.26) she committed provides a compelling argument for her position as a ‘victim’ of a patriarchal society – she is punished symbolically, when Othello ‘smothers her voice’ according to Ania Loomba, the loss of her voice demonstrating the devastating, inevitable effects of simply being a woman in a man’s society. Certain scenes give the impression of Desdemona playing the ‘strumpet’ with Iago and Cassio, but these, as Loomba suggest, represent merely the ‘contradictions imposed upon her by a racist, patriarchal and bourgeouis society,’ which has a clear definition of the woman’s place in the world and any threat to the man’s rule is extinguished by whatever damning basis it may concoct.

Shakespeare’s construction of the male, patriarchal society of his Venice is important to showing the ways in which it causes Desdemona to be a victim. Desdemona’s own father’s treatment of her shows, from the start, the way in which women were seen as possessions from birth, first of the father and then of the husband. Cornelius a Lapide, writing in 1638, described the role of women as ‘granted to man ... in possession ... over which he may exercise his jurisdiction and authority.’ Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, is rightly, in this context, shocked when Desdemona purports to have run away and married in secret, without her father’s permission, and particularly to a black man, who will bring shame on the family. When Brabantio hears of his daughter’s actions, he does not talk of his anger at the marriage, but expresses disbelief at ‘how got she out,’ and sees her action not as an expression of free will, but cries out to fathers, ‘trust not your daughters,’ for the will only betray. He sees this action, then, as a betrayal of himself and his possession of his daughter, not as a result of conscious desire – Desdemona commits ‘treason of the blood.’ This phrase strongly demonstrates society’s belief that daughters are bound by blood, and any subversion of this is treason – an action, in those days, which carried with it a death penalty, and this is demonstrated by Desdemona’s execution at the hands of Othello. Subsequently, Desdemona can be seen as a victim, indeed, a political victim, punished for daring to commit ‘treason’ against society.

Iago displays a similarly derogatory treatment of Desdemona, although, in this, case, it results from a general disdain for women rather than a contextual view of women’s place at the bottom of society. Iago speaks about Desdemona with disparaging language, even in front of a gentleman like Cassio. Iago describes Desdemona, who is his own general’s wife, let one not forget, as ‘full of game,’ – he sees her as a ‘housewive,’ a whore-like woman in pursuit of men other than her husband. This view compounds Brabantio’s, suggesting Desdemona is indeed the trickster, the temptress that deceived her own father, and is now looking to deceive her husband. With a trace of dramatic irony, the audience, as well as Cassio, know that Iago’s allegations are untrue, however it adds to the depiction of Desdemona as a victim of male society, which allowed open offense against women. Iago demonstrates this by going so far as to mock the general’s wife, as well as his own, describing women as ‘pictures out of doors,’ for example, suggesting they are mere pretty objects, with little intellect or substance. This demonstrates the further objectification of women and their presentation as victims, as they are depicted merely in terms of their (sexual) appearance and not their mind.

The early chapters’ depictions of Desdemona by both Othello and Cassio represent the only positive male representations of her. Cassio describes her as a ‘most fresh and delicate creature’ and even ‘perfection.’ These are extremely strong compliments, almost unfitting from a subordinate about his general’s wife, and display a sharp contrast to Iago’s disdainful insults. However, the language he uses can be seen, in another sense, as merely exemplifying the accepted presentation of the female. ‘Delicate,’ for example, depicts Desdemona as fragile and in need of male protection, whilst it relates her to a flower, a useless object valued only for its image, not for its function, which represents the views of the Sixteenth Century society.
Othello’s view of Desdemona, meanwhile, changes throughout the course of the play. He begins in love with Desdemona, displaying similar adoration to Cassio, using description of Desdemona such as ‘fair lady’. There is little room for exaggeration however, and Othello’s love for Desdemona is limited to prosaic accounts such as ‘I loved her that she did pity’ the pains that he had passed. Othello’s suggestion that he ‘won [Brabantio’s] daughter’ is a view that distinctly ties in with the Jacobean portrayal of women – Desdemona is a prize, an object that can be won as easily as if by winning a game. In this way, women have no choice in the decisions that are made for them; they are victims of their father and husband’s will. Further on in the play, Othello becomes increasingly upset about Desdemona’s alleged crimes, and his attitude towards her changes immediately as Iago alludes to her wrongdoing. Desdemona becomes a ‘lewd minx’ and a ‘fair devil.’ As soon as Desdemona differs marginally from the status quo, even though only allegedly, she is branded a ‘devil’ and she is seen as an evil creature for attempting to break the great chain of being by committing adultery, an action which is permissible only to men. Desdemona is innocent, however, but it shows the strength of a Sixteenth Century man’s belief in the subordination of women that he will jump to such harsh words about his wife so quickly. Desdemona is, in this instance, a clear victim of the suspicions and jealousy of man, guilty of a crime she did not commit.

In the final events of the play, as Desdemona lies dying, she pronounces that ‘nobody’ but ‘I myself’ has murdered her. She blames herself in the last Act for her own death, just as in Act 4 Scene 1 she did not speak up against Othello’s brutal treatment of her, instead wishing to ‘not stay to offend’ him. Desdemona is most clearly a victim here, since she does not protest her own innocence, instead martyring herself by remaining silent and receiving her punishment, the crimes for which she is not guilty yet takes the blame. While one may see this as an admission of her guilt in her dealings with Cassio, it is a better example of Desdemona obeying her master in all respects, despite knowing her innocence. She becomes, ironically, the ‘perfect wife,’ according to Carroll Camden, and a victim of a harsh society rather than her own fault.

The suggestion that Desdemona is a temptress does carry some weight. From the start, Desdemona has been seen to disobey society’s gender constructs, as she ‘deceives’ her father and commits ‘treason of the blood’ a betrayal against the traditional laws of family and society. Her guilt, although absurd to a modern audience, would have been legitimate in a Sixteenth Century society in which women were the sole property of their fathers.
In her interaction with Iago, it is suggested that she is guilty of indiscretion and inappropriate behaviour. In Act 2 Scene 1, Desdemona engages in witty banter with Iago, asking him, for example, ‘how wouldst thou praise me?’ It is perhaps unfitting that the general’s wife should indulge in such behaviour with someone who is, essentially, her husband’s servant. It is innocent enough interaction by Desdemona, but to the cynical eyes of Iago, it represents the roaming nature of the weak woman, ruled by her emotions.

Desdemona’s interaction with Cassio gives equal strength to the view of Desdemona as a temptress. In the same scene, Cassio is observed by Iago taking ‘her by the hand,’ and she is ‘well kissed.’ While this may be seen by Othello, when told by Iago, as a flirtacious, wrongful behaviour, in her eyes, it is innocent. Iago himself puts a spin on their interaction, since although the pair may be slightly unusual in their closeness, their engagement never stretches further than a Platonic familiarity until Iago himself decrees it – his role as the ‘improviser’ (according to Greenblatt) is important in this. In this she is clearly the victim – the image of the temptress is thrust upon her and not a product of her own actions.

While Desdemona may perhaps be seen to have tendencies of overstepping the appropriateness of extra-marital conduct, it is done, in her mind, in complete innocence. Desdemona is a victim not because of her inappropriate interactions but because of her ignorance in these. She is made out to be a temptress and this is how she becomes a victim. Like all women who speak out in Shakespeare’s plays, as Lisa Jardine says, Desdemona is ‘silenced;’ the ‘willow scene’ sees Emilia and Desdemona decrying the ills of man, and their assigned guilt in life. It is in the privacy of her own home, and sympathised with by the audience, however, the consequence of the women disobeying the Great Chain of Being’ that defined Jacobean society is inevitable punishment. Desdemona is the most docile and least outspoken of all the women in ‘Othello,’ yet conversely it is her who suffers the most – her ignorance and innocence of the patriarchal construct makes her its victim. It is because of her innocence, and not her temptation, that she is punished, and as such she is most definitely a victim of a harsh, patriarchal society.