The Construction of Desdemona’s Character as Feminine Woman
Marilyn French asserts that Shakespeare only constructs two types of women, the “virtuous subhuman or deceiving subhuman.” In conjugation with the Elizabethan expectation of an “acceptable version of the feminine” woman, a woman who is passive, obedient and chaste, Shakespeare has constructed Desdemona as a “virtuous subhuman.” This supports the feminist criticism that “literary representations of women repeated familiar cultural stereotypes.” Desdemona is perceived by the male characters as a nonentity, a “subhuman” tool to be used and possession to be had in the form of a wife or daughter, as male characters, according to Kate Millet, are “denigrating, exploitative and repressive in their relations with women.” The role of submissive daughter and obedient wife is the role expected of an Elizabethan woman in a patriarchal society. Women who do not conform to these expectations are painted as deceiving seductresses. Shakespeare’s construction of Desdemona’s fall, Othello’s perception of Desdemona as a seductress who is no longer pure and chaste and thus kills her, coincides with the contemporary view that female independence “leads to dislike and rejection” as independent females who are not pure or submissive are not considered “acceptable version[s] of the feminine” woman. The purpose of this, according to Bertens, is to prolong the imbalanced power relations between men and women in order to preserve the mechanisms of patriarchy. However, one must note that it is Desdemona’s ‘acceptable’ feminine nature that makes her susceptible to Iago’s plotting which ultimately leads to her downfall and thus, one may infer that what is considered ‘acceptable’ in terms of a feminine woman is actually unacceptable, according to Shakespeare, when considering the survival of woman in patriarchal societies, thus possibly making Shakespeare a proto-feminist.
Toril Moi defines the ideal female character as a “passive, docile and above all selfless creature.” Desdemona’s constructed role as wife and daughter, her passive, selfless and obedient behaviour as well as the value placed on her chastity, embodied through the symbol of her handkerchief, is a product of the patriarchal society in Othello, reflecting the ideal feminine woman as thought by Elizabethan society. The angelic connotations surrounding the religious language associated with “Divine Desdemona” emphasises her purity and angelic qualities and contributes to her construction as an acceptable feminine woman, whose personification of femininity will fulfil patriarchal expectations, as well as to the audience’s expectations of her character. Feminist critics debate as to whether a society’s concept of femininity arises from biology, in that it is what makes them female, or from social conditioning. Barry asserts that these feminine traits are underpinned by conditioning and “socialisation”, thus one may infer that Desdemona’s statement, “I am obedient”, is a result of social conditioning enforced by patriarchal society where her expected duty is to obey her husband and father. Thus she conforms to her society’s expectation of her as a virtuous subhuman.
Desdemona acknowledges the duty she has to her husband and father as well as the ritual passing of that duty as “so much duty as my mother showed/To you, preferring you before her father,/So much I challenge that I may profess/Due to the Moor my lord.” This ritual shift in duty may be interpreted as a shift of possession. She was property of her father until her marriage where she was “won” by Othello, thus becoming his property. The image of her as property, a subhuman, is emphasised further by Iago’s use of animal imagery, referring to Desdemona as a “white ewe”, an animal to be owned by her master. This not only emphasises the perception of her as a possession and a tool, but also denigrates her status and position in society, maintaining the men’s position as superiors. This objectification of women is a strong feature of any patriarchal society, as it would have been during Shakespeare’s time. Thus, one may infer that Shakespeare’s intention behind her construction is to reveal to women what version of feminine behaviour is acceptable in order for one to find a husband, which was considered the aim of every woman.
One may argue then argue that the intended message behind Desdemona’s death, as put by Bertens, is that “dependence leads to indulgement and reverence while independence leads to dislike and rejection.” Desdemona lives while her chastity and purity remains intact, however, when she loses her handkerchief, the symbol of her chastity, she becomes perceived as a “deceiving subhuman” by the leader of the patriarchal world in which she lives, Othello. Shakespeare discloses this shift in the change of language associated with Desdemona which is no longer angelic and divine, but crude and wicked as Othello refers to her as a “strumpet” and “cunning whore.” As a deceiving temptress, she becomes a threat to the mechanisms of patriarchy and therefore “she must die, else she’ll betray more men.” Desdemona’s growing independence from her husband contributes to the “dislike and rejection”, as predicted by Bertens, as she hides her intentions regarding Cassio’s restoral to favour from her husband. This independence becomes evident as Desdemona and Othello struggle to understand each other’s use of language with Othello’s usually calm and measured use of blank verse being replaced by verbal bullying, echoing the disintegration of their marital harmony. Independence and deception provide the basis for the theme of jealousy in the play, which ultimately leads to Desdemona’s demise. The structure of the play also supports the supposition that it was Desdemona’s actions of deceit and hiding the truth from her husband that resulted in her death as we are initially introduced to her as a virtuous embodiment of the “acceptable version of the feminine” woman, and at this time she is safe. However, as her actions transgress and she separates herself from her husband, becoming perceived as an unacceptable version of femininity, she dies. This suggests that Desdemona is constructed in order to reveal the importance and safety granted by embodying acceptable feminine traits and the dangers of digressing from them.
However, Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony, in that we as the audience know that Iago and Othello’s accusations of Desdemona are false and that she is not guilty of adultery and has remained obedient out of duty to her husband throughout the play, changes the reception of Desdemona’s construction as an acceptable feminine woman who dies as a result of her transgressions. Desdemona now appears as a “victim of impossible ideals” expected of women. It may therefore become evident that it is her supposedly “acceptable” feminine behaviour of conforming to patriarchy’s expectations that leads to her death as her femininity and angelic self-sacrifice means she is unable to save herself from death, thus implying that the supposed acceptable feminine behaviour is unacceptable if you wish to survive in a patriarchal world. Therefore, it may be argued that Shakespeare reveals “scepticism about the nature of women” as to whether or not the nature attributed to women by patriarchal societies is acceptable. Desdemona’s feminine nature and the emphasis put on the ideal, acceptable woman being “selfless” makes her unable to save her own life for she is “characteristically woman” and “cannot plead for herself.” Desdemona blames herself for her death admitting that she herself “hath done this deed” and still seeks forgiveness from her husband, asking Emilia to “commend me [Desdemona] to my kind lord.” Even at the end, her character is unable to find fault in her husband who killed her. One may therefore determine that Shakespeare is adopting a proto-feminist stance through the implication that it is a woman’s supposedly “acceptable” feminine nature that will lead to her downfall, as it Desdemona’s unfailing sense of duty towards her husband that leads to hers. Thus, it may be inferred that Shakespeare is rather constructing Desdemona as an example of an unacceptable “version of the feminine” woman as the supposedly acceptable feminine version of her culminates in her demise.
Shakespeare evidently constructs Desdemona as an “acceptable version of the feminine” woman in terms of what a patriarchal society would deem ‘acceptable.’ But, despite her virtuous character traits and ‘acceptable’ feminine nature, she dies at the hands of men, thus giving more credit to the argument that Shakespeare is illustrating, through Desdemona’s demise, what a woman must believe to be acceptable should she wish to survive. One may determine that Shakespeare is implicitly indicating that women ought not to conform to the expectations of a patriarchal society or to their social conditioning as, according to feminist critics; it is only a way to control women and to recreate them as nonentities and “subhuman” to be used as tools. Thus, it is evident that Shakespeare constructs Desdemona, to the full extent, as Elizabethan society’s “acceptable version of the feminine” woman; however this is only done so that Iago’s character is able to manipulate her and carry out his plans which lead to her downfall, thus indicating to women the dangers of conforming to patriarchal constructions and expectations and therefore subverts the presumed intention behind literary representations of women repeating the cultural stereotypes. This suggests that Shakespeare is illustrating feminine behaviour that is unacceptable in his view as it will only lead to the demise of women and is therefore sending the message that women ought to be stronger, whole characters that embody both virtues and deception in order to protect themselves from dominating patriarchal societies.
Barry, P. (2002) Beginning Theory (2nd Edition), (pp. 121-123), Manchester University Press. (Critical Anthology).
Bertens, H. (2010) Literary Theory: The Basics, (The Politics of Class: Marxism), (pp. 94-5), 97-99), Abingdon: Routledge. (Critical Anthology).
Dreher, Diane Elizabeth. (1986) Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare. University Press of Kentucky.
Kemp, Theresa D. (2009) Women in the Age of Shakespeare. Greenwood.
Lauren Cygan, Sexist Themes in Othello, The Taming iof the Shrew and The Tempest, (english.illinoisstate.edu/rlbroad/archive/teaching/studentpubs/OneWishENglish/cygan.pdf) (Accessed 20 March 2014)
Moi, Toril. (1990) “Women Writing and Writing about Women.” In Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. (pp. 50-69, 176). London and New York: Routledge.
Shakespeare, William. (2000) Othello, Heinemann.
Warren, Rebecca. Othello. (2003) York Notes Advanced, (London: York Press)
 Lauren Cygan, Sexist Themes in Othello, The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest.  Bertens, H. (2001) Literary Theory: The Basics, (The Politics of Class: Marxism), (pp.94-5, 97-99), Abingdon: Routledge. (Critical Anthology)  Ibid.  Ibid.  Moi, Toril. “Women Writing and Writing about Women.” Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, pp. 50-69, 176. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.  Barry, P. (2002) Beginning Theory. (2nd Edition), (pp. 121-123), Manchester University Press. (Critical Anthology).  Bertens, H. (2001) Literary Theory: The Basics, (The Politic s of Class: Marxism), (pp. 94-5, 97-99)), Abingdon: Routledge. (Critical Anthology).  Dreher, Diane Elizabeth. (1986) Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare. University Press of Kentucky.  Kemp, Theresa D. (2009) Women in the Age of Shakespeare. Greenwood.  Dreher, Diane Elizabeth, Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare. (1986), University Press of Kentucky.
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