William Shakespeare is the magician of language: his well-built plot and embellished dialogue lead readers into his virtual but reality-reflected world. Among many of his plays, Othello is one of the best tragedies which reflect the deepest nature of human beings: jealousy and love. In spite of its high quality as a masterpiece, many modern people are afraid of reading the original texts by Shakespeare because of its language; they tend to believe that Othello or any other Shakespeare plays are too classical in terms of both language and plot that modern people would not feel any sympathies toward. However, many readers found it surprising that Othello is rather modern especially in terms of social role of woman illustrated in Desdemona.
Shakespeare portrays a woman who refuses to accept the socially expected arranged marriage by her father in his play Othello. Many literary critics assume that Othello is written approximately in 1603. During that era, the biggest virtue of women was the obedience: the obedience to their parents, their lords. The Scottish protestant leader in sixteenth century, John Knox, stated, “Woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man” (12). Women were not supposed to hold any personal opinions but to automatically follow the orders from their parents even for their marriage. However, Desdemona, the female protagonist, is a highly passionate woman who even stands against her father, Brabantio, in order to obtain her true love as many other modern women would do:
BRABANTIO I pray you hear her speak.
If she confess that she was half the wooer,
Desturction on my had if my bad blame
Light on the man.-come hither, gentle mistress.
Do you perceive in all this noble company
Where most you owe obedience?
DESDEMONA My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty.
To you I am bound for life and education.
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you. You are the lord of duty.
I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband.
And 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. (I.iii.202-218)
Although she is obedient and respectful of her father for what he had provided for her, she is brave enough to choose her own husband who is worthy of reverence at the same time. If she was a woman who passively accepts her social duty as a daughter of nobleman, she would have given up her love toward Othello and marry one of her wealthy suitors that her father chooses for her. However, as smart as she is, she excuses herself with the situation her mother went through-preferring her husband before her father-to justify her behavior in the most reasonable way. After all, Desdemona is a profound and strongly independent lady who has chosen her own destiny.
In addition, Desdemona, who is always loyal and faithful to herself as well as to her husband, stands strongly against her insane husband Othello to defend her rights as an individual. Unfortunately, the love between Desdemona and Othello seems to break down when Othello completely falls down to a devilish trap of Iago. To arrogate a place of Othello as a general, Iago installs a huge trap to all characters that eventually leads to the tragic ending. As a part of the trap, Iago successfully deceives Othello that Desdemona has an affair with Cassio, the lieutenant of Othello. Later, when Othello falsely accuses her of cheating on him in front of Lodovico, Desdemona states, “I have not deserved this” (IV. i. 268). Although she still looks up him as her lord, she does not completely give up her rights as a human being and accepts everything her husband does to her. Rather, she tries to correct Othello when he conducts any unjust actions to any individuals including herself and Cassio.
Alas the heavy day, why do you weep?
Am I the motive of these tears, my lord?
If haply you my father do suspect
An instrument of this your calling back,
Lay not your blame on me. If you have lost him,
I have lost him too. (IV. ii. 51-56)
In above excerpt from the play, Desdemona clarifies that Othello cannot blame others for what he chose to do. She also makes sure that she is willing to take a full responsibility for what she has done. Although Desdemona is a faithful Christian during the Elizabethan era when women’s not being obedient to their husbands was regarded as a crime, she tries to amend Othello’s behavior to enlighten him on an equal treatment of women and men.
Last but not least, unlike Othello who easily turns his back and seeks for revenge toward his believed-to-be unfaithful wife, Desdemona keeps loyal and respectful of herself and husband although her foresight predicts the tragic ending of her love:
All’s one. Good <faith,> how foolish are our minds!
If I do die before <thee,> prithee, shroud me
In one of <those> same sheets.
EMILIA Come, come, you talk!
My mother had a maid called Barbary.
She was in love, and he she loved proved mad
And did forsake her. She had a song of willow,
An old thing ’twas, but it expressed her fortune,
And she died singing it. That song tonight
Will not go from my mind. [I have much to do,
But to go hang my head all at one side
And sing it like poor Barbary. Prithee, dispatch. (IV.iii.23-35)
The above expert foreshadows the incoming doom of Desdemona. She tells Emilia that she wants to die with the wedding sheets and indeed at the end, she dies on the bed with those same sheets. Besides, she now sympathizes with Barbary who encountered with tragic ending because of her proved-to-be-mad love. However, her remaining faithful toward Othello is not exactly being passively obedient to her husband; rather, she acknowledges her responsibility of abandoning her own father to obtain her proved-to-be-mad love and that she is trying to take a responsibility for what she had done. When Iago lies about the relationship between Desdemona and Cassio, Othello believes what Iago told him without filtering. His blind love distracts him from being conscious. On the other hand, Desdemona remains loyal and defends Othello even after Emilia suspects of Othello’s insanity and disbelief toward Desdemona since she is responsible enough not to blame others for what she chose to do. Therefore, Desdemona proved herself to be as responsible as other modern individuals.
In conclusion, in his tragic play, Othello, William Shakespeare illustrates a woman who is fully responsible for herself and independent as an individual as contrary to other Elizabethan women at that era who were raised to believe that they are inferior to men, thus, followed their orders. Desdemona chose whom she married to, stood against any unequal treatments toward her and took entire responsibility to her behaviors. Therefore, although Othello is classified as classic literature, in terms of role of women in this play, the play contains many modern factors that even current readers can easily feel sympathy toward.