Saturday, October 13, 2012

Is Desdemona a "Hero"?

Act IV of Othello provokes some incredibly intriguing questions, especially regarding Shakespeare’s characterization of females in the play.  As I read through this Act, I noticed how similarly Desdemona’s passive behavior mimics that of Hero from Much Ado About Nothing.  Is Desdemona’s character intentionally a mirror of Hero?  What is Shakespeare trying to convey through his thoughtful, comparable characterizations of these females?  Furthermore, Emilia’s character, to my ultimate surprise, is contrastingly talkative and rebellious.  What is her purpose in this tragedy?    

Desdemona, like Hero, is extremely submissive.  After being verbally assaulted and accused of infidelity by Othello, she acquiesces without complaint to his orders, which are to retire to bed and dismiss Emilia.  As she explains to Emilia, “It was his bidding.  Therefore, good Emilia, give me my nightly wearing, and adieu.  We must not now displease him” (4.3.14-16).  Despite Othello’s repeated attacks on her, Desdemona continues to love her husband.  Alone with Desdemona, Emilia reflects that it would have been better if Desdemona had never seen Othello.  However, Desdemona rejects this idea, saying that Othello still seems noble and graceful to her, even in his rebukes.  According to Desdemona, “Even his stubbornness, his cheeks, his frowns – prithee unpin me – have grace and favour in them” (4.3.19-20).  Does she honestly feel this way, or is she simply exhausted?  I mean, she has just presided over a state dinner (and has also been abused)!  In my opinion, she is certainly worn out, but she also knows that fighting back is useless.  This is due to the fact that a woman’s chastity had incredible value and significance in Shakespeare’s time.  Just like Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, Desdemona knows, deep down, that the mere accusation of her infidelity is powerful enough to destroy her reputation.  She acknowledges her society’s patriarchal attitude against women; thus, she surrenders herself, and decides against challenging Othello’s alarming behavior.  Based on our previous class discussions, I believe that Desdemona’s attitude toward her chastity represents what the males of her time would have wanted and expected of women, and it is certainly what Othello wants from his wife.  She sees her innocence e an absolute entity that is worth more to her than her own life.  

Emilia, on the other hand, suggests that the ideal of female chastity is overblown and exaggerated.  Throughout Scene 3 of Act IV, Emilia seems to argue that women are basically the same as men, and that the two sexes are unfaithful for the exact reasons.  Emilia ponders, “What is it that they do when they change us for others?  Is it sport?  I think it is.  And doth affection breed it?  I think it doth.  Is’t frailty that thus errs?  It is so, too.  And have not we affections, desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?  Then let them use us well, else let them know the ills we do, their ills instruct us so” (4.3.95-101).  Therefore, her words advocate a desire for a social acknowledgment that women are indeed human beings with needs and desires, rather than “virgins” or “whores.”  Would the men in Shakespeare’s audience have been outraged to hear Emilia utter such surprising words?  Would Shakespeare’s original audience have found her speech completely radical?  Is Emilia herself a great liberal, or even feminist, of her times?  I think her character modernizes this play, and allows a modern audience to become more easily engaged in the story.  In my opinion, the fact that Emilia makes such unexpected comments regarding gender makes the play more realistic for our contemporary audience.  After all, no matter what society deems acceptable or unacceptable, there will always be a rebel.  How much of a revolutionary was Emilia for her time, though?  I wish that I had a time machine to find out!  In any event, I am almost certain that Shakespeare did purposefully create similar personalities for the characters of both Desdemona and Hero.  Through these two females, he successfully illustrates the patriarchal society of his time.  However, I still cannot help but ponder one question:  Why was Shakespeare so interested in exploring (and questioning) this societal reality?        


Anonymous said...

I also find Desdemona reminiscent of Hero. Hero basically rolls over and dies in the way that she does not defend herself. While I realize that Desdemona readily accepting her fate of death is demonstrative off her loyalty and love to her husband, it is not in line with her character. Desdemona married a man of a different race behind her father’s back, this is not the same shrinking Violet as Hero yet she does not defend her innocence.
I have also noted that Shakespeare wrote many uncharacteristically strong women for his time. I wonder if he was commenting on the inequality of women or just in it for the controversy. Emilia rallies to defend her Lady’s honor in the end but I think it’s a little too little, a little too late. Her taking Desdemona’s handkerchief and giving it to Iago is one of the main catalysts that convinces Othello of Desdemonas’s “guilt”. Emilia knows her husband is rotten. Why would she give her bosses hankie to her husband? That’s just weird. Another Shakespearean dispend belief moment!

Cyrus Mulready said...

This is a strong analysis of these female characters, and I agree that much about Hero and Desdemona calls our attention to their similarities. What I really appreciate about your post, Krystal, is your careful consideration, too, of Emilia, who is the clear counterpoint to these two characters. One interesting fact to point out is that the speech Emilia makes at the end of 4.3 did not appear in the earlier version of this play. One way to interpret this is to say that Shakespeare beefed up the role of Emilia in order to counterbalance Desdemona--a conclusion one could certainly draw from your analysis here.