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?