‘A noble Venetian lady is to be murdered by our poet in sober sadness, purely for being a fool!’ In light of this view, discuss Shakespeare’s representation of Desdemona in 'Othello' and whether it challenges the morals of his time.

The worth of women in the Jacobean era relied predominantly on their obedience to men; particularly to fathers for use as a marital match. Seen as fools, a submissive and meek demeanour was expected of them as women were treated like property. Yet, Desdemona’s public defiance of her father to pursue Othello subverts the expectations of Jacobean society by casting her as a strong-minded character and not the ‘moth of peace’ she was raised to be. Written in 1604, Othello was written at a time when ‘conduct’ books and instruction manuals aimed at women rose to popularity. Texts such as Vives’; Instruction of a Christian woman (1524) aimed to instil passivity into its readers to prepare them for marriage by advising daughters to keep quiet when being matched. Certainly, Desdemona’s actions of rejecting her father’s plans for marriage would have been deemed foolish by audience members of her time, yet Shakespeare shapes Desdemona’s language to cast her as an intuitive and well-spoken individual. Described by fellow characters as their ‘captain's captain’, Desdemona was viewed with equal respect to even her husband, an attribute this era did not typically grant its women.
Yet, many would argue a foolish portrayal has been cast by Shakespeare as her seemingly worthy traits of trust and loyalty become the cause of her downfall. Desdemona relentlessly sees the good in her husband, to the point of accepting and preparing for her murder, asking for forgiveness and even accepting blame; ‘Here I kneel: if e’er my will did trespass ‘gainst his love Either in discourse of thought or actual deed’. A complete contrast to her earlier strong portrayal, the image of her ‘kneeling’ connotes her complete submission to her husband and killer, therefore conforming to the expectations of women in her time and portraying her as a fool. The qualities that made her strong have become her vulnerabilities and caused a tragedy that many argue could have been avoided if she had acted on premonition and logic. Desdemona’s progression from strength to submission seems to highlight the process as an injustice, therefore challenging the morals of the time as Shakespeare plies for sympathy from his audience.Although seemingly foolish, her naivety to Othello’s intentions and her lack of effort to stop them perhaps indicate her awareness at the futility of trying to alter her husband's maddened mindset. Perhaps reflective of 17th century attitudes towards women, Othello's brute strength overpowers her. Ultimately futile to resist, she allows them to crush her; therefore branding her a fool in the eyes of many for allowing the inevitable to unfold.

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