Much of Othello is focused on contextual patriarchal attitudes, which tilt the balance of power in marriage toward the husband and idealise the meek, obedient wife. In Act 1 Scene 3, Othello announces ‘to his conveyance I assign my wife’, which reveals Othello’s management of Desdemona- transferring and trading her more like goods, a precious object, than an independent body. This objectification of women is a common motif in the play: Desdemona is frequently called a ‘jewel’, a ‘land carrack’, ‘silver’, and associated with precious metals. This imagery suggests she is a prize to be won, a passive treasure for her husband to display. Indeed, Shakespeare sets this extract in the Senate, where powerful male figures such as Othello, Brabantio and the Duke discuss Desdemona’s marital arrangements between them (Desdemona herself is absent, only brought on stage when Othello demands she is summoned to appear before the Senate). Shakespeare here visually stages the expectation in 17th Century Venetian society that men control female affairs. Brabantio’s response to Desdemona’s elopement asserts the joint expectation that women obey, as he thinks it impossible for ‘nature so preposterously to err’ as for Desdemona to disobey her father in choosing her own husband. A focus on Desdemona’s actions defying ‘nature’ reoccurs in Brabantio’s speech in this scene, suggesting he considers it perverse for a woman to obey her own desires. Her duty is owed to male figures: her father, as well as her husband, as Desdemona herself acknowledges that ‘here I do perceive a divided duty:/To you I am bound for life and education […] But here’s my husband’. The playwright’s use of servile language, such as ‘duty’ and ‘bound’, recognises that Venetian society expects women to show obedience in their relationships with men. It could be argued that Desdemona herself accepts this role in the play, stating ‘whate’er you be, I am obedient’- a line precisely paralleled in Emilia’s admission ‘I nothing but to please his fantasy’, and even Bianca’s confession ‘I must be circumstanced’. These three women, wives and lovers are resigned to silently obey the authority of their male lovers, promising uncomplaining service. These echoes highlight how all relationships in the play are governed by the societal expectation that a wife should be submissive and dutiful.
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