In the Medieval times and the age of renaissance women were considered as chattel and property. They were the weaker sex; weak both in body and in mind. They were not educated by their families and were not even supposed to perform on stage. However, William Shakespeare defied the status quo and gave his female characters the depth and breadth of human experience. The women in the world of literature were not broken or browbeaten. They were high spirited, intelligent and witty beings the society that William Shakespeare lived in was patriarchal and his view of women could have been shaped by the beliefs of the patriarchal hierarchical system. However his portrayal of women was is not constant because it this portrayal varies from Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Merchant of Venice, Much ado about nothing and others. Shakespeare was however quite objective in his portrayal of women because he did not endow these women with the characters he personally liked or hated in women. However, one thing that is interesting about the women in the world of William Shakespeare is that they are not without exception people who defied social conventions and norms and also went against the grains of the patriarchal society. The period that William Shakespeare lived in is referred to as the Elizabethan era and in this era; women did not have very many options in life. They either got married or stayed under the shadows of their male relatives (Hall 148). However, in most of the Shakespeare’s plays, women are seen to be assertive where they speak their own mind and choose whom to marry or what to do with their lives.
Though Shakespeare wanted to challenge the status quo, it is however clear that some of these independent decisions that the women made had some disastrous consequences. In many circumstances, these women ended up where they believed they belonged and either dead or safe. This is something that the Elizabethan audience would have deemed as unfair or unjust because of the way life in that society was. There are many reasons that made Shakespeare to create his characters the way he did. Some critics say that his portrayal of women is in line with what he believed women ought to be. It is obvious that William Shakespeare preferred strong women who took charge of their lives. Thought he made his preference of women qualities known, he was objective enough not to endow them with the traits he specifically liked. His objectivity on the other hand brings another perspective to his portrayal of women because giving women that kind of strength may have been a satirical way of demonstrating how undesirable and unwomanly those straits were especially because some of these women got into trouble because of the way they defied tradition . Some of these characters often ended up successfully married or severely punished for their defiant actions. Regardless of Shakespeare’s personal feelings, the actions of these women serve a very vital purpose because they create conflict that disrupted the natural order of the world. In some cases, women are seen to be even more assertive than the men.
Othello by William Shakespeare presents a case of female superiority over the male. It is a story of femininity triumph over masculinity that takes place on many different levels. To start with, men are used by Shakespeare to represent evil as in the case of Iago while the main female character in the book presents virtue is usually representative of the evil while white represents virtue. Shakespeare weaves the plot of this play in a way that Femininity stands for virtue and masculinity for evil. It is hard to tell why Shakespeare chooses that direction but critics claim that Shakespeare wanted to make a social statement about the place of women
The literature of the Elizabethan period was very patriarchal. It used to portray women in a very negative light. Shakespeare himself had been patriarchal in some of his earlier works, especially the Merchant of Venice. However, Othello is one of the few Elizabethan plays that allow a woman to enjoy superiority. From the beginning of the play, Desdemona is portrayed positively by William Shakespeare. The author depicts Desdemona as virtuous and clean woman who suffers because of the manipulative tendencies of the males in her adjacent environment. The white handkerchief that Iago gives Desdemona is a symbol of purity and this also symbolizes the purity of Desdemona, the only positive character in Othello.
However, when Iago takes possession of the handkerchief, its symbolism changes and then handkerchief starts representing the lack of trust between Desdemona and Othello. Othello is the Villain in this case because he decides to believe what his detractor Iago tells him about his wife and dismisses the wife’s side of the story (Shakespeare 385). Iago tells Othello that the handkerchief has been found in Casio’s room and he uses this evidence to accuse Desdemona of infidelity. The fact that the handkerchief has been found in the room of another man makes Othello to lose trust is his life. It is the same handkerchief that used to be the symbol of love, fidelity and chastity that has turned out to be a symbol of betrayal, lack of trust and insecurity. It does not mean that Desdemona was unfaithful to Othello. The problem is that Othello was too quick to judge. He had not established how the handkerchief went there in the first place and was also unaware of Iago's evil schemes.
It is very ironical that Othello decides to trust his nemesis who has decided to use the symbol of their love to destabilize their relationship is the lack of trust between the husband and the wife that makes Othello to believe that she was having an affair. When Othello decides to believe that Desdemona is sleeping with Casio, the symbolism of the handkerchief changes from depicting love between Desdemona and Othello to depicting love between Casio and Desdemona which was not there in the first place. When the handkerchief gets lost, Desdemona is depressed. He hopes that Othello would understand because she trusted him but this does not happen. Othello is so insecure that he decides to use the least circumstantial evidence to pass a judgment on his wife. Unknown to him, Iago has hatched a plot that will make Desdemona look like an unfaithful wife. Othello now wants to kill his wife Desdemona because of “cheating on him”. The humanity in Othello starts to dissipate and he starts to behave like a savage .Iago's schemes have created very disastrous consequences. Death and destruction is the aftermath of his evil plans.
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At the end of the play there are three people who are dead. Othello kills Desdemona after believing Imago’s story. He also attempts to kill Casio, who gets injured in the process. Iago kills his wife in a horrible manner which displays his increasing evil ways. However, this was rarely the case in Elizabethan literature. Elizabethan literature always presented serious flaws that made it difficult for a prefect world to be created. The tragedy at the end of the play is culmination of male chauvinism that was heavily engendered by Iago and Othello. It seems as if the prime cause of the tragic events at the end of the play is marital infidelity. However, there is no infidelity in the play and all the cases of infidelity are created by Iago to cover up his racist hatred. Racial hatred would not have been enough to cause all the destruction in the play and Iago had to look for another reason that would have more catastrophic outcomes.
One question that emanates from the book Othello is why Shakespeare allows a virtuous woman who is a symbol of purity to suffer the way Desdemona suffered. We al know that Desdemona was a faithful wife and the problem was Othello who was quick to judge her using inconclusive evidence. Thought the female character suffers throughout the book in the hands of manipulative men, her strength of character stands out. The strongest sense of character in this lady comes when she refuses to awaken any violent anger or any vengeful desire and this kind of mature reaction is found in the power of thought. A premature reconciliation would have been starkly inconsistent with the character of Desdemona and everything suggests that she has a comparatively superior moral position that contrasts that of her husband Othello.
For Desdemona, her own virtuous behaviour is her main Achilles heel. She is a very authentic lady living in a very superficial society and her authenticity clashes with the superficial nature of her husband and the inhumanity of Iago. She is a fairly tale character who cannot easily survive alongside the men in her society. Ideally, her virtue is eclipsed by the ingenuity and evil machinations of Iago of though she remains the darling of the audience because of her physical and intrinsic beauty (Hall 109). Desdemona is the most perfect representative of the women in Shakespeare’s world because symbolism of femininity is quite real. Her character in the play when juxtaposed with the character of the men in the play creates a fairy tale like symbolism of dramatic Cinderella. Desdemona brings the play to a devastating finale which appears to be unjustified because it is almost impossible to understand why a person who personifies virtue and kindness is sacrificed through injustice and misplaced judgments. The statement that Shakespeare wants to make through Desdemona is that the society is sometimes too harsh to women because their attempts to remain as virtuous and submissive to their men as possible, the men will still find ways of poking holes at the virtuous character of women..
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In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare again explores the idea of women as victims in the patriarchal society though the gender roles in this play are inverted and it is Antony who plays the victim. Antony is stifled by the rules of the patriarchal Rome which diminishes his control over his life. It is when he falls in love with Cleopatra that his life turns around. Cleopatra emasculates Antony leading to his debasement due to his loss of masculine power. In the play, it is evident that Antony and Cleopatra exchange roles where Cleopatra is seen to play more masculine roles. This swapping of gender roles recognises the presence of both masculine and feminine qualities within men and women (Shakespeare 899). Unlike Desdemona who remains under the shadows of Othello in the Moor of Venice, Cleopatra is a dominating force in the world of Shakespeare’s women and Antony and Cleopatra is regarded as the only tragedy that glorifies a woman as an actor and the way Shakespeare treats Cleopatra creates a real woman rather than a stereotype.
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Antony and Cleopatra showcases Shakespeare’s finest embracement of the feminine because she creates Cleopatra as a woman with sexual and political powers, making her a force to be reckoned with. Patriarchal critics have for a long time condemned the sexuality of Cleopatra which ends up emasculating and debasing Antony and despite many references to her as a whore and a strumpet in the play; it is evident that her sexuality remains unhidden and unrestricted. In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare creates a female character that tries to oppose the values of a patriarchal world (Shakespeare 902). Cleopatra, a woman is associated with masculine power at a time when Roman women were deeply rooted in the domestic sphere. The men in Rome fear her because her power which Shakespeare ultimately renders powerless through suicide. It is important to note that suicide in Elizabethan period was masculine. Cleopatra remains beautiful which shows that she has not deserted her femininity but the reason why Shakespeare creates such a masculine female character is to challenge the Roman patriarchal ideals. In her refusal to be defeated, this lady Cleary highlights the weakness of men and the weakness of the Roman ideals.
In conclusion, Shakespeare’s world is dominated by different version of women. Some of the women are virtuous and without blemish like Desdemona in Othello while others are powerful and assertive like Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. It is worth noting that in some cases, virtuous women are made to suffer in the hands of cruel men to underscore the cruel nature of the patriarchal Elizabethan society. This is the case in Othello. On the other hand, Shakespeare also creates dominant and assertive women characters to portray the weakness of the patriarchal system