Shakespeare’s Othello: an ‘outlet for feminist anger’

Feminist critics of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice commonly argue that the play’s central theme is conflict of love between the men and women, and that women are presented as weak and incapable like the “maiden never bold,” Desdemona (Shakespeare, 1604 1.3:94). Although the female characters are not weak when analyzed critically, Othello has spurred some conflict with feminists because of the underfoot role that the play’s women hold to the male characters. Carol Thomas Neely who is known for both her work in women’s studies and Shakespeare expresses a similar view in her article “Women and Men in Othello.” However, she later critiques her own article on the grounds that “attacking Othello provided an enabling outlet for feminist anger” (Neely, 2012 pp.186). Although Shakespeare’s Othello, along with several his other plays, often presents the females with characteristics which in a modern world could be considered anti-feminist, the play should instead be viewed as a complex but sympathetic piece which brings the issues of racism and sexism into a new light which allows the society in which they exist to be criticized. This essay will explore the statement that Carol Thomas Neely made in critique of her own article and weigh how Othello should be read—as a feminist or anti-feminist text, or as something more. Because of the empathy which the reader or viewer is forced to feel for the tragically ended minority characters, particularly the females, The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice is a criticism of a majority dominated society where minorities struggle to exist and move.

In order to properly examine Neely’s statement about feminist anger, the harshness of her 1985 critique “Men and Women in Othello” must first be observed. The article argues that the text should be viewed as a struggle in love between men, who are inherently subject to their fantasies, and women, who struggle to mend the male fantasy. It claims that the women in the play are misunderstood by other critics who look at race and the struggle between good and evil as the central theme. She believes that the male characters assume everything about the woman rather than letting their actions determine their character. In contrast, the women, particularly Desdemona, assume the best in the men and believe in their general purity and goodness. Overall, Neely claims that the conflict between the men and the women remains unresolved at the end of the play because “The men have been unable to turn the women’s virtue into pitch, but the women have been unable to mend male fantasies” (Neely, 1985 pp.154). Although this argument has some merit on the grounds that the men and women view each other with bias, claiming that Othell

o is anti-feminist on these grounds has some flaws which Neely herself eventually recognizes.

Neely critiques her 1985 Othello essay and the harshness of other feminist critics in a chapter of Changing Subjects: The Making of Feminist Literary Criticism, a collection of autobiographical essays by eminent feminist literary critics. She points to her failure to acknowledge elements such as class and race and to be objective critical about male characters.  “My essay, ‘Women and Men on Othello’… (written in 1973-4) …turned out to be paradigmatic of seventies’ American feminist literary criticism. I attacked the male characters (indiscriminately) for their sexism and idealized the women characters” (Neely, 2012 pp.186). Her flaw as she claims is that she used defending Desdemona’s strength and integrity as a way to indirectly defend herself as a woman. It is herein she claims that “attacking Othello provided an enabling outlet for feminist anger.” Her passionate association between herself and Shakespeare’s female characters failed to see differences other than gender. The “blind spots” which Neely ignored, such as race and class, are vital parts of the conflict (pp.186). In reference to several of her earlier feminist essays about Shakespearean plays including “the Othello essay” as she calls it, Neely admits, “I needed to better understand the place of women in early modern culture” (pp. 187).

In order to weigh into both Neely’s original argument from her 1985 essay and her second critique on her own work from 2012, we should understand why her “feminist anger” existed at all. Othello has elements that could be considered offensive and demeaning to females. Several male characters, including Brabanzio and Iago, believe the women are small and incapable. Some examples of this include Branbanzio’s refusal to accept that his daughter could be anything but completely pure or “a maiden never bold,/ of spirit so still and quiet that her motion/ blushed at herself” (Shakespeare, 1604 1.3:94-96). This concept of a woman’s innocence and purity is so set in Branbanzio’s mind that he believes his daughter cannot fall in love with a black man without the use of witchcraft, “practices of cunning hell” (1.3:103). However, Desdemona shows strength against her father’s view by responding, “my downright violence and storm of fortunes may trumpet to the world” (1.3:249-250). In saying this, she declares her strength by standing against her father. Cassio also has the preconceived idea that Desdemona is weak. In a discussion with Iago, he calls her a “delicate creature” (2.3:20). While these statements portray the men in the play as viewing the women as weak and insignificant, the actions of the female characters do not support this idea, therefore making anger against the play for this reason illogical. Desdemona fearlessly declares her beliefs about Othello with no regard for what her father thinks. In response to her father’s rejection of her marriage, she declares:

I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband

And so much duty as my mother showed

To you, preferring you before her father,

So much I challenge that I may profess

Due to the Moor my lord. (1.3:179-188)

And when faced with the prospect of living away from her husband, she clearly states, “Let me go with him,” showing her confidence and assertiveness which negate the characteristics that feminists critique.

Penny Gay, a critic of Carol Thomas Neely, does not recognize this strength in Desdemona in her article ‘Emilia Speaks Her Mind.” Gay adds to Neely’s Othello essay by arguing that Emilia is the main source of feminism in the play. She eradicates Desdemona from the feminist group by calling her the play’s “pathetic victim” rather than defending her as Neely initially did (Gay, n.d. pp.1). Gay’s overall argument states that the patriarchy within the play gave no option for women to exist in either speech like Emilia or in silence like Desdemona. “Neither speech nor silence can save the women of Othello” (Gay, n.d. pp.8). This critic excludes the emotional response from Neely’s “Men and Women in Othello,” but still ultimately agrees with Neely’s 1985 argument that the women in the play cannot exist in the society (Gay, n.d.). Although Gay fails to recognize Desdemona’s moments of strength, her portrayal of as the Emilia is both a strong woman and advisor for Desdemona throughout the play. Some may argue that her loyalty to Iago, her desire to “please his fancy” (Shakespeare, 1604 3.3:303), which Penny Gay refers to as “tragic” (Gay, n.d. pp.1), and her willingness to deliver Desdemona’s handkerchief makes her into an obedient character with no will of her own. But her speech to Desdemona in 4.3, the willow scene, and her scolding of Iago just before her death in 5.2 show her freewill and feminist nature.

The willow scene is an intimate scene just before the final action in which Desdemona and Emilia discuss the relationship between husbands and wives. Despite Emilia’s loyalty to Iago throughout the play, she questions the relationship between husband and wife with statements such as “I do think it is their husbands’ faults/ If wives do fall” (Shakespeare, 1604 4.3:85-86) and “Let husbands know/ Their wives have sense like them” (4.3:92-93). She also weighs the price of coquetry over fidelity and in doing so, undermines the central plot-driving idea in the play that unfaithfulness is unforgivable. Her statements challenge marriage and morality as sexist at the time. Even though faithfulness in marriage is a central theme in the play, Emilia is the only character who even questions the goodness and legitimacy of fidelity.

Regardless of the challenging of marital rules in the willow scene, Emilia and many of the other characters in the play use harsh language against women who explore sexual barriers. In the book A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare, Kay Stanton’s chapter “Made to write ‘whore’ upon us?” brings to attention the use of the word “whore” in Othello. The word is used fourteen times within the play and, as Stanton points out, is juxtaposed with the heavy use of the word “honest.” The character Othello applies both these labels to the other characters—whore upon Desdemona, and honest upon Iago—even though both labels are inaccurate (Stanton, 2016). The use of harsh language, including the word “whore,” causes an emotional response in the viewers and readers, but the play’s inclusion of the word does not make it anti-woman or critic-worthy based on sexist language. Instead, it brings irony to the word by using it to describe an innocent woman. “I cannot say ‘whore’./ It does not abhor me now I speak the word” Desdemona declares as she tries to convince Othello of her innocence (Shakespeare 1604, 4.2:165-166). Although the word itself gives the readers shock, the irony of knowing that Othello uses the word wrongfully and the intensity of Desdemona’s claim to innocence force the viewer to empathize with the horror which the women characters are feeling rather than encouraging misogyny.  

By viewing radical feminist critiques as outlets for the authors’ feminist anger like Neely suggested in Changing Subjects, they become more plausible because of the timeline of feminism and feminist criticism, which was booming at the time of her initial Othello essay—written in 1974 and published in 1985. The Women’s Liberation Movement took place from around 1975 to 1985, meaning that the beliefs of the movement would have heavily influenced feminist texts and critiques around that time. According to No Turning Back, a book of writings from the early part of the Women’s Liberation Movement, female artists, activists, and writers of the decade developed their own kind of culture under which men were labeled as the enemy. “The period 1975-1980 saw the emergence of the Revolutionary Feminism’s distinct emphasis on men as the enemy, and renewed anger about sexual violence, rape, and pornography” (Barrett et al., 1981). Knowing this, it is logical that the domestic violence, severe punishment of women, and wrongful accusations which are depicted in Shakespeare’s Othello would have caused some arousal of feminist spirit in critics at that time. Shakespeare’s plays were written centuries before the Women’s Liberation Movement and, therefore, did not appeal to movement’s beliefs. The political and social movements of the 1970s concerning women and marital relationships and rights, it makes sense that “attacking Othello provided an enabling outlet for feminist anger.” Therefore, some comments on Shakespearean plays, such as Carol Thomas Neely’s “Women and Men in Othello,” could be considered biased because of the critic’s historical context.

Although the arguments claiming Othello’s sexist nature may have been prejudice by political context and movements, the woman characters are still undisputedly mistreated; regardless of the women’s actions in the play, they have no safety. The main women in the play, Desdemona and Emilia, are killed, and the remaining live female Bianca is poorly treated and disrespected by the men and alienated by the women. Whatever the background, situation, and mannerism of each female character in Othello, she has little ability to progress or push back in her society. Desdemona offers some examples of pushing back against the racism of her community by marrying the Moor Othello. Still, the only outlets for the women to better their situation in the play are marriage and literal whoring, as Bianca does. The tragic situations and endings of the female characters force the audience to feel empathy and even pity for the female characters. Bianca offers an alternate to death for the female characters, but her situation provides no relief in the hardships of Othello’s women. Her place in the society is determined before the play even starts by her labeling in the characters list: “BIANCA, a courtesan, in love with Cassio.” Her being a lower-class prostitute forces her to struggle for the things that the other characters have inherently, including love, a place in society, and even stage time. With only fifteen speeches, her lack of stage time has caused some critics to question her purpose in the play altogether. In “Men and Women in Othello,” Neely views her only in terms of her relationship with Cassio. The men in the play refer to her as a “monkey” and a “fitchew.” And although Cassio frequently refers to her as “sweet,” he does not want to be seen with her. “And I think it no addition, nor my wish,/ To have him see me womaned” (Shakespeare, 1604 3.4:191). She is also “abused” by the female characters, particularly Emilia, who calls her a “strumpet” (5.1:123). The degradation of Bianca within the play is primarily due to her class. While an empathetic response is caused by the poor treatment and abuse of the women Desdemona and Emilia, the addition of Bianca deepens the feminist cause in the play to include the lower class. It also brings to question the poor treatment of women by other women as well as men. Neely recognized the male mistreatment of Bianca but failed to mention the ill words spoken by her martyr Emilia. Because Bianca has little in common with the other women in the play, it is difficult to lump all three women from diverse situations into one group. However, regardless of their diversity, all three women are treated poorly even in their innocence, causing viewers to desire better outcomes for the women. This empathetic response from the audience and the desire for change is what detaches Othello from the sexist play that some critics saw and creates the female-sympathetic art piece that it is.

Other than the general poor treatment than the women, another point of suggested social change which the play brings to light is the lack of female heritage. Another Feminist Companion to Shakespeare critic, Joyce Green MacDonald explores the place of the patriarchy and matriarchy in Othello and their relationship to gender, class, and race. She argues that the patriarchy is both racist and sexist because of the language used by the white male characters in the play. The minorities of race and sex, the women and black characters, are fighting for a place within the society. She points to the willow scene, act four, scene three, as an example of feminine tradition and conversation in the male-dominated play. The society itself is patrilineal; this is proven in the opening act when Desdemona must resister her father in order to marry Othello against his wishes. MacDonald recognizes the willow song and the handkerchief as the only things passed matrilineally in the play. Firstly, the willow song is the one thing which viewers see from Desdemona’s mother figure—her mother’s maid Barbary. Its use in the scene shows the ability for women to exist in a female controlled space. However, because the song ends with the death of Desdemona and Emilia, it also reiterated women’s inability to progress and move in the society. The handkerchief, although passed from Othello’s family, is passed from mother to daughter in law and is a token of both family and racial bonds as well as femininity. MacDonald argues that the handkerchief is symbolic of Othello’s attempt to connect with femininity and unite himself with the female characters in the play. He ultimately fails when, in his rage, Othello instead embodies the exact traits which he tried to subdue in the barbaric outbreak in which he kills Desdemona and himself (MacDonald, 2016). Assuming this symbol’s legitimacy, the thievery of the handkerchief and its use against the cause of both the black man and the woman is an embodiment of the mistreatment and exploitation of these groups by the white man society. This society, which is personified in the form of Iago, has no known motivation other than maybe greed and unwarranted self-preservation. 

To illuminate Neely’s original statement, did attacking Othello give feminist critics an outlet for anger? As she proves from her own work, feminist critics, particularly those during and shortly after the Female Liberation Movement in the 1970s and 80s, were excessively harsh in their criticisms with some failure to be objective historically or consider the role of race in the play. While attacking literary pieces like Othello, critics were able to put blame onto the male characters and prioritize the themes of the movement. In doing this, they failed to look at the context of the pieces from the time period they were written and instead wrote Shakespeare into their own literary canon. Because of this, they turned blind eyes to key social themes such as race and class which did not apply to their cause. However, a reformed view of the text through a feminist lens views the play as sympathetic to the female characters. Because of the empathetic response brought upon by the mistreatment and downfall of the play’s women, Othello should be read as a critique on the treatment of women at the time; this should be done keeping in mind other differences that were formerly neglected, such as class and race. Although the play does not resolve the issue of female treatment, it acknowledged the existence of social wrongs that had been previously neglected. Overall, in The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice, brings to light the poor treatment of nonwhite and nonmale characters, and although it has been used as outlet for anger and critique, the empathetic response and desire for change that it elicits from viewers outweigh its criticism.

References

Barrett, M., Bruley, S., Chester, G., Millman, M., O’Sullivan, S., Sebestyen, A. and Segal, L. (1981). No Turning Back. London: Women’s Press Limited.

Gay, P. (n.d.). Emilia Speaks her Mind: Othello, IV.III, 89-92. [ebook] Available at: https://openjournals.library.sydney.edu.au/index.php/SSE/article/view/528/500 [Accessed 2 Nov. 2019].

MacDonald, J. (2016). Shakespeare, Race, and Women. In: D. Callaghan, ed., A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd ed. [online] Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., pp.207-214. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=kPOlCgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false [Accessed 2 Nov. 2019].

Neely, C. (2002). Women and Men in Othello. [ebook] EBSCO Publishing, pp.133-154. Available at: https://salemstate.instructure.com/courses/1033575/files/48768184/download?wrap=1 [Accessed 28 Oct. 2019].

Neely, C. (2012). Loss and Recovery. In: G. Green and C. Kahn, ed., Changing Subjects: The Making of Feminist Literary Criticism. [online] Routledge, pp.182-189. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=55GbKvZWMRoC [Accessed 28 Oct. 2019].

Shakespeare, W. (2005). The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice. In: S. Wells and G. Taylor, ed., The Oxford Shakespeare the Complete Works, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.874-907.

Stanton, K. (2016). Made to Write ‘Whore’ Upon Us. In: D. Callaghan, ed., A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd ed. [online] Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., pp.207-214. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=kPOlCgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false [Accessed 2 Nov. 2019].