Elizabethan and Jacobean society was patriarchal. Men were seen as superior in every way and had power and authority over women. Fathers were seen as the heads of the house and decided when and to whom their daughters would marry. They demanded total respect from wives and children. They had legal control over their wife and her property.
Women were expected to be subservient. Their virginity and chastity was prized and seen as essential to avoid disputes over inheritance. A common stereotype was that women were naturally promiscuous and men feared that their wives would stray. Without chastity a woman was seen as worthless. A man could be mocked by society for being a ‘cuckhold’ if his wife had been unfaithful.
Women were seen to be create by God for two reasons: marriage and childbearing. That said, there was an emphasis placed on the idea of women being seen as goddesses to be worshipped and adored and it was fashionable for young men to court women through the writing of love poems and the sending of gifts.
Other common stereotypes included the idea that women talk too much and that those who showed intelligence and independence were ‘curst’ and a burden on their fathers and husbands.
SOME EXAMPLES OF SEXIST LANGUAGE IN OTHELLO
IAGO: “Nor the division of a battle knows more than a spinster…” (1.1.23-4)
OTHELLO: “Let housewives make a skillet of my helm…” (1.3.268)
IAGO: ” Ere I would say I would drown myself for the love of a guinea-hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon.” (1.3.309-10)
In Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513) we can read about the political manoeuvring that is often defined as ‘Machiavellian’ – where the taking of political scalps (“the killing of innocents”) and dishonest and unscrupulous dealings are detailed as a necessary means to an end.
Iago is often put forward as an excellent example of a Machiavellian villain.
Read here about a production of Shakespeare’s Othello by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the debate about who should play Othello. Browse the various portrayals of Othello over time here.
Hugh Quarshi as Othello and Joanna Vanderham as Desdemona
Hecatommithi (1565) is a collection of tales by Giraldi Cinthio.
Cinthio’s is a sordid, melodramatic tale of sexual jealousy….The heroine, called Disdemona, does not elope with the Moor (whose name is not given); her family agree to the marriage, though with some reluctance; and the couple live together in great happiness in Venice. The Moor is appointed to the command in Cyprus (Cinthio makes no mention of the Turkish danger). The Moor and his wife travel on the same boat. The villain’s sole motive for his actions is his unsuccessful love for Disdemona, for which he blames the Captain (Shakespeare’s Cassio). His plot is directed not against the Moor, but against Disdemona; and he is sexually, but not professionally, jealous of the Captain. The latter draws his sword upon one of the guard. He is not make drunk by the Ensign and there is no Roderigo. The Ensign steals the handkerchief while Disdemona is caressing his child. The Captain finds it in his house and, knowing it to be Disdemona’s, he tries to return it; but he leaves hurriedly on hearing the Moor’s voice. The murder of Disdemona is carried out by the villain and the Moor together; they knock her senseless with a sandbag and make the roof fall, so as to make the deed look like an accident. Finally , the Moor is killed by Disdemona’s kinsmen. The Ensign is tortured to death for another crime; and his wife was privy to the whole story. We have some pity for his victim, but no sympathy for the Moor.
(source: Kenneth Muir, The New Penguin Othello, 1968)
Read the ABC Fact Check report into domestic violence reporting in Australia.
Now look at this infographic detailing Domestic Abuse and Domestic Violence.
How might Othello be seen as a tale of domestic violence?
Consider what references to acts of violence against women do we get in the play?
How are we positioned to view Othello’s actions towards Desdemona?
Would an Elizabethan audience have a similar reaction? Why? Why not?