Stereotypes and sexist language in Othello

 

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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)

 

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Machiavellian Machinations

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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.

The Original Othello

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)

Domestic Violence and Othello

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Read the ABC Fact Check report into domestic violence reporting in Australia.

Now look at this infographic detailing Domestic Abuse and Domestic Violence.

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THINK

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?

Essays: not as easy as ABC, 123

Sure, Michael Jackson and his brothers were pretty confident when they sang ABC but they weren’t talking about writing text analysis essays.  Or were they?

A common misconception is that an English essay just needs to reflect the topic back in some way.  Like a ‘paint by numbers’ activity in the diagram above, this approach  involves identifying different elements in the topic and then writing a paragraph on each, slapping a generalised introduction and an even more generalised conclusion on either end.  Bingo!  You have a very run-of-the mill essay.  It may not present a coherent, insightful interpretation but it shows the student has read the topic and found evidence in the text which matches it.  This approach will merely illustrate the essay topic, much like the painting above is a mere illustration of the numbers diagram, rather than someone’s original, independent interpretation of a house in the snow.  An essay like this might only ever get a C+ or B grade at best.  The content won’t be wrong but the thinking won’t be very right.

This painting is a more nuanced interpretation of a house in the snow.  You know you want a more nuanced interpretation of the text you are studying so let us see how this might play out when we start to think about  Macbeth.

A possible essay topic might read:

”This dead butcher and his fiend like queen’.  To what extent do you think this is an accurate assessment of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?’

A ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach would be to structure an essay question in this way:

Main contention: Yes, Macbeth is definitely a ‘butcher’ and Lady Macbeth is ‘fiend-like’.

P1 Macbeth kills Duncan = butcher

P2 Macbeth kills Banquo and Macduff’s family = butcher

P3 Lady Macbeth calls on evil spirits = fiend-like

Thinking=meh.

Notice how the main contention offers a very simplistic yes/no response to the question. The main contention should be a student’s ULTIMATE ANSWER. Notice how the paragraphs merely seek to illustrate the topic’s key elements.  The supporting arguments need to provide an interpretation of the text.

A more sophisticated essay plan responding to the same essay question might look like this:

Main contention:  Although Macbeth has a conscience when hesitates to kill Duncan and experiences guilt after murdering Duncan and Banquo, he is most definitely a butcher by the play’s end while Lady Macbeth presents as a woman capable of being fiend-like when she is Macbeth’s partner in crime however her demise is pitiful.  She dies mad and guilt-ridden and Malcolm’s assessment of her as having evil power at the play’s end does not ring true.

P1 Macbeth resists the idea of killing Duncan and is troubled by his actions, both in killing the King and later Banquo, which suggests his conscience prevents him from merely ‘butchering’ those who stand in his way.

P2. Macbeth does become a butcher by the play’s end because he becomes impervious to his conscience and doggedly pursues he course of action to the end which includes ordering the killing of Macduff’s family in a brutal, bloody manner.

P3.  Lady Macbeth demonstrates her fiend-like capacity when she calls on the evil sprits to make her capable of goading Macbeth to kill Duncan and when she is able to present as unperturbed by the crime to the court.  It is when we see her madness emerge later that we understand that her freedom from guilt was only temporary and she dies more wraith-like – powerless.

Notice how all the key elements of the topic have been interpreted for the benefit of this essay – this student is officially ‘doing more with the topic’ which is teacherspeak for THINKING.  This main contention is an ULTIMATE ANSWER.  It sets the terms for the essay – the interpretation.

The ‘to what extent’ part of the question is answered in the main contention by considering where or when in the text it might be true or untrue and qualifying their response.  In this example the main contention is basically this: it is true for Macbeth (though not at the play’s beginning) and it is not true for Lady Macbeth (though true at the play’s beginning).

The topic sentences all go part of the way to answering the topic.  Each stage demonstrates knowledge and understanding and goes beyond the deceptively simplistic essay topic.

This second essay plan shows that the student has weighed up all their ideas first before settling on their interpretation.

Remember that these are only the bones of the argument.  The student would have to flesh these out with quotations and analysis – explaining the significance of the language of the quotation in the light of their interpretation of the text.

See?  Not as easy as ABC, 123, do re mi…but much more meaty (if you will allow me a butcher’s expression).

 

 

Wu-Tang Clan & Will.i.amb Shakepeare

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Ever get the sneaky feeling that Shakespeare would be doing hip hop if he were alive today?  Rapper Akala brings hip hop and Shakespeare together.  Listen to his Comedy, History, Tragedy to get a flava of his work (see what I did there?).

One of the founders of the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, Akala explores the connections between Shakespeare and hip hop, and tests his audience to see if they can recognise lines from rappers from lines from Shakespeare.  The results are surprising…

He goes on to argue that hip hop’s founders and artists like the Wu-Tang Clan see themselves as ‘custodians of knowledge’ in the same way that William Shakespeare was in his day – their work sharing the same celebration of audacious intelligence.

Drop a beat.