It has been said that Shakespeare was a feminist, and on the surface, the thought may seem plausible, though a closer look at the female characters present within “Othello” reveals a different story. Desdemona, one of Shakespeare’s war brides, so categorized because she is “a woman who marries a serviceman ordered into active service in time of war” (Schmidt, 2008), appears to be the champion of the feminist. She respected Othello’s military career, and while her falling for him was largely due to his military career, it is easy to see how a woman could fall for a military hero who has put their life on the line in defense of country. It could be said that this is Desdemona’s moment of playing the stereotypical female, and yet, when put in the context of a woman who admires a man for that which he is willing to sacrifice, this may be seen as a reasonable course of action.
Desdemona is strong, and confident; she steps up to the plate for Othello when speaking with her father in defense of her new life with Othello, “And so much duty that my mother showed to you, preferring you before her father, so much I challenge that I may profess due to the Moor my lord” (1.3.213-218). Desdemona does not hesitate to speak her mind to her father, or to speak her mind front of the Duke. She goes so far as to proudly display who she is and to proclaim why she has chosen Othello, and goes so far as to draw attention to the differences in their races, taking pride in Othello for being who he is, and glorying in all that others could find fault in. She boldly leaves Venetian society so that she might stay by her new husband’s side preferring the possibility of being stuck in a war zone as long as she is by his side rather than to take the chance of remaining safe but distant. She disregards the fear of infidelity that Othello feels outright, believing it has no merit. Desdemona’s willingness to travel with Othello to Cypress and into the war zone does nothing to allay the fears stirred up in Othello by Iago, for the concern “that their women might not be faithful was an almost constant source of worry among soldiers” (Schmidt, 2008) and this fear, when combined with Iago’s manipulations, served to increase the speed on the path to destruction taking place within “Othello.”
It is Othello, not Desdemona, who embodies the more effeminate characteristics, in spite of being a General of renown. Othello is unsure of himself and concerned that he is not enough for her. Desdemona is self-assured, and it is absurd to her to think that Othello might be possessive of her as a result of extreme jealousy; as such she cannot give the concept any serious consideration, to the point of dismissing it outright when Emilia suggests it. The very idea of her soldier being insecure, especially when she herself is not, is as unfathomable to her as it is laughable. In spite of this, Desdemona, the woman who shows the strongest argument out of all of Shakespeare’s plays for the idea that Shakespeare was a feminist fails as well. Her backbone disappears in the face of Othello’s accusations, she refuses to stand up for herself as she has done in the past, and eventually, quite literally, accepts his rebukes, rolls over, and dies.
She allows Othello to strangle her, in their marriage bed no less, with acceptance and barely a fight at all. In addition, rather than allow Othello to take responsibility for his actions and punishment for her murder, she tries with her dying breath to cover for him, saying “A guiltless death I die” (5.2.45), despite evidence to the contrary and Othello’s statement that he has killed her for the actions he believes she has committed. Desdemona is described at the end as “a demure and passive paragon: she can do nothing whatever. She cannot retaliate even in speech; no, not even in silent feelings” (Sproat, 46).
- Schmitt H. Shakespeare’s War Brides. Journal of the Wooden O Symposium [serial online]. January 2008;8:76-84. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 28, 2013.
- Shakespeare, William. Othello. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Edward Pechter. New York: Norton, 2004. 3-117. Print.
- Sproat K. Rereading Othello, II, 1. Kenyon Review [serial online]. Summer85 1985;7(3):44. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 28, 2013.