In Othello, William Shakespeare pays attention to the social expectations of women in the Elizabethan era through the female characters such as Desdemona and Emilia. Although both women are seen to be as a useful “object” towards other men throughout their lives, there are some fundamental differences between them.
The first difference is social status. Desdemona is the daughter of a powerful Venetian polititian and the wife of a military general. She is a well-educated and demure noblewoman. On the other hand, Emilia is a servant, ordered by Othello to assist his wife. She is from a middle-class family and has not received as much education.
The second major difference lies in their personalities and views on marriage. Desdemona, a representative of the perfect embodiment of a faithful loving wife, eventually killed by her suspecting husband. Emilia, an analytical woman that knew to obey the social norms but still carried a sense of inherent moral compass and compassion.
Desdemona is a determined woman, but finally succumbing to the fact that she is a woman and of low self-esteem, she is now 'serving' Othello instead of her father. She dared to deny her father, but she also dared to serve her husband. Her character is shaped by society. She thinks that only men can solve her problems. She thinks that as a woman, she is not that smart and capable. In patriarchal society, she became a heroine in the Victims, insulted and oppressed by comments like 'trumpet' and 'whore.' Othello failed to fulfill her husband's duties, beat her in public, and ultimately killed Desdemona jealously.
Emilia and Desdemona’s duologue is a key determiner in understanding Emilia through her ‘feminist’ persona. The pair navigate expectations as wives, with Emilia prompting a deeper inquiry on the intrinsically sexist nature of Renaissance society when she asks, “And have not we affections, desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?”. This rhetorical question elaborates on her conviction in gender equality. The comparison of women and men further draws on her cynical assessment of gender roles, a contextual elements Iago conforms to. This juxtaposition between Desdemona and Emilia amplifies Emilia’s non-traditional perspective on gender equality and the shift from prose to verse signifies her decorum in language – an unconventional aspect, as women were viewed as voiceless and subservient beings of little intelligence.
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