The Jacobean era in which William Shakespeare first wrote Othello, eventually published in 1622, is one which is rightly remembered as being held to strict, dogmatic codes of sexuality and gender-power structures. On the threshold of Queen Elizabeth’s crowning, England under King James continued to be a strictly patriarchal society, with the realms of war and diplomacy being fully impenetrable to women.
Considered the primary means to demonstration and execution of power, such venues were perceived to have held sway over all manner of social order. From a cosmetic vantage, it appears through characters such as Brabantio, Othello and Iago that Shakespeare acknowledges a sociological structure which largely keeps women beholden to these powers of men. However, through its intricate weaving of deception which is continually based on a distortion of the realities between men and women, Shakespeare wily toys with conventional wisdom regarding sex and power, dismantling many of the assumptions pertaining to the topic which were processional from the cultural hegemony of his time and place.
While the work is constantly given over to opportunistic sleights against the cunning malice of the female heart, the flaws of the male characters are ultimately the cause of tragedy. Shakespeare’s work is marked by a rare propensity for his time, to encourage a reconsideration of the reciprocal relationship inbuilt to the breakdown which occurs between love, lust and loyalty While men such as Othello and Brabantio characterize power as being in the hands of the wealthy and physically impressive, Desdemona silently and passively illuminates that sexuality is the true power broker. Even before it is the force which weakens his senses, Othello recognizes that all of his fearsome strengths are blunted by his infirmity in the hands of love and lust:
“When light-winged toys
Of feathered Cupid seel with wanton dullness
My speculative and officed instrument,
That my disports corrupt and taint my business,
Let housewives makes a skillet of my helm.” (1.3, 263-267)
Fittingly, the conclusion magnifies this irony, consistent with the convolution of gender power and responsibility as it persists throughout. Othello recognizes that it is his indiscretion, not Desdemona’s, which has delivered him to incurable suspicion. When he finally succumbs to his misguided jealously, it becomes invariably clear that his physical strengths, those very same which were said to have won him the heart of Desdemona, were not simply made benign by the power of her sexuality.
Worse, his powers are turned against him, unleashed from his control and wielded by a fog of lustful rage. In the denouement of the play, Othello is inconsolable of his own guilt. After choking the life out of his innocent wife, Othello is left powerless. In this is the eventual resolution of Shakespeare’s treatise on the falsehood in the power dynamic between men and women. Indeed, the power which is shown to be reflected in the woman is one which contradicts traditional assumptions of 16th century female gender roles.
That the women in this play, and Desdemona in particular, ultimately command such power over the judgment of men is quite telling of Shakespeare’s unique perspective. The twisted frustration which marks the conclusion of the play is a strikingly aggressive declaration by the playwright that cultural assumptions regarding the genders are not just too often grossly misunderstood, but consequently also subject to terrible repercussions.
Courtney from Study Moose
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