In His Tragedies Shakespeare Often Presents Women Merely as the Tragic Victims of Men Essay

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In His Tragedies Shakespeare Often Presents Women Merely as the Tragic Victims of Men

‘In His Tragedies Shakespeare Often Presents Women Merely as the Tragic Victims of Men.’ To What Extent Do You Consider This Applies to Desdemona ‘In Othello’?

“There are no Antigones in Elizabethan Drama,” Lyndsey Turner. Turner is here expressing the view that Shakespeare does not use his women as heroines. Instead she is of the opinion that they are used as devices on which the “tragic impulses of the plays’ male characters are enacted.” They are a device to produce a cathartic response from Shakespeare’s audience. In order to discuss to what extent Desdemona complies with this view, it would appear logical to define a tragic victim. Many say that a tragic victim is a character in a tragedy who suffers at the hand of circumstance and the fates. They suffer through no fault of their own and are brought down by others, they are totally powerless to change their fate and don’t contribute to their own tragedy; they are solely the victims of others.

It is also vital that they produce a cathartic response from the audience in order for their suffering to be tragic. Looking at these criteria it becomes clear why Shakespeare often uses women as his tragic victims. In the time Shakespeare was writing women had very little influence on their destiny having to submit either to their father or husband. They were the objects of men. When Iago warns Brabantio of his daughter’s escape he says “Look to your house, your daughter and your bags.” This shows of how little importance women were, being so powerless they would then be a natural choice for tragic victims, powerless to avoid their fate because of their weakness in society.

However, when Desdemona is first presented to us she does not seem anything like a stereotypical woman of the time. Her character is presented as much stronger than that. Her father has not tried to force her into marriage even telling Roderigo that, “My daughter is not for thee,” even though it is clear that Roderigo is a rich man.

At the end of Act one he goes to, “sell all his land,” in order to pursue Desdemona. As Brabantio is not therefore being in any way a tyrant to his daughter; her ability to escape from the house and deceive him shocks us and surely would have shocked a contemporary audience even more. This woman is not the kind of person you would expect to become a victim. Before the audience have even seen her she is described as a woman of, “Beauty, wit and fortunes.” She has gone to Othello in the dead of night protected by a, “Knave of common hire, a gondolier.” This shows Desdemona’s bravery and strength. All of this increases her status with the audience and detracts from the image of a weak submissive woman.

In Act 1 Scene 3 she defies what the Duke says, when he requests that she stay at her father’s house while Othello is in Cyprus saying that, “She did love the Moor to live with him.” For a woman to speak in front of a council of the most powerful people in Venice, not invited to do so, would be shocking to a contemporary audience and really show her strength of character. It is almost as though she is a feminine version of Othello, as Patsy Hall says, “She cannot be the man, but she can be the husband of the man.” She has shunned the “Wealthy curled darlings” of her nation unlike most women and instead chooses Othello.

She doesn’t care about his age or race she “sees Othello’s visage in his mind.” The language Shakespeare gives her when talking of her wooing shows how deeply immersed in Othello’s world she is; she, “Falls in love with the battles” even her language is strong. “My downright violence and storm of fortunes,” She is presented as incredibly strong certainly not a figure of pity. It is seemingly no wonder that Othello calls her, “his fair warrior.” Although Desdemona is first portrayed as quite a heroic figure by Shakespeare he soon starts to use her as a cathartic device, as the audience watch her previous strength fall away. It becomes clear that Shakespeare made her so strong willed deliberately in order to shape our response to Desdemona. Doing this makes it that much more painful for the audience.

A major episode wherein Desdemona is presented as an object of pity is in the handkerchief episode. Desdemona loses her handkerchief and Othello sees Cassio with it. Despite Othello’s growing suspicion, Desdemona remains ignorant claiming that, “The sun where he was born drew all such humours from him.” We feel tremendous pity for Desdemona when she says this because Shakespeare has shaped our response using structure and also the irony of her language. In the last scene we saw that Othello was seething with jealousy and vowed to kill her.

This amplifies hugely our feeling of catharsis for her because we feel so helpless. Our pity for her is only added to when Shakespeare shapes events in the play so that all her qualities that were viewed as good in the first act of the play cause her to fall even further. However, she is still a victim because she is powerless to stop it; she is a victim of circumstance and ignorance that Iago has been planning her destruction. She continues to mention Cassio even when it is clear it is causing Othello irritance, she thinks that it is a “trick to put her from her suit.” The audience’s feeling of catharsis is amplified as we can do nothing while her language puts her fidelity in more doubt in Othello’s mind

The time when we pity her most however is when Othello strikes her. Again she says precisely the wrong things, through no fault of her own but rather because her loving nature wishes to help Cassio, saying that, “She would do much for the love she bears to Cassio.” All the audience can do is sit and despair for her. When he hits her we think that maybe her strength will come back but she simply responds by saying that she, “Will not stay to offend Othello.” We despair because we know that if she submits to Othello she will die at his hands.

This is yet more evidence of Desdemona’s good proving to be her downfall. Shakespeare shapes events very cleverly in the next section in order to get the largest cathartic reaction. For a moment it seems like we might see a glimpse of Desdemona’s fight. She claims, “She has no Lord.” The audience think for a moment she will be fine, however soon she is asking Iago, “What shall I do to win my Lord again.” The assertive Desdemona from the earlier scenes is gone and the audience despair for her. Even when Othello kills her she does not blame him. When asked who has killed her she says, “Nobody, I myself.” She dies a symbol of goodness and love, the way Shakespeare shapes her demise is unquestionably tragic.

However, is she actually a victim? The audience on the most part at the time would say she is because she does not fall through a flaw in her character. However was she totally helpless and unable to change her fate? Patsy Hall argues that Othello and Desdemona have a, “Mutual ignorance of each other’s nature,” saying also that she is, “so selflessly devoted that she cannot acknowledge imperfection in her husband.” I would agree with this statement by Hall.

The audience are constantly perplexed throughout the play as to why Othello will not listen to anyone but Iago. This could be perhaps a comment on how women have had to suffer under the patriarchal society in which Shakespeare’s original audience was living, perhaps through Desdemona he is trying to show the unfair nature of their society. But in many ways the same is true for Desdemona. Emilia tries to tell her that, “Jealous souls are not ever jealous for the cause, but jealous for they are jealous.” But even after this warning Desdemona takes no heed of anyone but Iago, therefore it could just perhaps be confirmation of Iago’s intelligence, this backs up Desdemona’s role as a victim as she is a victim of others.

So in conclusion there is no doubt that Desdemona’s demise is very much tragic. Also having examined the criteria it would be accurate to say that in many ways Desdemona is a victim. She suffers through no fault of her own and is the victim of circumstance. However, I am not sure that one could say that she was totally powerless to stop her eventual fate. I would say that Desdemona was not a victim of Iago’s scheming or Othello’s jealousy as she could have stopped these. She was a victim of her own love for Othello. Therefore, I would say that the statement in the title applies to Desdemona so far as she was the tragic victim of her own love for a man.

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