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Thread: Sexism in Othello

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    Sexism in Othello

    I often find when reading Othello most people concentrate on the issues of racism presented in the book. But what actually really stood out for me were the the ways women were presented and seen by various characters. I'm not sure If I am the only one, but notice how the females who are portrayed as "good" by Elizabethan standards(chaste, humble, etc.) support feminist ideology and anti-racism as well. For example, Emilia says many feminist things throughout the play against Iago's criticism of her and womankind. Desdemona is the main supporter of Othello, having loved him and expressing empathy for him,yet she is portrayed as the "idea'" woman of being honesty, virtuos and devoted to her husband.
    What do you guys think?
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    I'm a neanderthal died-in-the-aurox-blood sexist myself but I guess Oor Will thought that Desdemona was admirable. I do too but admiring people who are trusting patient and devoted I still sometimes feel like giving them a good shake. At this time of mid night that's about as far as my critical faculties can go in response.

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    I agree completely with the point about the positive presentation of more feminist character in Othello. Also, I’d add that the character with the most blatantly sexist (and racist) attitudes and language is the Bad Guy—Iago.

    Ok, I admit that giving Desdemona a good shake is occasionally a very appealing idea, but overall, I don’t have a lot of patience with the (numerous) people who spend a lot of time criticizing her. They overlook the fact that, in addition to being chaste, loving, virtuous, yada yada, she is also articulate, stubborn, passionate, practical, and sexually aware. Like Dramasnot6 pointed out, she’s able to look beyond race—and class as well.

    A lot of Shakespeare’s admirable women are rather liberated by Elizabethan/Jacobean standards. Viola and Rosalind are cross-dressers who take an active stance on love, rather than waiting to be courted, and don’t cling to the idealized notions of love that their male counterparts sometimes that bog down their male counterparts. Beatrice meets all the criteria for an Elizabethan shrew, but she’s a sympathetic and amusing character. Even the so-called paragons on virtue, like Portia and Cordelia, have an edge to them. Of course, then you’ve got the mushier ones, like Hero and Miranda, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’

    So, Ennison, what exactly qualifies one as a dead-mammal-sexist?

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    Quote Originally Posted by ennison View Post
    I'm a neanderthal died-in-the-aurox-blood sexist myself but I guess Oor Will thought that Desdemona was admirable.
    Count me in that neanderthal club too ennison.

    Frankly I don't understand the question. What's wrong with the values of chastity, love, and virtue? Have we turned the value system on its head that now we should abhor them? These are as much male standards as female, and if men don't adhere to them then they too deserve to be disgraced. Othelo himself adheres to them. Honor is paramaount to him, that's why he commits suicide when he realizes what he has done, even if it was by mistake.
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    No one is criticizing chastity, love, virtue, or honor. Dramasnot just pointed out that in Elizabethan times, the traditional womanly values were often associated with docility and complete conformance to social values, while in the case of Desdemona, she has the traditional virtues, and thinks for herself, and supports such non-conformist (for the times) ideas as racial equality.
    Emilia isn't as idealized a woman as Desdemona, but neither is she a shrew or a villain, and she has that famous equality speech.

    If anything, the point is supportive of traditional values, because it shows that being virtuous is not mutually exclusive with being smart, and one doesn't need to be a sheep to be a good person.

    Virgil, sure I'm in favor of chastity, love and virtue, for men and women, but even if these are 'male standards as well as female,' you've got to admit that there's been a double standard regarding gender and virtue for hundred of years--including in Shakespeare's time.
    Last edited by Rosalind; 02-15-2007 at 09:00 AM.

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    'So, Ennison, what exactly qualifies one as a dead-mammal-sexist?'

    A long, long course of continuous self-assessment

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    Quote Originally Posted by Rosalind View Post
    No one is criticizing chastity, love, virtue, or honor. Dramasnot just pointed out that in Elizabethan times, the traditional womanly values were often associated with docility and complete conformance to social values, while in the case of Desdemona, she has the traditional virtues, and thinks for herself, and supports such non-conformist (for the times) ideas as racial equality.
    Emilia isn't as idealized a woman as Desdemona, but neither is she a shrew or a villain, and she has that famous equality speech.

    If anything, the point is supportive of traditional values, because it shows that being virtuous is not mutually exclusive with being smart, and one doesn't need to be a sheep to be a good person.

    Virgil, sure I'm in favor of chastity, love and virtue, for men and women, but even if these are 'male standards as well as female,' you've got to admit that there's been a double standard regarding gender and virtue for hundred of years--including in Shakespeare's time.
    That is EXACTLY what I was getting at Rosalind. Shakespeare seemed to be taking women of the pedastool and humanizing them a little, while still allowing them to be considered "virtuous" and "good". Thanks for the fantastic commentary
    I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.


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    Quote Originally Posted by Rosalind View Post
    No one is criticizing chastity, love, virtue, or honor. Dramasnot just pointed out that in Elizabethan times, the traditional womanly values were often associated with docility and complete conformance to social values, while in the case of Desdemona, she has the traditional virtues, and thinks for herself, and supports such non-conformist (for the times) ideas as racial equality.
    Emilia isn't as idealized a woman as Desdemona, but neither is she a shrew or a villain, and she has that famous equality speech.
    And men didn't have conforming social values placed on them? And don't they still? Everyone has conforming social values placed on them; that goes with living in society. The fact that Desdemona is able to go off with Othello and Emilia can tell off Iago shows that women were not docile. I can find examples of women all over Shakespeare (and Chaucer and other medevil and reniassance writers, and even in Homer and Virgil) who were not docile or obeyed their husbands or fathers. Women were still able to tell off their husbands and express their personalities. Trust me, I have a wife. Feminists have created this black and white stereotype of what relationships between the sexes were, and frankly I don't find them to be true. What you're confusing is that women did not have access to positions. That is an entirely different thing.

    If anything, the point is supportive of traditional values, because it shows that being virtuous is not mutually exclusive with being smart, and one doesn't need to be a sheep to be a good person.
    I find that traditional values are almost always upheld in Shakespeare.

    Virgil, sure I'm in favor of chastity, love and virtue, for men and women, but even if these are 'male standards as well as female,' you've got to admit that there's been a double standard regarding gender and virtue for hundred of years--including in Shakespeare's time
    Double standard in what sense? That it looks worst for a woman to screw around than a man? I guess I might agree with that. Although we see the Johns that are caught going to prostitutes hide their faces in shame. So perhaps it's not as different as you think.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Virgil View Post
    And men didn't have conforming social values placed on them? And don't they still? Everyone has conforming social values placed on them; that goes with living in society. The fact that Desdemona is able to go off with Othello and Emilia can tell off Iago shows that women were not docile. I can find examples of women all over Shakespeare (and Chaucer and other medevil and reniassance writers, and even in Homer and Virgil) who were not docile or obeyed their husbands or fathers. Women were still able to tell off their husbands and express their personalities.
    Of course everyone, regardless of sex and time period, is expected to conform to some social expectations. But the expectations on us now are completely different from those for men and especially women in Renaissance England. Maybe they’re just as stringent. Maybe we’ve got the equally idealized versions of virtue/beauty/character. But they were certainly more obvious and perhaps more enforced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, partially because it wasn’t just society enforcing these values—it was law and religion as well. And, as it happens, women were legally and religiously bound to a subservient position. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all women behaved in a subservient way. As you say, in real life and in Shakespeare women seem quite comfortable telling their husbands off. But they weren’t supposed to—Emilia actually apologizes to everyone present when she disobeys Iago and reveals what happened. What real life people do and what their idealized counterparts do are two very separate things—that's what we're saying. As Dramasnot says, Shakespeare was able to characterize women as real people, taking them off the pedestal.


    Double standard in what sense? That it looks worst for a woman to screw around than a man? I guess I might agree with that. Although we see the Johns that are caught going to prostitutes hide their faces in shame. So perhaps it's not as different as you think.

    Not just in a sexual sense, but that’s the obvious one. It’s not just that women look worse screwing around. In the time period we’re talking about, it was acceptable for men to misbehave that way, but for a woman to commit adultery or have pre-marital sex—that was a major crime, well into the 1700s and beyond. Sure Johns may hang their heads (sometimes, though I happen to live in area exciting enough that I run into such folks on a regular basis, and not all of them seem perturbed), but they’re not the ones who go to jail.

    Personally, I think a double standard is still in effect, both in sexual and other conduct, but that’s not the point. Objectively speaking, there was a very real and very sharp double standard in Shakespeare’s time. That's just a historical fact.
    Last edited by Rosalind; 02-15-2007 at 03:47 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Rosalind View Post
    Personally, I think a double standard is still in effect, both in sexual and other conduct, but that’s not the point. Objectively speaking, there was a very real and very sharp double standard in Shakespeare’s time. That's just a historical fact.
    You mean like Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith? If you want to do any research, look up how court courtesans (essentially prostitutes) were accepted and treated in that day. You might find it startling. I certainly don't see a double standard today. Sexual misbehavior has always existed by both sexes. The reason women had it tougher is that they get pregnant and ultimately live with the results, while men can just run off. Frankly I think that men who fail to take such responsibility ought to have their you know what's cut off. But I guess I'm just an old fashion guy. Punishment has been replaced by understanding and "rehabilitation."
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    Quote Originally Posted by Virgil View Post
    What you're confusing is that women did not have access to positions. That is an entirely different thing.

    Queen Elizabeth held the highest position possible, of course apologists claimed that in her case her sex was secondary; the blood ruled out.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woland View Post
    Queen Elizabeth held the highest position possible, of course apologists claimed that in her case her sex was secondary; the blood ruled out.
    Good point Woland, but that was more of an anomoly than anywhere near the norm.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Virgil View Post
    I certainly don't see a double standard today. Sexual misbehavior has always existed by both sexes. The reason women had it tougher is that they get pregnant and ultimately live with the results, while men can just run off. Frankly I think that men who fail to take such responsibility ought to have their you know what's cut off. But I guess I'm just an old fashion guy. Punishment has been replaced by understanding and "rehabilitation."
    Pardon me if I'm dragging the tone down here with this example, but if you don't see sexual double standards today, it's been a while since you've set foot in an American high school. Even statistical polls show that, in popular opinion, a high school guy who carries condoms is 'smart,' while a girl is a 'slut.' Speaking from more personal experience--I'm in high school, by the way--a few dropped words can ruin a girl's reputation. A teenaged boy with a reputation for getting around is cool, while a girl is easy. A rumor of a nice, well behaved Freshman girl ducking into a closet in a party can mean, not always but not infrequently, that she won't have any company at lunch the next day (though if her friends are any good, her 'reputation' will be cleared soon, as happened with this particular kid).

    Some courtesans did indeed rise to positions of social and political influence, but these were not the 'good' women--certainly not the ones who had plays written about them. The commentary on Othello, remember, was about characterizing real women as opposed to idealized ones in literature. Courtesans would go under the heading of 'real.'

    But then, this whole conversation has kind of wandered away from gender roles in Shakespeare and into sexism and feminism, hasn't it? Which is dandy, but I'd like to be cautious, since in my experience, both terms are open to widely different interpretations.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Rosalind View Post
    Pardon me if I'm dragging the tone down here with this example, but if you don't see sexual double standards today, it's been a while since you've set foot in an American high school. Even statistical polls show that, in popular opinion, a high school guy who carries condoms is 'smart,' while a girl is a 'slut.' .
    You're right, it's been ages since I set foot in a high school. I guess it may be a different world for adultlecents. Sorry. But it's not like that in the adult world.

    Speaking from more personal experience--I'm in high school, by the way--a few dropped words can ruin a girl's reputation.
    I'm sure you're a fine young lady. Save yourself for that nice young man who you love. It's always best to be honorable.

    A teenaged boy with a reputation for getting around is cool, while a girl is easy. A rumor of a nice, well behaved Freshman girl ducking into a closet in a party can mean, not always but not infrequently, that she won't have any company at lunch the next day (though if her friends are any good, her 'reputation' will be cleared soon, as happened with this particular kid).
    Unfortunately not everything is fair in life. In some respects girls have it tougher, but in other respects boys do. No one has it perfect.

    But then, this whole conversation has kind of wandered away from gender roles in Shakespeare and into sexism and feminism, hasn't it? Which is dandy, but I'd like to be cautious, since in my experience, both terms are open to widely different interpretations
    I like you Rosalind. You can hold your own to a grouchy old guy like me. Good job.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Virgil View Post
    You're right, it's been ages since I set foot in a high school. I guess it may be a different world for adultlecents. Sorry. But it's not like that in the adult world.
    Quite so. I was rather surprised, on entering the university, to discover that such "high-school" concerns seem to drop almost completely away in the higher-ed community. I've been in college a total of five or six months, and the memory of the concern for the affairs of others - so present in high school - is a far-off thing. I guess I'm a guy, so maybe I just don't notice; but the thing is, in high school I did notice. People were extremely nosy and terribly mean to each other. It ends.

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