An exploration of Desdemona’s transgression of social norms within Shakespeare’s Othello

December 8, 2017 September 1st, 2019 Free Essays Online for College Students

In Othello, according to the expectations of the Elizabethan patriarchal society, women were expected to be obedient to the men in their lives, be it their fathers or husbands, in other words to be subservient. However, Shakespeare allows for some deviation from this social matrix through the female character of Desdemona. This essay will explore the extent of Desdemona’s successful transgression of social norms within Othello through the ways in which Desdemona disrupts social conventions.

Desdemona is first objectified and possessed by her father within the play. After Desdemona decides to elope with Othello, Iago cries, “Thieves! Thieves! Thieves! / Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags,” clearly equating Desdemona to Brabantio’s property (Oth. I.iii.76-9). Furthermore, Brabantio’s strict control of Desdemona is apparent, he refuses to accept that she decided to carry out her elopement, attributing her actions to “spells and medicines bought of mountebanks” that Othello must have used (I. iii. 61), ignoring her role in the romance and courtship. Indicating that if Desdemona were to carry out actions he disapproved, she was not in the right frame of mind, believing his daughter to be completely obedient and subservient to his whims, refusing to comprehend her own choices. Thus, we can see how the character of Desdemona is supposed to fit within the social matrix of the play by adhering to such patriarchal notions.

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Desdemona first disrupts the social matrix through her disobedience to her father by eloping with Othello. This act of eloping is socially transgressive through Desdemona’s refusal to perform her role as an obedient daughter to Barbantio. Furthermore, by choosing to elope, Desdemona has refused to succumb to the societal norms set by the Venetian society within the play. Her dialogue to her father accords added insight to her ability to transcend patriarchal conventions.

My noble father,

I do perceive here a divided duty.

To you I am bound for life and education;

My life and education both do learn me

How to respect you. You are the lord of duty;

I am hitherto your daughter. But, here’s my husband;

And so much duty as my mother showed

To you, preferring you before her father,

So much I challenge that I may profess

Due to the Moor my lord.

While seemingly expressed in language that indicates dutiful submissiveness appropriate to her role as a daughter, there is the presence of conviction. Desdemona is unapologetic for her disruption and instead claims her own identity, rejecting her previous defined identity as daughter through her use of ‘I’, an assertion of self, with no ties to anyone else. In the process of doing so, she too gives Brabantio and Othello their own identities, ‘my father’ and ‘my husband’. Brabantio never refers to himself as her father and neither does Othello define himself as Desdemona’s husband. By identifying their roles, she gives herself an identity apart from them, subverting social norms where women are defined through the men in their lives.

Furthermore in Act I, Desdemona continues to assert her own individual identity. When the Duke proposes that she should follow her father back home, both Othello and Brabantio disagree which, by social norms, should have been sufficient to prevent such an act. However Desdemona says “Nor would I there reside,/ to put my father in impatient thoughts/ by being in his eye”. This shows how Desdemona will not simply accept their decisions and allow the men to choose her destiny. Not only does she express her displeasure with the notion of being brought back home to her father, Desdemona instead tries to provide various reasons against the Duke’s proposal. Furthermore, she is the only one who proposes a suitable solution to the matter of ‘fit disposition’ ( I.iii.255) for her while her husband, Othello is in Cyprus. By being able to stand up for herself in front of such a high-ranking nobleman, Desdemona is able to successfully transcend societal expectations of women.

It is not only the absence of her father’s permission for Desdemona’s marriage to Othello that is problematic. The fact that she chooses for herself, choosing a man outside her class, culture and even race further disrupts the social order within Othello. In the Venetian society within the play, it is extremely unnatural for a white woman to marry a black man. To elope with an upstanding senator of Venice poses one kind of threat to the civic order, but to elope with an immigrant redoubles this threat That Desdemona should so disjoin from nature indicates her transgression from social norms. The subscription that Desdemona’s desire for a man outside of her class, race and culture is so deeply seated within the males’ psyche in Othello that even Othello himself observes such a moving away from nature within Desdemona, “I do not think but Desdemona’s honest.[…] And yet, how nature erring from itself-‘’(III.iii.259, 263) when Iago, first tells him of Desdemona’s infidelity. In response, Iago replies “of her own clime, complexion, and degree, whereto we see in all things nature tends—Foh! One may smell in such a will most rank, foul disproportion, thoughts unnatural”( III.iii.263-266), driving home the fact that Desdemona has successfully transgressed some sort of natural order.

Furthermore, Desdemona exhibits signs of wielding power over Othello. Cassio jokingly refers to Desdemona as ‘our great Captain’s Captain’ (II.1.75), implying she possesses the capability to control Othello. Desdemona openly acknowledges her power when telling Cassio about her attempt to reinstate his position, ‘My lord shall never rest’ (III.3.22) until she changes his mind, indicating Desdemona’s tenacity. Desdemona also possesses sexual power over Othello, she is unafraid to employ it, ‘Tell me, Othello. I wonder in my soul/What you would ask me that I should deny, Or stand so mammering on?’ (III.3.68-70), here she alludes to her own desire to please her husband through the implication that he cannot love her as much as she loves him if he refuses what she wants. In response, Othello says ‘Excellent wretch’ (III.3.90), the oxymoron suggesting that he is conscious of her ‘wretched’ manipulation but he finds it ‘excellently’ fascinating. Desdemona’s further sexual power over him can be seen through Othello’s lines lamenting the fact that he did not realize Desdemona’s supposed infidelity, stating he would be happier ‘if the general camp/Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body/So nothing known’, seemingly obsessed with her sexuality. The very fact that Desdemona seems to hold certain power over Othello, and knowingly employs it also successfully transgresses societal conventions.

However, despite her previous transgressions, Desdemona’s fate can be seen as a restoration of the status quo, as for it to be restored, those who have committed transgressions must be eliminated. “Emilia: O, who hath done this deed? Desdemona: Nobody—I myself.” (V.ii. 148-149). This could be seem to mean that Desdemona is complicit in her own death and is passive at her end, destroying the success of her previous outcomes. Desdemona willingly accepts responsibility for her own death in the public eye and by doing so, restores social order. This implies that although Desdemona does transgress the social matrix, she is not altogether successful in maintaining that transgression through her death at the hands of Othello.

On the other hand, although Desdemona’s last words seem to be an admittance of complicity, thus restoring the status quo, she is neither regretful nor apologetic in her statement, ‘A guiltless death I die’. For the patriarchal social order to be maintained, strict adherence to the order should be maintained then Desdemona should be aware of the ways in which she has violated such an order. Ways in which she has not conformed to scripted societal expectations in her gender. However, Desdemona admits nothing at the end, removing herself from blame, remaining ‘guiltless’. Furthermore, Desdemona reasserts her individual identity, refusing to be defined in relation to men (my wife, my daughter), through the use of the word ‘I’. Desdemona refuses to be returned to her previous objectification at the hour of her death. Thus, it can be seen that despite her death serving to restore the social order within the play, Desdemona continues to fight against patriarchal notions as long as she is capable.

In conclusion, despite various societal pressures being exerted upon Desdemona to conform to patriarchal notions, as seen through the men in the play, Desdemona does transgress such pressures. She asserts her own identity, refusing to be defined in accordance to the men in her life, even defying the Venetian law through the presence of her feminine voice in the Venetian court. Desdemona further transgresses the social order by making her own choices and standing up when faced with patriarchal pressures. She also wields power over Othello and knowingly employs it, representative of a strong and willful woman, clearly going against the patriarchal system within Othello. However, despite these successful transgressions, Desdemona is unable to maintain her success as seen through her death within the play, which restores the social order and making her previous transgressions null. Thus, Desdemona’s success in transgressing social order is great but the extent to which she is able to maintain it, is small.


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