The article under consideration is How has Feminist Theory Influenced Critical and Practical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroines? by Joanna Storer. In the article the author defines feminism and investigates the role it plays in the life of Shakespeare’s time women.
For centuries males have been dominating in both public life and family circles. Women were often kept at the middle distance, and their rights and freedoms were significantly limited. In ancient and medieval European culture females were regarded and valued as devoted wives, loving mothers, and housewives. In the period of Renaissance, the number of educated and independent women grew. They tried to increase social freedom and weaken their dependence upon kinsmen and social class. In their opinion, successful marriages were efficient protection against social injustice and oppression, although it often proved to be a failure. Joanna Storer admits that this tendency can be traced in Renaissance literary works. Another issue discussed by the author in the article is whether women’s struggle for independence was successful at that time. The author investigates the issue on the examples of different Shakespeare’s plays. Let’s see what conclusions the author makes on the example of the play “Othello”.
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Storer points out that destiny of Desdemona exemplifies attempts of Renaissance women to resist the established social structure. Contemporaries of both heroines considered that marriage of love was an expression of disobedience and sin, which went against all morals. In taking any serious decisions, noble females had to obey their parents, husbands, or male relatives. The author analyzes consequences of assertion of authority on the part of Desdemona.
The conclusion made by the author is disappointing: at those times, boundaries of social classes were stiff, and it was difficult for a female, even for a rich and noble one, to trespass them. Marriages of convenience formed the basis of medieval and Renaissance society. It was appropriate for the Renaissance drama to incorporate tragic feelings and drastic events in the context of social lives of people of that period. Women in that period had to be subjected to men with no hint for freedom or independence. “It would appear that tragic heroines are particularly vulnerable to the oppression of Shakespearean times, as they try to take action against it, usually resulting in their death” (Storer 3).
Analysis of Desdemona’s socio-cultural surrounding helps understand the disadvantages concerning women’s status in that period. The Duchess belonged to the class of highest nobility by birth and by marriage. Being a rich and enviable fiancé, she could not marry of her own free will. Official marriage with a man beneath her social status would cause public ostracism and reproach. She would have lost her high social position and respect within her surroundings. Thus, public opinion and family values were the main hindrances on the Duchess’ way to happiness. The author of the tragedy often hints at imperfection of the existing social system and thus contrasts Antonio’s idealistic views and powerful ambitions of his brothers-in-law. Both the Cardinal and Duke of Calabria were rich and influential. Unequal marriage of their sister enraged them. The young woman secretly rebelled against their oppression and tried to make independent decisions. The figures of Antonio and Bosola can be opposed to the Duchess’ brothers through the prism of social identity. Both of them are intellectual and gifted to make a successful career, but conservative and corrupted state system of Calabria gives them little opportunities. As for brothers of the Duchess, their feelings had nothing in common with brotherly love and care, but with breach of social customs and family honor. They were selfish and greedy and misused power to protect their own interests, hiding their true motives behind family values and noble birth. They strived to protect purity of their bloodline. They considered their sister as a dummy with limited thinking abilities who would obey them blindly. The difference between brothers and sister is so great that readers may doubt they are blood kin at all. The Duchess was well-educated and intelligent, although she consorted only with courtiers and closest relatives. In comparison with modern times, heroine’s personal space was quite narrow. In everyday life, she was surrounded with servants, courtiers, and her brothers’ spies and had to hide her marriage. She had to be a good actress to hide her pregnancy and protect her privacy with Antonio.
Contrary to the Duchess, Desdemona succeeded to protect her marriage in face of her family: “and I a heavy interim shall support By his dear absence. Let me go with him.” Storer writes:
The use of the last sentence midway through a line demonstrates her stubborn nature. She is ordering them, rather than asking politely. This being at the end of her speech means it lingers in the air, compelling the other men to allow her to leave. This is evidence of Desdemona’s shrew-like nature, that she is determined to persuade anyone to get her own way. (p.10)
Thus, readers can see a multisided representation of a female by different males. Moreover, a constant feeling of pity and sorrow shows a human being as a creature, which is subjected to a constant suffering. Tragedy opposes character’s strengths and weaknesses and his failure in the face of destiny. Othello is a tragic hero because he knows that he kills his beloved woman, who did a wrong action, and he knows that in such way he frees the society from a spoiled member. His strength and his weakness are in his righteous psychology of a society’s male nurse.
The marriage under discussion was a challenge to society of that time. For example, Desdemona’s father was greatly shocked and distressed with daughter’s choice. Shakespeare underlines a big contrast between husband and wife in different ways. According to Brabantio and Cassio, Desdemona embodies purity, innocence, and naivety. Dark-skinned Othello evokes suspicions and doubts among Venetian nobility. Besides, he rises up a secret enemy in face of Iago. The ensign envies his successful career and happy marriage in Venetian society. So, he strives to redress his own injustice, having broken balance within the newly married family.
Desdemona defended her choice before Brabantio and Gratiano, praising her husband’s best qualities. Othello was clever and purposeful. He proved to be a successful leader and deserved deep respect among people. In the play, Desdemona is surrounded with male characters, and each of them represents her connection with him in its own way. Thus, readers can see a multisided representation of the female image by different males.
Storer considers Desdemona to be a strong woman, who has enough power in her soul to defend her own interests and happiness and to build her future. She makes her father recognize Othello as her husband, and she talks about her life and education.
In the play, Desdemona’s character transforms gradually. Having married Othello, Desdemona acted against her father’s will and in the teeth of the Renaissance public opinion. Firstly, she fully relies on her father, but in her marriage she has to submit to her husband. On Cyprus, she supports him in career making and takes care of the household with pleasure.
At the same time, she tries to be independent in her decision making. However, a limited surrounding and other male characters, such as Iago and Cassio, significantly affect her. At the beginning, the main heroine is stunned with Othello and regards him as the man of her dreams. Desdemona defies her destiny and does not want to be subjected to desires and wishes of her husband. She wants to follow her own emotions and feelings. Her tragedy is constant subjection to the will and desires of men surrounding her.
In the second part of the play, Desdemona seems disappointed. She goes into shell. Majority of male characters almost divinify Desdemona, but she is a usual flesh-and-blood woman, who makes mistakes. In reality, Desdemona and Othello are tangled with threads of betrayal, hidden hatred, envy, and omissions created by Iago. Desdemona lacks life experience to find a wise way-out from this difficult situation. The sense of daughter’s betrayal extends to marital relations of husband and wife and leads to tragedy.
The author makes a conclusion that the struggle for independence was usually useless for women of that time, however, she states: “So Shakespeare’s characters are not as black and white as feminists often make out. They have many different rationales for their actions. Therefore, I believe that Feminist Theory has influenced our interpretations of the tragic heroines to an extent” (Storer 15). The example of Desdemona proved that Renaissance society created many obstacles for females. They could not make an independent choice and had to submit to their husbands and fathers in all situations. High social position and wealth even worsened life tragedy for Desdemona and the Duchess. A tragedy of a woman, who was positioned not as a sound member of the society, but as a creature subjected to the world of males, highlights peculiarities of social order of that time.
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