Robert Kimmerly III April 17, 2013 Shakespeare’s Dismantling of Social Constructions The world will always be full of deception. The term is usually referenced in a negative connotation, but does not always have to be. Shakespeare is well known for his deceptive characters within his writing. There are numerous examples in Othello where the characters use deception to further advance themselves, whether it is on a social or economical level. The ironic aspect of Shakespeare’s style is that the characters that he makes are deceptive on a higher level. In a time where women were given less rights overall and little control of their life, Shakespeare writes portraits of strong and independent women. In a time where Jews and Africans were ridiculed and disrespected, Shakespeare empowers them by creating authoritative and respected men. Shakespeare is able to deceive society with his plays by breaking down the cultural constructions built to reject these new ideas regarding overall equality. According to Flores, women in Elizabethan times did not have many legal rights. Even though a female monarch ruled England at this point for over four decades, women did not have much control over their destiny. The exclusion of women into the political world became known as expected in more advanced societies (Stříbrný 2000). Women were seen as not being able to contribute to the advancement of society if given a political role in the eyes of many male politicians of the time. In marriage the lack of rights for women was particularly prevalent. Women would be arranged in marriages, sometimes as young as 12. The role of the woman was to run the house and provide children. Shakespeare has provided insight into the way that he
viewed marriage during that time through the characters in his plays. Desdemona in Othello represents one of the characters that defy the traditional marriage model. In Act I Desdemona clearly announces to her father that she married Othello out of her own will and out of love. She is loyal to her husband throughout the play despite many allegations slandered against her. She tells Brabanzio that her loyalty no longer lies with her father, but now that has married she is loyal to her husband. She explains how she received this loyalty from her mother. This independence displayed by Desdemona is not the way a typical woman would act in these times. Shakespeare empowers this character beyond the social constructions built up against her. Shakespeare does not go as far as making this character unbelievable though. He demonstrates his view of a powerful woman, but understands what happens in the instance of a woman being too strong. When looking back on other relationships during the time, Diana Saco affirms that a woman with too much power and a husband may end up leading to their ultimate downfall. Women were usually denied formal educations and were careful about speaking too freely in public. Breaking one of these rules could lead to public humiliation or abuse (Flores). Only if a woman was not married, which was not a common occurrence they were able to own land. They were also able to sign a will, sign a legal contract, or posses property. Just as Shakespeare is aware of, these rights for single women are dissolved with a marriage agreement. This is only the beginning of how marriage may ultimately lead to a womanâ€™s downfall. When reviewing historical figures and how marriage has affected them, one must look at the monarchy in England. The first queen, Elizabeth I was never married. This is an important fact when looking to compare her to a powerful female character of
Shakespeare’s like Desdemona because other queens who married did not fare as well as Elizabeth I. The idea surrounding Elizabeth I however, was intrigue and ridicule into why she never married. Desdemona’s marriage decision, which was questioned by her father, compares to Elizabeth I who also had to answer for her actions. The main argument against Elizabeth I was how could she run a kingdom when she could not run her own home (Saco)? The Spanish ambassador at the time said regarding Elizabeth’s marriage situation, “the more I think over this business, the more certain I am that everything depends upon the husband this woman may take”(Saco). The fact that she never did marry is odd, but so is the portrayal of Desdemona that Shakespeare presents. Based on the evidence it is clear that Shakespeare disrupts the societal constructions of his time regarding women by creating powerful female characters in his plays. Desdemona is a paradigm example of someone who represents this strong character. One other way that Shakespeare uses Desdemona is to gain the support for another group that struggles for its own independence. Racial profiling and racism was not as much of an occurrence during the time of Shakespeare, but society looked at people of different race, well as being different. Just as Shakespeare has demonstrated with his strong female characters shining through the barrier that society has placed against them, he also succeeds with dominant minority characters as well. He begins Othello with the audience being left in anticipation to see Othello, who is a Moore. The racial terms the characters use suggest to the audience that he is a dark skinned man. According to Shultz, Shakespeare was used to interacting with black people. This did not mean that he could have a black man used in the role of Othello. Just like male actors dressing up as female roles due to the scandalous idea of a
female on stage, there would be actors that used black make-up or ‘black face’ to give off the impression of being darker. He incorporated race into many of his plays, which would be delivered to the audience in a selective way (Schultz). In Othello Shakespeare demonstrates an incorporation of blacks into his play as part of the normal society. The importance of race becomes evident in the final scenes of the play. When Othello finally kills Desdemona, she is already in knowledge of her ultimate demise. She speaks to the audience indirectly when she forgives her husband for killing her. The strength shown by her female character in this instance is more evidence supporting Shakespeare’s overall view of women, but also his view on minorities. The forgiveness by Desdemona is put in place so that the audience can also forgive Othello. Seeing as Shakespeare incorporated the theme of race into eight of his plays, this would have been an obvious topic of discussion during the time. Overall there are many instances throughout Shakespeare where the societal constructions that have been formed surrounding race and gender are tactfully dismantled by the prose of Shakespeare. He builds strong characters such as Desdemona and Othello who both go against what society is used to in the real world. Desdemona represents the storng and independent female who has the power to posses a voice where women are usually set on mute. Othello is a dark skinned man who is profoundly respected. His jealously sends him into a murderous frenzy where he loses touch with the audience emotionally. The sympathetic character shines though when his wife forgives him for what he had done out of being mislead. This ultimately leads to the audience forgiving him, even in a society where dark people are not as incorporated into society. Shakespeare’s lack of acknowledgement of social constructions is something that
transcends his writing though time. Society will always be growing and dealing with new obstructions. The defiance of these constructions by people as influential and profound as Shakespeare is what helps adapt society to new experiences. Without the works of Shakespeare who knows what society would be like today on the level of race integration and gender equality?
Works Cited Flores, Stephen. "Shakespeare's World/Stage." N.p., Fall 1997. Web. 20 Apr. 2013. Hamer, Doug. "The Review of English Studies." Rev. of Shakespeare. The Critical Heritage. Oxford University Press Aug. 1979: 1765-774. JSTOR. Web. 17 Apr. 2013.
Saco, Diani, European Journal of International Relations September 1997 vol. 3 no. 3291-318 Shakespeare, William. Othello. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. Print. Schultz, James. Shakespeare’s Colors: Race And Culture In Elizabethan England. N.p., Jan. 2002. Web. 19 Apr. 2013. Stříbrný, Zdeněk. Shakespeare and Eastern Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.