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Compare and contrast the treatment of sexual difference in Othello and The Merchant of Venice

Compare and contrast the treatment of sexual difference in Othello and The Merchant of Venice

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Lynn Harding. Originally submitted for CK101 at University College Cork, with lecturer Éibhear Walshe and James Knowles in the category of English Language and Literature
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Lynn Harding. Originally submitted for CK101 at University College Cork, with lecturer Éibhear Walshe and James Knowles in the category of English Language and Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
Compare and contrast the treatment of sexual difference in
Othello
and
The Merchant of Venice
“Tragedy creates a balance of the affections” (Hazlitt) andyet, in the two plays of my chosen study, it cannot seem to create abalance of the genders. The differences between the sexes are as stark as thosebetween black and white in Shakespeare’s Othello and form anundercurrent which runs throughout. This is reflected nowhere morestrongly than in the pairing of Othello with Desdemona, the “blackram” and “white ewe”, in which the picturesque contrast of character is striking (Hazlitt). Initially presented as a man of a“constant, loving, noble nature” (Shakespeare, Othello, II.i.289), bythe end of the play Othello descends into a “raging barbarian”(Miola, 52) and murders the truly constant, “loyal and civilizedDesdemona” (Miola, 52). Why is it that “Men in rage strike thosethat wish them best”(2.iii.243) while the female characters, for themost part, submit to the whims of their lords?Hazlitt writes that “The nature of the Moor is noble, confiding,tender and generous; but his blood is of the most inflammablekind”; Miola, that Othello “appears as the champion of order and justice” (52). He loves Desdemona because “she lov’d [him] for thedangers [he] he had pass’d / and…she did pity them” (I.iii.167-8). Allof this paints a supremely complex picture of the Moor: one of aman who is ruled by his pride in his professional feats, and in theeffects these in turn have on the people around him; but one who isalso innately good-hearted and prone to the wiles of the play’s moredevious characters. He places much value on what others think of him, as illustrated by his declaration of his reason for lovingDesdemona and by his rage at the thought of being publiclycuckolded. In contrast, Desdemona’s view of infidelity as abhorrent1
 
stems from the knowledge of the emotional betrayal it would denote(IV.iii.60-3). It is the woman, not the man, who acts reasonably. The many layers of Othello’s character contrast with theunscrupulous duplicity and simple evil of Iago’s, an evil outlined byhis own wife in her proclamation of his “Villainy, villainy,villainy!”(V.ii.190-3). He conspires to ruin many characters aroundhim – of Othello, “I follow him to serve my turn upon him”(I.i.42); of Desdemona, “So will I turn her virtue into pitch”(II.iii.360) – but it ishis utter lack of regard for those he damages along the periphery of his actions which is truly symbolic of his devilish qualities. It is hisvoice, goading Brabantio, which heralds the opening of the play andhis cold manipulation and disposal of Roderigo is chillinglyvenomous. Taking into account the idea at the time the play waswritten that black men were literally descendents of the devil – asconveyed by Iago to Brabantio (I.i.91)– Shakespeare creates aninteresting dichotomy in choosing to make one of his mostsupremely evil characters white. Iago even lingers on at the end of the play, refusing to die, like some superhuman, evil spirit(Coleridge) – a “hellish villain” (V.ii.368) The fact that the two main male figures in the play are suchdistinct and vibrant characters makes the differences between themand their respective wives all the more obvious. Othello and Iago,each incorrigibly flawed and yet at the same time, loved, pale interms of honour and courage when compared with Desdemona andEmilia. Whereas Othello is a man “stopped by no considerations”(Hazlitt), Desdemona is described as a modest and “delicatecreature”(II.iii.22-3). However, it is Othello who refers to her as a“fair warrior”(II.i.182), hinting to the way in which the male figures’mishandling of their hereditary power ultimately contributes to theirabdication thereof. In the men’s attempts to take away all rightsfrom the female characters– as evidenced by Brabantio, “O foulthief…thou hast enchanted her…abus’d her delicate youth”(I.ii.64) -2
 
they prevent the women from being able to take responsibility fortheir choices and actions. Because of this, Desdemona does not fullycomprehend the consequences of her actions, having never neededto, and continually incites Othello’s mistrust of her in her behaviourwith regard to Cassio. Equally, men’s assumption of all liability leadsonly to loss of control as they struggle and fail to be in command of others’ lives, as seen in Brabantio’s distress at Desdemona’srebellion. Shakespeare presents a woman as the most rebellious,and at times free-thinking, character, contrasting her with hereasily-led husband.Perhaps the most admirable character in the play takes theform of Emilia. Conflicted though she may be, she has the wisdomand the wherewithal of a woman endowed with a true soldier’sloyalty, along with the common sense to know to whom she shouldbe loyal. She does, naturally, make efforts to please her husband instealing the handkerchief from Desdemona for him, but this is amere mistake – not an evil act – and one which she endeavours toremedy, eventually giving her life to protect the woman sheunknowingly betrayed so utterly. She maintains her dignitythroughout, unlike the “inflammable” Othello (Hazlitt). He is flawed,not perfect, and in his malleable mentality he becomes caught up inmadness. When one considers how Emilia is really the female formof a left tenant and then compares her to her male counterpart,Iago, it is clear that she embodies all the essential qualities for theposition which her husband lacks. Even by virtue of the fact that sheis married to the play’s most wicked character, her redeemingqualities are all the more apparent. She stands in stark contrast toIago’s impossible narcissism and corruption, or Othello’s gullible andsupposedly noble nature, which make him almost inaccessible as arealistic character; she uses her relevant life experience to help(III.iv.100-2) and not to overawe. Her earthy nature, along with herability to make and accept her mistakes, combine to make her moreworthy and moral than any of the titled men in the play.3

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