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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds DR.

Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON WOODALL: Let’s start with the question, who is Desdemona? Critic E.A.J. Honigmann states that as a character, she is widely misunderstood, by her father, Bratantio, who calls her a maiden never bold, by Iago, who thinks she must have change, i.e, she must soon realise her folly in marrying Othello, by Rodrigo, who thinks that she can be bought with presents, and by Casio, who thinks she is indeed perfection. One might also argue that Desdemona has been widely misunderstood by critics.

Skip to 0 minutes and 46 seconds One of the earliest criticisms of the play comes from the 17th century critic Thomas Rymer, who in his chapter, “Othello: A Bloody Farce,” asserted of the play, never was any play fraught like this of Othello with improbabilities, one of these being, in his view, the plot of the handkerchief. He concludes flippantly that one of the play’s central moral functions is as a warning to all good wives that they look well to their linen. Rymer furthermore, describes Desdemona as a poor chicken, a fool, and a silly woman, entirely void of spleen. Her chief faults are, in his eyes, her lack of wit, her weakness, and her passivity.

Skip to 1 minute and 31 seconds Samuel Johnson in the 18th century, was far more sympathetic to the character, speaking of the soft simplicity of Desdemona. For him, Desdemona is so innocent that she cannot understand the accusations of whore laden against her. In the 19th century, the Victorians, with their high moral values, found Desdemona by contrast, not innocent enough. John Quincy Adams, Desdemona’s playful banter with Iago on her arrival in Cyprus was not ladylike, asserted that Desdemona was little less than a wanton who has being false to the purity and delicacy of her sex and condition in marrying Othello. By the early 20th century, we were back to the tendency to see Desdemona as weak and innocent.

Skip to 2 minutes and 17 seconds “Her nature is infinitely sweet and her love absolute,” stated the critic A.C. Bradley. She can do nothing whatever. She cannot retaliate even in speech. However, Bradley didn’t view such perceived helplessness in a negative way, as had Rymer. For him, Desdemona’s suffering is like that the most loving of dumb creatures, tortured without caused by being he adores. So, Desdemona has been criticised for being too forward and too passive, too bawdy and too innocent, the blameless victim of the play and the author of own undoing.

Skip to 2 minutes and 54 seconds Later critics of the 20th century and early 21st century have often concentrated less on Desdemona’s character, as the cause of her downfall, and more the society in which she lives, a society that struggles to accept the marriage of a white woman to a black man. In the next section, we’ll be exploring the perception of women in Renaissance society and Renaissance responses to mixed race marriage. Before we do this, let’s take a look at the other female characters in the play, Emilia and Bianca. Emilia and Bianca are tended to be treated by critics as minor characters, but their roles in the play are important.

Skip to 3 minutes and 35 seconds Virginia Mason Vaughan describes them as providing, along with Desdemona, a spectrum of female sexual mores, Bianca, the prostitute, Emilia, the earthy matron, and Desdemona, the chaste bride. Both are, against their knowledge, used in Othello’s plan against Othello and Desdemona, but this doesn’t mean they’re mere plot devices or that they’re passive, easily manipulated figures. To start with Bianca, Bianca is, as the Vaughan quite indicates, frequently referred to in literary criticism as a prostitute. However, whilst critics have tended towards an unthinking acceptance of Iago’s depiction of Bianca as a whore, she actually denies this.

Skip to 4 minutes and 19 seconds EMILIA: Fie upon thee, strumpet.

Skip to 4 minutes and 20 seconds BIANCA: I am no strumpet, but of life as honest as you that dost abuse me. DR.

Skip to 4 minutes and 25 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON WOODALL: Although Bianca is labelled in the Folio’s Names of Actors as courtesan, this is not authoritative, since such designations are unlikely to come from Shakespeare himself. All three women are described as whores in the process of the play. There is no particular reason to assume that Bianca is one, any more than Desdemona or Emilia. The other female character is, of course, Emilia. Emilia has often been viewed in contrast to Desdemona, and often referred to negatively. In 1770, Francis Gentleman described her assertions about men and fidelity in Act Four, Scene Three, including her seeming advocation of women’s infidelity, as contemptible.

Skip to 5 minutes and 11 seconds EMILIA: I would not do such a thing for a joint-ring, nor for measures of lawn, no caps, no gowns, no petticoats, nor any petty exhibition, but for all the whole world. “ DR.

Skip to 5 minutes and 23 seconds ABIGAIL ROKISON WOODALL: Even as late as 1952, Orson Wells, directing the play on film, described her simply as a trollop. However, at the end of the 18th century, many critics were asserting that Emilia was a better part than Desdemona, even though she has fewer lines, 7% to Desdemona’s 11%. The Dramatic Censor of 1770 states that she has much more life in her than her mistress and shows a well-contrasted spirit. Emilia is certainly outspoken. She’s a witty character who believes in sexual equality. Carol Thomas Neeley compares her to other Shakespearean shrews, Beatrice and Carolina, characters who are witty and warm as well as assertive. However, critics have noted that her feelings towards men stem from a potentially abusive relationship with Iago.

Skip to 6 minutes and 14 seconds Virginia Mason Vaughan speaks of her as a precursor of modern battered wives. In Terry Hand’s 1985 RSC production, in Act Three, Scene Three, Emilia canoodles her way for a fleet moment into Iago’s favour with a procured handkerchief, only to find herself spun from the embrace with the truly shocking slap in the face.

A critical look

In this video Abigail looks at the responses from different critics to the female roles in the play, over time. As you watch consider:

  • How critical perceptions of Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca have changed over time.

Having watched the video:

  • What is your perception of each of these characters from your initial reading or viewing of the play?

  • Which critics do you agree or disagree with?

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This video is from the free online course:

Othello: In Performance

University of Birmingham