A feminist critique of the character Desdemona in Shakespeares "Othello"

Essay, 2015

8 Pages



The article “a feminist critique of the character Desdemona” offers an analysis of the character of Desdemona from the theoretical framework of feminism. Feminism tends to highlight the oppression of women and their position in a male dominant society. Feminists argue that women are denied rights of freedom, equality, and decision making. They are treated as inferior and dependent on men. Woman is not allowed to raise her voice. If she raises her voice, it is then silenced by the society. Woman is expected to follow the norms and fulfil the expectation of the society. Otherwise she is frowned and called a transgressor. Desdemona is a strong and independent woman. She spoke for her herself, refused to be crushed under the feet of patriarchy. However, her position as a woman made her vulnerable. Though she asserted her individual personality but under the impact of a male dominant society she could not exercise her freedom. She was doubted, beaten and not trusted. And eventually was killed by her sceptic husband.
Feminist Critique of the Character Desdemona in Othello


Women during Elizabethan age are assumed to have spent their lives in the service of men - prearranged marriages, child rearing, and their role as sexual objects. Shakespeare on the other hand has portrayed women as both object and subject. Though women were treated as subordinate, they were not allowed to raise their voice but there were women who despite the oppression, patriarchy and male dominance were able to raise their voice for their rights. Desdemona is one such character in Othello. She transgressed the traditional boundaries made around women to imprison them. She defied to be enchained in those bondages. She raised her voices with all respect, laid her case in front of her father and decided to stand beside her husband. Though she was a woman of strength but could not escape the male dominance. Shakespeare has highlighted both the norms and expectations of the society and the behaviour and attitude of women towards these norms.

Theoretical Framework

The character of Desdemona will be analysed from the perspective of feminism. Feminism is a movement that challenges the patriarchy and stereotype attached to women gender. The basis of feminism both in literature and society, is that the western world is particularly patriarchal that is created by men, ruled by men, viewed through the eyes of men and judged by men. Feminism object to seeing woman as an “object” and insist on seeing and representing women as “subject” by accepting their active role in the society and giving them agency. Feminists’ movement began in 1960 and formed a new approach to literary criticism. The feminist approach is based on finding and exposing suggestions of misogyny (the negative attitudes towards women) in literature. They are interested in exposing the undervaluing of women in literature as the norm both by men and women. Feminists believe that literature reflects masculine bias and represents an inaccurate and potentially harmful image of women. According to a critic,

“Women are constructed as biologically weak and socially inferior. So they must depend on men and should not disobey or transgress their decisions.”

Women are not given an equal status as that of man. The denial of freedom and right to take decisions of their lives are the real causes of many tragedies in the life of woman.


In Shakespeare’s time women did not have the freedom that is taken for granted today. According to critics this shaped the characterization of his tragic heroine Desdemona. Feminist theory is usually sympathetic to women’s plight, often blaming men:

“Traditional critics would believe that the plays show life’s struggle for the individual, whereas feminist critics believe it was entirely based around female subordination” (Thacker, 2008).

The traditional feminist view of Shakespeare’s female character is that they have determined, powerful personalities that have been oppressed by culture and male dominance. Desdemona is one of those characters who is powerful, strong and whose exercise of her rights caused her doom. As Lisa Jardine says,

“Here is a woman’s defining knowledge: private, domestic and sexual, requiring to be hidden from public view in the interest of decorum and modesty.” (Jardine, 1987)

Shakespeare’s tragic heroine Desdemona was particularly vulnerable to the oppression of her society. When she tried to take action against it, it resulted in her death. Desdemona is regarded as an independent, headstrong and determined to live her life as she wanted. Shehad no qualms about going against her father to marry a Moor in a time when racial prejudice was a norm. Lisa Jardine’s “Women as Shrews” theory represents Desdemona as shrew. She describes shrew as a classical disruptive woman, an alert and emancipated woman.

Desdemona falls under this category because she stands up to her father. He is against her marrying Othello but she loves him and wishes to to war with him

So that dear lords, if i be left behind

A moth of peace, and he go to war,

The rites for which i love him are bereft me,

And i a heavy interim shall support

By is dear absence. Let me go with him.”

The use of last sentence shows her resistance and a stubborn nature. Instead of asking politely, she ordered him.she is determined to persuade anyone to get her own way.

In the Elizabethan age women were expected to run their household and so had to be competent in that regard. But openly confident women were frowned upon.. The Jardine herself says,

“In Elizabethan age the domineering wife brought shame and humiliation upon her husband” (Jardine, 1987)

The character of Desdemona being so opposite to to the norm, created much controversy. According to Neeley (1984) the focus of Othello is love, which drives Desdemona but is “tempered by her wit and realism”. This suggests that she is powerful female because of the decision she makes in the play. She eventually takes the lead in the courtship as the heroines do. She is confident and stable, agreeing with Neeley and says that love plays an important role in shaping her character,

“Desdemona‘s language is as absolute as possible: we notice ‘ever’ and ‘never’ in her declaration of love. “(Marsh, 1998)

Desdemona’s conversation with Brabantio suggests that she is a strong woman. As she is definite in her language, using short sentences at the end of her speeches and has a direct purpose in what she says.

“My noble father,

I do perceive 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 is my husband

And as much duty as my mother showed

To you, preferring you before her father

So much i challenge b that i profess

Due to the Moor my lord (Act I, Scene, 3)

This is the most important speech Desdemona makes. She informs her father that she has made the decision and is unwilling to go back. She retained her respect for her father by complementing him and his duties. She made a tactical and persuasive speech. To persuade his father and without offending anyone. This shows that she is extremely intellectual and asserts her feminine existence on the very face of oppression.

Marsh goes on to say that she does not question her feelings since she thinks they are justified and nobody should exercise check over her.

“there is not a sign, then, that Desdemona questions or feels a shock to her internal feelings and beliefs”. (Marsh, 1998)

Despite being a strong woman, Desdemona eventually had to accept her subordinate character. She is determined to “serve Othello, forsaking her father”. The word serve implies Desdemona's inferior status. She is liable to serve her husband though she was bold enough to deny her father. Her character is shaped by the society. She thinks only man has the ability to solve the crisis. She does not rely on her own wit. Her status as woman demeans her intelligence and capability to deal with the problems arising. As Marsh says,

“In the distress she feels, she turns to a man (Iago) for help and advice. This suggests that she does not expect to understand for herself, but a man will be able to explain it to her”. (Marsh, 1998)

It is also evident in the following lines

Oh good Iago,

What shall i do to win my lord again?

Good friend, go to him, for, by this light of heaven,

I know not how i lost him” (Act IV, Scene 2)

Apart from that Desdemona was frequently treated by Othello as a inferior. She was treated as a property presented through the marriage. Othello seems to possess the elements of patriarchy or male dominance. He oppresses Desdemona throughout the play. It occurs through the verbal comments. Degrading comments such as “strumpet” and “whore” are made towards her. Desdemona is a victim of sexism. She can be considered to be a victim of violence since Othello does not fulfil his duties as husband and hits her in public. His jealousy makes him mad and he kills Desdemona.


Feminist literary criticism emerged in order to highlight the stereotypical images attached to women and the way they are represented. They are represented as silly, talkative, unable to make decision for themselves and dependent. They are often portrayed as an object and a plaything. They are depicted as emotional being and cannot act wise in situations that demand urgency. Feminist critics tends to identify such issues and raise their voice against inequality. If a woman is submissive, she is acceptable and when she tries to raise her voice she is enchained. She is not allowed to raise her voices or demand her rights. She is thought of responsible for performing her duties only. Despite the fact that Desdemona was strong, independent and intellectual, her position as a woman made her position vulnerable. She defied her father and married Othello against his wish. However in the capacity of a woman, she was oppressed by Othello. Without thinking rationally, he doubted her chastity, her love and care. In his madness he even killed her. Though he felt repentant but it was of no use. Desdemona suffered a tragic end because she was a woman.


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A feminist critique of the character Desdemona in Shakespeares "Othello"
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Desdemona, Feminism, critique, "Othello", theoretical framework, Shakespeare
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Rubina Mandokhail (Author), 2015, A feminist critique of the character Desdemona in Shakespeares "Othello", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/305243


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