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There can be no question that violence visited against women in Shakespeare's time was a common occurrence. Today, women are still brutalized in societies all over the world. The biggest difference lies in the fact that in Shakespeare's time, a man had the right to treat his wife as he saw fit. A woman was something that belonged to her father and then her husband.
In Othello, our tragic hero is goaded by Iago into believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful. He takes Desdemona's handkerchief and leaves it in Cassio's house and then tell Othello that his wife and Cassio have committed adultery many times. Othello believes every lie Iago has told him.
In Act Five, scene two, he tells his wife to make sure she has repented her sins, for she is going to die. She swears she has been faithful.
And have you mercy too! I never did
Offend you in my life; never loved Cassio
But with such general warranty of heaven
As I might love. I never gave him token. (V.ii.68-71)
Desdemona pleads for her life, but Othello does not believe her. Rather than believe in his wife's devotion and love to her husband, he believes the ugliness that Iago has passed on which is completely false.
By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in ‘s hand.
O perjured woman! Thou dost stone my heart,
And makest me call what I intend to do
A murder, which I thought a sacrifice:
I saw the handkerchief. (72-76)
Desdemona cannot make him believe her and he kills her. When Emilia discovers this, she ferrets out the truth: that her husband lied and led Othello to believe his wife unfaithful.
Villainy, villainy, villainy!
I think upon't, I think, I smell't, O villainy!
I thought so then. I'll kill myself for grief:(225)
O villainy, villainy!
Othello bemoans what he has done when he learns the truth. He realizes that he was tricked. With an allusion, Othello compares himself to Judas ("the base Indian") who killed Christ (the "pearl"): he destroyed the worthiest of all men—and Othello has killed his worthy wife.
...When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am...
...Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe...(390-397)
We also find Iago brutalizes his wife, killing her when she exposes his murderous plot.
Today, violence against women is still practice in some countries. As recently as August, 2010, it was reported that an Afghan widow was beaten and shot to death—while pregnant—for committing adultery. One difference in this case is that her lover escaped, indicating that he, too, would have been punished, though it is impossible to know if he would have been killed.
Another (unmarried) Afghan couple was stoned to death around the same time. In addition, a 13-year old girl was stoned to death because she was gang-raped, and a 20-year old woman was killed because she gave birth to a still-born baby. (The father, unhappy over the dead child, turned her in. She was punished, he was not.)
In the US, there is also violence against women, though there is greater awareness today, and it is illegal. A survey published in 2011 reported that more than half of women surveyed (ages 18-35) have "experienced" abuse.
While we would expect the treatment of women to be more positive in a more modern word, it still takes place.
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