Use specific examples/quotations to describe the representation of women in Othello and The Duchess of Malfi.

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mstultz72 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In the 16th century treatise on women, The good and the badde, or Descriptions of the vvorthies, and vnworthies of this age, Nicholas Breton classifies five types of women:

  1. The Unquiet Woman
  2. The Quiet Woman
  3. The Wanton Woman
  4. The Good Wife 
  5. The Virgin

He says, "A Virgin is a beauty of nature" and an "Unquiet Woman is the misery of man."  In the unabashed sexism of the day, Breton further aligns women into two groups:

  1. The Virgin, The Quiet Woman, and The Good Wife 
  2. The Wanton Woman and The Unquiet Woman.  

In other words, to be quiet is to be a good wife and, if unmarried, a virgin.  To be unquiet is to be wanton.  To Breton, a woman's stinger was in her head, not her tail.

In Othello and My Last Duchess, we have women who fit into each of Breton's groups.  In their husband's eyes, Desdemona, Emilia, and the Last Duchess all become Unquiet Women and, therefore, Wanton Women.  They are each killed by their husbands for speaking to, and even blushing at, other men.  Ironically, Bianca, a notably Unquiet and Wanton Woman in Othello, is spared from male retribution entirely.  

Desdemona, though already secretly to Othello, knows that her freedom comes though her tongue, not in defeat of her virginity.  Desdemona therefore knowingly becomes unquiet in Act I in order to cast herself out of Brabantio's house.  She would rather go to war in Cyprus than to stay quiet in her father's house in Venice.  She says in Act I.iii:

That I did love the Moor to live with him, / My downright violence and storm of fortunes / May trumpet to the world

Desdemona goes from being unquiet in public to unquiet in private once on Cyprus.  Iago dupes her into conversing with Cassio and to Othello on Cassio's behalf.  Though she won her freedom with her words in Act I, Desdemona is doomed by them in Acts II - V.  Othello becomes jealous of Desdemona's tongue more than her sexuality.  He uses the handkerchief as a proxy for Desdemona's voice ("there's magic in the web of it"). 

After Othello becomes enraged that Desdemona has lost the handkerchief, Emila says:

'Tis not a year or two shows us a man: / They are all but stomachs, and we all but food; / To eat us hungerly, and when they are full, / They belch us.    

Emilia is doomed by her public words against Iago.  When she reveals that Iago made her steal the handkerchief, Iago calls her a "whore" (Wanton Woman) and a liar (Unquiet Woman).  Then, he stabs her.    

The great author Salman Rushdie says in The New Yorker, July 2001:

Othello doesn't love Desdemona. . . He says he does, but it can't be true. Because if he loves her, the murder makes no sense. For me, Desdemona is Othello's trophy wife, his most valuable and status-giving possession, the physical proof of his risen standing in a white man's world. You see? He loves that about her, but not her. . . Desdemona's death is an "honor killing." She didn't have to be guilty; the accusation was enough. The attack on her virtue was incompatible with Othello's honor. She's not even a person to him. He has reified her. She's his Oscar-Barbie statuette. His doll.

In Othello's eyes, the white handkerchief spotted with strawberries has become a substitute for Desdemona's tongue.  When Iago tells Othello that Cassio has used it to wipe his beard, Othello turns into the "green-eyed monster."  As proof, Othello seeks only for Iago to show his Desdemona speaking with Cassio.  In other words, for a woman to speak to a man is the same as woman sleeping with a man.  It's all the proof Othello needs.    

The Duke, the speaker in "My Last Duchess," also has also reified his late wife.  His trophy is not an "Oscar-Barbie" statuette, but a painting.  Don't be fooled by his status, his rhymed iambic pentameter, and his highbrow art-collector taste, the Duke is a victim of jealousy, that "green-eyed monster" that plagued Breton, Othello, Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio.  The Duke has killed the Duchess because she ruined his male reputation:

She rode with round the terrace--all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,                30
Or blush, at least. She thanked men--good! but thanked
Somehow--I know not how--as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody's gift.

The Duke silences his wife because of the way she glanced, blushed, and spoke to other men.  Like the status-obsessed men of his day, the Duke is uber-defensive about his wife's "unquiet woman" status.  So, the Duke reifies his unquiet wife, replacing her with a quiet painting in the the same way Iago and Othello kill Emilia and Desdemona to obtain the handkerchief, or the white veil, the symbol of the virginity and silence.  These unquiet women are not simply victims of jealousy; rather, they are objectified victims of "honor killings" by status-obsessed husbands.  

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