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During Shakespeare's time, women were expected to be obedient and subservient to men. Ironically, the monarch at that time was a female, Queen Elizabeth 1. Women who conformed to male expectations were seen as good and virtuous women while women who were feisty and independent were known as "scolds". Despite their attempt to keep females obedient and subservient, men feared that women broke free of male control, by behaving in a sexually licentious manner. For a man to be thus cuckolded by a woman, was the ultimate insult and one that made him the butt of other men's jokes. His manliness, prized highly in this macho society, became undermined by the behaviour of his wife. Thus women were stereotyped in this society as either goddesses, shrews or whores.
In 'Othello' we see that men and women are complex, interesting and whole when they do not conform to a stereotype. For instance, at the beginning of the play when Othello and Desdemona are confident of each other's love, we see strength and gentleness in both Othello and Desdemona. For instance, Othello's long narrative indicates that Desdemona took the initiative in wooing Othello and in planning the elopement. Later she defends her actions in front of the Senate with confidence and pleads with them to allow her to accompany her husband to the war zone. Othello here, allows himself to be persuaded. Thus we see that a strong Othello can also be gentle and giving; and that gentle Desdemona can be strong, when she is loved and trusted.
Later however, we see deterioration in both of them. Othello, corrupted by Iago's insinuations, begins to behave like a stereotypical macho male- using both physical and verbal violence against Desdemona. Desdemona, defeated by such unkindness, reverts to stereotype herself - meekly and obediently accepting the treatment meted out to her by Othello. In acting like the stereotypical goddess like figure of the popular imagination, she becomes a shadow of her former self and thereby less interesting.
Emilia on the other hand, seems to gain in strength, even as Desdemona falters. At the start of the play she is rather silent and obedient to the dictates of her villainous husband. At the end of the play, she regains her voice, acting perhaps like the shrew feared by Elizabethan men, but also coming through as a heroine.
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