How are unruly women presented in William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and Othello?

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aleabalck eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In an incredibly general sense, unruly women in William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing (Beatrice and, to an extent, Hero) and Othello (Desdemona and Emilia) are presented as being strong while retaining some submissive qualities. Gender is a loaded theme in Shakespeare's plays, but while these women are complex enough to spend entire books analyzing, we may categorize their presentation as a hybrid of submission and strength.

In Much Ado About Nothing, headstrong and clever Beatrice seems to overshadow the quiet and humble Hero. Hero in some aspects becomes unruly, but Beatrice's boldness solidifies her role as strong woman. The play discusses women not in a context of the limitations of their gender, but rather highlights expectations they must overcome. In that sense, an unruly woman is presented as being capable of being submissive with dignity (emphasized by Hero) and remaining a strong individual though they are in love (emphasized by Beatrice).

In Othello, both Emilia and Desdemona have unruly characteristics, with Desdemona not aligning to society's expectation of marriage and Emilia being bold enough to turn in her husband. Though both unruly, these women are presented in different ways by Othello's end. Desdemona is bold enough to defy society's expectations and elope with Othello, yet dies with a weakness traditionally attributed to women. Emilia's unruliness, however, is subtly praised in how she quietly avenges Desdemona's death.

Though this answer just scratches the surface of how unruly women are presented in both plays, it is helpful to consider these women as balancing submissive actions with strong characteristics. Shakespeare truly was ahead of his time with his perceptions of women and their expectations, leaving readers with lasting portraits of incredible female characters. 

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Othello

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