This essay is concerned with the verbal subjugation of women in Othello and Hamlet, and seeks to justify that Desdemona and Ophelia should be given a chance to speak – hence the soliloquies that are filed under ‘fiction’. However, in keeping with their domination by men in the plays, these soliloquies have to take place in an after-life space, where they have knowledge of their own stories and are allowed to finally speak without fear of the repercussions – the worst has happened and they are dead so there is nothing more to fear. The three main areas I will address are: firstly, the fact that sound and sight are closely linked to falling in love in these two plays, but that there is sometimes a gender divide between whether sight or sound is the more attractive sense. Secondly, the fact that Desdemona and Ophelia do not know a lot of their own story during their lives in the play impacts on their speech, and this lack of knowledge often prevents them from speaking at all. In my soliloquies I have assumed that they know full possession of the facts, and so have addressed this lack of knowledge in Ophelia and Desdemona’s new speeches rather than in this essay. Thirdly, while the importance of repressive cultural and religious norms cannot – and will not! – be ignored, I will argue that the silencing of these women has a lot to with their specific physical beauty, causing them to be objectified. In the introduction to her book Daughters Wives & Widows: Writings by Men about Women and Marriage in England, 1500-1640, Joan Larsen Klein asserts that ‘woman’s voice was usually confined to home, family and neighbours’1, and it is for this reason that I felt the need to give Desdemona and Ophelia a voice outside of this domestic sphere. Desdemona does not fit neatly into these domestic ideals of ‘subjection, obedience, silence, chastity’2, because she is part of ‘a soldier’s life’3 and therefore cannot conform to normal ideals of domesticity and maternity because she is living outside of them. In contrast, Ophelia is living under the patriarchal thumb of her father and the king, and to some extent Hamlet, so she has no space to form an identity of her own and has opinions imposed upon her. She conforms totally to ‘subjection, obedience, silence, chastity’, and therefore deserves time and space to speak her own mind without fear of the consequences. Women in Shakespeare’s time could not ‘speak their mind fully and openly in ordinary conversation’4 and so need a soliloquy to be able to speak freely.
Sound and sight in Othello and Hamlet are significant because there is often a gender split in how people’s senses cause them to fall in love. Broadly speaking, Desdemona and Ophelia are wooed with ‘words of so sweet breath composed’5 – sound not sight – whereas Hamlet and Othello fall in love with ‘the power of beauty’6 the visual rather than aural beauties that the women possess. This fascinates me because the women do not get much chance to speak in the play whereas the men clearly do. Silence was directly equated with virtue and chastity in Shakespeare’s time, ‘an open mouth and immodest speech [were] tantamount to open genitals and immodest acts’7, which shows that a talkative woman was perceived to be adulterous. Furthermore, ‘disallowed speech… is a sign of sexual transgression’8 so speaking without permission or directly contravening a husband’s or father’s order to remain silent advertised a supposed sexual transgression to the wider world. It is worth noting then, that despite Ophelia being accused of ‘wantonness’9 and Desdemona being directly called a ‘whore’10, neither woman is especially talkative. Although both written and spoken words are important in both plays, the fact that women are attracted to the ‘saying deed’11, whereas men are attracted to ‘the beautified’12 highlights the different ideals that cause problems in these relationships.
Desdemona does not speak a great deal onstage and yet Othello calls her ‘free of speech’13, and Ophelia who is silent for much of the play is warned against being ‘most free and bounteous’14. This imagery of freedom as a negative thing for women is continued for much of the two plays. Polonius says he will ‘loose my daughter’15, which suggests that Ophelia is a literal prisoner of her father’s whim; not only must she obey his command and act as bait in Polonius’s investigation into Hamlet’s madness, but she physically cannot go somewhere he does not want her to. She is more like a caged pet or hunting dog pursuing prey for a master than a woman with her own mind. Desdemona however is called ‘free of speech’ in a list of her good qualities, suggesting that Othello himself does not mind her being talkative – provided it stays within the realms of courtesy. While Othello is aware that his stories won Desdemona’s love, he also asserts that ‘she had eyes and chose me’16 which illustrates the importance that men place on the visual. Desdemona herself says that she ‘saw Othello’s visage in his mind’17 and that she loved his speech not his looks.
However, there is a serious suggestion in Othello that Desdemona’s ‘nature [errs] from itself’18, because, as John Swan wrote in Speculum Mundi in 1635,‘I know not which lead more unnatural lives, obeying husbands, or commanding wives’19. Desdemona is referred to as ‘our great captain’s captain20’, suggesting that she rules Othello, but more than that, that as a soldier he obeys her (as a ‘superior office’) without question or complaint, or even much thought. This would have been viewed as dangerous because women were seen as ‘the pathetic obverse of the male‘21 and as ‘inferior or lesser or incomplete man’22 and the implication then is that women should recognise their natural subordination to men. Although Desdemona does not speak a great deal, what she does say causes trouble: by being ‘half the wooer’23 and dropping hints she gets what she wants – Othello – which leads to her own destruction. To my mind, it is doubtful wherther Othello would have dared propse to Desdemona without such keen encouragement from her, and consequently her words are vital to the play. However, it is worth pointing out that it is her father, Brabantio, who accuses her of being ‘half the wooer’ and all of her ‘hints’ are only reported to the audience, by men. Desdemona herself only speaks in her own defence at the her father’s command.
Margaret Cavendish says that ‘we oftener enslave men than men enslave us. They seem to govern the world, but we really govern the world, in that we govern men’24. Iago says that Othello’s ‘soul is so enfettered to her love that she may make, unmake, do what she list, even as her appetite shall play the god with his weak function’25 and Othello says of Desdemona that she ‘might lie by an emperor’s side and command him tasks’26, which again highlights the danger of her feminine wiles making Othello love her when she should be guided and lead by him; ‘a good wife is the crown of her husband’27. Her ‘appetite’ suggests that she is fickle and easily moved, and his ‘weak function’ is a feminine trait and makes him seem less of a man (to a Shakespearian audience) – certainly less fit to command an army, and it casts aspersions on his manhood and ability to perform sexually. However, religious teachings of the time say that ‘whatsoever they say of the imprudence of women, if men would take sometimes advice of those whom God hath given them for helps in the government of their affairs, happily it had succeeded better with them’28, which suggests that Desdemona being ‘captain’29 of Othello should not necessarily be seen as such a bad thing. Many of the books written for women around this time time offered contradictory advice, which means that women were expected to be guided by their husbands and play things by ear, as it were, not learn them by rote.
The use of mirror imagery was a common trope in Renaissance writing for women: ‘the link between women and the mirror is… ancient commonplace’30. The woman should be a mirror wherein her husband can see reflected her grace and humility – and he will consequently love her and not be physically violent. Many ‘handbooks’ on marriage and maidenly life suggest reflecting your own goodness is the best way to cause your husband/brother etc to be good. However, in Hamlet and Othello this idea gets subverted. Ophelia cannot help but mirror Hamlet and follow him into madness, because she is so suppressed by patriarchal norms. She is so used to asking men what she should think and how she should act that she copies like a child – indeed Polonius tells her at one point ‘think yourself a baby’31. While I do not think that Ophelia’s madness is a direct result of Hamlet’s madness, I strongly believe that Ophelia is impressionable and biddable, and that Hamlet’s madness opens up madness as a possible route for her to escape down, something that she would perhaps not have fallen prey to without Hamlet. She is prevented from any kind of will of her own, and so becomes a mirror to those around her: she reflects the advice and views of her father and brother in rejecting Hamlet’s letters and presence, and eventually the madness of Hamlet effects her too, rather than her good qualities reflecting onto the men. Desdemona however, perhaps feels that as Othello’s mirror she cannot simply be submissive and gentle because Othello has to command an army. Desdemona therefore has to be cunning and strong, a tactician and solider, a ‘fair warrior’32 rather than ‘gentle’ in order to best serve her husband.
Stimpson notes that ‘women [are] objects of male desire and dependent on that desire for their status, livelihood, even their lives’33 which shows that women had to pander to male desire for self-preservation. Desdemona is at first reliant on her father for her status and livelihood, when she defects to Othello she has status as the general’s wife and the livelihood that goes with that, but, ultimately, Othello can and does take her life when he believes she has transgressed. Ophelia, too, is entirely reliant on her father and brother for protection, and when she tries to move away from them and believe that Hamlet loves her she is held back by her male relatives “for her own good”, and is driven mad and to ‘wilfully seek her own salvation’34. Perhaps the problem being portrayed here is that while it is fine for men to be ruled by women in small and insignificant matters in their private lives (‘ ’tis as I entreat you to wear gloves, or feed on nourishing dishes’35), when women’s control over men moves into a public space the men feel emasculated and have to reassert their dominance in the only way left – through superior physical strength, and, ultimately, violence.
Ophelia rarely speaks onstage, and when she does it is at her father’s command or for his ends. She answers a direct address to her as it right and courteous, but does not volunteer to speak further. A lot of Ophelia’s responses to male speech are questions, she is often unsure of how to answer and tentative in replies.36 Her other lines are mostly acquiences to her father’s will: ‘I shall obey’37, or vocal contemplations of her ineptitide: ‘I do not know, my lord, what I should think’38. In her madness she could gain a freedom from convention that allows her freeer speech, but she is only given songs and verses to speak that no-one understands. Ophelia’s wild appearance in IV.v discredits what she says anyway, her appearance undermines her speech because she is visually ‘mad’. She enters ‘distracted…her hair down, singing’39, so not only does she visually represent madness but she cannot speak, only sing. In Othello the same is true but this works in a different way: Desdemona’s appearance remains chaste and pure and virtuous even when Othello believes her to be a whore, she has ‘whiter skin…thank snow, and smooth as monumental alabaster’40. It is this gap between appearance and realtiy that enrages Othello and causes him to refuse to listen to Desdemona’s defence of herself, even when she directly says ‘I never did offend you in my life, never loved Cassio41’, whereas in Hamlet is it Ophelia’s mad appearance that means that people do not listen to her and take her looks as proof that ‘she is divided from herself and her fair judgement’42.
Both women are almost always referred to with the epithet ‘fair’, constantly drawing attention to their physical attractiveness. Desdemona’s ‘fairness’ clearly takes on another layer of meaning because it is a direct contrast to Othello’s ‘blackness’, but the audience/readers are explicitly told several times both Desdemona and Ophelia are beautiful, and this is why Othello and Hamlet fall in love with them. Roderigo in Othello comments on Desdemona’s ‘beauty’43, and Othello calls her ‘fair lady’44 and explains that he loves her because she exemplified a womanly virtue – pity. Du Bosc (again, writing slightly after Shakespeare’s time) elevates pity to great heights, and implies that it is a great virtue for women to feel pity but that it is also an intrinsic part of their nature: ‘pity is so natural to them, and their inclination is so powerfully carried to mercy, that even the Furies themselves could not choose but weep and lament the disaster of Orpheus’45. Gertrude says that Ophelia’s ‘good beauties’46 are the cause of Hamlet’s madness, as with Othello, Hamlet’s obsession with what he perceives to be the gap between sight and truth sends him mad. Ophelia is beautiful and seems virtuous yet he is convinced that she is a whore.
Desdemona has a ‘greedy ear’47 according to Othello, and is over-bold and neglectful of her household duties, in order to hear all of his story. Desdemona mostly speaks when she is bidden directly by her father or the Duke apart from when she begs not to be sent to her father’s house while Othello is at war with the Turks in Cyprus. For a woman who doesn’t get much chance to speak or defend herself, it is interesting how obsessed Desdemona is with Othello’s speech and story, she is willing to ‘with haste dispatch’48 her chores and housekeeping in order to return and hear him speak further. Ophelia’s ears are also mentioned; she is warned against having ‘too credent ear’49, for fear that Hamlet’s speeches of love, which are ‘forward not permanent, sweet not lasting’50 will cause her to open her ‘chaste treasures’51. Laertes’s dire warnings about the inconstant nature of mens’ love strike rather an odd cord because although the urging to keep her virginity is commonplace and inextricably linked to family honour, there is no sign that Ophelia has any intention of transgressing, indeed she exemplifies the ‘maiden never bold’52 which Brabantio believes Desdemona to be. So submissive is Ophelia that she asks ‘what should I think?’53 of her father, rather than attempting to build an opinion for herself. The title quotation refers to Ophelia54, she is also told ‘you do not understand yourself’55 without any chance to speak in her own defence.
When Ophelia does try to defend herself, in III.i, she is reduced almost exclusively to questions and prayers. Hamlet disabuses her of the idea that he loves her ‘you should not have believed me…I loved you not’, and tries to confuse her by refusing to accept back the love-tokens he has previously given her. Ophelia tries to defend herself ‘you know right well you did’ but Hamlet verbally attacks her and is explicitly and inappropriately sexual in his language: ‘why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?…I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice…’56 which is territory Ophelia is not happy in. Hamlet then returns to his preoocupation with the visual, syaing ‘god hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another’57. He not only universalises Ophelia to represent all women but then says that their duality and wantonness ‘hath made me mad’58. Ophelia has a relatively long speech (a whole 12 lines!) where she, too, equates Hamlet’s visual madness with his mental state, ‘the glass of fashion and the mould of form…quite, quite, down!’59. However, she is also aware of what he says, even though it is like ‘sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh’60, and it is only when Hamlet is mad (as in the reported scene when he appears in her chamber ‘all unbraced’61) that physical appearance becomes important to Ophelia. Furthermore, the visual is related to herself more than to her feelings about Hamlet, she says ‘O woe is me, t’have seen what I have seen, to see what I see!’62 which demonstrates that madness can be ‘read’ on the body despite it being in the mind. Therefore, perhaps Desdemona should be able to ‘read’ in Othello’s body that he has bid ‘farewell to tranquil mind’63, but moreover, Othello should be able to read in Desdemona’s body that she is chaste.
When women do not speak, however, other problems ensue. Silence is assumed to hide what is known in the mind, and the separation between thought and speech, between speech and meaning is another factor in the destructive events of these plays. Furthermore, it means that when women do try to speak in their own defence men are not ready to listen, with deadly consequences. Emilia dies ‘speaking as I think’64 in order to exonerate Desdemona, but she does die, also killed by her husband for disobedience, after demanding that he ‘speak, for my heart is full’65. As Desdemona lies dying Emilia entreats her ‘speak again!…O sweet mistress, speak!’66 but it is too late, and Desdemona choses to acquit Othello with her last words, the ultimate submission to male authority. Emilia tries to force Iago to admit his sins, to speak himself, but when he refuses she speaks for him, and says although it is ‘proper I obey him’67 these are exceptional circumstances and she must speak to make sure Iago is punished for his crime. Iago ‘will neber more speak word’68 when an explanation is most needed, highlighting the disparity between what people choose to say and what people choose to hear.
Thomas Overbury, writing just after Shakespeare in 1614 says that ‘she [the ideal wife] leaves the neat youth telling his luscious tales…yet her kindness is free enough to be seen, for it hath no guilt about it’69. This puts Desdemona in the wrong, she does not leave the Othello telling his exciting tales, she is entranced and attracted by them. However, the point about freedom of guiltless kindness is useful to an analysis of Desdemona’s character because it puts her rather forward defence of Cassio above suspicion, suggesting that Othello’s susceptibility to Iago’s slanderous speech has more to do with himself than with any transgression on Desdemona’s part. In the same way, Hamlet’s accusation of Ophelia that her “wantonness” ‘hath made me mad’70 is a ridiculous accusation given that everything we see of sane Ophelia on stage screams chastity, obedience and submissiveness. Hamlet and Othello, who were so beguiled by beauty and virtue early in the plays, are to blame for seeing things that are not there in their virtuous women. By placing too much importance on sight and not enough on their other sense, especially sound (Ophelia and Desdemona both attempt to defend themselves through speech) Othello and Hamlet directly cause the deaths of both women.
To conclude then, Ophelia and Desdemona cannot win. If they speak they are thought unchaste. If they remain silent they are called whores. If they try to defend themselves they are ignored. Speech is not the woman’s perogative in either Hamlet or Othello, and transgressive women are punished. In short, men’s perceptions of women and of what is appropriate behaviour for women
not only stifles women and removes from them their chance to speak, but also ultimately causes themselves harm. If Othello had listened to Desdemona’s denial that she was ever adulterous with Cassio, or indeed had remained true to his original speech that he will ‘see before I doubt’71 then he would not have committed murder and Desdemona would have lived. If Hamlet had not been so wrapped up in his own problems that he was aware of the damage her was doing to Ophelia’s mental health by rejecting her then her entreaties to him to explain himself might not have been in vein, and she might not have killed herself. If men listened when women spoke and did not discourage women from speaking then these plays would a lot less exciting, but Desdemona and Ophelia would not die, and, dare I say, the world would be a better place.
Cavendish, Margaret: Essay is Called What?, quoted in The Cultural Identity
of Seventeenth Century Woman.
Du Bosc, Jacques: The Complete Woman, France, 1632, quoted in
Daughters Wives & Widows.
Greenblatt, Stephen, with Cohen, W, Howard, J and Eisaman Maus, K (eds):
The Norton Shakespeare, Norton Books, New York and London, 1997.
Keeble, N. H (ed): The Cultural Identity of Seventeenth-Century Woman: a
reader, Routledge, London, 1994.
Klein, Joan Larsen (ed): Daughters Wives & Widows: Writings by Men about Women and Marriage in England, 1500-1640, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1992.
Newman, Karen: Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama, The
University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1991.
Overbury, Sir Thomas: A Wife, published in London, 1614, quoted in
The Cultural Identity of Seventeenth Century Woman.
Stimpson, Catherine R: Introduction to Fashioning Femininity.
Walen, Denise A: Unpinning Desdemona, Shakespeare Quarterly, 58.4, 2007,
pp.487-508. Viewed online at: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/ shakespeare_quarterly/ v058/58.4walen.html