An exploration of Desdemonas transgression of social norms within Shakespeares Othello.

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Celeste Ngooi


An exploration of Desdemona’s transgression of social norms within Shakespeare’s Othello.

        In Othello, according to the expectations of the Elizabethan patriarchal society, women were expected to be obedient to the men in their lives, be it their fathers or husbands, in other words to be subservient. However, Shakespeare allows for some deviation from this social matrix through the female character of Desdemona. This essay will explore the extent of Desdemona’s successful transgression of social norms within Othello through the ways in which Desdemona disrupts social conventions.

        Desdemona is first objectified and possessed by her father within the play. After Desdemona decides to elope with Othello, Iago cries, "Thieves! Thieves! Thieves! / Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags," clearly equating Desdemona to Brabantio's property (Oth. I.iii.76-9). Furthermore, Brabantio’s strict control of Desdemona is apparent, he refuses to accept that she decided to carry out her elopement, attributing her actions to "spells and medicines bought of mountebanks" that Othello must have used (I. iii. 61), ignoring her role in the romance and courtship. Indicating that if Desdemona were to carry out actions he disapproved, she was not in the right frame of mind, believing his daughter to be completely obedient and subservient to his whims, refusing to comprehend her own choices. Thus, we can see how the character of Desdemona is supposed to fit within the social matrix of the play by adhering to such patriarchal notions.

        Desdemona first disrupts the social matrix through her disobedience to her father by eloping with Othello. This act of eloping is socially transgressive through Desdemona’s refusal to perform her role as an obedient daughter to Barbantio. Furthermore, by choosing to elope, Desdemona has refused to succumb to the societal norms set by the Venetian society within the play. Her dialogue to her father accords added insight to her ability to transcend patriarchal conventions.

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My noble father,

I do perceive here a divided duty.

To you I am bound for life and education;

My life and education both do learn me

How to respect you. You are the lord of duty;

I am hitherto your daughter. But, here’s my husband;

And so much duty as my mother showed

To you, preferring you before her father,

So much I challenge that I may profess

Due to the Moor my lord.

While seemingly expressed in language that indicates dutiful submissiveness appropriate to her role as a daughter, there is the presence of conviction. Desdemona is unapologetic ...

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