Sexuality and aggressiveness

Discuss the representation of such figures in plays you have studied in this paper.

Both Arden of Faversham and Othello are plays about domestic, unfaithful women; whether real or perceived. Their defiance of social order; Alice through her affair with Mosby and Desdemona through her courageous resistance against her father by marrying Othello, label them as rebellious. Their value as women in the plays is rated in their ability to aid a man's status and reputation, and as a result they are ultimately considered as objects, as a means to an end.

Described by Bradley "Desdemona is helplessly passive...her suffering is like that of the most loving of dumb creatures tortured without cause by the being [she] adores" (Neill, 2006, p.104). Evidentially, Desdemona proves contrary to this notion. Her speech in front of her father and the Venetian Senate declared her love for an apparent outsider. It showed her willingness to fight against societies perception that a marriage between "Moorship's ancient", a "black ram" and Brabantio's "fair daughter" is "against all rules of nature", as was a mere consequence of witchcraft and "drugs or minerals that weakens motions" (1.1.34-1.3.101). This monstrous imagery coupling Desdemona and Othello is what the audience is first met with. It is not until Desdemona qualifies their relationship that these negative associations are questioned.

So much I challenge that I profess

Due to the Moor my lord...

I saw Othello's visage in his mind

And to his honours and his valiant parts

Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate..." (1.3.186-251)

Though, it must be acknowledged that the Senate's blessing of the union could only be due to vested military interests.

Where Desdemona appears courageous and admirable, Alice's actions look like that of pure selfishness. Arguing from a feminist position, Belsey suggests that Alice's actions were seen as a challenge to the institution of marriage and are therefore an act of heroism, but her argument seems unfounded (1985, p.130). Alice merely privately states "Love is a god, and marriage is but words' to Mosby (1.101). Though rebellious, Alice should hardly be considered heroic. She spends so much energy plotting Arden's death, with a total of eight attempts, and then she falls apart immediately once it is successful. Alice strives to "rule herself" by telling countless lies and manipulating the active social system. She redirects voyeurism toward her husband by professing fictional abuse to Green as well as emphasising Arden's greed through obtaining all the land (1.492-525). At one point Mosby highlights her plain stupidity "To make recount of it to every groom" (1. 577)

She fails to possess what Niell describes as the "self-sacrificial saintliness" attributed to a heroine (2006, p102). She doesn't care for her fellow women; alongside Mosby she trades Susan between Michael and Clarke as if she were some sort of prize. She is an individualist and only concerned with the outcome of free sexuality with Mosby. She goes to death saying; "Let my death make amends for all my sins" (18.33) yet she is too lazy to save the innocent Bradshaw, which she could have done.

Identity is a social construct. In both Arden, and Othello the identity and reputation of the men depends significantly on the women they possess. Othello's identity is linked to the play's emphasis on reputation. Othello's speech includes the words; "Report", "opinion", "estimation.

'She loved me for the dangers I had passed,

And I loved her that she did pity them...' (1. 3.166-167)

Othello didn't love Desdemona for her true self; he loved the image that Desdemona had of him. He loved that she shielded his distinction as an outsider, and made him appear, as the Duke said to Brabantio; "more fair than black". (1.3. 187)

Alice is clearly depicted as a fool for believing that Mosby loved her. His aim was clearly to distinguish himself as a gentleman through her affluence. In his arguments with Alice, he blames her for his loss of "credit", the "Forslowed advantages", for the" fortune's right hand Mosby has forsook/ To take a wanton giglot by the left" that "weighed down all my wealth" (8.80-105). His reasoning for killing Arden being in retaliation for not acknowledging his rise in status; "There's for the pressing iron you told me of" (14.235).

Arden's distress of Alice's actions seems more to do with the fact that she had an affair with a "botcher", than her immoral infidelity. Though, this is a hypocritical view since he too was of lower status than Alice when they got married. Arden described how "her flaws...are painted in my face" (4.14), in that her actions have affected his public image to see him degraded to a cuckold husband. Alice's actions were not only conceived as a defiance of her husband but seen as an act of petty treason, a fundamental assault on society. If women were adulterous it would throw the world into chaos.

The women appear free of the arrogance, vanity and the competitiveness associated with social positions that plague the men in plays. They are most of all concerned with love. Though it is questionable whether their relationship is consummated, Desdemona's insistence that the rites of love (1.3.254) mean that she should go with Othello to Cyrus, present her as the driver of their sexual relationship.

Othello clearly appears threatened by Desdemona's sexuality;

"that we can call these delicate creatures ours,

And not their appetites!" (3.3.271)

This is because sexuality is the one thing he cannot "own" and has no control over. The men describe the women in terms of possessions. Firstly Brabantio claims that Desdemona has been "stol'n" from him alongside bags, then once Desdemona is murdered Othello describes her in terms of a pearl, something he owned. Iago's treats both Emilia and Desdemona as tools in his devious plan. Emilia specifically plays a significant role through the stealing of the handkerchief.

Unlike Alice, Desdemona didn't commit adultery but, the views of her, specifically those of Othello's, indicate that he indeed must have had doubts about her at some point to be swayed so easily. Brabantio's prediction has therefore plagued Othello;

Look at her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:

She has deceiv'd her father and may thee". (1.3.290)

Ultimately, the lovers of both women perceive their rebellious actions and their overt sexual nature to mean that they are tainted. The theory if she was able to defy another man, she will defy me is imposed.

Mosby states "tis fearful sleeping in a serpent's bed" (8.42). Mosby imagines the others plotting against him and contemplates murdering Alice once their plan has been executed. While, Othello publicly humiliates Desdemona; he strikes her and calls her a " Impudent strumpet" (4.2.80). Though she defends herself boldly "No, as I am a Christian.... to preserve the vessel for my lord" (4.2.83-84)."Her fate is to fall in her husband's imagination from the divine; "most blessed condition", to the status not even of marital property but of the common whoreish goods" (Calderwood, 1989, p.12). All Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca are degraded to the status of whores.

Desdemona's final speech declares "A guiltless death I die....Nobody; I myself...Commend me to my kind lord" (5.2.124-126) sees her reject the murder, putting its occurrence onto her own shoulders. As Desdemona accepts her fate she succumbs to being under man's control. Although Emilia is the unintentional creator of conflict she also provides the conclusion. She appears the most realistic of all the women, a voice of reason. She moves from accommodating men's behaviour to daringly condemning their views. She is the only woman in both Arden and Othello who publicly questions the social order. She states;

'Tis proper I obey him, but not now.

Perchance, Iago, I will ne'er go home' (5.2.194-196)

Emilia's role is to stress the state of marriage and to oppose Desdemona's willing conformity. She contrasts Desdemona's views on adultery. Desdemona asks "Would tho do such a deed for the world". Emilia replies she would and then change the rules on adultery (4.3.62-75).

Both plays present a vision of the future where the passive role of women will continue to be expected. Desdemona, Emilia, Alice and Susan are all punished by death for defying their role as women in society. What is morally acceptable is determined by the men, and male property owners. What Neeley suggests about Othello can also be said too about Arden, they end as they begin; "in a world dominated by men - political, loveless, undomesticated (Barthelemy, 1994, p.71).


  • A.G. Barthelemy, Critical essays on Shakespeare's Othello . New York: G.K. Hall, 1994.
  • Catherine Belsey, 'Alice Arden's Crime,' in The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama . London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1985.
  • J.A. Calderwood, The Properties of 'Othello' . Amherst: Mass, 1985.
  • Martin White ed. Arden of Faversham. London: A & C Black (Publishers) Ltimited, 2007.
  • Michael Neill ed. Othello : the moor of Venice. London: Clarendon Press, 2006.
  • Roma Gill ed. Othello. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

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