Desdemona is, by Elizabethan standards, the perfect wife to Othello. She is often described as “obedient” and is more than willing to do anything Othello asks of her, even a request as simple as him asking her to go off to bed. In spite of all this, Othello is still made to believe the worst of her. No matter how good Desdemona is, she is still not good enough. Women were held to a high standard of beauty, were expected to be caring, loving, passive, sweet, obedient, pure and chaste yet still good lovers, and do anything their husbands asked of them. Despite Desdemona embodying all of these qualities, Othello is convinced that she is the very opposite. Women can’t win.
Poor Desdemona is a victim of her own idealization in Othello’s eyes. He held her to such a high degree that once a seed of doubt was planted by Iago, he regarded her perfection as an impossibility. Even if Desdemona did commit the acts she is being wrongly accused of, it would not be far-fetched. Adultery may be immoral, but women are just as human as men are. Emilia illustrates this point in her speech at the end of Act IV Scene III. “Why, we have galls; and though we have some grace,/Yet we have some revenge. Let husbands know,/ their wives have sense like them” (4.3.90-92). If Othello truly respected Desdemona and suspected her of adultery, he would confront her directly and try to clarify, but he doesn’t even ask her. He does not recognize her as a human being with needs and desires; though he might love her, he sees her as his property and seeks to tighten his grip on her after he is convinced of her betrayal.
The exchange between Emilia and Desdemona highlights the contrast between these two female characters. In spite of Othello’s cruelty towards her, Desdemona says that she would not abuse Othello, “for all the world,” (4.3.63) to which Emilia replies “The world’s a huge thing. It is a great price for a small vice,” (4.3.67). Emilia does not feel pressured to conform to societal expectations of women, or expectations from men to be obedient. She recognizes her freedom and ability to do as she pleases if she felt her husband was being cruel to her. In contrast, Desdemona’s naivety and eagerness to be what Othello wants her to be leaves her trapped in a marriage gone sour.
Unfortunate as it is, unrealistic expectations of women still exist today. In what way are these expectations detrimental? Emilia is a character ahead of her time. Do we agree with her point of view that adultery can be justified?