Shakespeare's Darker Side Of Women's Love
The plot has a way of thickening when beautiful women enter the scene. Lady Bertilak from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Desdemona of Shakespeare’s Othello find themselves at the center of their respective stories. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells the tale of a chivalrous Knight on his search to uphold a promise in seeking out the Green Knight. Despite being written in the late 14th century, Gawain’s story has a similar representation of women to Shakespeare’s 15th-century play. Lady Bertilak and Desdemona manage to contest traditional expectations of women during their respective periods, highlighting the possibility of what female empowerment could and ought to mean moving forward.
English Literature in the 14th century criticized the ideals of the high middle ages regarding the church and chivalry, claiming they were unattainable for humans. These works commonly employed irony and humor to present the gap between reality and the ideal. As a little background, Sir Gawain, though written in the 14th century, remained lost until rediscovered in the 1830s. The manuscript itself contained three religious poems by the same anonymous poet. It contains the traditional romance plot of the time, featuring an exchange of blows and an exchange of winning. During this period, women assumed a more active role in literature. Lady Bertilak helps drive the plot and adopts the significant position of assisting in testing Gawain’s Knighthood. On his trip to find the Green Knight, Lord Bertilak invites Gawain to shelter in his castle before continuing on his journey. He cleverly hatches a plan where the two gentlemen agree to bestow upon each other any gift they receive that day. For his part, Bertilak journeys into the woods, bringing back animals won during his hunt. As the reader comes to find out, Lord Bertilak is also the Green Knight. He, therefore, incites Lady Bertilak to aid in the test by tempting Gawain with her beauty and sexual prowess. Lady Bertilak’s position as a woman has multiple functions in the text; her gender creates an unassuming expectation in Gawain’s mind that she merely acts from a sexually devious mind. Traditionally, women in this time were considered pretty objects, submissive to men. Men were expected to treat them with courtesy and respect, though they were generally thought of as lacking intellect. Lady Bertilak uses the common perception of women to disrupt convention and confuse Gawain. Subtly using sexual advances, she attempts to force him into breaking his promise.
On the first day of the test, Gawain awakens to the Lord’s scantily clad wife who states, “My body is here at hand, Your each wish to fulfill; Your Servant to command, I am, and shall be still” (1237). Gawain musters up all his willpower to politely reject the Lady and admirably denies her advances. The next day, Lady Bertilak strengthens her attempt, asking him to lay with her, though again Gawain stays strong. As much as she pushed him, “He was careful to be courteous and avoid uncouthness” (1773). On the third day, however, Lady Bertilak succeeds in forcing Gawain to break his promise with the Lord, yet not through succumbing to her seduction. She reveals a green girdle, her lover’s token, which contains the power to protect “anyone who seeks to strike him” (1883). The high stakes in his fight against the Green Knight, paired with his desire for self-preservation, gradually persuade Gawain to secretly accept the gift. This exchange highlights the discreet yet powerful influence of Lady Bertilak, challenging the period’s societal gender norms. Men, the brave superior beings, were supposed to be quicker-minded than women, never falling victim to their deceit. In a similar way to Lady Bertilak, Desdemona too defies the societal standards laid out for women during her time.
Shakespeare’s play features critiques of Elizabethan conventions occurring during the 15th century. Notably, he tackles the subject of racial tension through his portrayal of Othello, the Moor, and the reactions of other characters to him. He also emphasizes the degradation of women and societal misogyny against them. As in the 14th century, women were viewed as weak creatures, defenseless to superior men. Women also suffer a fair amount of abuse throughout this text. Desdemona serves as a female character who rebels against the standard perception of women, though she suffers immensely for it. Her experience may be Shakespeare’s way of warning Britain about the mistreatment of women. One societal norm Desdemona conquers occurs early in the play, when her father Brabantio learns of her marriage to Othello. Women in this culture were passed from father to husband, as Brabantio treats Desdemona as a possession. Iago convinces Brabantio the evil Moor has stolen his property, attempting to enact drama within the family. The scene highlights the objectification of Desdemona as well as how little control women had over whom they were to marry. Desdemona confronts these standards, standing up to her father and choosing her destiny, remarking “And much duty as my mother showed To you, preferring you before my father, So much I challenge that I may profess Due to the Moor my lord,” (Act 1.3,184-187). She resists authority, demonstrating strength and determination uncharacteristic for women of this time. Her father cannot accept this fact at first, but as he eventually comes to terms with his daughter’s defiance, he faces Othello proclaiming, “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has deceived her father, and may thee” (Act 1.3,291-292). Brabantio’s assertion implies that if a woman goes against the status quo and makes a decision differing from tradition, she is dangerous. Beware, he warns Othello: she turned on me, just wait until she turns on you.
Unfortunately, Othello gradually absorbs this message into his mind, with help from Iago’s schemes. While Iago does trick Othello into believing that Michael Cassio and Desdemona engage in a treacherous affair, there are several other issues stemming from societal norms that shift the blame back onto Othello. Not once in the play does Othello witness any inappropriate interactions between the two parties under suspicion. Instead, he merely takes Iago’s word as gold; not the word of his loyal wife. Based on the strong foundation and the public displays of affection within their marriage, a responsible person would suggest believing their significant other over a secretary. Othello also fails to directly question his wife and simply deduces that since she is a beautiful woman, she, therefore, must have committed adultery. Shakespeare alludes to the current prejudices in society during the period to indicate Othello’s flawed thinking and the problems that arise from this debasing view of women. Even on her death bed, as Othello suffocates Desdemona to death, she remains loyal to her husband. In the seconds before her ultimate demise when Emilia questions who killed her, she responds, “Nobody. I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell! (Act 5.2, 127-128) Desdemona’s fierce loyalty and unwavering love for her husband portray her in a kind, humane light. Her moral superiority shines through, especially as Othello comes to realize Iago’s manipulation. It should also be noted that Desdemona contradicts racial standards at the time, choosing to fall in love with someone of a different race. This untraditional step features racial inequality but also demonstrates Shakespeare’s progressive thinking, highlighting the possibility of an interracial relationships. In many aspects of her life, Desdemona overcomes traditional standards but ultimately receives incomprehensible punishment. Again, Shakespeare uses her death to showcase the biased treatment of women and how they oppose society’s demeaning preconceived notions of how they ought to be.
Lady Bertilak and Desdemona behave in different manners throughout their respective texts, yet both manage to challenge the prejudiced views of women during their times.
Both instances demonstrate how men underestimated not only their intellect but also the women’s capacity for emotion and their great strength. Lady Bertilak takes advantage of Gawain’s ideas on women to trick him into accepting the girdle. Desdemona defiantly rejects her father’s wishes delving head-first into an interracial relationship in which she remains loyal until her dying breath. These strong female characters challenge what it means to be a woman during 14th and 15th century England and the potential women have to play major roles in society. They offer a glimpse into a bright future of female empowerment and how a male-dominated society can change with the influence of a fiercer? woman