“Oh the Horror. The Horror”

September 21st, 2011

From the sharing of secrets and the repercussions that follow to the manipulation of “truths” in order to maintain or increase ones social/societal standing, Lady Windermere’s Fan has many themes and motifs that one would expect in a play about gossip and scandal. Even though Wilde inverts the final result of the characters gossip, there was not much in the play that takes one by surprise. However, the one theme that was not expected was the theme of horror. Wilde uses words like “misery”, “anxiety”, “monstrous”, “hideous”, and “horror” repeatedly throughout this very concise play. One has to stop and ask: What are the implications Wilde wishes the reader to see with his word choice? Is gossip itself “monstrous” or are those that participate in the act of gossip the “monsters”? Although it is difficult to know for certain what Wilde’s answers would be to these questions, one simply cannot help but try to decipher whatever message Wilde tries to send to the reader.

The first time the reader sees a reference to horror is when the Duchess goes to speak to Lady Windermere in Act One. While speaking about Mrs. Erlynne the Duchess says: “Oh, on account of that horrid woman. She dresses so well, too, which makes it much worse, sets such a dreadful example…It is quite scandalous, for she is absolutely inadmissible into society. Many a woman has a past, but I am told she has at least a dozen, and that they all fit” (Act 1 Lines 215-222). Wilde explicitly writes that Mrs. E’s reputation alone induces horror in the women that hear about her. The next few sentences offer the reader an explanation of as to why. Wilde suggests that her physical appearance alone is either so “off” or “improper” that that alone causes dread in those that see her. Wilde further explores the repercussions of Lady E’s actions and it seems that the most fearful characteristic is that she is “inadmissible into society.” It is the Duchess’s inability to “place” Mrs. E into a uniform category that literally horrifies her. This fear is emphasized through the lack of introduction the reader (and Lady W) are given. At this point in the play Mrs. E is like a phantom- a ghost- an unrecognizable creature that is spoken about but has yet to be seen. Wilde’s choice to introduce Mrs. E this way is almost cryptic and it also helps to build tension for the characters and the reader.

What/Who is “monstrous” fluctuates depending on which character is speaking. Later on in Act One the Duchess of Berwick, still speaking to Lady W, says: “Pretty child! I was like that once. Now I know that all men are monsters” (Act 1 Lines 314-315). By evoking images of a child and aligning that with images of monsters, one cannot help but think of “the Boogeyman” or “the monster in the closet” that children are so afraid of. So, is Wilde suggesting that for women, once they are “of age”, men become “the Boogeyman” to them? That is probably a bit of a stretch-yet there is some truth to this thought process as well. Working within the confines of this play, it seems that the only two things that can hurt a woman are men and rumors/scandal. Men can cause the rumor/scandal and (in terms of infidelity) and rumor/scandal can turn men against their wives (for lack of morality and virtue). This being the case, men become something to fear. If a man causes rumors, a woman cannot leave her husband because of their lack of property rights and financial security. If a woman stirs up her own rumors, a man can leave and turn against his wife- again leaving her with nothing.

From a man’s perspective, specifically Lord Windermere, feels as though it is merely the suggestion of infidelity that is “monstrous” (Act 1 Lines 452-454). This fact is proven when Lady W goes to Lord Darling in an effort to leave her husband. The consequences of this mere “suggestion” are “monstrous” because it has the ability to bring down a household and ruin a marriage.

It is understood that Wilde speaks in hyperbole for dramatic effect- however it is important to note the fear that gossip and scandal can produce.

It’s a Man’s World!

September 12th, 2011

In William Shakespeare’s Othello, women propel the play into motion. This may seem a bit strange considering there are only three women in the play- Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca. At one point or another, each woman becomes a source of frustration for the men they are associated with. Even though women were more like second class citizens during Shakespeare’s time, they speak and see more truth than any of the men in the play. Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca are not given any credit for this. They get treated in the exact opposite manner and are even blamed for the men’s overreaction and rash decisions.
The leading female character, Desdemona, is the faithful wife to the Moor general Othello. At first, they are completely in love and their bond seems unbreakable. They tear through Venetian society’s unspoken boundaries together. Desdemona speaks in front of the councilmen and publicly professes her love and undying faith to Othello over her father (Othello 1.3 179-187). Although Desdemona believes this act to be a sign of: loyalty, love, trust, faith, and dedication to Othello, it is also the first act that “proves” her to be capable of turning on Othello. Iago’s constant persistence in convincing Othello that she has slept with Cassio is what makes other characters perceptions of Desdemona change. Iago blatantly manipulates facts to fit his arguments against Desdemona which is why his lies become so believable to Othello.
Desdemona manages to maintain her composure and faith in Othello even though he becomes increasingly cruel to her. Desdemona’s care and devotion to him seems to increase as Othello’s cruelty increases. She never falters in the love for her husband. Instead of fighting with him or “setting him straight”, she tries to “talk through” the different accusations against her like a shining example of a Shakespearian wife. In Act 4 Scene 1 lines 230- 251, Othello hits Desdemona. Her response was to simply walk away from the situation and not push Othello into a deeper rage. It is also important to realize that it is Iago that “fuels” Othello’s resentment for his wife and her reactions to Othello’s behavior are irrelevant. His suspicions already exist but it is Desdemona’s “strange” behavior that “proves” Iago’s observations to be true.
Othello openly questions Desdemona about her unfaithfulness during Act 4 Scene 2. (He states,) “…I took you for that cunning whore of Venice…”. Throughout the entirety of the scene, Othello reveals to Desdemona that he believes she is a philanderer. Even though Othello only accuses her of extreme dishonesty and being a “strumpet”, these are not his only reasons for his turning on her. (Disobeying her father, marrying a black man, and her insistent persuasion to help Cassio, had all been turned into fatal flaws in Othello’s mind.) Again, Desdemona holds herself together, ever the dutiful wife, and remains calm throughout the flying accusations. (Othello 4.2.89).
Desdemona even takes it as far to say “Lay on my bed my wedding sheets…” to Emilia with the hope of winning her husband’s favor back. (Othello 4.2.103). It is Desdemona’s way of remembering the happier times of her short marriage. It is also a sign that she intends to hope for the best when it comes to her husband’s behavior. She intends to wait out Othello’s rage and be there for him when he returns back to his normal self. It is in this way that she plays a hopeless romantic. Even though it is Iago’s participation in gossip and scandal that cause Othello’s behavior, it is Desdemona’s actions that cause Othello to continue on with his depravity.
The second key female character in the play would be Emilia. Being the dutiful wife of Iago must not have been an easy task. She is smart enough to realize that there is a devious person looking for a promotion working behind changing Othello (Othello 4.2. 129-143). However, she does not sense that it is her own husband. It is because of her being blind to her own husband’s character traits that makes her seem quite naïve. She is yet another of Iago’s puppets. Her actions and reactions throughout the play help “prove” Iago’s accusations against Desdemona.
Emilia knew there was no need to give Desdemona’s handkerchief to her husband and questioned whether or not she should. In the end, she goes against her initial instinct and hands it over to her husband.(Othello 3.3. 293-301). In doing this, she also seals the fate of every character in the play (Othello 5.2. 223-232). She did this solely to be the dutiful wife and satisfy her husband’s wishes (Othello 3.3. 293-301). It is a bit disappointing when Emilia does this because she advises Desdemona so eloquently during Act 3 Scene 4 on how to handle Othello‘s strange behavior. She always managed to ease Desdemona’s nerves during Othello’s outbursts. It is due to the truth in Emilia’s advice that the reader would believe that Emilia was intelligent enough to avoid succumbing to her husband’s cunning.
The final female character in Othello is Bianca. She is the sometime girlfriend to Cassio. She is described by Cassio and Iago as a “loose” woman and seems to have more of a typical Venetian demeanor. This is so because her character is the lustiest of all of the women in the play. She is sultry, attractive, and brass- especially during the handkerchief confrontation scene. She is unafraid of confronting Cassio when she finds Desdemona’s handkerchief in his bedchamber (Othello 4.1. 143-153). Even after Cassio dismisses her, Bianca returns, angrier than ever and is not afraid to tell her lover off. She hopes for a marriage with Cassio even though he shows little interest in her. She is deemed a nuisance by both Iago and Cassio and is easily dismissed by both men as just a “fun and loose” woman. (Othello 4.1 116-131). She acts as a foil character to Desdemona and Emilia.
Othello does not give the greatest portrayal of women. The women are strong and smart but only to a certain extent. They are smart enough to see devious behaviors and recognize that their husband’s behavior is cruel and unnecessary, but do not do anything to stop them. Each woman is abused either mentally or physically by the men they are tied to. Desdemona (once an equal to Othello), Emilia, and Bianca were reduced to second class citizens and never fought their way out of that placement. They accept the boundaries that are placed around them, not as much from society, but from their loved ones, and are complacent in that.
Desdemona and Emilia console their husband’s and their friend’s and seem to be the only character’s really seeing through all the injustices being done throughout the course of the play. As smart as they are, they are still inactive and fated to stand by their men regardless of the accusations against them. Desdemona and Emilia sealed their own fates through their inactiveness and their willing blindness to their husband’s wrongdoings and gossip.