Racial and Gender Stereotypes in Shakespeare’s Othello and Barbauld’s The Mouse’s Petition

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To begin, in order to properly understand the racial and gender stereotypes of the historical moments of the two texts I have chosen to study, Shakespeare’s Othello and Barbauld’s The Mouse’s Petition, it is paramount that we know what exactly the stereotypes were.

Shakespeare’s tragic play is set in the backdrop of a highly sexist, racist and xenophobic 17th-century society. Elizabethan England, the time in which Othello was written, was highly against mixed interracial marriages and viewed the black minority with unjust suspicion. This suspicion was so incredible in fact that Queen Elizabeth I decreed that black people should be removed from England as she considered them ‘annoyances’. Much like Othello, black men, women and children were subjected to harsh segregation in Elizabethan England – and all across the globe – and were considered only fit to be slaves, to not only the white master, but society itself.

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Furthermore, gender stereotypes were obvious within the Elizabethan era. Men were to be masculine, to work and be the ‘bring bringers’ for the household, while women were to be wives, child bearers and faced massive subordination in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan society. Women were placed under heavy control and moral restriction by the patriarchy and lived with very few legal rights. For example, woman had the right to maintain land and had some social freedoms, but were always viewed as subjects of the superior male. From birth, women were property of their fathers, and then, in marriage, the women were to pass everything (including themselves) to their husbands. Alongside this, women very rarely received an education. This doctored a whole generation of women who would rather remain subservient than speak out; the punishment for speaking out and being outspoken taking the form of harsh and inhumane torture. And while some European visitors considered the women of England to be a lot freer than their European counterparts, Elizabethan England had manufactured a new kind of woman, and considerably influenced the way in which Shakespeare presents women in his tragic play, Othello.

In contrast to this, however, Barbauld’s poem, The Mouse’s Petition, takes place in a completely different backdrop. The Romantic Period, characterised by the years 1770 to 1824, was a time of large scale political change and turmoil. Revolutions and rebellions in North America, France and Ireland had led to a newfound belief of societal freedom. This, alongside war and major political repression bore the way to people beginning to question the way in which their society and their lives were governed. In the wake of this, a campaign for the abolition of the slave trade took shape – and while it may not have enjoyed total success until 1838, it influenced the way of life for decades. Moreover, Mary Wollstonecraft’s call for a ‘revolution in female manners’ majorly influenced the way in which society would function. More calls were being made in favour of black and women’s rights, and this led the way to not only mammoth societal change, but also a literary change – and it was this change that influenced Barbauld’s writings in the Romantic Period.

With all of this in mind, we turn to look at Othello and firstly notice very clearly that considerations of gender stereotypes are prevalent within the play – for both men and women. While a feminist reading would dictate that the woman sex are trapped by the oppressing labels regarding the female sex, one cannot, when analysing whether or not a text reflects or resists gender stereotypes, ignore how the men within the text are also trapped by the societal view of what a man should and should not be.

To start, we recognise very instantly that gender relations within the text are usually negative, which is evidently seen through Brabantio’s phrase ‘She has deceived her father, and may thee’ (1.3.333-334) implying that because a woman has decided to do something of her own free will, she cannot be trusted. This negative relationship between men and women is something that is foregrounded very strongly throughout the whole text, especially through the character of Emilia, the wife of Iago. She states, later in the play, that ‘I do think it is their husbands’ faults if wives do fall’ (4.3.84-85) and this is paramount in the relationship between men and women in the play. The ‘I do think’ is indicative of Emilia’s first time ever being given an opportunity to speak her mind, and the fact that she has to be surrounded by just women to do so and that fact that it comes so late in the narrative shows how, in a male dominated society, she, Emilia (or any other woman for that matter) were not welcome to be heard. This is very clear evidence of how Shakespeare conforms to the historical ideas surrounding gender.

The idea that woman are usually positioned as inferior on the socio-political scale is something that Shakespeare foregrounds not only through his language regarding women, but the women characters themselves. Desdemona and Emilia, two wives sworn to their husbands Othello and Iago (but individuals all the same) are oppressed by the societal view that they are subjects of men. Desdemona when unmarried is considered to be property of her father as seen through the phrase ‘O thou foul thief! Where hast thou stow’d my daughter?’ (1.2.62-63). Then, when finally married, she is then seen as property of her husband, even though she willfully submits to Othello as evident through her speech ‘I may profess/Due to the Moor my lord’ (1.3.186-187). So, from this, it is clear to see that in Shakespeare’s 17th century Venetian society, women never truly escape the control exerted over them by the male sex, and never truly practice freedom – and this is where we see, again, the play conform to the gender stereotypes of its historical moment. Set in context, Othello is a pivotal representation of the world of the 17th century in which the white man was superior to everyone else; whether it be the woman, or the black counterpart; the man always held the balance of power, and this is presented very intelligently in Shakespeare’s play.

However, that being said, while Shakespeare’s play does conform to most of the gender stereotypes of its historical moment, it also works to resist the gender norms of the 17th century. Desdemona proves her own individuality despite being suppressed by a male centric society, which is something women of the time would have categorically avoided doing for fear of state punishment. She goes against her father and marries what Brabantio explicitly instructs against, ‘she, in spite of nature,/Of years, of country, credit, everything,/To fall in love with what she fear’d to look on?’ (1.3.96-98) and even while married, Desdemona is still very vocal in her marriage, which is something society would frown very strongly on. This kind of outspokenness and defiance in her marriage is seen primarily through Desdemona’s reprimanding of Othello after he hits her; ‘I have not deserv’d this’ (4.1.238). However, compatible with the genre in which the play is set, Desdemona’s love for Othello proves to be her hamartia and she loses her individuality and becomes the object of the male sex that society was pressuring her to be since even before the beginning events of the play. So, while Desdemona’s character may be the representation of defying the societal rules of the Elizabethan English society, the fact that she reverts back to subservience and, when asked who has tried to kill her she utters ‘Nobody; I myself. Farewell.’ (5.2.125), shows how she once again a subject to the male dominated patriarchy. Desdemona clearly reflects the resistance of gender stereotypes, but the fact that she dies having given up her freedom shows how the play is a testament to the fact that considerations of gender typecasts are inescapable not only in Othello, but in Elizabethan England in the 17th Century.

When discussing the gender stereotypes associated with Othello, one cannot fail to draw some importance also to the racial stereotypes as the two are synonymous. In most traditional Shakespearean plays, the black character is presented as one of villainy and antagonism. However, in Othello, the protagonist and hero of the narrative is a black man – one of the first black heroes in literary history in fact. He is a widely respected general, known for his skills in battle, placing him as a pillar in Venetian society. However, this being said, he is, all the same, an outsider. And this is a major theme by which Othello is written, and by which most of the play centers; the idea that Othello does not belong in the contemporary 17th century Venetian because of his race. This theme of otherness and racial segregation is highly reflective of how not only the Elizabethan, but also the contemporary Venetian society viewed racial stereotypes.

Othello is the main character of the play, but comes under harsh and unjust racist attacks from other characters around him. Even from the very inception of the tragedy, Iago can be seen to be commenting on Othello’s race to Brabantio; ‘an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe.’ (1.1.89-90). To further this, Shakespeare employs the use of animal imagery through Iago’s speech when describing the union, and the sexual relationship, between Othello and Desdemona through the phrase ‘your daughter/and the Moor are now making the beat with/two backs’ (1.1.116-117). From this, it is clear to see that the characters within Othello, Iago in particular, are literary representations of the societal stereotypes surrounding race – marking Othello as a clear reflection of its historical moment.

However, not everyone shares the same racist views as Iago and the rest of the chorus of racist characters in the play. The Duke of Venice, when receiving Othello and Brabantio in court, states that Othello is ‘far more fair than black’ (1.3.288), showing how the Duke can recognise Othello for his achievements and his virtue, rather than his skin colour and his heritage. Alongside this, the main relationship within the text seems to transcend every existing racial stereotype – Othello and Desdemona. While the marriage may end in tragedy, and said tragedy may come as a result of Iago’s incessant hatred and racism in scheming to divide the two lovers, the love between the two characters exists free from constraints of racial considerations. Othello states in defence of his marriage to Iago that Desdemona ‘had eyes and chose me’ (3.3.191), showing how Desdemona loved Othello for the person he was below his dark complexion. So, while Shakespeare’s play may be an almost meta-physical representation of the racist and xenophobic attitudes of its contextual historical time, it also works as a political statement to say that race does not make you any more or any less of a human being.

Moving on, on the topic of gender and race, it’s imperative to discuss Barbauld’s poem ‘The Mouse’s Petition’. Barbauld’s poem was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, and during this time many feats were achieved in science, art and philosophy, and it was this movement by which Barbauld formed most of her writing. Barbauld wrote this poem wrote this poem in response to her friend, Dr. Priestley’s experimentation on animal subjects – and while one might see the poem as a basic condemnation of unjust animal cruelty; one can also see that the poem carries a rather political message.

Barbauld, while not specifically discussing women’s subordination or racial segregation, alludes to the idea of being a slave to a superior power. The main protagonist of the poem takes the shape of a mouse, and already the connotations that come with this reflect the stereotypes of its history. Mice are often seen a lowly creatures, insignificant vermin who add little to the way of life – and this was the preoccupation of the black minority and women during this time. They were viewed as insignificant and immaterial, adding little to society but being child bearers and slaves for the white man. Through the animal imagery of the mouse, Barbauld, instead of just speaking out against animal cruelty, makes a profound statement about those in society who are trapped by normative stereotypes.

The language and imagery of the poem also reflects this idea of entrapment. The very fact that the poem takes the form of dramatic monologue reflects how the protagonist is trapped, with the only outlet and the only opportunity to speak being internal discourse – and this conforms to not only racial, but also gender stereotypes. Women and black people were not permitted to be outspoken in Barbauld’s contemporary society, despite the calls for greater freedoms for both groups, so the only way they really go to have meaningful communications were with each other, their own kind, or simply by internal thought and speech.

Furthermore, the structure of the poem also represents the feeling of being trapped. The regular quatrains reflect the idea of a jail cell and present the life of the mouse, and the lives of women and the black minority by extension, as something ruled by smothering claustrophobia and loneliness. However, this idea of a prison cell also presents the idea that those trapped within the cell are policed and governed by some higher power – and this is where Barbauld shows that the actions of our society, in prescribing and prosecuting because of gender and racial stereotypes, has led to many in our society becoming trapped and dehumanised. This idea of a prison is also seen through Barbauld’s opening use of alliteration (‘pensive prisoner’s prayer’), and this, juxtaposed with the use of the word ‘liberty’ in the following line shows how those trapped long for liberty and freedom, which is a very pivotal theme of the Romantic Period.

Moreover, while Barbauld in her poem may conform to most of the gender and racial stereotypes of her historical moment, she also presents a narrative in which speaks out against said typecasts. In the concluding stanza of the ballad poem, Barbauld employs the use of the following simile, ‘men, like mice, may share’. This simile reflects very strongly the abolitionist movement in which Barbauld identified and wrote very strongly about. She states that men, like mice (or like women, or black people, if one was to follow that metaphor) are equal in social belonging. Everyone is human, and we all came from a common source – and while Barbauld does align the poem with most of the contemporary stereotypes of her time – the poem is used to defy the very idea by which most societies of the 1700s built their foundations upon.

In conclusion, while both texts do reflect the gender and racial stereotypes of the time in which they were written and produced, both Barbauld and Shakespeare, however subtly, use their art in order to lobby their own political, social and domestic views of freedom. Freedom not only from the stereotypes in which their characters had found themselves trapped and subjugated, but freedom from society itself; the society in which had bred so much insolence and negativity in the first place.


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