The characterizations of women in literature have remained largely unchanged since the time of William Shakespeare. It could be argued that Shakespeare was trying to say that women could be classified as either ninnies or shrews, and that both types of women were troublesome. Prime examples of these characterizations are seen in Shakespeare’s own characters Emilia and Desdemona from Othello. These characterizations are also seen in the characters Mrs. Danvers and the second Mrs. de Winter from the Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a novel written more than three hundred years after Shakespeare wrote Othello. Though they are separated by time and author, the similarities between both pairs of women is uncanny.
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Emilia and Desdemona are both wives of men in the military who die by their respective husbands’ hands, but their similarities end there. Emilia is an older woman who is worldly, self confident, and a little bitter. She displays her worldliness and self confidence during her last conversation with Desdemona about cuckolding a man when she says “In troth I think I should, and undo’t when I had done. Marry, I would not do such a thing for a joint ring, nor for measures of lawn, nor for gowns, petticoats, nor caps, nor any petty exhibition. But for all the whole world- why, who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch? I should venture purgatory for’t.” (Shakespeare, pages 172-173, lines 74-79) She displays her bitterness when she justifies her position on cuckolding by saying “And have not we affections, desires for sport, and frailty, as men have? Then let them use us well. Else let them know the ills we do their ills instruct us so.” (Shakespeare, page 174, lines 102-104) The same cannot be said for Desdemona, who is young, naÃ¯ve and sweet, but she lacks confidence. She displays her sweetness and naÃ¯veté during her final conversation with Emilia when she responds “Beshrew me, if I would do such a wrong for the whole world.” (Shakespeare, page 173, lines 80-81), and when she says “I do not think there is any such woman.” (Shakespeare, page 173, line 85). The lack of self confidence is displayed in the moments leading up to her death, where instead of fighting for her life, she is obedient to her husband and essentially permits him to kill her.
The relationship between Emilia and Desdemona is that of servant and mistress, and there is a bond of friendship between them as well. Friends though they are, Emilia’s loyalty to Desdemona is incomplete in the sense that she is also loyal to her husband Iago. She demonstrates that loyalty when she steals Desdemona’s handkerchief and inadvertently aids her husband in his scheme to destroy Othello. By the end of the play, Emilia’s loyalty has transferred completely to Desdemona when she realizes what her husband has done and what part she has played in both her mistress’ and Othello’s demise. The evidence is her refusal to submit to her husband when he tells her to be quiet, saying “‘Twill out, ’twill out. I peace? No, I will speak as liberal as the north. Let heaven and men and devils, let them all, all, cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak.” (Shakespeare, page 195, lines 219-221).
Mrs. Danvers is very similar to Emilia in the sense that she is older, worldly, very self-confident, bitter, and like Emilia, she perishes at the end of her story. However, Mrs. Danvers displays her self confidence in the form of a domineering attitude that gives her the ability to run Manderley the way her former mistress Rebecca ran the estate. Her bitterness is displayed in her manipulative nature which she uses most often on her new mistress in an effort to drive her away from her new husband and the home she shares with him. Failing in her efforts, Mrs. Danvers sets Manderley ablaze and dies in the fire. The second Mrs. de Winter is similar to Desdemona in that she is also very young, naÃ¯ve, sweet and lacking in self-confidence. The difference between the two, however, is that Mrs. de Winter lives to tell her tale while Desdemona dies at the hands of her husband. Mrs. de Winter’s lack of self-confidence is displayed in the form of her submission to the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, when the issue of how the household of Manderley should be managed is raised. She displays sweetness and naÃ¯veté by trying to emulate her husband’s first wife in an effort to please him. The most prominent example of this need to please her husband is a costume ball where she inadvertently dons a costume famously worn by Rebecca shortly before her death the year before and presents herself to her husband, who is horrified by her choice of costume.
The relationship of Mrs. Danvers and Mrs. de Winter is also that of servant and mistress, but there is no friendship between the two women. Mrs. Danvers is fiercely loyal to Rebecca de Winter and treats the second Mrs. de Winter with absolute disdain. Mrs. de Winter takes the mental abuse for a large portion of the film, until close to the end when she discovers that her husband did not love Rebecca. It is at this point in the film that Mrs. de Winter finally gains some self-assurance and breaks the manipulative cycle that Mrs. Danvers has held over her since her arrival at Manderley.
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The characterizations of women used by Shakespeare for Othello (and indeed in some of his other works, such as The Taming of the Shrew where the two female archetypes are seen in sisters Katherina and Bianca Minola) have stood the test of time. Even in a relatively modern setting, the archetypes of impressionable, simpering ingénue, represented by Mrs. de Winter, and the unmanageable, formidable shrew, represented by Mrs. Danvers, still have a strong effect on any who watch and read their story. The same could be said for Desdemona and Emilia, whose trials and tribulations still resonate with society more than 400 years later. As for the classification of women presented by Shakespeare, we still see that both types of women cause some form or grief, either to their men or to each other.
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