Compare and contrast how Shakespeare, Ford and Hardy explore social barriers to love in ‘Othello’, ‘T’is Pity She’s a Whore’ and Far From the Madding Crowd.

All three texts explore a range of social barriers to love despite having been written in different periods of time, arguing that, no matter the time, societal conventions always create barriers to love by which those who do not conform are judged by. Shakespeare’s play ‘Othello’ concentrates upon positions in society regarding race and background; similarly, Hardy’s novel Far From the Madding Crowd explores the inferiority of class and financial security. Meanwhile Ford’s play ‘T’is Pity She’s a Whore’ is faced with religious opposition. All three texts focus on restrictive social barriers to love regarding women, and how these are breached and consequently result in either the deterioration of the protagonist or the creation of happiness.

In all three texts, love is prevented by the perceived inferiority of the male protagonist’s positions in society, as they are deemed to be unsuitable for the women they desire. However, each writer focuses on a different aspect: Shakespeare on race, Ford on religion and Hardy on class prejudices. In Act I Scene I Iago tells Brabantio that “an old black ram is tupping your ewe”. Shakespeare’s metaphorical comparison of Othello to a “ram” is an example of animalistic imagery which suggests that Othello is considered as less than human, with connotations of low intelligence and lacking in skill. Furthermore, Iago focuses on the colour “black” to describe Othello. This highlights a difference between Othello and Desdemona racially which at the time would be seen negatively as people would have been prejudiced towards races different to their own. A contemporary audience would be heavily influenced by this first introduction to Othello which is given by Iago whilst Othello is absent from the stage. Shakespeare does this to heighten the prejudice against Othello and black people at the time, which suggests that Othello and Desdemona’s relationship is at risk of failing due to these prejudices combined with Iago’s manipulation.

Brabantio accuses Othello of using witchcraft to entice Desdemona as a stereotype people would have had of someone of Othello’s race, believing them to be associated with the devil. This particularly worries Brabantio as Desdemona is white and fair and considered pure and, as her father, he does not want Othello to taint her. Furthermore Othello’s history of slavery implies that he is not from a wealthy family and therefore is not worthy of Desdemona who is of a higher class. Generally this would be seen as important during Shakespearean times as it was important for women to marry a man who was financially stable as a wife would have been dependent on their husband to provide for them. However, this is essential for Desdemona as she is from a wealthy upper class family, who’s inheritance would be passed to the husband, therefore Brabantio wants to make sure that Othello is worthy of receiving both his daughter and his fortune. A.C Bradley states that Othello is “a great man, naturally modest but fully conscious of his worth”, implying that Othello is aware of how essential he is to the military and is therefore very confident. His confidence is shown as he boasts about how he “woo’d” Desdemona in Act 1 Scene 3. Despite this, it could be argued that Othello is greatly insecure as in Act 3 Scene 3 as he states “haply for I am black”, showing him to be conscious of his otherness in race and background which ultimately causes his downfall as he believes Desdemona prefers Cassio who is of white skin, thus emphasising the strength of race as a social barrier to love during the prejudiced period of time as Othello himself believes he is unworthy of Desdemona.

Whereas Othello is considered unworthy of Desdemona because of his race and background, Gabriel Oak is deemed unworthy due to his lack of wealth and low social status. The reader is first introduced to Gabriel in Chapter 1 – A Description of Farmer Oak. Hardy instantly naming Gabriel as “Farmer” highlights to the audience that Gabriel is a character of the poor working class. Throughout the novel this name is given to Gabriel, reminding the reader of his position within society. This is similar to ‘Othello’ in that Iago and Othello keep referring back to Othello’s “black” skin. Whilst Hardy does this to evoke sympathy for Gabriel, Shakespeare is constantly reminding the audience of Othello’s difference and unsuitability for Desdemona. Hardy tells the reader that Gabriel lives “six times as many working days as Sundays” and is described to be wearing “old clothes”. The fact that Gabriel works “six” days a week and yet is still wearing “old” clothes suggests that he can only afford the bare minimum and cannot afford to waste his money on luxuries. His financial instability deems him an unsuitable partner for Bathsheba, as Gabriel would be expected to provide financial security for his potential wife as women at this time were dependent on men when securing their future, which he is unable to achieve. Hardy states that Bathsheba “carelessly glanced over him” after their first meeting. The adverb “carelessly” and the verb “glanced” together imply that Bathsheba is uninterested in Farmer Oak and is not considering him at all as a potential suitor because he is not worthy of her time due to her class prejudices, which is emphasised when she tells Oak that he is a “farmer just beginning” after his proposal, declaring him the lowest of the working class, highlighting their social differences and the barrier this creates from the prospect of marriage. The rigid class system of the Victorian era made it hard to better oneself from the class they were born into; it can be assumed that Hardy is sympathetic towards Oak as he personally wanted to defy the social obstacles in order to better himself. However, the importance of financial security in a potential husband would have been vital as he would need to provide for his wife who is financially dependent and, as it is obvious to Bathsheba that Farmer Oak cannot do this, he is deemed unworthy of her time. This is different to ‘Othello’ as Bathsheba holds the prejudiced views of the society she lives in, whereas Shakespeare allows Desdemona to love Othello despite his difference in race.

In contrast, whilst Othello and Farmer Oak were deemed financially or racially inferior, Giovanni’s and Annabella’s relationship is opposed by religion. Whilst this is different to ‘Othello’ and Far From the Madding Crowd as the focus is not a religious barrier but social status, within all three texts there is a concept of forbidden love. Ford uses the Friar to argue the wrongness of the incestuous relationship between Giovanni and Annabella stating that “heaven admits no jest”. The use of the word “jest” suggests that the Friar believes Giovanni’s declaration of love for his sister to be ridiculous. This sincere statement implies that God would not forgive rule breakers and allow them into heaven.The use of this religious imagery and contrast between “heaven” and “hell” implies that the Friar, through wisdom, age and his religious position, believes Giovanni needs saving from the consequences of being dammed because of this unforgivable sin. Furthermore, their love is described as an illness as the Friar declares “beg heaven cleanse the leprosy of lust that rots thy soul”; this religious imagery of cleansing emphasises the strength of this opposition and the negativity surrounding the relationship which makes Giovanni’s soul impure and will diminish his chance of reaching heaven unless he rids himself of these dangerous thoughts immediately.  Contextually this is important as religion was a large part of life and people feared the possibility of being sent to hell for having sinned. However, despite the barrier between the love of Giovanni and Annabella being predominately religion, when weighing up suitors for Annabella, financial security, social status and appearance are taken into account to decide which one would be most worthy. Which is similar to the social expectations of financial security and race that deem Farmer Oak and Othello unworthy, arguing that no matter the time period or situation there is always something in the way of love flourishing. Therefore the writers are all commenting on the realistic nature of love.

On the other hand, the seemingly continual restrictive expectations of women’s actions within society prevent them from freely choosing a partner. Both Brabantio and Othello perceive Desdemona as their possession. This becomes apparent when Iago exclaims to Brabantio that “thieves” have stolen his daughter, with Brabantio’s subsequent outburst showing he believes this to have been carried out through “chains of magic”. The use of supernatural imagery highlights his disbelief that Desdemona could have freely entered into a relationship, emphasising that within society during Shakespearean times, a woman spontaneously and freely choosing a man to marry of her own accord was not acceptable, as the father would have aligned suitors for her like a business transaction. During this scene Desdemona is absent from the stage, highlighting the restrictions women were faced with; they were still seen as inferior to men despite their social class. However, this is ironic as we learn that Brabantio is hypocritical in his expectations for his daughter, as Desdemona’s mother did exactly the same for him – choosing to marry Brabantio over the wishes of her own father, highlighting the double standards that are perceived as acceptable for men and not for women. On the other hand, despite Florio aligning suitors for Annabella he states “I would not for my wealth my daughters love”. Ford implies here that that money is irrelevant as long as Florio’s daughter is content with her husband, contradicting Putana’s evaluation of male suitors and their social status which could be a reflection of times advancing from Shakespeare with regards to societies expectations of marriage. However, Florio doesn’t keep his word throughout the play as when it is discovered that Annabella is pregnant she is forced to marry Soranzo in order to save the family’s reputation as intimate relations outside of a marriage would have been considered scandalous during this time. Similarly to ‘Othello’, Anabella is absent from the stage as her marriage is being discussed, again showing the restriction on women’s input in important decision making. This argues that actually restrictions towards women haven’t advanced that much in 30 years.

In comparison, Bathsheba lacks a father figure throughout Hardy’s novel Far From the Madding Crowd, and wants more independence than Desdemona and Annabella, stating that she would “hate to be thought men’s property in that way”. The Telegraph’s article on Literature’s Feistiest Feminists argues that “her desire for independence and to determine her own destiny certainly fixes her as a proto-feminist”. The term “proto-feminist” means the anticipation of feminist concepts before the 20th century which could suggest that Hardy was ahead of his time in knowing that restrictions towards women needed to advance. It could be argued that unaware of the hindsight this article has, Hardy is being idealistic, as during the Victorian era, a woman of a higher class would still be expected to marry, have children and take care of her husband rather than search for her own independence.  As Bathsheba doesn’t want to be owned or provided for, this could be reflective of attitudes towards women advancing away from solely being the manager of domesticity. The use of Bathsheba as a heroine suggests that Hardy believes women to be just strong and independent as men which is proven later in the novel as she manages her own farm.

In contrast, Othello sees Desdemona as a possession stating that he “won [Brabantio’s] daughter” which suggests that the possession of a maiden is considered a competition at this time, reflecting Othello’s military background. This attitude is also held by Bergetto, a suitor for Anabella, who similarly to Othello sees her as a trophy to be won, stating “with this most precious jewel – such a prize” The metaphor “precious jewel” implies that a wife would be a husband’s property as women were seen as the inferior sex but also that such a wife should be treasured for her beauty, objectifying women and suggesting that there is not much else to them of great worth. This argues that women had little choice in the matter of picking a suitor as it is decided by the men’s determination to win them, highlighting how their voices were restricted given their lower stance in society at this time. Arguably this does not present a barrier to love as it cannot be described as ‘love’ due to the nature of the relationship being more like a business transaction which will benefit the man regardless of whether there is a mutual emotional connection.  

Whilst Hardy allows Bathsheba and Farmer Oak to overcome their class prejudices, Shakespeare and Ford explore the consequences of social barriers to love through the deterioration of the protagonist. The writers’ opinions differ greatly due to the purpose of the text. Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ and Ford’s ‘T’is Pity She’s a Whore’ are tragic plays, a form of entertainment for the masses, whilst Hardy’s novel reflects his own attitudes towards the Victorian class system as he personally wanted to break the barriers in order to better himself. Towards the beginning of ‘Othello’, the pathetic fallacy of the “tempest” with “winds blow[ing]” forebodes the chaos and anger that is to come in Othello and Desdemona’s relationship. The violence and strength of the storm foreshadowing the violent power Othello uses to smother Desdemona towards the end of the play. Othello feels that it is his duty to kill Desdemona and in turn himself through the deterioration of his character caused by the possibility of the affair “else she’ll betray more men”. This statement emphasises Othello’s fear of being cuckolded and disgraced by the public. Despite this, his character ironically focuses on the innocence and perfection of her “whiter skin of hers than snow” which is as “smooth as monument alabaster”. Shakespeare uses Othello’s soliloquy to focus on these features to remind the audience that Desdemona is still pure, young and innocent as she hasn’t actually participated in an affair of any sort. This would suggest that Othello was too easily manipulated by Iago and has acted irrationally based on his own insecurities that others have played upon throughout the play. However, A.C Bradley contradicts this opinion by stating that Othello did ask for material evidence and that any man would trust his loyal “companion in arms” over the new wife he barely knew, rationalising Othello’s insecurities and subsequent actions despite their drastic nature.

Giovanni also attempt to rationalise his actions in order to overcome his religious obstacles to love. However, whilst Othello argues that his harsh actions are justified in ending his relationship with Desdemona through death, Giovanni rationalises his devotion, stating that “wise nature first in your creation meant to make you mine” as they share “birth or blood”. The natural imagery in this declaration implies that he believes the relationship to be natural as they share the same blood, suggesting that Giovanni and Annabella are intertwined and cannot be separated. Whilst it can be argued that Othello was unable to overcome his barriers to love even in death, after Giovanni kills Annabella, he enters “with [Annabella’s] heart upon his dagger” into the wedding feast at the end of the play is symbolic of him having always had her love, suggesting that in death they have managed to overcome the religious opposition that was disapproving of their relationship.

Finally, as a novel Far From the Madding Crowd takes a more optimistic approach with regards to overcoming societal barriers, than the tragedies of ‘Othello’ and ‘T’is Pity She’s a Whore’, despite the rigid class systems of the Victorian era.  As stated in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd: Theme Analysis’, Farmer Oak “models the perspective that is necessary for any person who does not wish his or her “passions, prejudices, and ambitions” to lead to tragic ends.” This is proven by Oak showing himself to be worthy and able to provide for Bathsheba from the beginning of the novel, on their first meeting as he pays for her passage of “threepence” which “had a definite value as money”. As threepence is not actually that much, but would be a significant amount to Gabriel, Hardy builds on the reader’s sympathy towards Farmer Oak by making it obvious that people of this era unfairly deem finance as important and essential to achieving happiness. This is further emphasised by his declaration of the wealth and possessions he could give Bathsheba in an attempt to win her as a wife and overcome the class prejudice, declaring his “nice snug little farm”, and promises he could “work twice as hard as I do now”; Therefore the critic’s statement is valid as Farmer Oak is seen to be determined to achieve a relationship with Bathsheba. Although initially this promise isn’t enough for her to accept the proposal as she is of a higher class, by the end of the novel, Bathsheba and Farmer Oak’s positions within society are flipped as Bathsheba becomes hopeless with her life “becoming a desolation” and Farmer Oak being her “manager”. Bathsheba’s apparent hopelessness contradicts Hardy’s use of the heroine as Bathsheba has fallen from a strong independent woman to a dependent Damsel-in-Distress, suggesting that actually women are dependent on men. The novel ends relatively happily as because of this reversal in positions, Farmer Oak is socially higher than Bathsheba who finally acknowledges her love and sense of companionship towards him after the initial class barriers have been overcome by Farmer Oak’s hard work and determination, reflecting Hardy’s own desire to reach out in society.

Within all the texts, social conventions always create barriers to love through either class prejudice, religious opposition or restrictions towards women. In the two tragedy plays ‘Othello’ and ‘T’is Pity She’s A Whore’, these barriers result in the deterioration of the protagonist and the murder of the women, which creates a final barrier towards love. However, as an idealist, Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd has a much more optimistic resolve in that the class prejudices are overcome to achieve happiness. This would argue that whilst social conventions have created barriers to love, with the advancement of time these are not as detrimental to achieving love as they were in the past.

Bibliography:

Shakespeare. W. (1603) “Othello”

Ford. J. (1629) “T’is Pity She’s a Whore”

Hardy. T, (1874) Far From the Madding Crowd, William Collins: Great Britain

Bradley A.C Shakespearean Tragedy

(NA) (ND) Far from the Madding Crowd: Theme Analysis [Accessed 22.10.1]

The Telegraph (2015) Literature’s feistiest feminists: How Thomas Hardy paved the way for The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sponsored/culture/far-from-the-madding-crowd-2015/11539886/literary-feminists-bathsheba-everdene.html [Accessed 08.02.16)

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