Last Updated 07 Jul 2020

Depiction of Female Characters in Shakespeare’s Othello

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“It is their husbands’ faults, if their wives do fail”. Othello, a play about race, power and gender is one of the best works of Shakespeare, and highlights few of the major societal issues of his time. On the one side is Othello, who is caught in his racial inferiority, fighting the prejudices his society has heaped upon him. And on the other side is Desdemona, who has transgressed her gender lines to marry the Moor, but is ultimately pushed into the sphere of submission and obedience – the traditional place where a woman should keep herself.

We are made to wonder then: Whose tragedy is Othello really about and who was the real victim, Othello for his racial inferiority or Desdemona for her gender? If Othello makes himself appear to be a victim of Iago’s plans, confessing “nought I did in hate, but all in honor”, then he had too had once made Desdemona his victim. And not Desdemona alone, the other two women in the play, Emilia and Bianca face similar consequences. Emilia is another chaste, obedient and loyal wife to Iago – the malignant conniver, worser than Desdemona, she is never treated as a wife.

And the last Bianca is, in fact, a fallen woman – a prostitute. The treatment of women in the play and the assumptions made about them removes the curtains drawn and triggers the single question in the minds of the readers – How true is the depiction of women in the play, and did Shakespeare’s society treat women in the same manner? As a matter of fact, seventeenth century England did not reserve a grand place for women, and feminist writings on women’s deplorable lives have come up mostly during Shakespeare’s time.

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This paper will study the three women characters and emit some light on the injustice faced by them and how they have been mere projections of male prejudices – they are assumed to be what men think them to be. The protagonist of the play is the beautiful, fair-skinned Venetian Desdemona. As her name would stand to mean ‘ill-fated’, Desdemona proves to be the most-affected victim of Iago, as until Othello comes to smother her, she was unaware of the cruel game played against her. Innocently in love ith Othello, she has been extremely loyal and supportive to her husband. When the play first introduces Desdemona, she is a different person from what she will become in Cyprus. Bold in her approach and almost fearless, she does not resemble the Venetian women of seventeenth century; by leaving her father’s house and marrying the Moor, thus committing miscegenation she takes her first step in redefining her role as a ‘woman’. She confirms Othello’s speech and accepts Othello as her husband.

With her cunning, she smartly handles the situation and adeptly performs her “divided duty” – to her father for “life and education”, and to Othello for being her husband and companion; she admits her wifely behavior descending from her ‘mother’, who had also once preferred her husband to her father. Her love is not affected by Othello’s racial difference as she could overlook Othello’s physical ugliness and fall in love with the man inside him; she saw Othello’s “visage in his mind”.

She also subverts feminism by unflinchingly asserting her sexuality and her love affair with Othello, and firmly says, “I did love the Moor to live with him”, and decides to follow him to Cyprus. That is the only time we see Desdemona’s vigor to stand for her defense. The shift of the play from Venice to Cyprus is not just spatial, it also has symbolic overtones. As from then onwards, Desdemona is reallocated to the position she tried to transgress, although in a different form – this time, playing a wife.

Without any relatives or acquaintances, in Cyprus Desdemona is all on her own and all the more vulnerable. Her marriage becomes a scandal, “not in her failure to receive her father's prior consent but in her husband's blackness. That blackness- the sign of all that the society finds frightening and dangerous- is the indelible witness to Othello's permanent status as an outsider”, and to convince him the truth in Desdemona’s love is impossible. Being a self-fashioner, he is always in need of symbols and signs to believe in Desdemona’s idea about him as her hero.

First, her confirmation speech becomes the symbol of her love, then, to continue the trust-game Othello gives her a handkerchief - his ancestral property, received from his mother, who in her turn had received it from an old witch as a blessing to her marital life. The appearance of the handkerchief is believed to be a white cloth with a red strawberry imprinted on it. Symbolically it represents the bedspread of a married woman, with her virginal blood-stains on it, and also becomes the symbol of Desdemona’s chastity, purity and her loving, civilizing sexual power.

With the loss of it she loses Othello’s trust, and as Carol Neely puts it – “The handkerchief is lost literally and symbolically not because of the failure of Desdemona’s love but because of Othello’s loss of faith in that love”; love is not sustained through symbols and signs but through conviction. This brings out the frail nature of Othello’s love for Desdemona, held not by his heart but by the handkerchief. Othello’s fear of being deceived and cuckolded rises from the flaw that is inherent in him; the self that would never grow out of the uncertainties for being racially inferior looks upon Desdemona as the’ strumpet’.

A chaste wife, being killed by her husband because he lacked self-identity and the power to recognize the devil inside him is universally acknowledged as the most appalling crime committed against an innocent woman. Another woman is Emilia, wife to Iago and the only companion of Desdemona in Cyprus. As the play progresses, she emerges from a common maid to a heroic individual. Dismissing Iago’s complains about Emilia’s noisiness Desdemona says: “Alas! She has no speech”. Desdemona seems right until the middle of the play. Emilia has no existence apart from her “instrumentality to the plot”.

She passes the handkerchief to Iago, unaware of his plans: “what he will/ Heaven knows not I. / I nothing but to please his fantasy”. Emilia is heard speaking elaborately only in Act IV, scene iii also termed the ‘willow scene’, which stages the conversation between Desdemona and Emilia. In this scene, Emilia comes across as a realist with her ideas like: “The world’s a huge thing: it is a great price / For a small vice” and when she says that wrong and right are relative terms, and wrongs can easily be transformed into right by the power-wielders.

The most striking words are when she says that a husband is liable for his wife’s infidelity, as their neglect or envy or suspicion egg on the woman to commit treachery. According to Gayle Greene: “Emilia’s is a perspective to which we wholly ascribe, entrenched as it is in a material reality, but her vision complements Desdemona’s and represents some of the bawdy and toughness that Desdemona lacks”. He further continues saying Emilia’s clarity of ideas can be attributed to her social class: she has never been adulated, she is no one’s jewel and has remained clear-eyed and without illusions.

Although she did nurture her husband’s fantasies like Desdemona. However, her previous error, unknowingly committed can be easily forgiven because of her sorority ties with Desdemona. She has not only been a friend in Desdemona’s loneliest times, but also becomes her voice in Act V, scene ii after her death: “O. the more angel she, /And you the blacker devil! ” Like Desdemona, she too faces disillusionment about the man she has tied knots with on realizing Iago’s misdeeds, pronounced by her diversely inflected reiterations of “my husband”.

Desdemona, even on her death-bed made her last attempt to protect Othello from his guilt by replying “Nobody, I myself” to Emilia’s “Who hath done this deed? ” and spells her last words of loyalty “Commend me to my kind lord”. Emilia inverts her role as a wife and commits herself to her duties as a loyal maid to her mistress: “’Tis proper I obey him – but not now. / Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home”, until she is abruptly dispatched by a stab from Iago. Of the two women in the play, two are killed by their husbands after being despised as whores; the third woman, Bianca is actually a whore.

She survives not through her own endeavor to appropriate herself to fit in the men’s world, but simply because “she is not central enough to be pulled into Iago’s plot”. Women here are objects of men’s “horrible fancies’, fancies which are “projections of their own worst fears and failings”. They are either silent spectators throughout their lives, never retaliating, or else immediately silenced if they ever make an attempt to over-rule men’s scheme of things.


1. G.K Hunter’s ‘Murdering Wives in Othello’.
3. and Desdemona
4. Introduction and Chosen essays from Norton edition.

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