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Title: The portrayal of women characters in Othello

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Research Question: How are women characters portrayed in Shakespeare’s Othello?

Word count:




– Role of women in Othello
– Role of men in Othello
– Desdemona’s character





Othello is one of William Shakespeare’s tragic works, where it is about the main character
losing sense perception and reason by jealousy. However, losing sense perception and jealousy
isn’t really important in this topic. As stated in the title, this topic is mainly focused on women’s
roles, and I am going to focus on mainly Desdemona, Emilia, and a bit of Bianca’s character and
how their husbands treated them. Othello, just like many other Shakespeare’s works, contains
explicit gender bias in terms of the culture shown in the play.

This play represents fidelity and sense perception, as throughout the story, Desdemona’s
loyalty and love towards Othello are symbolic, but Othello’s sense perception is the bulk of the
plot development as Othello gradually loses his sense perception due to the green-eyed monster
that is planted on him, which is jealousy. Desdemona’s fidelity is very significant as it is
symbolized by a white-colored, strawberry patched handkerchief that Othello gifted her, which is
the most significant object in the play. The white color indicates purity, which is one of
Desdemona’s traits where she honestly shows her chastity, honesty, and fidelity, as described by
Emilia ?1
, throughout the whole play, especially towards her over-emotional husband, whereas
Iago has lack of verification of Desdemona committing adultery.

Furthermore of the women’s portrayal, it is identified that Desdemona was considered
as a pure, tender, and a devoted woman towards her loved ones, as mentioned from lines in Act 1
Scene 3: “To you I am bound for education….You are the lord of duty. I am hitherto your
daughter.” and ” I saw Othello’s visage in my mind, and to his honors and his valiant parts did I
my soul and fortunes consecrate.”, and a line from Act 5 Scene 2, “I never did offend you in my
life, never loved Cassio but with such general warranty of heaven as I might love. I never gave
him token.”. On the other hand, Emilia was portrayed as Desdemona’s headstrong, trustworthy,
and motherly servant, as mentioned from lines in Act 4 Scene 2, “If any wretch have put this in
your head, let heaven requite it with the serpent’s curse”, “And put in every honest hand a whip
to lash the rascals naked through the world even from the east to th’ west!”, and “Can you hear
me? I’ll die like a swan…. Moor, she never cheated on you. She loved you..”. Furthermore,
Bianca, who was in a sexual relationship with Cassio, was classified as a prostitute by other
characters due to her virgin status and not being married to Cassio, as referenced in Act III Scene
IV, “Yours by this hand: and to see how he prizes the foolish woman your wife! she gave it him,
and he hath given it his whore.”, but it contains lack of evidence since the story didn’t exhibit a
scene where Cassio expend money to Bianca for sexual intercourse. Also, Bianca was considered
by Cassio as a ‘caitiff’, which means cowardly, in Act III Scene IV.


Role of women in Othello

?In the culture of the settings in Othello, women, in high standards, were expected to
exhibit allegiance towards their fathers and husbands, as evident in the emblem of Desdemona’s
handkerchief. Desdemona’s handkerchief embodies the fidelity and love between Desdemona
and Othello, as Othello gave the handkerchief to Desdemona as a very significant gift and love
token. However, after Othello’s seed, which was planted at first by Brabantio from the phrase
from Act 1 Scene 1″Desdemona had deceived me, and may thee” ?2
, was watered by Iago, by
informing Othello false information about an affair between Desdemona and Cassio, Othello
warned Desdemona that the handkerchief was given to Othello’s mother by an Egyptian witch,
who reminded her that if the handkerchief is under the possession of a woman, then their spouse
would love and show loyalty to her. Othello then remind his wife that the handkerchief
symbolizes Desdemona’s fidelity to her husband, and not to entrust her handkerchief to any other
man. Also, in Act I Scene 1, Desdemona responds to Brabantio’s raging opposition of the
marriage between his daughter and Othello with purity as she affirms:”To you I am bound for
life and education, / My life and education both do learn me/ How to respect you, you are the
lord of my duty,/ I am hitherto your daughter”, which means that Desdemona loves and respects
Brabantio, and is grateful to the life and education Brabantio provided for her, but since
Desdemona is already married to Othello, Desdemona must leave her father and show fidelity
and love to Othello as a wife ?2

However, if a woman is unmarried in Venetian culture, she was expected not to have a
sexual relationship with a man unless she is married to that man. Otherwise, she will be deemed
as a prostitute who only works to feed herself and provide herself necessities. This was evident
between the relationship between Cassio and Bianca, where they have a sexual and romantic
relationship with each other, and due to their status being unmarried, Bianca, without evidence,
was classified as a prostitute who only works for Cassio for money, and being seductive. This
was mentioned from a quote by Iago from Act 4 Scene 1: “Bianca, A huswife that by selling her
desires / buys herself bread and clothes./ It is a creature/ that dotes on Cassio, as ’tis the
strumpet’s plague to beguile many and be beguiled by one.”, which means that Bianca, being
unmarried to Cassio, is a prostitute who seduces Cassio to earn money for a living.

Role of men in Othello

?On the other hand, men, unlike women, were envisioned as superior, dominant,
masculine, and privileged. For example, in Act 4 Scene 1, as mentioned from the section ?Role of

women in Othello ?, Bianca was portrayed as a prostitute who works for money, meaning that it is
intolerable for an unmarried woman to have a sexual relationship with a man, whereas it is
tolerable for a man, whether he is married or not, to have a sexual relationship with any woman.
This example indicates that men were privileged in the society of the setting in the novel. For the
masculine qualities part, in Act 2 Scene 3, not only the men were entrusted to take part as
soldiers to protect the citizens, but men, who were soldiers, were expected to be self-disciplined
to stay on guard to guard their land, as mentioned from Othello’s quote: “Good Michael, look
you to the guard tonight. Let’s teach ourselves that honorable stop not to outsport discretion.”

Because the handkerchief symbolizes Desdemona’s fidelity towards Othello, this implies
that Othello’s position was to treat Desdemona as his valuable possession, which means that men
were expected to be the head of their family and have an authoritative figure towards female
family members and children. This is referenced from a quote from Desdemona whilst speaking
to her father from Act 1 Scene 3, “To you I am bound for life and education, / My life and
education both do learn me/ How to respect you, you are the lord of my duty,/ I am hitherto your
daughter”. Moreover, this is an evidence of how men were classified as dominant and superior
figures in the Venetian society.

However, Othello’s views on women had changed drastically ever since Iago implement the
‘seed of jealousy’ in Othello’s mind. Before Othello’s emotions was override with jealousy,
Othello seemed to acknowledge gender equality, as during his arrival at Cyprus after an
unexpected victory on a war against the Turks, Othello considered Desdemona as his ‘fair
warrior’ and seemed to instill full trust in his wife at the beginning of the play. As Othello was
manipulated and brainwashed by Iago’s scheme, Othello started to decline gender equality and
began treating Desdemona as his possession, such as demanding her to show him the
handkerchief, abusively dismissing her presence, and distrusting her by calling her a ‘whore’. ?3

On the other hand, Iago, who had revealed his atrocious personality from the very beginning of
the play, was a sexist, as he believed in Act 2 Scene 1 that a perfect example of a woman would
have a traditional characteristics: physically beautiful, submissive, reserved, self-disciplined, and
were created to marry, reproduce, and raise children. Moreover, Iago seemed to reveal that a
perfect example for a man is to be superior and manipulative towards his wife, as he manipulated
Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, and Emilia.

Desdemona’s character

?Desdemona, Othello’s wife, is portrayed as a pure, tender, and a devoted woman towards
her loved ones, particularly Othello and her father, as shown in Act 1 Scene 3 passage quote “To
you I am bound for education….You are the lord of duty. I am hitherto your daughter.” and “I

saw Othello’s visage in my mind, and to his honors and his valiant parts did I my soul and
fortunes consecrate.”. Throughout the play, Desdemona clearly loves Othello with open arms, as
evident in Act 2 Scene 1, where she passionately welcomes him with a romantic hug during their
reunion in Cyprus. As a Christian, Desdemona is portrayed as a pure and a tender woman as she
is shown to be an honest woman throughout the whole play, as she tried to tame Othello’s anger
and convince him that she never cheated on Othello by stating a quote in Act 5 Scene 2: “I never
did offend you in my life, never loved Cassio but with such general warranty of heaven as I
might love. I never gave him token.”, and Act 4 Scene 2: “No, as I am a Christian. /if to preserve
this vessel for my lord/ from any other foul unlawful touch /be not to be a strumpet, I am none.”.
However, as Othello’s emotions became uncontrollable and his sanity became lost, he began to
emotionally abuse his own wife by calling her a ‘whore’ and accusing her of cheating on him as
evident with another quote in Act 5 Scene 2: Was this fair paper, this most goodly book/ Made to
write “whore” upon? What committed?/ Committed? O thou public commoner!/ I should make/
very forges of my cheeks/ That would to cinders burn up modesty/ did I but speak thy deeds.
What committed?/ Heaven stops the nose at it and the moon winks, the bawdy wind that kisses
all it meets/ is hushed within the hollow mine of earth and will not hear ‘t. What committed!
Impudent strumpet!”


1. SPLITTER, RANDOLPH. “Language, Sexual Conflict and ‘Symbiosis Anxiety’ in
‘Othello.'” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, vol. 15, no. 3,
1982, pp. 17–26. JSTOR, JSTOR, ? ?.
2. Huq, Syed Anwarul. “Desdemona’s Handkerchief: Its Symbolic Significance.” Stamford
Journal of English, vol. 7, 2013, doi:10.3329/sje.v7i0.14471.
3. Berecz, Renata. “The Role of Women in Othello.”,

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