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What is the role of women in Othello?

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In Othello, womanhood is one of the most significant themes. Facing numerous offences, the women of the play remain strong and courageous. Despite being mistreated by men’s, they show extreme stoicism and keep their profound honesty to the bitter end.

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In Othello, the author shows female identity from a perspective that differs from stereotypes of that time. When the play was written, England’s society was predominantly patriarchal. During that period, women did not have the same rights as they do now in society. In a sense, they were considered the property of men (husbands or fathers). However, the play itself does not put them in this position. Moreover, the author depicts them as undeservingly mistreated.

The theme of sexism in Othello plays a significant role. Emilia is depicted as a strong, reasonable woman, who understands her position, yet does not fall to men’s follies while still playing by their rules. Emilia, through her boldness, speaks about her unsatisfactory situation:

“Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth: is’t frailty that thus errs?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.”
(Act 4, Scene 3).

Even though Emilia’s loyalty to her husband leads her to an untimely end, she appears more intelligent and powerful than Iago. Unlike him, she is rigorous and honest, which only adds to the irony in the play.

The intrigue that Iago insists upon is, in fact, a ruse. Yet, Othello’s high standards of Desdemona are challenged in a way he never expected her to behave. Desdemona’s gender role puts her in a situation where she is easily victimized. Thus, she cannot do anything to prevent her husband from falling into a jealous rage, which leads to her demise. Desdemona’s behavior is formed by men’s expectations, and she expects them to keep to their standards as well.

At the same time, women’s gender role is used by “honest” Iago to push Othello to the edge. Gender and power in Othello are closely tied to the heart of the story. Men and women seemingly fall short of their expectations of the opposite gender, which Iago uses in his ruse. In this tragedy, men do not uphold their positive standards, such as providing, wise, and honest. In contrast, they show their malicious stereotypical behavior, demonstrating jealousy, strictness, and suspiciousness.

The tragedy can be perceived as misogynistic from the first glance since it does portray women as objects of men’s desires. However, upon further exploration, the audience sees that women are wise, knowledgeable, and more honest than men. In Othello, women act rationally and honestly. However, under certain conditions, they prone to be swayed by emotions. Shakespeare skillfully breaks the clichés of his time. So, and feminism in Othello adds a significant note to the tragic nature of the story.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'What is the role of women in Othello'. 24 November.

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