Men and women

Cultural expectations 

Male possessions 

In Shakespeare’s day, women were expected to be much more passive than they are today. They had no legal rights but were the ‘chattels’ of their fathers until handed over into the possession of a husband. As Desdemona testifies in Act 1 Scene 3:

..     My noble father, ..
.. 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 duty,   

I am hitherto your daughter: but here’s my husband;
And so much duty as my mother show’d
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.    
They were rarely educated and most young women of a higher social class (i.e. not working) were not even allowed out of their parents’ home, except to attend church. Hence Brabantio’s surprise in Act 1 Scene 1, ‘O heaven! How got she out?’

The ‘frail sex’

Valuable for the alliances they could command in the marriage market, women were accompanied at all times so that no one might have the chance to seduce them beforehand and nullify their chastity. They were deemed to be less rational than men and therefore easily ‘abus’d .. and corrupted’, as Brabantio suspects has happened to his daughter (Act 1 Scene 3). Believed to be physically and mentally weaker than men, women were regarded as being easily preyed upon by male advances. In Act 4 Scene 1, Iago refers to Desdemona as ‘the foolish woman your wife.’ 
Thus women were to be protected as the ‘frail sex’. Desdemona is described by her father in culturally acceptable terms as:
..    A maiden never bold;
Of spirit so still and quiet, that her motion   

Blush’d at herself;      
despite the fact that the Desdemona the audience sees is confident and witty, brave and passionate. 


Marriageability was most women’s only avenue of power, the goal being to secure family wealth and male protection. In order to achieve this, women needed simultaneously to be sexually attractive yet chaste and modest (although coming from a wealthy background could override the first consideration). Once married, it was axiomatic that wives should obey their husbands, and be honoured by them in return. After a wife had provided an heir for her husband, she was truly secure. Hence Iago’s cynical comment in Act 2 Scene 1 that:
She never yet was foolish that was fair,
For even her folly helped her to an heir.     
He is saying that no pretty woman can be considered an idiot, since they are all clever enough to use their looks to ensnare a husband and thus achieve ‘respectability’.

Social etiquette

Within the social constraints on women in Shakespeare’s Venetian society, there developed a code of conduct that meant that overt flattery could be paid verbally, or in writing, as an outlet for ‘safe’ flirtation. It is this that Desdemona challenges Iago to engage in when she says: ‘What wouldst thou write of me, if thou shouldst praise me?’ (Act 2 Scene 1). Any gentleman would be well versed in the etiquette of how to respond. 
Once married, women were regarded as ‘safer’ to interact with, since their chastity had already been forfeited. Within a sophisticated Venetian society, men could kiss the hands, and even the lips, of married women as a public courtesy to them. The socially adept Cassio is liberal with his attentions, such as when he greets Emilia in Act 2 Scene 1:
Let it not gall your patience, good Iago,
That I extend my manners; ’tis my breeding  

That gives me this bold show of courtesy. [Kissing her.]     
or when he kisses and caresses Desdemona’s hands. But this is politeness, and received as such by Othello’s virtuous wife, not the lechery that Iago and her husband suspect.


The limited confines of what was deemed acceptable for women inevitably led to female subterfuge as they struggled to express their own desires. Even obedient Desdemona had to conceal her growing love for her father’s houseguest, leading Brabantio to comment on how fathers should ‘trust not your daughters’ minds / By what you see them act.’ (Act 1 Scene 1). 
Desdemona is true at heart but some wives obviously did pursue extra-marital attention, as Emilia admits, shocking her innocent mistress. Othello is equally naïve about sexual politics. That is why he accepts Iago’s sour view that Venetian women are easily faithless:
In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience  

Is not to leave ’t undone, but keep ’t unknown.      
The duplicitous Iago anticipates duplicity in others, regardless of the promises they have made to be faithful. The ensign clearly has his own insecurities about women and ‘feminine wiles’.


Desdemona is a spirited individual but fully understands the code under which she must operate. As a governor’s daughter, she had always to wait for Othello to visit her during their courtship, rather than visit him. We hear of her lingering near Othello when he came visiting so that she could hear all his tales of derring-do. She goes as far as she dare in suggesting that she would like to marry someone like Othello, because it was obviously forbidden for a woman to propose:
She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story, 
And that would woo her.  (Act 1 Scene 3)     
Othello’s recreations of different worlds would have seemed romantic and exciting to a young woman for whom such a life was forbidden. Clearly marriage to Othello would have offered a much more interesting life than the one she had been living up to that point. The Desdemona the audience encounters has been set free by marriage to the man she loves. Othello appreciates her vivacity:
To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company,
Is free of speech, sings, plays, and dances well;
Where virtue is, these are more virtuous: Act 3 Scene 3    
The problem for Desdemona is that she is too open with her feelings. Trusting that her husband adores her as she does him, she has no reason to deceive or hide them after the restraint of life with her father. She feels safe to ask for him to change his mind over their friend. Ironically, it is her innocence and easy physical affection which makes her husband convinced of her unfaithfulness. Onlookers observe her ‘paddle with the palm’ of Cassio. Both he and Roderigo understand this to be acceptable Venetian courtesy, but a doubtful Othello, who knows that he ‘stole away’ his wife, can be persuaded that this is the start of a new romance.

Spirit and submission

Desdemona proves a faithful wife, despite all Iago’s insinuations to the contrary. And when Othello turns on her in Act 4 Scene 2, accusing her of unfaithfulness, she goes as far as she dare as a loyal, submissive wife:
D. Upon my knees, what doth your speech import?
 I understand a fury in your words,
 But not the words. 
O.     Why, what art thou?
D. Your wife, my lord, your true and loyal wife.
O. Come, swear it, damn thyself, ..
D.    Heaven doth truly know it.     
She cannot call him a liar without increasing his anger, and as a wife she has no other options. 
However, when Desdemona knows her husband intends to kill her in Act 5 Scene 2, she resists, attempting to persuade Othello not to do wrong, refuting his ‘evidence’ and finally fighting for her life. But these are the words of a loving, loyal wife who is struggling to restore truth to their relationship, even as Othello wrongs her. That love protects her husband as she is gasping her last breath, with her lie to Emilia that she had killed herself so that Othello would not be punished for what he had done. No wife could do more for her husband than she did.



Emilia is under even more restraint than Desdemona. She is subject not just to a repressive, suspicious husband, but also to her mistress and, above her, Othello as well. Although she has a brave spirit (which eventually breaks free in the final scene), she has also been cowed and hardened by the bitter, angry character of her husband. Whenever they meet he chides her and in Act 4 Scene 2, she demonstrates her awareness of the way in which Iago thinks when she tells him ‘Some such squire he was .. made you suspect me with the Moor.’ Her conversation with her mistress in Act 5 Scene 1 shows that Iago has abused her love and she has got to the point at which she no longer feels bound to give it. 
Why then does Emilia still do as he asks? Because the social code says she should and because she perhaps hopes it will gain her favour, or at least will stop further abuse coming her way. Iago holds all the cards. When she comes across Desdemona’s handkerchief, she realises that its possession gives her some power:
E.   What will you give me now
 For that same handkerchief? ……
 … that the Moor first gave to Desdemona,
 That which so often you did bid me to steal
I.  A good wench! Give it me.
E. What will you do with it, that you have been so earnest 
 To have me filch it? (Act 3 Scene 3)     
Even though she knows it is wrong, she hopes to gain from her theft. But Iago snatches it and immediately she realises that her bid for a rebalance of power has been lost, at the expense of her mistress.

A cause worth fighting for

Emilia may have resigned herself to a sour, abusive relationship, and be understanding of other women who find a way to survive theirs, but in Desdemona she finds a cause worth defending, a pure wife whose worth needs fighting for. She is devoted to her mistress and stoutly defends her innocence to Othello. 
Once Emilia fully realises the complicity of her own husband, she obeys him no longer, despite his threats, and exposes the reality of Iago’s lying and scheming. Her loyalty to Desdemona and the truth proves stronger in the end than any loyalty she felt to the worthless man she was bound to. In dying Emilia asks to be laid by her mistress’ side, showing symbolically where her sympathies lie. 
Shakespeare often creates female characters who are ‘truth-tellers’ (such as Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, or Queen Margaret in Richard III), women who are not cowed by men but prepared to defend what they believe in, no matter the consequences. Emilia is one such, and the audience might feel like cheering because, at last, a woman stands against the dominant male patriarchy. The tragedy is that, in Othello, it has taken too long and comes too late to do any good.


Love for sale

Bianca is a working class woman who makes end meet by selling her sexual favours. She is variously called a ‘hussy’, a ‘strumpet’, a ‘fitchew’ and a ‘caitiff’, all terms associated with a prostitute. As such, male society uses her and takes little regard for the reality of her emotions. She is deemed to be immoral, and so automatically her word is not to be trusted and promises made to her do not have to kept. She shows up the class stratification and chauvinism of a Venetian society which only honours women of social standing, like Desdemona.
Iago seems to have some insight into Bianca’s relationship with Cassio:
It is a creature
That dotes on Cassio – as ‘tis the strumpet’s plague
To beguile many and be beguiled by one. (Act 4 Scene 1)    
It becomes clear that she is indeed fond of the gallant officer, for she is upset that she hasn’t seen Cassio for a week and when he gives her Desdemona’s handkerchief to unpick, she becomes suspicious that his affection has turned elsewhere. Cassio clearly cares about her, but would never consider honouring her with marriage. She is just a passing fancy. Bianca has learnt from the way in which society treats her that she can expect no better, so must be satisfied with that. There is pathos in her invitation of Cassio to supper after having thrown Desdemona’s handkerchief back at him:
An you’ll come to supper to-night, you may;
an you will not, come when you are next prepared for. (Act 4 Scene 1)     
When Bianca sees Cassio seriously wounded in Act 5 Scene 1, her genuine grief and anxiety shows real loving concern. A romantic ending to the play would have Cassio take her as his wife. But Shakespeare reflects the reality of contemporary society and Bianca ends as another example of a woman being used and exploited by the man she loves.
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