Feminist interpretation

Reflecting the culture in which Othello was written, none of the three female characters is ultimately treated as an equal by the men. A feminist interpretation of the play would assess the balance of power between the genders, the cultural expectations displayed in the play and the degree to which these are conformed to by the women, as well as how far the drama centres on male or female perspectives etc.

A patriarchal perspective on women

  • For an understanding of the cultural expectations of females in the world of Othello, see: Themes > Men and women > Cultural expectations > Male possessions.
  • For information about the female ideal, against which Desdemona is assessed, see: Imagery and symbolism in Othello > Heaven and hell > Divine intercessor

Women as possessions

All three women are regarded by the male characters as persons who are owned by them. Othello ‘assigns’ his wife to be taken to Cyprus by Iago as if she is some cargo. He also describes Desdemona as ‘the purchase made’ (Act 2 Scene 3). He is enraged at Desdemona’s supposed adultery mostly because he is jealous of her as a sexual possession, and his description of it contains many sexual and bestial images: ‘Thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust’s blood be spotted.’ (Act 5 Scene 1) 
Iago also is not only bitter at being overlooked for promotion, but also because he believes that Othello has bedded his wife, for which he also wants revenge: ‘Till I am evened with him, wife for wife-‘ (Act 2 Scene 1) Emilia is regarded merely as a possession, and just like Desdemona, has no say in the matter.

A strong voice crushed

Although Desdemona is idealised, she is presented as being very human. We see her bantering with her contemporaries. Her youthful desire to experience the fullness of life means that she operated covertly to break free of the constraints of life in her father’s house. Othello initially gives her space to speak, values the chance to be ‘free and bounteous to her mind’, allows her into a wider sphere of life as an equal and upholds her words before senior men. She has been given a voice (albeit granted by a man). 
So the Desdemona encountered by the audience has been set free by marriage to the man she loves, who 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)     
However, although Desdemona confidently challenges her husband to be generous with his love both to her and to Cassio, when faced with his anger she retreats into the safety of conventional submissiveness:
He hath commanded me to go bed,       
And bid me to dismiss you ..             
We must not now displease him ..                                  
My love doth so approve him ..
(Act 4 Scene 3)     

Submission and strength

Desdemona is in one sense the perfect example of wifely obedience, yet she is ‘modern’ in asserting her own perspective, on acting with a degree of autonomy and, ultimately, in fighting for her life. However, today’s audience still finds it hard that she does not adequately counteract her husband’s intolerance, bullying and jealous rage. In material terms, she ends up an example of a physically vulnerable, isolated younger woman, a victim of domestic violence. 
Dramatically however, Desdemona is the throbbing light of the drama, the moral counterpoint to Iago’s scheming. When not physically on stage she is still the subject of much of the discourse. She is both revered and loved, which is why Othello’s brutality towards her constitutes a tragedy. Her life and death occupy the most stage-time of the female characters and when her light is ‘put out’, the loss is keenly felt.

Emilia – finding her voice

Emilia appears in few scenes within Othello, mainly as an adjunct to another (Desdemona or Iago). However, if Desdemona is a strong female character who becomes weaker, whose voice becomes repressed, Emilia starts as a wife who is oppressed but becomes stronger and whose voice carries the drama at its end. To her are given the words of truth and it is a female realism which punctures male fantasy (until male violence again prevails).
Emilia has no illusions about her husband and how wives are generally treated within marriage. Iago appears to be emotionally abusive, dishonouring her in public and ordering her around in dismissive tones. That Emilia, who clearly has strength of character, complies with his requests and fails to speak out until Othello’s evidence impels her to, speaks of a wife who is either scared of her husband or yearns for some crumbs of affection and has learnt that compliance is the only way to gain favour. Thus she betrays her better instincts.
Two aspects are worth noting however. 

A declaration of autonomy

Although Emilia has remained faithful to Iago, despite his imaginings, she is understanding of other women who find a way to survive their relationships via subterfuge. Feminist critics would celebrate Shakespeare’s understanding of Emilia’s bid for women’s desires to be acknowledged, in her conversation with Desdemona in Act 4 Scene 3:
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. .. 
       ..        have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then, let them use us well; else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.     
In the face of husbands’ failing to acknowledge the needs of their wives, Emilia’s solution is for wives to play them at their own game. It is understandable that she wants to make Iago pay for the pain he has inflicted and to live beyond the constraints of an unsatisfactory marriage. In this way, Emilia can be seen as striking a blow for feminism. However, it needs to be remembered that Shakespeare frames these comments by Desdemona’s desire to ‘mend’ wrong behaviour and her abhorrence at being unfaithful to Othello, an attitude his audience would uphold. Perhaps because Emilia transgresses these values, once her voice is silenced she is hardly acknowledged by characters on stage.

Female solidarity

Emilia may have resigned herself to a sour, abusive relationship, 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 her compliance with male patriarchy. In dying Emilia asks to be laid by her mistress’ side, showing symbolically where her sympathies lie. 

Bianca – a woman abused

Bianca’s character illustrates the class stratification and chauvinism of a Venetian society. She is near the bottom of the pile economically, and 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 gives little regard to the reality of her emotions. Her role reflects sexual double standards – Cassio can be regarded as an upright citizen whilst consorting with her (as long as it is covert) whereas she is deemed to be immoral for having sex outside marriage, and so automatically she is worthy of abuse, her word is not to be trusted and promises made to her do not have to kept. 
Although Shakespeare presents her sympathetically, Bianca is a figure that male characters ridicule, particularly her apparent aspiration to become respectable. There is no likelihood that her lover, Cassio, would ever marry her, especially when he becomes the new governor of Cyprus. Given the evident truth of her emotions, the audience has sympathy for her, but, with no male to adequately protect her, Bianca is an easy victim for accusation from Iago (and his wife). Appearing only briefly, her story does not even merit a dramatic resolution.
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