Feminism in Othello Video

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  • 0:01 Shakespeare's Women
  • 0:28 The Women of Othello
  • 1:30 Feminist Themes
  • 2:32 Desdemona
  • 3:34 Emilia
  • 4:23 Bianca
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Bishop
Considered one of Shakespeare's masterworks, Othello takes on a variety of themes, but like many of Shakespeare's plays, the portrayal of strong and complex female characters lend a feminist undertone to the story.

Shakespeare's Women

William Shakespeare authored 37 plays, many of which feature rich characterizations of women. This was not the fashion of Elizabethan theater, at least not until Shakespeare rose to fame. At this point in English theatrical history, women were generally 1-dimensional characters, serving to advance the plot or fill in dialogue. In this lesson, we will explore feminist themes as revealed by the characterizations of women in Othello.

The Women of Othello

There are only three female characters in Othello, but each plays a critical role in the downfall of the tragic hero. Othello, the hero, is married to a soft-spoken and obedient Venetian beauty named Desdemona. The villain of the story is Iago, who is married to the witty and intelligent Emilia. Cassio is Othello's loyal lieutenant, who is accompanied by a courtesan named Bianca.

So why would we be introduced to each woman by way of the man with whom she is associated? It's an Elizabethan thing. Women in Elizabethan England were considered property, traded in marriage if they were of noble stature or, if not, often dispatched into service by their fathers. Women were subject to the whims and desires of men, a theme highlighted throughout Othello.

Each woman has her role to play in Iago's plot to bring down the mighty Othello. Desdemona and Emilia, in particular, are manipulated, while Bianca's fiery jealousy asserts her in the plot, much to Iago's surprise.

Feminist Themes

Feminism may be defined in a variety of ways, but for the purposes of this lesson, we will apply a broad definition of the advocacy of equal rights for women. In the context of Othello, Shakespeare does not directly advocate for women's rights. Instead, he focuses on the unjust moral, social and political environment in which Elizabethan women live. As was typical at the time, men wield the authority in Shakespearean plays, and although Othello is not an exception, the women in this story are powerful characterizations of the Elizabethan female plight and are the passive victims of the machinations of men.

So, how is it possible that there are any feminist themes in Othello? It's the characterizations of the women and the implied meaning of the relationships between the women and men that reveal Shakespeare's feminist attitudes, which can be summarized as a sharp criticism of women's fealty and perceived inferiority to men.

Let's take a closer look at how feminism is portrayed in the play through each of three female characters.

Desdemona

Othello highlights several of the problems women of the time face. Loyalty to patriarchy and marriage before oneself is captured in Desdemona's divided duty between her father, Brabantio, and her husband. Desdemona's time is consumed by her duties as a wife and daughter, leaving little for anything else. Desdemona, passive and obedient, is the perfect Elizabethan wife. Othello, dominant and jealous, is not the best husband. He loves Desdemona, but he is easily turned against her based on Iago's insinuations.

Once he witnesses Bianca's outburst over Cassio's request for her to copy Desdemona's handkerchief, he infers the worst, and launches into a rage. Desdemona, whom he claims to love perfectly, dies because she cannot convince her husband of her innocence. The insinuations of Iago carry more weight than the protests of innocence of his beloved Desdemona. Men trust the word of other men more than that of the women they claim to cherish.

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