Gender Roles in Othello

Gender Roles in Othello
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  • 0:03 Othello and Desdemona
  • 1:20 Iago and Emilia
  • 2:50 Cassio and Bianca
  • 3:33 Brabantio
  • 4:06 Gender Roles in 'Othello'
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Bishop
Shakespeare's ''Othello'' is a tragic play about a man whose jealousy drives him to destroy what he loves most, and ultimately himself. In this lesson, we'll examine the significance of gender roles among the main characters in ''Othello.''

Othello and Desdemona

Othello is a play about the dynamics between men and women in Elizabethan England, and the role that gender plays in every aspect of Elizabethan life. Othello and Desdemona exemplify the typical Elizabethan couple: He is a domineering and powerful man; she is a dutiful and passive wife.

Othello's speeches throughout the play reveal a man who feels undeserving of his wife. In order to placate Brabantio, who is angry about the marriage, Othello explains that the only 'witchcraft' he used to win Desdemona were his stories, and that if a friend loved her he would teach the friend his stories 'and that would woo her.' He appears to be apologizing for Desdemona's love.

Desdemona chose Othello despite her family's objections and testified before the duke that she loves and married Othello willingly. Desdemona must constantly justify herself, but she remains devoted to Othello. Even as she is dying by his hand, she asks Emilia to 'commend me to my kind lord.'

So blinded by her love and faith in him, Desdemona remains loyal: 'My love doth so approve him; That even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns-;…-have grace and favor in them.'

Iago and Emilia

Iago is also a domineering man who shares in Othello's tragic flaw. He is jealous of Othello's success and suspects that Othello once 'H'as done my office,' or slept with Iago's wife, while he was away. Iago is also jealous that Othello promoted Cassio.

Iago's distrust and disdain towards women is apparent in how he treats his wife, calling her 'foolish' and a 'wench.' Desdemona is also the subject of Iago's disdain as he claims that her decision to marry Othello was a 'violent commencement in her' and that 'when she is sated with his body, she will find the error of her choice.'

Likewise, Emilia's discussions with Desdemona reveal her sentiments towards men and marriage. Emilia views men as scoundrels who treat their wives as property, and she proposes that women should be able to have their revenge when she says to Desdemona 'The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.'

Iago and Emilia seem like a mismatch. Even though Emilia expresses great cynicism about marriage, she wants to trust her husband. Against her better judgment she hands over Desdemona's handkerchief to Iago. Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio's quarters as 'proof' that Desdemona is cheating on Othello. It's not until the end of the play when Othello uses this 'evidence' as justification for killing Desdemona that Emilia realizes her husband's treachery.

Cassio and Bianca

Cassio is an ambitious soldier who has recently been promoted to Othello's lieutenant. Bianca is a courtesan. In a modern context, she would be considered a prostitute. Bianca is in love with Cassio, but he does not take her seriously.

Cassio and Bianca exemplify the subservience of women to men during Shakespeare's day. Bianca is a sexualized character who provides a diversion for Cassio. She defies Cassio by openly refusing to copy the handkerchief Iago planted in Cassio's quarters, an act which incites Othello's jealous rage. After this scene, Bianca is not seen again until Cassio is hurt, and she is cast aside by the men in this scene as a 'whore.'

Brabantio

Desdemona's father, Brabantio, appears in the initial scenes of the play. His significance is twofold. He is a disapproving father, and he is also the other half of Desdemona's divided duty.

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