The Role of Women in Othello

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  • 0:02 Shakespeare's Women
  • 0:51 The Plot of Othello
  • 2:27 Desdemona
  • 2:59 Emilia
  • 3:39 Bianca
  • 4:19 Role of Women
  • 5:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Bishop
Considered one of Shakespeare's quintessential tragedies, ''Othello'' is a story about the destructive power of a man's jealous nature, but this play also features a few of Shakespeare's most intriguing female characters.

Shakespeare's Women

William Shakespeare's tragedies focus on the heroic flaws of primarily male characters, but unlike many popular playwrights of his time, Shakespeare wrote vibrant roles for women. Although women were forbidden from appearing on stage at the time, Shakespeare developed complex and powerful female characters. In this lesson, we will explore the role of women in Othello and gain some insight as to how these characters illuminate the story.

Othello features only three female characters: Desdemona, Othello's wife, Emilia, wife to Iago and attendant to Desdemona, and Bianca, a courtesan and love interest to Cassio. All three play a pivotal role in the plot, but the women of Othello also reveal some of Shakespeare's views on women and marriage.

The Plot of Othello

Let's briefly review the plot: Because Othello chose Cassio for lieutenant instead of him, Iago wishes to destroy Othello using his only weakness, Desdemona. Othello is devoted to Desdemona, but he is also insecure. Iago insinuates Desdemona's infidelity, using a convenient friendship between Desdemona and Cassio, a loyal lieutenant to Othello, to cast suspicion on her.

Now, Iago only needs evidence to prove Desdemona is cheating. His wife, Emilia, has a handkerchief Othello gave to Desdemona as a token of his affection. Iago convinces Emilia to hand it over, and he plants the handkerchief in Cassio's quarters. Cassio finds the handkerchief, and impressed with its beauty, asks his girlfriend Bianca, to make a copy of it. Bianca, suspicious that Cassio is cheating on her, reluctantly agrees. Later, in front of Othello, Bianca storms in jealously waving the handkerchief, refusing to copy an item from Cassio's 'lover!' Recognizing the handkerchief as Desdemona's, Othello launches into a rage.

As Othello and Desdemona argue, Othello reveals that Cassio has been killed in a fight. Because Cassio is the only person who can exonerate her, Desdemona cries out, which convinces Othello of her love for Cassio. Othello smothers his wife in her bed. Emilia pleads with Othello, but it is too late. Emilia tells the truth about Iago's plot. Iago kills Emilia. Cassio, as it turns out, survives the attack. Othello, defeated by Iago's treachery, apologizes to Cassio. Othello wounds Iago before killing himself.


Desdemona encompasses everything a man of the time would want in a wife. She is beautiful, soft-spoken, and devoted to her husband. Despite her doting, Othello cannot believe Desdemona married him. His doubt drives his jealousy, but Desdemona remains firm in her love for him throughout the play, even as Othello is clearly about to murder her. Shakespeare uses Desdemona to reveal the inherent distrust men have for women. In this context, even the most perfectly accorded women are unable to protect themselves from the flaws of men.


Cynical and intelligent, Emilia is Desdemona's dramatic foil, or contrasting character used to highlight another character's qualities. Despite Emilia's doubts about Iago, she is an obedient wife to him. Yet, she is profoundly critical of men, stating 'They are all but stomachs, and we all but food' (act 3, scene 4). Emilia is an anomaly among Elizabethan tragic characters. She thinks independently, but her actions reveal that she wants to trust her husband. In the end, however, she chooses to honor her friend and mistress and expose her husband's treachery. Emilia, too, is a victim of the plotting and flaws of men.

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