Active Agents or Passive Instruments? Female Characters in William Shakespeare's “Othello”

Term Paper, 2011

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table Of Contents

I. Introduction

II. The Female Characters in “Othello”
II.I. Desdemona
II.II. Emilia
II.III. Bianca

III. The Function of Female Characters in the Plot of „Othello“
III.I. Female Characters as Active Agents
III.II. Female Characters as the Men`s Instruments

IV. Conclusion

V. Works Cited

I. Introduction

“And 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.” (Shakespeare 4.3.100-103)

This emancipated statement by Emilia in William Shakespeare`s tragedy “Othello” already could lead to assume that there is far more to the female characters in the play than just the role of the loving wife or the accessory part for the male ones. However, it is mostly Iago and his schemes or Othello and his tragic fate that are in the centre of the reader`s attention rather than the characters of Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca. Iago being unique for the Shakespearean villain and Othello as the personification for the tragedy of jealousy are, to a certain extent, pushing back the female figures to a background position in the people`s general perception of “Othello”.

After all, the women in the play are `worth a second glance`, since only a closer reading can really reveal the whole importance and the subtle power of women in the play, albeit in the background of it. The aim of this paper is to show the function of the female figures in “Othello” and, in this context, to prove their importance for the tragedy`s development. Therefore, I will first analyze the characters of Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca as a basis for a closer look at their function in the plot of “Othello” afterwards. In this context, it is important to say that I will not focus on every facet of the characters but only on the aspects that are significant ones for each and for the further examination. Concerning Desdemona`s, Emilia`s and Bianca`s function in the play, I will investigate in which ways they contribute to the development of the plot. Are they active or passive? Are they doers or victims? And which actions and characteristics of the female figures are actually marking their importance or even power in the tragedy? All these questions will be discussed in this paper in order to demonstrate that Desdemona as well as Emilia and Bianca are indeed more than `nice accessories` in the plot of Shakespeare`s “Othello”.

II. The Female Characters in “Othello”

To draw conclusions to their function in the plot, it is important to see what the characters of Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca are actually like. In this respect, I will have a look at what each of these women feels, believes and how they are perceived by other figures in the play. Furthermore, I will examine the major similarities and differences between the three female characters and how they are related to each other.

II.I. Desdemona

“Your wife, my lord, your true and loyal wife” (4.2.35) - that is what Desdemona answers her husband Othello when he, already gripped by ludicrous jealousy, asks her who she really is. This statement shows us the self-perception of Desdemona as a loving, loyal and devoted wife to Othello. Indeed, the role as the protagonist`s wife is the most important aspect concerning her whole character. In the tragedy, Desdemona symbolizes like no other woman innocence, youth and beauty. Her father Brabantio describes her as “a maid, so tender, fair, and happy” (1.2.66) and Othello`s Lieutenant Cassio suggests that Desdemona “is a most exquisite lady” (2.3.18) and that “she is indeed perfection” (2.3.25). But it is in particular Othello who, before he gets caught in Iago`s schemes, admires his “fair warrior” (2.1.181). Their love is romantic and mutual, until Othello`s mind is embittered by jealousy. Desdemona, in contrast to that, remains a devoted and loyal wife throughout the whole play: “my heart`s subdued / Even to the utmost pleasure of my lord” (1.3.250-251). The depth of devotion and love for her husband is also expressed in her tender language when addressing Othello: “My dear Othello!” (2.1.182), “good love” (3.3.55) or “my noble lord” (4.2.66). As a wife, she feels the need to show Othello all her duty (1.3.188-189).

In addition to this loyalty, the innocence marks another important feature of Desdemona`s character and, of course, determines her behaviour in the play, especially in the role of the wife. She, a believing Christian (4.2.84), is considered as a symbol of “youth and maidhood” (1.1.172). In this respect, she seems, in the beginning of the play, as an opposite pole to her husband Othello: a young, white and noble Venetian marries “in spite of nature, / of years, of country, credit, everything” (1.3.96-97) the older, black warrior. The dissimilarity of both lovers is described with Iago`s vulgar words to Desdemona`s father that “an old black ram / Is tupping [his] white ewe” (1.1.88-89) However, falling in love with Othello and marrying him is no loss of Desdemona`s innocence. On the contrary: her decision for this marriage is based on deep romantic passion and sympathy, not on erotic desire. The aspect of her being fascinated by Othello`s adventure stories as the reason for her love retains her pure innocence and opens at the same time another facet of her character: her passionateness.

It is for her passionateness that Desdemona falls in love with her husband, since he “did beguile her of her tears” (1.3.156) and she loves him “for the dangers [he] had passed” (1.3.167). But what is more: her deep sympathy for Othello makes her defend this marriage against her father`s resistance, makes her follow Othello to Cyprus and, what is most significant, makes her bear her husband`s lunatic jealousy until the moment of her death. On the other hand, it is also this passionateness and her friendly, empathic nature that are (unconsciously) her curse. The enthusiastic commitment to help Cassio is a matrix for Iago`s schemes. In this context, we can observe Desdemona as both an enormous devoted and innocent person. She is far from being suspicious; she is full of trust and cannot believe that her beloved husband is being conducted by the dishonest motives of jealousy that Iago has brought into his mind: “I think the sun where he was born / Drew all such humours from him” (3.4.26-27). Good-natured and frugal, she even excuses his emotionally cold behaviour towards her by stating in a dialogue with Emilia that they, as wives, “must think / Men are not gods; / Nor of them look for such observances / As fits the bridal” (3.4.146-148). Being realistic and idealistic (concerning Othello`s cold-hearted way of treating her) at the same time, it becomes clear that Desdemona is selflessly devoted to her husband until the end in her innocent, almost stoic unbelief of the evil. Her constant neglect of all suspicion, all evil is expressed when she states that “[she] cannot say `whore`: / It does abhor [her] now [she] speak[s] the word” (4.2.163-164). She never accuses her husband for his misconduct, not even when he stifles her (5.2.125) – she is a character who forgives. This control of her feelings is also reflected in her self-characterization when she says that “[she] do[es] beguile / The thing [she] [is], by seeming otherwise” (2.1.122-123). Thus, Desdemona faces her own death in a controlled way: with fear, but after all, in the awareness of her own innocence. The only sins she attributes to herself “are loves [she] bear[s] to [him]” (5.2.40).


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Active Agents or Passive Instruments? Female Characters in William Shakespeare's “Othello”
University of Potsdam  (Institut für Anglistik/ Amerikanistik)
Shakespeare`s Tragedies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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491 KB
Othello, Shakespeare, Female Characters
Quote paper
Wiebke Pietzonka (Author), 2011, Active Agents or Passive Instruments? Female Characters in William Shakespeare's “Othello”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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