Othello - A feminist Shakespeare and a drama about a handkerchief

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

17 Pages, Grade: 2- (B-)



1 Introduction

2 Feminism
2.1 Definition of ‘feminism’
2.2 Feminism and literary criticism
2.3 Feminism and Shakespeare

3 Othello as a feminist play
3.1 The handkerchief and its symbolism
3.1.1 The handkerchief – not only a stage prop
3.2 Feminism in Othello

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography
5.1 Primary literature
5.2 Secondary literature

1 Introduction

This work deals with Shakespeare’s play Othello with regard to feminism. It will analyse the female characters and their relation to men and society. Furthermore it will try to find out if Shakespeare was a feminist or not, if he created feministic women and if he supported the idea of equal rights. Additionally, the paper will look at the handkerchief as a stage prop and as a symbol with a wider meaning. How did Shakespeare use its symbolism?

First of all, this work will give a short overview over feminism, its definition, its historical development and its relation to Shakespeare. The following chapter deals with the play Othello in connection with feminism. Can Othello be interpreted from a feminist point of view? What symbols did Shakespeare use? Here the handkerchief is of special interest. Finally, the conclusion will summarize the findings and give results.

In order to give a broad view of meanings and feministic reviews this paper works with secondary literature from 1775 to 2000 to show how opinions changed, respectively how they remained the same. Moreover it includes books about feminism in general and books about Shakespeare’s plays and feminism.

2 Feminism

This section starts with an introduction of the topic by defining feminism and by presenting a short overview over the latest history of feminist criticism. Subsequently it becomes more specific and deals with feminism and Shakespeare in particular.

2.1 Definition of ‘feminism’

First of all, the following short definition explains the term feminism.

Feminism: 1. The belief that women and men are, and have been, treated differently by our society, and that women have frequently and systematically been unable to participate fully in all social arenas and institutions.
2. A desire to change that situation.
3. That this gives a “new” point-of-view on society, when eliminating old assumptions about why things are the way they are, and looking at it from the perspective that women are not inferior and men are not “the norm.”[1]

2.2 Feminism and literary criticism

The feministic movement developed during the 1960s due to the political background of the time. After World War II more and more women started to work. Furthermore, more women obtained a college degree and an education equal to that of men. As a result of the higher education, expectations were aroused that could not be satisfied by women’s mere existence as housewives. This symptom of the “trapped housewife”[2] became a big political issue. Women were suddenly looked upon in a different way. This period of change resulted in several political fractions that aimed for equal rights for women. Discrimination related to employment because of gender was banned. But in public, the new feministic laws were smirked at. There existed no real organisational structures that could realise the equal rights movement. As a result, women joined together and started to fight for Women’s Rights. In 1966, for example, they founded the National Organisation for Women (NOW) in the USA with journalistic activities and radical manifests. Many of the founded organisations were defined as organisations for women – not only by women – so that men were also allowed to be members. Their legal orientation pursued definite short-term and long-term aims. What began with a few organisations ended up as a mass movement called the Women’s Liberation. This civil rights movement was more critical and had further-reaching aims. The women now criticised society in general. They wanted to build a huge political movement in order to get attention and to mobilise feminists. Their overall goal was “the complete elimination of the sex role system”[3].

Step by step, feminists analysed political, social and cultural areas. In the field of Literature Science at the universities they discovered that women were discriminated like in no other social-cultural area. The feministic movement claimed to see a connection between the cultural and social power of the male dominated society. As a result, female students were more timid, more careful and less self-confident than male students because “women do not have equal opportunity either in the society or in the classroom”[4]. Around the same time, feminist criticism became successful as a field of its own. Women started a protest due to discrimination at the universities. They initiated courses against the old traditions of teaching and research. These so called Free Universities can be seen as the beginning of the of the feminist canon’s criticism.

As opposed to other branches of literary analysis, the feminists could not take up, or change, an already existing tradition. There were only two books they could have referred to: Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own (1929) and Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe (The second sex 1949)[5]. As such, the first true early feminist texts were written in the late 60s and early 70s[6].

The concept of feminist literary criticism began as resistance against the text itself. The Feminist Critique analysed texts with the angle of the oppression of women. Many female readers did not recognize themselves and their experiences in contemporary literature and found that women often even were ignored. The majority of novels with female protagonists portrayed the women as oppressed, helpless or powerless fictional heroines, would-be authors or depressed readers. The literary text itself was never really important. Rather than letting the text and its literary qualities play an important part, the essential part was the message that could be extracted from it. Most often this was a message to be taken very seriously and very literally. The Feminist Critique came to the conclusion that literature was an active part of the oppression of women. The central topic was the woman as victim.

Following this first movement in the field of feminist critique and writing, a new approach termed Gynocritics surfaced. This approach focussed on women, the author’s and reader’s life and experiences. Additionally, it returned to the text. The structures of writing, the symbols, the themes and the genres were looked at. However, the books examined were only books by women and the texts themselves were often regarded as only a function of the author’s femininity. The aim of Gynocritics was to produce and analyse a connection between the female author and her thinking, her experience, her socialisation and her femininity[7].

The next step was the concept of gender. It was basically a value and relation system that concentrated on the literary text irrespective of the author. On the other hand it dealt more with attitudes, perceptions and ideologies than with real, present women.


[1] http://www.cs.uu.nl/wais/html/na-dir/feminism/info.html

[2] Katrin Schwenk (1996) Politik des Lesens – Stationen der feministischen Kanonkritik in den USA. Pfaffenweiler: Centaurus. p. 94

[3] SCHWENK 1996, 99

[4] SCHWENK 1996, 101

[5] cp. SCHWENK 1996, 104

[6] For example: Mary Ellmann’s Thinking about women (1968), Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) and the anthologies Women in Sexist Society (ed. Vivian Gornick 1971) and Images of Women in Fiction (ed. Susan Cornillon 1972)

[7] cp. SCHWENK 1996, 163

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Othello - A feminist Shakespeare and a drama about a handkerchief
University of Göttingen  (English Seminar)
2- (B-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
666 KB
Othello, Shakespeare, Englisch, Literatur, Literaturwissenschaft
Quote paper
Magister Artium (M.A.) Silvia Alpers (Author), 2004, Othello - A feminist Shakespeare and a drama about a handkerchief, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/29873


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