“But I do think it is their husbands’ faults If wives do fall.” A gender studies approach to William Shakespeare’s "The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013
11 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Shakespeare seen with Gender Study eyes

2. A Gender Studies Approach to Shakespeare’s Othello
2.1. Gender Studies Theory
2.2. The role of the characters in society
2.2.1. Iago and Othello
2.2.2. Emilia and Desdemona
2.3. The Downfall of the characters
2.3.1. Male downfall for gender related reasons
2.3.2. Female downfall for gender related reasons

3. Shakespeare and women’s rights

4. Bibliography

1. Shakespeare seen with Gender Study eyes

Approaching Shakespeare’s works under the aspect of gender studies might not been originally intended by the author, however it provides multiple chances of interpretations and varieties of looking at the text. This is why in this seminar paper the literary theory of gender studies will be implemented on Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Firstly a theoretical approach to Gender Studies is going to lead the way into this paper with an explanation of the main aspects of the Gender Studies theory and why it was chosen for this work. This will be followed by a focus on depictions of women and men and the gender related differences shown in the play. Furthermore a close look on the main characters namely Othello and Iago being the most important male characters and on the other hand Emilia and Desdemona as the main female characters in the play is taken. Main issues discussed are how the characters fit their role in society, female obedience and silence in contrast to male dominance and the need to act as. Also will these main themes be put in contrast with the plot and its development to see the impact of the characters and their gender related behaviour towards it. This will lead to a final analysis of how gender does influence the plot of the tragedy Othello and its outcome. The characters’ downfalls that in the end lead to the tragic resolution is being discussed from a view of gender studies theory. The analysis shows how gender influences Shakespeare’s drama in detail, which changes the characters go through with the progression of the plot and gives a short explanation of how these issues could be so fatal for the characters that die in the play.

Gender has been a frequent way of analysing texts in the last years, even though it is a very recent development of literary theory. This makes it especially interesting for young students to work with it, as a modern approach to classical literature like Shakespeare is made possible. This seminar paper is trying to display some designated motifs of gender studies as mentioned above and wants to give an overview of how such an approach to Shakespeare’s Othello can be made.

2. A Gender Studies Approach to Shakespeare’s Othello

This chapter provides an approach to Shakespeare’s Othello viewing aspects relevant for a gender studies interpretation of the text, with a detailed look at, firstly the theory of gender studies, secondly on the characters of Iago, Othello, Desdemona and Emilia and their rank in society. Thirdly the downfall of these characters will be discussed and how gender influences it.

2.1. Gender Studies Theory

According to Showalter gender studies came up around the early 1980’s in the blooming time of feminist criticism as “the latest and most rapidly growing mode of American feminist criticism (1990: 196). Women getting more rights in society during this period of history made it also interesting to look upon literature, culture and art from within a new perspective. As feminist criticism main method was to look at female writers and their works, the development of gender studies took up this idea of taking a female look on society and culture, but to also compare these to a male view to see similarities and differences. This is stated by Cranny-Francis et al.:

Gender is one of feminism’s most central categories of inquiry, and it intersects with many other social systems (race, sexuality) which are also governed by binary opposition. Gender studies pays particular attention to how these markers of difference work to constitute and reinforce individual and social subjectivities. (2003: 4)

This means, that the differences of gender and sex are main topics of gender studies theory, as well as the influences these pictures of gender have for the individual person or society.

[T]o substitute the analysis of social constructs for biological determinism in the discussion of sexual difference; to introduce comparative studies of women and men into the specific disciplinary field; and to transform disciplinary paradigms by adding gender as an analytic category (Showalter 1990: 197) is what Joan W. Scott defines as the main ideas and goals of the gender theory. This means gender studies provide help to interpret gender roles in society, as for example the common housewife or the working male, often in a context of how or if those roles can be disregarded or if a person is bound to one of these stereotypes. But not only are stereotypes in society important for a gender related approach to a text, but also the consequences of these are a great point of interest. How are characters for example influenced by their social role, do they stick to it during a novel or a drama, or do they change and stop acting as their role would befit? In Shakespeare’s Othello a lot of gender related issues can be approached and that is why the gender studies theory is a very interesting literary theory to imply on this work. During the time the play was written of course society had different views on gender roles, as we have them today, but this makes an analysis even more exciting. It gives the chance to see the play from different angles of interpretation, for example a modern approach and one from an Elizabethan times view.

According to Bal “gender and sexual behaviour [. . .] are neither individually intended nor biologically determined, but culturally embedded; pressured, but not inescapably fixed.” (2005: 531). This statement supports the goals Scott set for gender studies which now provide tools to analyse this mentioned behaviour and to put it in context to the piece of literature it appears in.

Bal also contributes, that every person is pressured into gender related roles, by their moment of birth (cf. Bal 2005: 531) so this concludes to gender studies being a literary theory every person in todays’ world has a relationship towards, because every person is part of the society and has a gender and sex related role in it.

All these aspect of gender studies make it a very interesting literary theory to apply on Shakespeare’s work, especially on Othello, as it is often considered a domestic tragedy playing with the stereotypical roles of women and men in society mentioned above. Furthermore the Tragedy of Othello gives a lot of opportunity to interpret female influences on male characters as well as the opposite and how this changes the plot of the play.

2.2. The role of the characters in society

All citations of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice are taken from Stephen Greenblatt et al. The Norton Shakespeare based on the Oxford Edition (2005).

2.2.1. Iago and Othello

In this chapter the characters of Iago and Othello shall be looked upon closely, mostly towards their gender related role they have in the society the drama is situated in. Firstly Iago and Othello are both military men, which is stated by Iago in the first scene of the drama when he complains about Othello choosing Cassio over him as his new lieutenant (I, i). This military involvement of both characters shows their very masculine side fighting the war against the turks for Venice (I, iii). However, Othello being described as a “Moor” (I, i: 39) shows him in a different light then Iago who is a trueborn Venetian citizen. Even though Othello is not originally from Venice he has a higher military rank than Iago, which in the on-going of the drama forces Iago to react out of jealousy, which will be discussed later as a general male treat of character in the play (cf. Neely 1980: 222-23).

Othello is displayed with very positive aspects, as brave (I, iii: 290), “valiant” (I, iii: 47, 252; II, ii: 1), “worthy” (II, iii: 180) and “noble” (II, ii: 1). Iago in the contrary is mostly characterised by being “honest” (I, iii: 293; II, iii: 7), which is the perceived view of other characters, but obviously the truth can be seen by the reader. As also Othello and Iago give up their nature of honourable and noble men, both characters seem to change greatly during the play. The difference is that Iago is just hiding his true identity from the other characters, while Othello’s good character treats just change outright and vanish in the moment he gets to think that Desdemona is cheating on him (III, iii: 37-9; 96-7; 100-20; 135; 194-96). These lies inflicted on him by Iago turn out to be the changing point, where Othello being a noble man and honourable member of the Venetian society, as stated above, turns into a “monster” (I, iii: 386; III, iii: 170; V, ii: 197) or kind of animal as often described by Iago or even himself (III, iii: 184; IV, I: 260) (Morozov 1977: 22-7).

In conclusion this shows that the characters of Iago and Othello have two sides. One shows their high rank in society of Venice as military men, which is considered the role they should have as male members of Venetian society, being strong, honourable and honest. On the other hand the negatively influenced masculine side of animals and beasts acting without much thought is portrayed on them.

2.2.2. Emilia and Desdemona

Emilia and Desdemona on the other side are clearly feminine. During the course of the play, both change though and mostly Emilia leaves behind virtues consider as female. Firstly both are displayed as honest and good wives to their husbands, loyal and obedient. They are pressured into this role by Venetian society as well as men are considered to be strong, women are mostly displayed as beautiful, heavenly, but also silent, obedient, and therefore weak. Desdemona for example is described as “divine” (II, i: 73), as a “maiden” (I, iii: 94), as “fair” (IV, i: 172) and “obedient” (IV, i: 243; 252-53). Emilia on the contrary is not directly described by words, but her actions during the drama mostly show how she “obey[s]” (V, ii: 203) her husband Iago: [T]hat handkerchief thou speak’st of [. . .] He begged of me to steal’t (V, ii: 232-36). She remains in her role as loyal wife to her husband until the very end of the play. Not staying loyal to her husband anymore, as Iago commands her (V, ii: 224; 229), does not befit her role as his wife, but it helps to reveal Iago’s cunning plot and in this sense she is disobedient towards her husband but obedient to her duties towards law, resolving the murder of Desdemona (Callaghan 1989: 85).

As both male characters Iago and Othello seem to change within their role and status in society during the play, the treats attributed to the feminine characters do not change as massively during the course of the drama. Desdemona dies with the same virtues she inherits from the beginning of the play: “innocent” (V, ii: 206). Emilia on the other hand does change dramatically. She is obedient until she realizes what the role of the obedient and silent wife she is, has brought upon her and others. This change will be discussed in more detail in the next chapter of this seminar paper.

In conclusion the female characters looked at stay mostly consistent with their role in Venetian society as housewives, loyal and obedient to their husbands and remaining silent as commanded. However, Emilia is forced (V, ii: 225) to break out of this role and takes over almost masculine treats.


Excerpt out of 11 pages


“But I do think it is their husbands’ faults If wives do fall.” A gender studies approach to William Shakespeare’s "The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice"
University of Würzburg  (Neuphilologisches Institut)
Shakespeare’s Tragedies
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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william, shakespeare’s, tragedy, othello, moor, venice
Quote paper
Maximilian Bauer (Author), 2013, “But I do think it is their husbands’ faults If wives do fall.” A gender studies approach to William Shakespeare’s "The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/311959


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