Forms and functions of the representation of gender in "Othello" by William Shakespeare

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018

23 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Gender relations and stereotypes in early modern England

3. Representation of male-female relationships in Shakespeare’s Othello
3.1. Women as men’s possession
3.2. Submissive women in the patriarchy

4. Misogynist manipulation – Iago’s mischievous plan

5. The world turned upside down? Of jealous, lying men and loyal women

6. Revolt against the patriarchy – women who defend themselves

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography
8.1. Primary sources
8.2. Secondary sources

1. Introduction

The play Othello by William Shakespeare is one of his most popular ones and has been adapted into films and plays and has been rewritten several times. Today, most people know some of the main topics of the play without having read the original: race and love. However, also the subject of gender is one of great importance and allows feministic as well as anti-feministic readings of the play. The following term paper is therefore going to look at the forms and functions of the representation of gender in William Shakespeare ’s Othello.

Beginning with an overview of gender stereotypes and social hierarchies in Shakespeare’s times, referencing mainly Susan Almussen’s Gender, Culture and Politics in England, as well as Stephen Orgel’s Shakespeare, sexuality and gender, the uncovered results shall then be referred to the gender representation in the play at hand in the following chapters. Given the patriarchy present in early modern ages, chapter 3 will examine in how far this patriarchy is presented in Othello and how the female characters behave or should behave according to it. One of the male characters, Iago, stands behind most of the dramatic actions of the play – Using Prof Dr Heinz Antor’s Constructing Alterity: Race, Gender, and the Body in Shakespeare’s Othello, chapter 4 of this term paper has the aim to examine the motivations behind his mischievous plans and how and against whom he performs them. Chapter 5, then, is going to answer where the differences between male and female friendships lie and how they are characterized throughout the play. Strikingly, it will be highlighted that Shakespeare does not always present his male and female characters like they should have been according to Elizabethan stereotypes: contrasting the representation of male and female characters and their relations and referencing these to the findings of chapter 2, it will be revealed that their representation is inverted to some extent. The last chapter of this term paper’s main part, mainly referring to Emily C. Bartels’ Strategies of Submission: Desdemona, the Duchess, and the Assertion of Desire, tends to find out if and how the female characters revolt against the patriarchal society they live in and which does not give them much room to criticize or even revolt against the social hierarchies.

Examining the representation of gender in Othello, this term paper poses and targets to answer several questions. At first, more general ones, guiding the analysis at hand, such as: How are male and female characters presented? Which traits characterize them and how do male and female characters interact with each other? Are male and female characters in the play represented according to early modern gender stereotypes? Is one gender presented in a more positive light than another? And further questions which go beyond the surface: What are the functions of the representation of gender in Othello: Does Shakespeare criticize the stereotypes of the society he lives in? To what extent is Othello a feminist or a misogynist play? Or does it simply represent what Shakespeare experienced in the hierarchical society he lived in? Presumably, Shakespeare can be called neither a feminist nor a misogynist, however, he concedes his female characters a room to speak about their sorrows in the patriarchal society and criticizes his own early modern society through them.

2. Gender relations and stereotypes in early modern

England The play Othello was first published in 1604, when gender stereotypes differed from the ones we have in mind today. In order to analyse the gender representations in Shakespeare’s play, we first need to take a look at the society in which he lived. Which status did men and women have in the early modern society and which character traits were they said to possess? Especially in focus will be the social status of women and how they were treated by men, may they be their fathers or their husbands.

In Gender, Culture and Politics in England, 1560-1640 it is stated, that before and until shortly after the change of the century around 1600, there was an upswing in the controversy between men and women which has been and will be going on for years (cf. Amussen 2017: 21). The society at hand usually being a kind of patriarchy, there has always been the fear of the “usurpation of male authority by aggressive, disobedient women” (ibid: 21f.). Women in Shakespeare’s time were seen by men as “irrational, disorderly, dishonest, idle, excessively talkative […] and directed by ungovernable sexual appetites” (ibid: 22). Men, on the contrary, defined themselves as “rational, virtuous, prudent, capable of control and self-mastery” (ibid: 22). Their ideal form of men and women living together was “in a household governed by a patriarch, with obedient women, servants and children”, showing that for a household or a relationship to work, the male had always have to be on top and the female at the bottom (ibid: 27). This positioning will be of certain importance when we take a look at the – real or imagined - sexual intercourse between characters in Shakespeare’s play. Furthermore, women were always supposed to have their chastity in mind because their behaviour constantly influenced their reputation (cf. ibid: 44). The use of cosmetics in Shakespearean times was linked to prostitutes and was not appropriate for respectable women, having “devilish” features and changing the woman for the worse (ibid: 45). Also, it changed the natural appearance of a woman, making her dishonest, which women were said to be anyway. Qualities to look for in woman were virtue and “understanding, gained not through book-learning, […] but through feminine intuition”, showing that it was not appropriate for a woman to be too intelligent because that was a trait which was assigned to men (ibid: 44). It was however quite ironic that women were on the one hand not supposed to read and gain intellect and were on the other hand said to be less intelligent than men:

Women are more passionate, less intelligent, less in control of their affections and so forth. The difference in degree of perfection becomes in practical terms a significant difference in kind, and such arguments are used to justify the whole range of male domination over women (Orgel 2010: 222).

Men simply wanted women to be less intelligent to justify their higher position in the hierarchy.

Moreover, intellect was of course not the only justification for male domination over women. A biological theory of the age believed that in the beginning of their lives, all new-borns are female, with their sexual organs inside and that only strength makes a baby male: “A foetus becomes male rather than female if the male seed is dominant and generates enough heat to press the genital organs outwards – that is, if the foetus is stronger, strength being conceived as heat (ibid: 219).” With this view anchored in early modern society, it was not possible for women to be seen as strong or even as anything nearly as valuable as a man. As Stephen Orgel puts it into words: “In this version of anatomical history, we all begin as female, and masculinity is a development out of and away from femininity; the female is an incomplete male (ibid: 220).” And therefore masculinity would be the status of having overcome the weak and imperfect status of femininity.

Anything that threatened to disturb this ideal hierarchy posed a threat to patriarchy and society in general – and of course in reality not all households were structured like this male ideal. Some women were not obedient towards their husbands or fathers, others did not “even live in patriarchal households” (ibid: 27). These women, showing others that there could be an alternative to a social structure with a patriarch on top, were perceived as the biggest threat to patriarchy in general (cf. ibid: 27). Women who did not marry at all and did not stay in their households, were called “vagrant” women and could be prosecuted and imprisoned in a “house of correction” (ibid: 30f.). Some behaviours which were primarily associated with women were even prosecuted, such as scolding (cf. ibid: 28). “Scolds were usually married, but failed to be modest and submissive” and often they came from families with a “certain amount of economic power”, not wanting to lose some of it to a husband or rather a new patriarch (ibid: 27). Women who took scolding to a higher level could also be accused of and prosecuted for witchcraft (cf. ibid: 29). As we know, this would have a bigger impact on the woman’s life than fines or penance for scolding (cf. ibid: 28), given the history of the prosecution of witches.

In general, conflicts between husbands and wives were documented quite often in Shakespearean times, conflicts between fathers and daughters not that often. These conflicts, however, were “primarily around decisions related to marriage”, showing that there were women who did not want to be submissive to the family’s patriarch (ibid: 30). Between wives and husbands or ex-husbands, or even the husbands` family, the reasons for conflicts were often possessions or money. (As a divorce was illegal in England at the time, a marriage had to be annulled, due to reasons that forbid the marriage to be consummated, such as impotence (cf. ibid: 32).) If the conflict between the two parties could not be enclosed in person, one had to go to court. However, only very seldom women went to court alone, for various possible reasons: it might have been that “women lacked the resources to sue while they were unmarried or widowed”, they “lacked knowledge of their legal rights and entitlements” or that they “believed they had no actionable rights” (Stretton 1998: 140f.). Another reason for women to wait until they were married or remarried was, that they thought it would be easier to sue when they were accompanied by a man, “confirming that the struggle to achieve justice could prove harder for women than for men”(ibid: 142). Some women however, took the risk and “brought actions against their own husbands” (ibid: 143).

In the presented patriarchal society, there were “two male fantasies that most define early modern wives: the one, negative, of the shrew, and the other, the ideal of the submissive subordinate (Bartels 1996: 426).” Viewing women from a patriarchal perspective made them black or white, a shrew or submissive, good or bad. But like with the topic of skin colour in Othello, Shakespeare shows his audience us that there may not be a good or bad, there may be blurred lines, good black people, bad white people and good women, who speak for themselves. How Shakespeare deals with these blurred lines when it comes to gender representation is examined in the following chapters of the term paper at hand.

3. Representation of male-female relationships in

Shakespeare’s Othello In many cases in Shakespeare’s Othello, the relation between men and women is represented similar to the one in early modern England. However, Shakespeare seams to consider the presented stereotypes critically. The following subchapters are going to examine how Shakespeare deals with gender representations, primarily focusing on female characters and how they are treated by their male counterparts.

3.1. Women as men’s possession

Already in the first scenes of Shakespeare’s Othello, it becomes clear that women are not necessarily seen as independent beings with their own will and ideas, but as a possession of men, which can be transferred or stolen. This becomes especially prominent in the dialogue between Iago and Brabantio in Act 1 Scene 1. Repeatedly, Brabantio’s daughter Desdemona is referred to with possessive pronouns, making clear that she rightfully belongs to her father (cf. Shakespeare ed. 2014: Act I, Scene 1, ll.98-118). Like other possessions, she has a rightful place and can be stolen from her father, which is highlighted through Iago’s comparison of Desdemona to other – lifeless – things her father possesses: “Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags. Thieves, thieves!” (ibid: ll. 80f.). Also, she seems to be perceived as a thing, which has no motivation of its own to go away from her father and which can only passively endure actions, such as being taken away or used for someone else’s purposes. That this is not only the perspective of openly misogynist Iago, but also of her father becomes clear when he states things about Desdemona as: “She is abus’d, stol’n from me and corrupted […]” (ibid: Act I, Scene 3, l.60). Furthermore, Brabantio is or rather thinks he is in the position to decide who will be Desdemona’s husband – which was common for early modern fathers – and tells Roderigo that he will not be given Desdemona as his wife: “I have charg’d thee, not to haunt about my doors; / In honest plainness thou hast heard me say / My daughter is not for thee (ibid: Act I, Scene 1, ll.96-98).” That Desdemona marries Othello without asking her father for permission or even telling him equals a revolt against patriarchy. However, as mentioned in chapter 2, this issue was not unknown to fathers in the early modern period.

In marriages between characters, it appears to be similar – the woman is always supposed to be subordinate to her husband, regardless of the position she inherited from her family, which becomes evident in the class relation between Desdemona and Othello: She is the only child of a wealthy senator, whereas he is a black general. This leads to the assumption that Desdemona is a very valuable possession which has to be cautiously observed to avoid her being stolen from Othello in turn. As Rebecca Olson explains in her essay Too Gentle (2015: 3), in early modern ages “jealousy was [defined as] the fear of losing possession, either of household property or of people”. According to this, Othello should be jealous right from the beginning of the play, but he isn’t, and Desdemona does not expect it from him, which is revealed in a dialogue with Emilia: “Is he not jealous?” – “Who, he? I think the sun where he was born/ Drew all such humours from him (Shakespeare ed.2014: Act III, Scene 4, ll.28-31)”. This non-existent jealousy sets the ground for Iago’s malicious plan to show Othello that he would better have observed his wife and that Desdemona betrayed him with Cassio. And even though it was expected by early modern men to be jealous of their property, “which would have included [their] wife or daughter” (Olson 2015: 8), in the following actions in the play, jealousy is presented as a bad thing, a “monster” even (Shakespeare ed.2014: l.163). Does this criticise seeing women or rather any people as possessions in general? Perhaps, by Othello’s downfall and Desdemona’s death at his hands, Shakespeare tries to critically examine the master-possession hierarchy and shows that it is no good for anyone. However, it has to be taken into account, that there is a blurred “boundary between household jealousy – fear of losing one’s possessions – and sexual jealousy – fear of being cuckolded” (Olson 2015: 8). While Othello certainly falls prey to the monstrous sexual jealousy – and thereby shows that even men who appear not to be jealous at all fall prey to it – it is not clear if household jealousy is also presented in a critical light.


Excerpt out of 23 pages


Forms and functions of the representation of gender in "Othello" by William Shakespeare
University of Cologne
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Othello, Shakespeare, Racism, Othering, Desdemona, Feminism, Emilia, Iago, Misogynist, Sexist, Feminist
Quote paper
Lisa-Sophie Roth (Author), 2018, Forms and functions of the representation of gender in "Othello" by William Shakespeare, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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