Women’s Oppression in Shakespeare’s Othello

Posted on: 13th May 2023


Support G.K. Hunter’s claim that “[t]he dramatic function of Iago is to reduce the white ‘reality’ of Othello to the black ‘appearance’ of his face” nicely captures the sense in which Othello’s action continually moves between concealment and revelation (258). As I will go on to demonstrate, concealment and revelation also govern the play’s sexual dynamics. [And so on.] Summarizing a Relevant Chunk As G.K. Hunter has argued, Shakespeare presents a “traditional” view of unpleasant “Moorish” qualities (“gross, disgusting, inferior” and so on). He gains his audience’s assent only to undermine that presentation with the actual appearance of Othello, a dignified and glamorous hero. Accordingly, Hunter argues, Othello appears as a man “that we have wronged.” Our initial belief in Iago’s mischaracterization of Othello makes “us” both complicit with Iago and Iago’s victims (255). Using Counter-Argument and Counter-Evidence While G.K. Hunter argues that Shakespeare presents (and then undermines) a traditionally negative view of Moors, [Scholar X] argues that Moors were not, in fact, the victims of the kind of prejudicial thinking Hunter describes (Hunter 255, X 312). Logic If Othello is, as Hunter argues, “a play which manipulates our sympathies, supposing that we will have brought to the theatre a set of careless assumptions about Moors,” (256) then it is not clear how Othello has continued to enthrall modern audiences in an age when the term “Moor” signifies virtually nothing. The continuing success of Othello suggests that Hunter’s emphasis on the prejudicial mindset of Shakespeare’s audience, and Shakespeare’s manipulation of that mindset, requires reappraisal.

Notes on Thesis Statements Your thesis statement is the the sentence the rest of your essay will support the plausibility of. Thesis statements in essays about literature will not be factual, nor will they be so close to factual that they’re effectively factual. Negative Ex. “In this essay, I will demonstrate that Othello was first staged in 1604.” — This is a fact. Negative Ex. “In this essay, I will demonstrate that Shakespeare is one of the most important authors in the English language.” — This is not technically a fact, since “importance” is subjective, but it is so widely accepted that it is close enough to fact. Your thesis statement should aim for plausibility. Positive Ex. “Iago embodies the figures of both Vice and Reason, ideas emerging from two different traditions, Christianity and the Enlightenment, the former well-established in English society and the latter still emerging at the time of the play’s debut.” — Whether or not I believe it upon first reading, this seems to track with enough of what I know about European intellectual history to make me open to reading further. Negative Ex. “Iago is actually part man, part machine. I will demonstrate, through close reading certain clues in the play, that Iago is literally a cyborg.” — Yeah ... no. Your thesis should aim for demonstrability. Negative Ex. “It was Shakespeare’s intention that Othello should serve as a play designed to lecture the newly ascendant King James on the perils of leadership.” — We know very little about Shakespeare’s actual life, and we know nothing about his stated intentions. So immediately I would want to know what evidence you could furnish that would prove that Shakespeare had a specific and stated intention for his play. Your thesis should aim for something that is not plot-oriented. Negative Ex. “Emilia obeys Iago even though she suspects that he has nefarious ends because she is obeying the gender and marital norms of the time.” — This posits an explanation of a certain plot point. It’s therefore about the motivations and causality of the plot, and it does not engage a broader interpretation of the play. It’s too limited and bounded to make for an effective and provocative thesis statement. Your thesis statement should not make a value judgment, or at least not a simplistic one. Negative Ex. “Iago is evil [or racist] and any right-thinking person should deplore what he does.” — This may make you feel good, but it does not help us understand the Thesis statement should address a question or problem about the text. The source of this interpretive problem could be: — The text itself — Critical debate surrounding the text — The history of the text’s production or reception — The relationship between a given set of historical and social circumstances and the text itself Thesis statement should not just be supported by evidence. Thesis statements should emerge from an analysis of evidence. Examples: The popularity of Harry Potter fanfiction suggests that the ways we understand the basic elements of literary texts have shifted with the advent of modern fan communities. Literary “characters” are no longer delineated by the texts in which they originate. Literary characters are social phenomena, not narrative phenomena. “Ozymandias” suggests that history ironizes and alters the meaning of literary statements in ways the authors of those statements cannot predict. The most recent six The Fast and the Furious films are allegories of the post-9/11 American security state that seek to resolve the tensions between “liberty” and “security” through recourse to familial metaphors.

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Women’s Oppression in Shakespeare’s Othello


The theme of gender particularly women oppression stands out as a significant subject in the course of examining Shakespeare’s Othello. Recebt years have seen scholars coming to realize the significance that female characters within the play contributed towards the growth of the plot and other themes within the play (You 12). Women, gender, and domesticity are significant subjects to explore in this particular play since they are evident in almost all the scenes (Adams 4). They are significant to this particular study since different aspects of gender have been explored in the play to bring out oppression faced by women. An example is the roles and expectations that women in the play are expected to perform such as carrying out domestic tasks, satisfying men sexually and always serving men whenever called upon. Also, women oppression has played a critical role in developing other characters and themes within the play. In the play, women oppression has been depicted through Othello’s mother even though she died prior the beginning of the play, Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca (You 12). In what follows, I will argue that Othello has greatly explored the fact that men disregard women in the society and all the action men do to women is a form of oppression.

Women’s Oppression based on their gender.

Aspects of women oppression particularly as a result of gender inequality are evident throughout the play. The subject of women oppression stands out as a significant subject in the course of examining Othello’s tragedy in Shakespeare’s Othello due to the significant contribution made by women in the course of enhancing the play’s plot.  In the play, from the onset to the end of the play there are numerous instances whereby the audience can notice discriminatory words or acts made against women. Within the play, it is clear that women have been rendered powerless and are considered as men’s possession. From time to time, within the play, women are referred to as objects. For instance, Brabantio asserts “She is ... stol'n from me“ (1.3.60). In this statement, Brabantio employs the use of political terms to describe the situation and the things that had come to pass making him consider his daughter to be dead to him. Also, within the same scene, the men; Roderigo and Brabantio can be seen to consider the inferiority that women have as something natural. It is for this reason that Roderigo asserts that Desdemona had made a “great revolt” since she had portrayed resistance against men’s leadership (Adam 60).

Oppression of women due to traditional stereotypes

In some of the conversations in the play, women are dishonored insulted and not trusted. This is evident where Desdemona tries to prove how loyal and true she is but Othello does not believe asserting “Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell.” Here, Othello shows the lack of trust that she has towards Desdemona. Instead of explaining to her using kind words she employs the use of harsh words. She prompts her to continue lying to him so that she can be damned by God to hell. He also goes on to ridicule her asserting that she is a hypocrite that even the devil will mistake her to be an angel of which she is not. From this depiction, You (14) asserts that, such a case is a representation of how men did not trust women and thus verbally discriminated using harsh words and sarcasm.  In other words, it can be argued that Desdemona is mistreated and disrespected the most out of all the women. At the beginning of the story, Brabantio creates a notion that he is the one who possesses Desdemona. This is evident in his accusation against Othello by claiming that Othello had stolen her from him. Nevertheless, Othello is also depicted mistreating Desdemona through his accusations of women being untrustworthy and that is why he accuses her of unfaithfulness. It is also seen that Othello further extends the degradation towards Desdemona by calling her rude names and saying her “fountain” is polluted and can only produce disgusting toads. The rude names Othello calls Desdemona show that he does not respect her, even though she is completely loyal to him. From this textual evidence, it is undoubtedly vivid that women discrimination in Othello is rampant.

Moreover, Emilia is constantly mocked and disrespected by her husband, Iago.  He is rude to her by saying she is too talkative, but in reality, she doesn’t speak frequently, “In faith, too much/ I find it still, when I have leave to sleep/ She puts her tongue a little in her heart.”(2.1.112) Lago makes these callous remarks in front of Cassio and Desdemona, thus humiliating her further. Lago never offers Emilia any affection and is discriminative towards her and all women in general by saying they are lazy for everything except sex, “You [Women] rise to play and go to bed to work.”(2.1.118). His sexist assertion affects Emilia internally by wounding her self-esteem. There are times when people’s words can be very detrimental to people’s lives. The effect of verbal oppression might not harm an individual physically, but psychological torture is considered worse even than physical harm. Therefore, when Lago oppresses these women through verbal discrimination, they might develop low self-esteem that will render them unhappy all their life and might even affect their health. It is thus improper to discriminate against others even within the contemporary society whether verbally or physically.

Disrimination of women by men to render them powerless

Women have been oppressed in the play Othello just because men want to be powerful and render women powerless. It is evident within the text that women were oppressed by being denied the position of power and thus rendered powerless. Within the play, both Desdemona and Emilia experience violence from their husbands just because their husbands are thirsty for being superior. Most of the male characters in the play and even women perceive the role of women to be the one relating to domestic issues.  In Othello, women are viewed as an inferior sex which is a form of discrimination referred to as sexism. Therefore, through differences in sex, different women in the book are discriminated in varied demeaning manners. For example, Emilia has been depicted as a person who is not intelligent while Bianca has been portrayed as a prostitute. Even though the different women in Othello have varied qualities, the aspect of discrimination of rather an oppression is shared among all of them. The oppression shared by this women is discrimination by men in their lives. Boyer (178) points out that it is clear in the play that the society during the setting of the play did not want women to get an insight into their sexuality since knowing this would give them power and more importantly control over their bodies. For instance, Lago claims “I follow him to serve my turn upon him. ” (1.1.4). In this statement, Lago tries to show how the powerless people are discriminated and thus it is important for them to come up with strategies to evade the discrimination imposed against them. While saying this statement, lago is describing the strategy that he is employing to Roderigo and at the same time trying to justify his treachery. It can also be seen that he is bitter about his superiors because they follow them only to harm them. The same case applies to women, the people who are in power particularly men misuse their powers and often harm women as depicted by lago. It can also be seen that Lago compares servants top donkeys as a mechanism of stressing on the type of mistreatment faced by those who are powerless such as women.

Women are oppressed due to racial difference

Within the play, women have also been oppressed just for having certain racial identifies. Othello mistreats his wife because she is of a different race. Othello accuses her wife of being unfaithful just because of racial differences; this insinuates that men at the time had little trust on women while the race was a factor that affected gender and vice versa. Subsequently, most of the scholars support the notion that women oppression is a significant subject within the play Othello. For example, Boyer (180) argues that Emilia might have been discriminated frequently due to her racial identity and the fact that she was a woman. Also, the author explores how Shakespeare was fascinated with black race and always depicting them as inferior to other races in his different works. From this, it can be deduced that even women who were black were mistreated and looked down upon in the play. On the other hand, Smith (12) asserts that there was a frequent comparison between Othello and Emilia’s color-sensitive wish that was driven towards her mistress. Here, the author tries to insinuate that despite the fact that women can be oppressed on other grounds, still due to racial difference, women in Othello suffered even more by drawing on the case of Emilia. The play has depicted both Othello and Emilia as people of color and from it is the reason as to why racial discrimination is perceived within the play.

Neglect among women in the society

You (25) asserts that female characters in Othello had been neglected by traditional criticisms that have been done on Shakespeare’s plays. This is a major challenge even within the contemporary society since there are numerous women who suffer at the hands of men due to traditional beliefs in the society. Neglection comes in when women are denied to engage in some important things even assigned less important and beneficial duties while men are assigned significant roles in the society. In the play, Bianca is abused and by the men in her life. Most men disrespect by considering her as the town whore and viewing her as inferior. Out of all the men, Cassio is the most abusive. He takes disregards Bianca of her by primarily using her for sex and saying demeaning things behind her back, “I marry her! What? A whore?/ Prithee bear some charity to my wit. Do not think it so unwholesome. Ha, ha, ha!.” (4.1.6) Cassio treats his wife like she is an object of sexual desire and pleasure. He is exploiting Bianca by using her body for sex rather than having a mutual relationship instead. The female characters are persistently mistreated. Men view them as lower in status and incapable of being independent. Therefore, from this it is seen that women have been neglected from making up their independent decisions while men have taken the role of deciding for them. Some men’s sexist views are based on traditional stereotypes, like all women are whores or unintelligent. These stereotypes affect women and make them feel inferior. People shouldn’t discriminate others by their gender or any other social status.


There is sufficient evidence from the conducted study supporting the hypothesis of the research that women oppresssion has greatly beeen explored in Shakespeare’s play Othello. Throughout the play, it is noted that women have been oppressed on different grounds. Some of the women in the play have been oppressed due to their gender while others have been oppressed due to their race.  Also, in the play, it has been shown that majority of the male characters thought of women as being inherently promiscuous. Therefore, it can be summarized that the different waysin which shakespeare portrays how women were oppressed are through the perception of their gender being inferior, lack of power, racial difference, traditional stereotypes and neglection. On the other hand, the study has also discovered that there are numerous studies which have explored the subject of racisim in the play but women oppression has been minimally explored. Therefore, it is imperative that future studies carry an indepth look into how women were oppressed in the play focusing on specific subjects such as power, sex, sterotypes among others. It is also imperative for future studies to compare how women were oppressed during shakespeare’s time and in the contemporary society. 


Works Cited

Adams, Michael. William Shakespeare's Othello. Woodbury, N.Y: Barron's, 1984. Print.

Boyer, Arlynda. "The Other Interracial Marriage in Othello". Shakespeare
(Shakespeare): 11.2 (2015 June), pp. 178-200.

Shakespeare, William, and Jane Coles. Othello. , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Print.

Smith, Ian. "Seeing Blackness: Reading Race in Othello". pp. 405-420. Michael Neill
(ed.) and David Schalkwyk (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Shakespearean Tragedy.
Oxford Handbooks. Oxford, England: Oxford UP, 2016.

You, Hao. "Men, Women and War: An Examination of Gender Conflicts within Othello." (2015).

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