The female characters in Shakespeare’s “Othello” are unknowingly thrown into the center of Iago’s villainous plot and used as pawns. How do they combat their circumstances and find power?
How Women Find Power in a Misogynist Society
At the heart of several of Shakespeare’s plays are conflicts circulating around gender, where certain misogynist tropes are displayed. Oftentimes, women are used by the villain to hurt the protagonist, manipulated and used as bait. In Shakespeare’s Othello, the female characters are unknowingly thrown into the center of Iago’s villainous plot and used as pawns to take down Othello. Iago’s treatment of women speaks to the gender conflict scattered throughout the play and shows how even though the main goal is to hurt the man, Othello, it’s achieved at the women’s expense. Seen as nothing more than tools to carry out the evil scheme, the women are painted as deceivers and face false accusations, which ends up costing them their lives. Although the women are naive about Iago’s plan, they are aware of the gender dynamics within society, and they exhibit a certain amount of power both in their awareness, as well as in their discussions about how the men in their lives treat and perceive them. While they are victims, the women defy many norms and expectations, and hold considerable power, even in their deaths. Looking at how misogyny and masculinity function in the play, one can track how the women thus combat it and find power, despite it all.
Misogyny is riddled throughout Othello, and the attitudes that men have towards women, both in the play and in society, are what Iago uses to manipulate Othello. Since Ancient Greece men carried out a belief that a “woman is just a cheat” and that women are “more malicious” and more “inclined to suspicion and plotting.”1 While Iago’s main objective is to hurt Othello, his whole scheme relies on the lie that Desdemona is having an affair. The fact that Iago chooses this lie as the focal point is directly rooted in misogyny. The idea that a woman could be having an affair is not hard for the men to believe, considering all the centuries old rhetoric that paints women as malicious cheaters who are plotting against their husbands. Moreover, in act 2, Desdemona and Emilia directly face these misogynist ideas during playful banter with Iago, as he tells them:
You are pictures out of door,
Bells in your parlors, wildcats in your kitchens,
Saints in your injuries, devils being offended,
Players in your huswifery, and huswives in your beds.2
Iago perpetuates the belief that women are liars and deceivers who make noise and disturb others. They live under a guise of innocence, while in actuality, they are harmful to everyone around them. Women are pretenders. They pretend to be housewives, acting like they are working in their homes, which they are not, while actually asserting control over their husbands in bed. They present themselves as “saints,” but are truly “devils.” In the eyes of Iago, women are masters of deception. This characterization of women as pretenders and deceivers with an ulterior motive, is prevalent throughout the play, and is arguably the main reason why Othello is so convinced Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. In act 1, Brabantio even warns Othello, telling him to “look to [Desdemona],” for if she has “deceived her father,” she may also deceive him.3 Desdemona’s own father upholds this belief that she is capable of deception and contributes to this characterization of women that is so central to the play.
On top of the belief that women are deceivers is the idea that women are property. Seen as objects that exist to serve men, they are at the men’s disposal and are additionally given the responsibility to uphold the honor and reputation of the men around them. The play opens with these ideas, as Iago and Roderigo disrupt Brabantio in the middle of the night to tell him that Othello has married Desdemona. Iago shouts “thieves, thieves,” and directs him to “look to [his] daughter” and his “bags.”4 He continues to tell Brabantio that he’s been “robbed,” as if Desdemona is a possession with no agency or thinking skills. Brabantio continues to diminish his own daughter’s ability to make decisions, saying how she must have been “corrupted by spells” and witchcraft.5 While these accusations against Othello are racially motivated, they also support the idea that women are objects without any control over their decisions and can be “stolen” from the men who possess them.6 Not to mention, women are expected to be virtuous and honorable, for if they don’t appear as such, it ruins the reputation of the men around them. Male characters who feel like their reputation is threatened, due to the actions of the women around them, appear in various plays by Shakespeare. Many of his male characters conclude that the only way to assure their reputation stays intact, is to assert control over the women, and treating them like objects and subordinates. When Desdemona elopes, without her father’s consent, that may affect Brabantio’s reputation. Considering the interracial aspect of their marriage, the fact that she also marries a Moor, may doubly impact Brabantio’s reputation. Although the marriage affects Desdemona foremost, it seems as if the men are more worried about themselves. They believe that if a woman has ruined her reputation, she’s better off dead than alive, for existing as a “ruined woman” can further tarnish the image and status of those around her. Othello presents a duality of misogynist views toward women. While on one hand they are deceptive and are out to trick and hurt men, they are also objects and possessions who are expected to be subdued and virtuous. However, these two sides of women work hand in hand, for it’s the fear of the deception that makes men assert control and keep them as objects.
Understanding the misogyny embedded in Elizabethan society, as well as upheld by the characters of Othello, is important in understanding how Iago uses women as pawns in his scheme, and how Othello reacts to the accusations he believes are true. Because women are seen as objects and possessions, it’s not surprising that Iago uses them as tools in his plot to hurt Othello. They are weaponized when put into the center of Iago’s plot, and instead of being seen as people who will suffer from the accusations he sets forth, they are simply seen as pawns to get back at Othello. Iago’s motivations are never completely clear, but he has heard rumors that Othello has been “’twixt [his] sheets” and has “done [his] office,” meaning that he suspects that his wife, Emilia, and Othello have had an affair.7 If this is one of the motivations behind Iago’s actions, it not only explains Iago’s misogynistic attitudes, but also shows how he’s not only trying to punish Othello for his actions, but also punish women in general for being deceitful. By framing Desdemona, Iago makes her bait, as he knows that Othello’s emphasis on honesty and his insecurities in an already questioned marriage, will push him to take that bait.
In a way, Iago’s control over this narrative is an extension of men’s need for control over women. Control and dominance are common attributes of toxic masculinity, and his need for control, manipulative tendencies, and continuous mistreatment towards women aligns with these ideas of toxic masculinity. Iago shapes Desdemona’s false story and plants the seeds of doubt towards her in Othello’s mind. Additionally, Iago is using Emilia to get the handkerchief to show ocular proof of the affair. Emilia reveals that Iago has “bid” her “so often” to steal the handkerchief, but because Desdemona has dropped it, Emilia has taken it for her husband, now able to both please Iago and meet his requests, while not feeling guilty about stealing from her friend.8 Emilia naively walks into this trap and helps Iago carry out his plot, because she wants to be an obedient wife who serves her husband. But Iago doesn’t see Desdemona or Emilia as people worthy of respect; he uses them as objects, especially exploiting Emilia’s trust in him, to his benefit. Furthermore, Othello’s traits of profound jealousy and anger prove toxic, as he spirals out of control and convinces himself the affair is truly real. He becomes so consumed with jealousy, insecurity, and the fear of becoming a cuckold, that he neglects to even give Desdemona a chance to defend herself. The possibility of becoming a cuckold threatens Othello’s masculinity, for it shows a certain weakness and lack of control over one’s wife. As previously mentioned, masculinity is associated with power and control, and at this time, having a subdued and virtuous wife was expected. This threat to his masculinity, power, position in the partnership, and reputation contributes to Othello’s response. He’s determined to “tear [Desdemona] to pieces” and is filled with “black vengeance” and “tyrannous hate.”9 Resulting to violence as a solution is also a trait of toxic masculinity, and Othello sets out to kill Desdemona, reasoning that “she must die” or else “she’ll betray more men.”10 Just as Iago is essentially punishing all women for their deceit, possibly because of his suspicions that Emilia was having an affair, Othello is set on killing Desdemona as a way to prevent more men from having their masculinity threatened.
While many may read the play as characterizing the women as weak, it can be argued that the women are actually strong and powerful, despite being victims of the misogyny of their culture. Both Desdemona and Emilia are aware of how men treat women, and openly discuss the gender dynamics of the society they belong in. With this awareness comes power, for they’re not blind to the inequality and speak up against it when necessary. From the beginning of the play, Desdemona is characterized as a loyal, generous woman, who both stands up for her husband and actively works to help her friends. When Brabantio suggests she was coerced into the marriage with Othello, Desdemona tells him to his face that Othello is her husband and that she has a duty to him. With “so much duty [her] mother showed” Brabantio, “preferring [him] before her father,” Desdemona has the same duty to Othello.11 In the context of this scene, it takes a powerful woman to speak up against her father in front of a room of men. She’s not weak nor demure, and is instead respectful, well-spoken, and loyal to her husband. Desdemona is also generous, and serves as an advocate for her friends, ensuring Cassio that she will do “all [her] abilities in [his] behalf” to help him get his position back, and vows to be his friend.12 In this instance, she helps Iago’s plan move forward, but it still shows how she’s willing to defend and persistently help those in need.
Both Emilia and Desdemona have various discussions about gender, which display their awareness about how men treat women in society. Emilia states that men are all “but stomachs, and [women] but food.” Men use women and “eat [them] hungrily,” but “when they are full,” they “belch [them]” up.13 Emilia is not only describing how Iago is treating them, but also realizing that women are nothing but objects to men. Moreover, she’s explaining how men use women for their benefit, but when they are done, they dispose of them. Desdemona additionally mentions how “men’s natures wrangle” with “inferior things” and that we should not think that men are gods, or perfect people.14 The women see the men for who they truly are, while the men view women in a fictitious light. Desdemona says this in defense of Othello, explaining how he’s only human and has flaws. At the same time, the women are both aware of how men use them, and how men see themselves as superior beings, and with this statement she’s taking men off their self-placed pedestal. However, being that this is a tragedy, we know that death must be the end result. If death is necessary, then, are Desdemona and Emilia’s deaths inevitable? If we view their characters as powerful, is it even possible for powerful women to find a happy ending in a misogynist society?
Desdemona and Emilia combat the misogyny they face by finding camaraderie and remaining loyal to each other. Emilia, in particular, presents various strong opinions about men and ruthlessly defends Desdemona’s honesty, speaking up against Othello’s accusations. Emilia “wager[s]” that Desdemona is “honest, chaste” and “true,” willing to “lay down [her] soul at the stake” on her friend’s innocence.15 She is furious with the accusations set forth against her friend, stating how she is sure that an “eternal villain” has “devised this slander,” and declares that hell should “gnaw his bones,” for he has no right to “call [Desdemona] a whore.”16 In addition, Emilia later states that she thinks it’s a “husband’s fault if wives do fall,” for they “slack their duties” and “breakout in peevish jealousies.” She continues and discusses how men “throw restraint” upon women, proclaiming that women “have galls” and that husbands should know that “their wives have sense like them.”17 This is arguably one of the most combative and self-aware speeches against the misogyny demonstrated throughout the play. Emilia is aware that men view women as powerless, and she negates that false sentiment; women are just like men and have similar desires, urges, and capabilities. Moreover, if a woman does have an affair, Emilia blames it on the husband, for their need for complete control and dominance over their wives is too restraining. Before Emilia’s and Desdemona’s deaths, they do speak out on the injustices they faced. Desdemona states that she “never did offend” Othello nor loved Cassio, and Emilia speaks up against Iago’s trickery and exposing his “wicked lies” and villainy, declaring that she will not obey Iago any longer.18 As a result of trying to expose his lies, she is murdered. Desdemona and Emilia are certainly powerful women, but are also victims of a misogynistic society, and victims of Iago’s scheme.
Toxic masculinity and misogyny work hand in hand throughout Othello, and it’s evident that the views of women as deceptive and as objects in need of control contribute to the trajectory of the play. Analyzing how misogyny and masculinity function in the play is essential in understanding how the women exist within it. Although faced with direct misogyny, as well as being used as pawns in Iago’s scheme, the women prove to be powerful characters. Defying the expectations that women should only be silent, subdued, and obey their husbands, Emilia and Desdemona, at many times, speak out in their male-dominated atmosphere and have points where they resist these traits. Furthermore, they show a level of self-awareness through their conversations, and have a deep understanding about how misogyny is at play. While Iago’s scheme is largely responsible for their deaths, they both find power in speech, in conversation with each other, and die defending the truth.
- Hesiod, Work and Days, Translated by Dorothea Wender, Penguin Random House (1976); Aristotle, The History of Animals: Complete Works of Aristotle, Volume 1: The Revised Oxford Translation, Translated by Jonathan Barnes, Bollingen Series, Princeton University.
- William Shakespeare, Othello, act 2, scene 1, 109-112.
- Shakespeare, Othello,1.3.292-3.
- Shakespeare, Othello, 1.1.78-80.
- Shakespeare, Othello, 1.3.61-3.
- Shakespeare, Othello, 1.360.
- Shakespeare, Othello, 2.1.379-80.
- Shakespeare, Othello, 3.3.309.
- Shakespeare, Othello, 3.3. 431, 447-9.
- Shakespeare, Othello, 5.2.6.
- Shakespeare, Othello, 1.3.185-9.
- Shakespeare, Othello, 3.3.2.
- Shakespeare, Othello,3.4.102-105.
- Shakespeare, Othello, 3.4.142-3, 147.
- Shakespeare, Othello, 4.2.12-19.
- Shakespeare, Othello, 4.2.130-3, 136-7.
- Shakespeare, Othello, 4.3.85-104.
- Shakespeare, Othello, 5.2.58-9, 182.