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Othello – Female Stereotypes Essay Sample

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Othello – Female Stereotypes Essay Sample

In “Othello,” William Shakespeare extensively explores female stereotypes that occur during the playwright’s time. Throughout the Shakespearian era, women were seen as the inferior sex, over whom men had complete control and thus forcing women to act submissively and obediently in front of their husbands. Men believed that women were objects who just cooked meals, cleaned the house, and bore children while society just accepted these degrading roles. William Shakespeare extensively reinforces female stereotypes by presenting the deaths of Emilia and Desdemona to be rightly deserved for defying their female gender roles throughout the play. Emilia and Desdemona are polar opposite characters who serve the same function for Shakespeare to reinforce sexist stereotypes in his play. Emilia’s constant challenge of the female stereotype with her cynical yet modern ideas and Desdemona’s misleading portrayal of the perfect Shakespearean woman lead both characters to their untimely deaths. By acknowledging William Shakespeare’s sexist presentation of his female characters, readers are able to make their own opinions on the credibility of Shakespeare’s claim that a woman who defies her gender role deserves to die.

Emilia is led to her death by defying the sexist, female convention. Emilia is unlike any other character in “Othello” in that she challenges the Shakespearean female stereotype by insulting the idea of husbands, believing in women’s equal right to infidelity, stealing her own friend’s handkerchief, and swearing at a man superior to her. Her death is symbolic for representing a repercussion of her actions for not conforming to the female stereotype. Disregarding her gender conventions, Emilia first speaks bitterly of all husbands and their actions towards their wives, “They are all but stomachs, and we all but food. To eat us hungerly, and when they are full, They belch us,” (3.4.99-101). During that time, insulting any man, especially a woman’s own husband, was shocking and unthinkable for any lady. Secondly, Emilia continues to cross the boundaries by justifying a woman’s right to commit adultery:

But I do think it is their husbands’ faults
If wives do fall. Say that they slack their duties
[…]
Throwing restraint upon us. Or say they strike us,
[…]
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge,” (4.3.81-88).

This was also scandalous and unimaginable for any woman to suggest cheating on her husband and trying to justify it. Thirdly, Emilia’s one dishonest act towards Desdemona, stealing her handkerchief, turns out to have devastating consequences. “I found by fortune and did give my husband. […] He begged of me to steal it,” (5.2.240-243). The loss of the handkerchief is what convinces Othello that Desdemona is guilty of infidelity, and Emilia’s little theft ends up indirectly causing her friend’s death. Lastly, she swears at Othello multiple times. Though it seems valid to insult his lack of intelligence at the end of the play, it is unseemly for any woman during that time to insult anyone, especially a man superior to her. She screams at Othello, “Fie upon thee!” (5.1.127) then again she insults his irrationality, “O gull! O dolt! As ignorant as dirt!” (5.2.176-177). Although, Emilia may seem like an innocent woman who just wants to please her husband, there are many more moments in the play when she resists the female convention instead of fitting into it. Her behavior is highly inappropriate for a woman in the Shakespearean time and by constantly breaking the gender convention, she dies as a consequence of her actions.

In contrast to Emilia, Desdemona may seem to be the perfect Shakespearean woman because of her obedience and submissiveness but her certainty and authority can be seen often enough in the play to end in her death. Desdemona disobeys her father, defies Iago, and asserts herself in front of Othello. Her first lines show her defiance to her father when she chooses Othello “the Moor, [her] lord” (1.3.189) without parental consent. Although, she knows that she is at fault, she doesn’t apologize for marrying “an old black ram,” (1.1.90). By defying her father, Barbantio, she sows her own seeds of destruction. When Barbantio declares, “She has deceived her father, and may thee,” (1.3.291) to Othello, the doubt in her fidelity becomes apparent to Iago, thus resulting in her own death.

Furthermore, while Iago continues to make crude, sexist jokes in front of Desdemona and Emilia, Desdemona counters back with her retort, “Oh, most lame and impotent conclusion! Do not learn of him, Emilia, though he by thy husband,” (2.1.169-170). She even suggests to Emilia to ignore Emilia’s own husband. Desdemona’s response to Othello after he strikes her shows her lack of obedience. As a victim of physical abuse, Desdemona tersely replies, “I have not deserved this,” (4.1.233). When Emilia asks about her murderer before Desdemona’s death, she does not blame Othello because she is compliant, but because she knows that she is the real individual to blame for challenging the female convention, “Nobody. I myself. Farewell,” (5.2.137). Obviously, Desdemona is not the subservient and docile character many see her as but one who rebels against the stereotype that is set upon her. The purpose of her death is to show Shakespeare’s audience that even slightly defying the female stereotype will lead to death.

Shakespeare reinforces sexist, female stereotypes in “Othello” by ending the lives of Emilia and Desdemona for challenging the female convention. The inclusion of these stereotypes is important to recognize in order to become more alert of William Shakespeare’s purpose and presentation in writing. Shakespeare portrays Emilia as a pessimistic and foolish character while Desdemona is portrayed as a misleading and noncompliant one. His negative portrayals of these female characters show his true disdain for women, the inferior gender during that time. The deaths are undeserved, senseless, and criminal but Shakespeare depicts them as almost applicable and reasonable thus reinforcing the sexist stereotype. The implications are quite clear that a perfect woman is “never bold, Of spirit so still and quiet that her own motion Blushed at herself,” (1.3.96-98) and that she should always remain under the tutelage of a man. Moreover, women should continuously strive to conform to become men’s ideals of a perfect woman. By being conscious and aware of these sexist themes present in “Othello,” audience members and readers are able to carefully analyze the play in a more critical light to avoid being swayed by Shakespeare’s ideas of the ideal woman thus preventing continuous stereotypes of women in modern day society.

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