What are some quotes about the status of women in Shakespeare's Othello?

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susan3smith eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You might start your search for quotations in Iago's description of the perfect woman, which occurs in the first part of Act 2, when he is jesting with Desdemona and Emilia.  After listing these characteristics, which include a soft voice, thrift, a calm temper and a reserved nature, Iago ends with the purpose of such a creature:

To suckle fools and chronicle small beer.

In other words, the perfect woman's purpose is to nurture babies and to keep house.  Whether she be rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, smart or stupid, this is her purpose.  Of course, Iago is a villain, and his words are not supposed be taken as truth--or are they?  

Even though they are more noble in character, the other male characters seem to view the status of women in the same way as Iago does.  When Brabantio finds out that Desdemona has eloped, he equates her to property, calls Othello a "foul thief" (1.2), and eventually disowns her because of her decision.  Cassio seems to worship women, but he scoffs at the idea of marrying Bianca who, as his courtesan, is socially inferior to him

I marry her!  What, a customer! I prithee bear some charity to my wit.  

It seems, according to Cassio,  that some women are not worthy of marriage. Even Othello has issues in his view of women.  As much as he loves Desdemona, he also objectifies her.  He talks of winning her as a prize when he tells the senators in Act 1 how he and Desdemona fell in love.  In Act 2, he describes his marriage as a "purchase," and their lovemaking "a profit." 

It seems that the status of women is to be objects used by men.  As Emilia says in Act 3,

They are all but stomachs and we all but food.

They eat us hungrily, and when they are full

They belch us.  

The status of any particular woman seems to depend on a male's perceptions of her.  She is either an object to be esteemed and treasured, a sullied woman to be scorned and rejected, or a servant (like Emilia) to be ordered about.  

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Othello plays on the low status of women in Venetian society. Women are depicted as the possessions of men, as sex objects, and as untrustworthy.

For example, in Act I, Iago says the following to Brabantio:

"Sir, you're robbed . . .
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe."

This quote refers to Desdemona's marriage to Othello. Iago likens Desdemona to one of Brabantio's possessions when he says he is "robbed." He also characterizes the marriage through the sex act, inciting Brabantio to visualize Othello having intercourse with his daughter "now, now, very now." Iago does not see marriage as the union of two equals or a meeting of true minds but in terms of copulation. 

In Act I, Brabantio articulates a theme and a stereotype of women's innate untrustworthiness. It is not only Iago in this play who harps on women as deceitful. Brabantio says the following:

"Look to her Moor, if thou has eyes to see.
She has deceived her father, and may thee." 

Brabantio is willing to see his own daughter as possibly inherently untrustworthy: if she eloped with Othello, she might sexually betray Othello.

In Act III, Iago says the following to Cassio: 

"In Venice they do let God see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands.
Their best conscience is not to leave't undone but to keep't unknown."

Here, Iago asserts that Venetian women hide their rampant sexual unfaithfulness, or what he calls their "pranks." They feel no guilt about what they do; the best their lax consciences can do is to try to hide their sexual misdeeds from their husbands.

Living in such a culture of misogyny and distrust of women, it is no wonder Othello falls for Iago's deceptions about Desdemona.

Read the study guide:
Othello

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