Discuss Shakespeare's portrayal of women in Othello.

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In Othello, there are 3 women and 3 men, and here's how they match up: Othello - Desdemona (upper-class); Iago - Emilia (middle-class); Cassio - Bianca (low-class).

The two main women, Desdemona and Emilia, change substantially during the play.  They are foils of each other: Desdemona is idealistic and traditional, whereas Emilia is realistic and jaded.  Both of them are deceived and murdered by their husbands.  Shakespeare seems to be saying that his society was more sexist than racist.  They are the victims of male revenge and jealousy.

Desdemona goes from being very vocal in court and defiant of her father in Act I.  She secretly elopes with a black man, which would have been scandalous.  Not only that, but she talks the Duke into letting her accompany her husband to war.  After Act II, she is as submissive and quiet as a mouse.  She knows she's going to die, and she does not fight or call for help.  In all, she seems like two different characters: a vixen in Act I, and a passive victim in Acts II-V.

Emilia changes the other way.  She goes from being chatty in Act II to openly defiant of her husband in Act V.  Iago is a misogynist who openly slanders women in Act II ("You rise to play and go to bed to work”), yet she says nothing.  Only after Desdmona is murdered does she cry foul.  But, she is the hero of the play, the only one with enough courage to call men what they really are ("[men] are all but stomachs, and we all but food; They eat us hungrily, and when they are full, they belch us.")

Overall, Othello goes from treating his new bride as a goddess to a whore, all because of an accusation.  This suggests that women are set up to fail, that they are victims of impossible standards (even double-standards), that they are play-things, status symbols, toys, and food for men.

As such, women are afforded no voices.  They cannot defend themselves, and no male stands up for them.  An outspoken woman was the same as an unfaithful one, such was the misogyny inherent in the macho culture.  Desdemona's fallen status as a whore even below Bianca suggests that men may not have loved women at all, only used them for work and play.

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What is the role and purpose of women in Shakespeare's Othello?

From a scholarly point of view (as the asker is an educator), this is a fairly complex question, because purpose depends on the agency. That is, a purpose is not something existing "out there" but implies a purposive agent. 

In terms of Shakespeare's purpose for writing the female characters into the play, we don't have any letters, diaries, or essays by Shakespeare himself explaining his reasons for writing in Desdemona and Emilia, although without the former, there would be no play, as the plot revolves around Othello's relationship with her. Also, most repertory companies of the period had male actors who specialized in female roles, and audiences appreciated their virtuosity, and so there are good reasons, in terms of the dynamics of a repertory company and audience appeal, for Shakespeare to have included these characters in the play. However, there are, as Wimsatt and Beardsley argued, limits to intentionalist criticism. 

In terms of roles, this is a story of sexual desire and jealousy inflaming passions and causing the downfall of Othello, an otherwise brilliant general and honorable man. He makes a great contrast to Iago, whose fall into infamy is motivated by careerism and envy rather than a grand passion. Emilia, as well as her role in furthering the plot, acts as a foil to Desdemona. Although they are both loyal to their husbands, Desdemona acts in a morally good fashion and is a model wife, while Emilia, although not an evil character, is far weaker, and in certain ways, like Othello, led by love into moral faults. If one looks at the two couples in the play, one finds an interesting balance of love in the correct degree (Desdemona) which is purified by strong individual will and moral judgment, excessive love leading to moral lapses (Othello, Emilia) and deficiency of both love and morals (Iago). This makes for a certain structural symmetry in the play.

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Analyze the representation of women characters in Othello.

Yes, each of the women speak out, but aside from Othello listening to Emilia's proclamation of Iago's guilt at the end of the play (when all the damage has been done), none of them are heeded.

Desdemona does spend the majority of the play pleading with Othello for Cassio's reinstatement.  However, she does this using her feminine wiles, not through directed confrontation and reason, and Othello playfully dismisses her at first, and then adds her pleas to his list of reasons for being unfaithful.  She also stands up to Othello when he accuses her of being the "whore of Venice," but her even her straightforward and dignified refusal gets her nowhere.

When Iago manages to get Desdemona's handkerchief from Emilia, she does wonder what he'll do with it, but quickly puts it from her mind.  This dismissal is a key moment in the play, as much of the "evidence" of Desdemona's unfaithfulness hinges on this prop.  So, Emilia may speak the truth at the end of the play when it is too late to save Desdemona, but she does not speak out when it is more crucial to do so.

Bianca does not really have any possibility of speaking out and being taken seriously.  She is a whore, and as such, not at all taken seriously by anyone.  When Cassio is attacked in her earshot, she does run out and fall all over him with "O, Cassio," etc., but she is in no position to have any effect on the events of the play.  She completely lacks the knowledge that could assist Cassio, and, because of her position in society, no one would listen to her if she did speak out.

So, each of the women speak out, but it doesn't seem that they really have a voice, since none of them are able to turn the tide of the tragic events that transpire.

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