In Shakespeare’s time, women did not enjoy the same freedoms that they do today. This was a time of strict social hierarchies and stringent rules about how women should behave in the home and in public. Because women were responsible for maintaining the ‘honour’ of their families (particularly amongst the upper classes), there was a great deal of anxiety about how they behaved in public and in private.

Society was patriarchal; in other words, men ran all of the institutions and were considered the heads of households. The rules that applied to women concerned their conduct in a variety of situations: they should not go anywhere unescorted (this is particularly true for elite women like Desdemona in Renaissance Venice); they should not wear sexually provocative clothing or makeup; they should not speak very often, and certainly not about matters of state or important issues that only men would be able to discuss; they should remain chaste, keeping their virginity intact until marriage; and they should obey their husbands and fathers in all things. This last rule is why it is such a shock that Desdemona has had a clandestine marriage.

Once a woman is married she has more rules to follow – she especially needs to be submissive to her husband and faithful to him or she could be branded a whore. Women were warned in conduct books and in sermons preached each Sunday that if they misbehaved, they would be committing a sin. In A Sermon of whoredom and Uncleaness against adultery in 1547, the preacher tells women if they commit ‘fornication’, ‘adultery’ or any ‘unclean’ act, they would be going against ‘God’s commandment’ and would ‘abuse the gentleness and humanity’ of her husband. If a woman, married or not, is accused of being unchaste and labelled a ‘whore’, it could mean the downfall of her family in society, and the ruin of her future. It was a serious and dangerous accusation and, in this period, women were guilty until proven innocent.

Othello is a play that asks us to examine the position of women in society, since it explores issues such as: clandestine marriage, accusations of adultery, and it includes three different social classes of women. Desdemona is from a noble or ‘patrician’ family in Venice and therefore would have the least amount of freedom; her behaviour would have been watched carefully and she would not have been allowed to go out in public without her gentlewoman. When Brabantio hears Desdemona is with Othello he cries ‘How got she out?’ – a reflection of the close supervision women of her class endured. Emilia is a gentlewoman who may be of either the upper or middle class, but she is not as elite as a Patrician. Emilia is bold; she actually voices the unfair rules that apply to women but not to men and she voices the need for equality between the sexes:

‘Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace, Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know Their wives have sense like them:

they see and smell And have their palates both for sweet and sour, As husbands have.’ (4.3.89-93)

Is Emilia right? Yes, it is true, men and women are not that different and perhaps women should behave as badly as they do, because that’s what they have been taught:

‘The ills we do, their ills instruct us so’ (4.3.100).

Bianca is the third woman in the play. She is a courtesan in Cyprus. Courtesans were prostitutes and in Venice as well as Cyprus during the renaissance period, they were known to be quite educated, skilled at various trades (including embroidery, as we learn when Cassio asks Bianca to ‘take out the work’ – or copy the embroidery in the famous handkerchief,) and, oddly enough, courtesans had some independence and freedom even though they were at the lower end of the social scale.

The language in the play paints women as either virtuous and pure or as adulterous and sexually corrupt. There seems to be little compromise between these two statuses and this is frustrating for young women who read and see this play performed in the twenty-first century. Our perception of Desdemona is partly created by the poetic language that some characters use to describe her. In Act 2, scene 2, Cassio, for example, refers to Othello’s new wife as ‘a maid/That paragons description and wild fame’; that she ‘excels the quirks of blazoning pens’- which means she is more beautiful and virtuous than poets are able to describe. He later concludes his tribute to her by referring to her as ‘The divine Desdemona’, giving her the same status as a goddess. By equating her with a goddess, Cassio creates an ideal that seems impossible for a woman to actually live up to: it’s a bit like seventeenth-century airbrushing.

Once the ideal has been established in the mind of the audience, lago then begins to slowly chip away at it and changes Othello’s perception of Desdemona. We see how her reputation gets soiled through the language lago uses to talk about women more generally: ‘In Venice, they do let God see the pranks/They dare not show their husbands. Their best conscience/ls not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown’ (3.3.205-206.). Here lago tells Othello that the women in Venice are deceptive and they hide loose behaviour from their husbands. In the next moment, he takes his first dig at Desdemona: ‘She did deceive her father marrying you’ (3.3.209), reminding Othello that Desdemona married him secretly, without her father’s permission. lago uses language to manipulate Othello into a state of doubt about his wife’s faithfulness. He basically calls her a ‘whore’ and Othello later does so as well. In fact, the word ‘whore’ is used more in this play than in any other Shakespeare play – over 13 times.

Disturbingly, Othello goes back to using poetic language when he sees Desdemona sleeping just before he is about to murder her: ‘I’ll not shed her blood,/Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,/And smooth as monumental alabaster (5.2.3-5). Here he admires and idealises her white skin, highlighting the beauty ideal of the renaissance: pale and glistening (like alabaster). This is a very common way of describing women’s beauty in renaissance love poetry. But why does Othello do this here? Why in the moments before he is about to kill her? If he admires her beauty and loves her so much, why does he kill her?

He must kill her because it has been determined that she is a ‘whore’ and has dishonoured him and his family; in sixteenth century Renaissance culture, women may not have always been condemned to die under such circumstances, but they would be sent away to a convent, or spend their lives as spinsters because their honour was in question. The families of such women would be ridiculed and sometimes socially as well as financially ruined. Bianca (whose name very ironically means ‘white’ – a colour associated with purity and virginity) is a prostitute or ‘whore’, but the only fate she suffers is heartbreak, since she appears to love Cassio quite genuinely.

What might Shakespeare be trying to say in this play about women in his time? Perhaps he wants us to pity Desdemona, who is brutally murdered for something she did not do. But Shakespeare’s original audiences may not have been as sympathetic to someone who married someone without her father’s consent. And why is Bianca, a prostitute, presented to us as a sympathetic character -she loves Cassio and is distraught when he is wounded? What are we to make of Emilia? Is she the strong voice of womanhood, the loyal servant who dies telling the truth, defending her mistress’s honour but disobeying her husband? The answer to these questions might be that Shakespeare is suggesting women do not fit easily into the categories created by Renaissance patriarchy, that they are human, and changeable and sometimes more noble and honourable, regardless of their sexual behaviour, than the men who try to control them.

Dr. Farah Karim-Cooper
Head of Higher Education & Research, Shakespeare’s Globe