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Othello: 'Shakespeare has presented the three female characters as merely stereotypes'

A stereotype is a generalised version of an idea or a character which gives no individuality and is over-simplified. In the Shakespeare play ‘ Othello’, Desdemona, Emelia and Bianca have very different personalities and we suppose each of them to follow a certain stereotype.

Desdemona is portrayed as a goddess as she is so pure and faultless. Cassio speaks of Desdemona, “She is indeed perfection.” (Act 2, scene 3, 25)

Each character in ‘Othello’ thinks of Desdemona as delicate and flawless except for Iago who refers to her as an animal, dominated by a bigger one, “as old black ram /Is tupping your white ewe.

” (Act 1, scene 1, 88-89)

However, Iago is the only person who thinks this as he can never see anyone in a good light. Although he does not compliment Desdemona, her calls her ‘white’ which can show that even he observes her purity.

Shakespeare, has also made Desdemona very innocent and na�ve but these qualities contribute to Othello’s suspicion of her non-existent affair with Cassio and so result in her death.

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When Othello asks her to give him the handkerchief which she has lost, she tries to talk to him about Cassio. Thus, her naivety causes Othello to suspect her of something she did not do. She says, “I pray talk me of Cassio.” (Act 3, scene 4, 85)

Desdemona is considered to fit her stereotype very well. This is because she hardly ever does anything which would be unholy and never thinks an evil thought throughout the play.

“That there would be women do abuse their husbands /In such gross kind?” (Act 4, scene 3, 59-60)

When talking to Emelia in Act 4, scene 3, Desdemona’s innocence is shown.

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The quotation shows that adultery seems very wrong to her and she does not even believe that women could do such a thing.

Not only is her personality pleasing but her appearance is also reflective of this. Cassio speaks of her as, “… a most exquisite lady.” (Act 2, scene 3, 18)

As well as beautiful, she is sexually attractive. All the men speak about her ability to arouse them and even Iago says, ” And, I’ll warrant her, full of game.” (Act 2, scene 3, 19)

Shakespeare has presented Bianca in a very different light than Desdemona. She is supposed to follow almost the exact opposite stereotype to her as she is a prostitute and certainly has less respect.

She is also treated as an object rather than a person and nobody thinks well of her.

“It is a creature /That dotes on Cassio…” ( Act 4, scene 1, 95-96)

Bianca does not appear in the play as much as Desdemona but when she does, we judge her by what people think of her. Because of this, she is regarded to follow her stereotype of a prostitute suitably. Iago often refers to her as a prostitute,

“A house wife that by selling her desires /Buys herself bread and clothes.” (ACT 4, scene 1, 94-95)

Emelia is very different from both Desdemona and Bianca as she is the least stereotypical. She is in the middle of Desdemona, who is extremely ‘good’ and Bianca, who is considered a whore and very low in society.

However, she still follows a stereotype as she is placed in the role of Iago’s obedient wife who is mistreated and very unhappy. She is also more realistic in her views of human nature than Desdemona because she sees its positive as well as negative aspects. She can recognise the difference between good and evil but her morals are more relative to that of Desdemona’s who believes in absolute morals.

“But for all the whole /World!… I should venture purgatory for’t.” (Act 4, scene 3, 72…75)

In this quotation, Emelia says that she would consider adultery if she were to be given the world but even this would be so that her husband could be made the ‘monarch’. It shows that Emelia would do something that she considered evil but only if she was given the impossible and if it would benefit her husband.

Although the three women, Desdemona, Bianca and Emelia seem to follow their stereotypes, there is evidence that they are more than what we first assume.

First of all, Desdemona is not entirely perfect. At the start of the play, Desdemona deceives her father to whom she is supposed to be loyal to. This affects how Othello sees her as he has the fear that Desdemona may do the same to him.

“Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom…” (Act 1, scene2, 70)

This quotation is said by Brabantio who says that Desdemona ran away from him to the ‘sooty bosom’ of Othello.

Also, later on in the play, Desdemona lies to Othello about the handkerchief he gave her and does not admit that she has lost it. This then backfires on her as she is then accused of giving the handkerchief to Cassio.

“Fetch me the handkerchief: my mind misgreaves.” (Act 3, scene 4, 83)

When Othello asks for the handkerchief, Desdemona tries to change the subject.

For most of the play, we see Emelia as a loyal and obedient wife. Even if she has to disobey Desdemona, who she loves deeply as her mistress, she would do so for her horrid husband. When Iago asks her to steal Desdemona’s treasured handkerchief, she succeeds when the opportunity arises. When Desdemona questions Emelia about it, Emelia answers with a lie,

“I know not, madam.” (Act 3, scene 4, 24)

However, right at the end of the play, Emelia stands up for herself and directly disobeys Iago, which truly surprises the audience. She then condemns him so that his evil plan is found out.

Half way through the play, Cassio gives the handkerchief that he found in his bedroom to Bianca.

Instead of accepting it as a present, she gets offended that Cassio gives her something from another woman. She feels betrayed that Cassio has been cheating on her, when in actual fact, an average prostitute would not. A typical prostitute would be accustomed to feeling used but Bianca feels more for Cassio than she should. The fact that she is falling in love with a client proves that she is not expected her to be.

“This is some minx’s token, and I must take out the work?” (Act4, scene 1, 152)

Also, when Bianca invites Cassio to her house for dinner, the audience are quite surprised as this is not how a typical prostitute would act. They would not usually follow their clients around or pursue them in this fashion.

Desdemona plays a big part in ‘Othello’, as she is the wife of Othello and most of the play is about their relationship. The biggest impact she makes in the play is when she is disloyal to her father and elopes with Othello. Ironically, this is also when she breaks her stereotype and does not act pure and innocent. Also, when she lies to Othello about the handkerchief, it may be one of the only very small and minor sins she commits, but it turns Othello against her.

“It is not lost” (Act 3, scene 4, 79)

She also influences the injury of Cassio, though without knowing or doing anything wrong. Because of her supposed ‘affair’ with Cassio, Othello gives permission to Iago to wound and even kill him. Iago says,

“And for Cassio, let me be his undertaker.” (Act 4, scene 1, 206)

Another way she affects the play is by bringing about a heartbreaking ending. As well as being the victim of a terrible murder, she also lies on behalf of Othello and so goes to Hell because of this. This also is another factor in Desdemona that makes her different from her stereotype because of the fact she is not so saintly as we presume, as she is not going to Heaven when she dies.

Emelia affects the play almost as much as Desdemona although at first we do not seem to realise. As we arrive at the end of the play, we come to realise that Emelia has a huge impact on Iago’s tactics and she actually surprises the audience. Despite the dominance that Iago has over her, she manages to undermine his position and bring about his downfall. When she finds out about Iago’s plans, she tells the group of people how Iago planted the handkerchief in Cassio’s bedroom, thus revealing his plans to everyone.

“She give it Cassio! No alas, I found it and I did give’t my husband.” (act 5, scene 2, 228)

In the only moment of strength and determination to punish Iago she gets wounded by him and this results in her death.

Earlier on in the play, when she steals the handkerchief for her husband, her action effects the rest of the play. This is because Othello uses the fact that Cassio has the handkerchief as proof for his wife to be cheating on him. If Emelia had not taken the handkerchief, Othello may not have believed Iago as there would not have been any proof of Desdemona’s betrayal. The ending of the play may have taken a very different turn if Emelia was never involved in any of the matters.

An Elizabethan audience would have a different view of these women to a modern audience. Initially, this is because it is only a recent ideology to view women as equal to men and for them to be independent. Also, women in the Elizabethan era were likely to be thought of as ‘properties’ of men and so the audience to this play would probably think this of Desdemona, Emelia and Bianca.

An audience at the time of Shakespeare, would think that Desdemona was very wrong to elope with Othello for two reasons. Firstly, black people at the time at that were not given the same status as white people. They would think that Desdemona should not have married him as she was of a higher ‘class’ than him, even though he is a General of an army in the play. Secondly, they would believe that she did a great wrong to betray her father and that she was very disloyal.

However, the general response to Desdemona as a character in the play would be that she is the ideal woman in that she obeys her husband and is so innocent and pure.

A modern audience would also think that she is very loyal and angelic, but they would also believe that she is slightly ‘sickly’ sweet in that she is na�ve and can be very annoying with her lack of worldly knowledge. A modern audience would also think that the few sins she does commit are perfectly natural and are not much of a setback in her personality. This is almost the opposite reaction to that of an Elizabethan audience.

Both audiences would agree that Bianca is not a very respectable character and that her occupation as a prostitute is not a suitable or decent job for women. An Elizabethan audience may feel more extremely about her and feel that she is very low in society. They would also believe that she is an object rather than a person and that she deserves no rights.

A modern audience might take a different approach to her and may feel more sympathy for her. They may not judge her so harshly or quickly and can except that she may have this job to earn money just to live.

Finally, Emelia is a character whom an Elizabethan audience may feel is too liberated in her thinking and that she should be more like Desdemona. They would feel that she is slightly corrupt in even considering adultery, no matter what she or her husband would gain. They probably would think that she should abide by her husband’s rules and may think that it is his right to treat her however he wants.

A modern audience probably would feel that Emelia is the most liberal minding and would feel that she is the most ‘ordinary’ of the three women. This is because of her worldly knowledge and that she knows a lot more than Desdemona but she is still more honourable and decent than Bianca. They would also have a lot of sympathy for her as she is mistreated by her husband and would feel that she is not to blame for thinking of adultery.

One main thing that each woman shows the audience, is that the men in ‘Othello’ are very overpowering and even mistreat the women. For example, Cassio has a relationship with Bianca, but does like to be seen with her as this will damage his reputation. It shows that he wants Bianca but is secretly embarrassed and in a way, he is using her.

Also, the way that Iago treats Emelia and even the way he talks about Desdemona and Bianca is very malicious. It shows that he has no respect for the women in the play. This shows the audience how conceited and arrogant he is. He talks of Bianca in a very cruel way;

“A house wife that by selling her desires /Buys herself bread and clothes.” (ACT 4, scene 1, 94-95)

The fact that Othello feels that he should get rid of Desdemona because she might have committed adultery is very harsh. Especially when he knows that Cassio has also got a mistress but does not even consider Cassio as a sinner or contaminated in the same way as he feels about Desdemona.

All in all, I do not agree that Desdemona, Emelia and Bianca are merely stereotypes in ‘Othello’, as they have a bigger impact and prove themselves to be more than what we assume each of them to be. Each audience has a different point of view on each character and judges them all differently, but at the end of the play, we all realise that the three women are much more complicated and individual than we thought at the start of the play.

Cite this page

Othello: 'Shakespeare has presented the three female characters as merely stereotypes'. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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