Can you help me understand this English question?

The Women in Othello

  1. Read the instructions in their entirety for the discussion before you begin
  2. Read the Context information that precedes the Instructions first
  3. Watch* the video material (*find these scenes in your text of the play, too)
  4. Follow step-by-step instructions to develop your first post
  5. Submit your initial post into the Reply box
  6. Respond to a minimum of two classmates’ in your group



Context & Background: Read this First

Female characters and gender dynamics in the male world of Othello

Othello is a psychologically taut and suspenseful play. Race, religion, and the practice of “othering” and alienating a minority figure are thematic ideas in the play worthy of our careful consideration, but so too, are the implications of this male-dominated world — issues of gender, sex, and power that contribute to the dramatic stakes, generate tension, and steer Othello towards inevitable tragedy.

You may find it useful to quickly review the key principles and guiding questions of the three gender-related critical models we have covered so far. Consider how these lenses might be used to interpret and analyze the gender dynamics in Othello.

Consider too, these relevant questions:

  • Is the world of the play a patriarchy, a ‘man’s world’? If so how? Is there any counter-evidence, any character that challenges this structure? Who? How?
  • Through the White, Christian power structure of Venice, we see how power is exerted via racial (white) supremacy, but what about gender? What ways does power get exerted through gender (male) supremacy in the play?
  • Iago is a willing purvey of messages of misogyny in this play. What are the multiple ways his hostility towards women reveals itself?
  • What about other male characters in the play? How might masculinity theory and feminist analysis reveal the antipathy or misogyny evident in their behavior, assumptions, or speech? (E.g., Brabantio, Othello, Roderigo, etc.)
  • What are the intentions of Shakespeare himself – does he want to reinforce status quo attitudes about gender, sex, and power, or possibly to challenge or complicate them?

Step-by-Step Instructions

(A) WATCH THE VIDEOS CLOSELY (and locate relevant scenes in your text of the play)

From Act IV, Scene 3: In this clip, an older, more seasoned and world-wise Emilia discusses with the younger, more naive Desdemona the subject of men, marriage, domestic violence, pleasure, betrayal, and desire. From the 1995 film adaptation of the play (locate this scene in your text to follow along). 5 min. 20-sec. Note: Feel free to read or ignore the permanent Spanish subtitles on this clip.

Women in Othello: The actresses who played Emilia and Desdemona in the production staged by The National Theatre, (which set it on a contemporary military base) explore and analyze the women’s relationship, what drove their choices, and how they navigated a male-dominated world heading towards a tragic climax. 5 min. 8 secs.

For variety, here is another version of Emilia, containing some of the same lines as the first video (above). As part of a 2016 celebration of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, veteran Shakespearean actress Eileen Atkins recites an excerpt from Emilia’s lines in Act IV, Scene 3, when the more worldly Emilia, Iago’s wife, counsels the younger and more naive Desdemona on marriage and fidelity (1 min 18 sec.):

(B.) DEVELOP YOUR FIRST POST in response to the videos and the prompt below:

Because they are Renaissance-era women living in a patriarchal society, Emilia and Desdemona (Bianca, too) share some common experiences. They are subject to the norms, attitudes, cultural taboos, laws, marital traditions, and assumptions that define and restrict the space women occupy. But they are distinct characters, with significant differences between them. As the first video above makes clear, Emilia is older than (the very young) Desdemona, and draws from a deeper well of life experience.

  • What is revealed in this rather famous conversation scene between the women?
  • How does it impact your understanding of the play?
  • Read the scene in our Literature anthology, then respond to the following prompt:

How do the characters of Emilia and Desdemona – generally in the play, and specifically in this private Act IV scene – uphold and participate in their patriarchal world? And in what ways, if any, do they seem to challenge, subvert, or defy it? Discuss.

Additional Instructions:

  • Include the boldfaced prompt that’s inside the box (above) at the beginning of your post
  • In your response, include at least one quoted passage from the play as evidence/support for your assertions.
  • For any passage you choose to incorporate: Accurately preserve the original line breaks from the Literature anthology. You can indicate the end of a line with a slash mark like so:

Roses are red, violets are blue / If I can use a slash mark to / indicate a line break then / you can, too.

  • Cite a quote correctly so it is easy to locate it in our text.

Example: EMILIA: The world’s a huge thing; it is a great price for a small vice (4.3.67).

  • If the passage you chose contains two speakers, make clear who is speaking; label each correctly.
  • Do not include a Works Cited for discussion posts – it is not necessary.

A NOTE about developing your post:

This prompt is an opportunity to interpret, develop a point of view about a text, and draw analytical conclusions, not a vague “feelings” question or an invitation to summarize plot. Demonstrate your capacity to analyze and draw conclusions that you can explain and support. Your analysis should BE analysis, not description or summary. Strong responses are analytical, concise, specific, supported by evidence, example, and reasoning. Avoid generalities.