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The Manipulation of Gender Roles in Shakespeare’s Othello

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The Manipulation of Gender Roles in Shakespeare’s Othello


Of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, the story of the rise and fall of the Moor of Venice arguably elicits the most intensely personal and emotional responses from its English-speaking audiences over the centuries. Treating the subject of personal human relationships, the tragedy which should have been a love story speaks to both reading and viewing audiences by exploring the archetypal dramatic values of love and betrayal. The final source of the tragic action in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice has been attributed to various psychological, mythical, racial, social sources: Othello’s status as racial outsider in Venetian society, his pagan roots in Christian society, hubris and/or hamartia in Othello or in Desdemona.

While any of these interpretations no doubt helps to inform fuller discussion of the play, I would like to focus the question of the cause of this tragedy in another area: the realm of gender. I will argue that the tragedy occurs as a result of the protagonists’ overwhelming adherence to their society’s stereotyped gender roles and that Iago further encourages and manipulates these gender roles to his own ends. In this essay, I use the word “gender” to describe those physical, biological, behavioral, verbal, textual, mythic, and power dynamic cues that signal to others in the society, specifically the society of this play, that one is perceived as belonging or not belonging to a specific category of masculine or feminine (Bornstein 26-30). I will also use Kate Bornstein’s definition of “gender roles”: the “positions and actions specific to a given gender as defined by a culture” (26). Iago is a gender trickster, subtly and subver...


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...lifornia State University Bakersfield, 1996.

Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York: Vintage Books, Inc., 1990.

Proser, Matthew N. The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.

Rose, Mary Beth. The Expense of Spirit: Love and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

Stewart, J.I.M. Character and Motive in Shakespeare: Some Recent Appraisals Examined. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1966.

Whallon, William. Inconsistencies: Studies in the New Testament, the Inferno, Othello, and Beowulf. Totowa, New Jersey: D. S. Brewer, 1983.

Wine, Martin L. Othello: Text and Performance. London: MacMillan, 1984.


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