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The Wife as Property in Othello

During the Renaissance, the status of women was the subject of much debate. John Knox wrote in 1558  that ‘to promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion or empire  above any realm, nation or city is repugnant to nature, contumely to God [...], and finally it is the subversion of good order, and all equity and justice’. [1] As with the state, so with the family: Juan Luis Vives said in 1529 that a woman having mastery over her husband ‘turneth backwards the laws of nature, like as though a soldier would rule his captain, or the moon would stand above the sun, or the arm above the head. For in wedlock the man resembleth the reason, and the woman the body. Now reason ought to rule, and the body to obey if man will live’. [2] As ‘the body’, woman was the custodian of the purity of the union and of the family unit. The possibility of adultery on the part of wives threatened the structure of upper-class society, particularly where property was concerned, since an illegitimate son could potentially inherit. As late as the eighteenth century, Dr Johnson remarked that ‘the unchastity of a woman transfers sheep and farm and all from the right owner’. [3] Male honour and authority could also depend on a woman’s reputation. [4]

Yet, Puritans and humanists were aware of some of the disparities between men and women. In a French treatise of 1556 by Etienne Pasquier about relations between the sexes, a female character complains of ‘the tedious laws of men’, which do not allow women control over property and impose a double standard regarding chastity. [5] Women were beginning to be seen as the spiritual and even the intellectual equals of men.  Pamphleteers, both male and female, argued furiously in print about the conflict between a traditional female obedience and new ideas about female autonomy. [6] Women’s voices rose in passionate defence of their rights: in 1686 Aphra Behn begged to be allowed to express ‘my masculine part the poet in me,’ saying, ‘I value fame as much as if I had been born a hero’. [7]

In Othello, Shakespeare addresses issues regarding the problematic status of women. Both Iago and Brabantio describe the loss of Desdemona as though she were a piece of property. Iago tells Brabantio ‘you’re robbed’ (1.1.84). [8] Brabantio calls Othello a ‘foul thief’ (1.2.62), and says that his daughter is ‘stolen from me and corrupted’ (1.3.61). When Othello begins to suspect Desdemona, he couches his lament in the language of ownership: ‘we can call these delicate creatures ours/ And not their appetites’ (3.3.273-4). Both Brabantio and Othello share anxieties about the loss of control and authority caused by unrestrained female desire. Ironically, Iago is able to convince Othello that Desdemona’s defiance of her father and secret courtship with Othello argues a deceitful nature that will finally be turned against Othello: ‘She did deceive her father, marrying you,/ And when she seemed to shake, and fear your looks,/ She loved them most’ (3.3.209-11). Desdemona herself is anxious to present herself as a vessel, sealed and pure, for the use of Othello only: ‘If to preserve this vessel for my lord/ from any hated foul unlawful touch/ Be not to be a strumpet, I am none’ (4.2.84-6).

However, it is clear that Brabantio, despite his high social status and power, has no real ability, nor even the wish, to compel Desdemona away from her marriage. She successfully argues that she has a ‘divided duty’ (1.3.181), even pointing out that her mother once upon a time preferred Brabantio to her own father. Despite her ability to argue for the marriage of her choice, Desdemona is still seen as owing allegiance to either father or husband. But Shakespeare seems to argue that women’s ethical judgement should override absolute wifely obedience. Upon discovering Iago’s villainy, Emilia repudiates him, saying, ‘’Tis proper I obey him – but not now’ (5.2.191). Her judgement of Iago as a murderous villain and a liar, and of Othello as ‘cruel’, and ‘unworthy’ of Desdemona, are shared by the audience at the end of the play (5.2.121-247). Emilia also argues that wives are justified in being unfaithful if the price is right, or if their husbands misbehave (4.3.63-102). Nonetheless, even in Emilia’s judgement, women are condemned for sexual licence: she calls Bianca a strumpet, although we have learned that Bianca may need to sell herself ‘for bread and clothes’ (4.1.96), and Bianca argues that she is ‘of life as honest’ as Emilia (5.1.122). While the idea of female sexual freedom is debated in Othello, the final scenes reassert Desdemona’s chastity and innocence, and her worth rests more on these than on her autonomy or sexual rights and freedom.

Karen Kay


1. The First Blast of the Trumpet against the monstrous regiment of Women, cited in Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook: Constructions of Femininity in England, ed. by Kate Aughterson (London: Routledge, 1995, 2003), p. 138. Return to text

2. Instruction of a Christian woman, trans. by Richard Hyde, 1540 edn, cited in Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook, p. 137. Return to text

3. James Boswell, Boswell’s Journal of a tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, Ch. 31, cited in Sara F. Matthews Grieco, ‘The Body, Appearance and Sexuality’, in A History of Women in the West, 5 vols (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, Harvard University Press, 1992-4), III, Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes, ed. by Natalie Zemon Davis and Arlette Farge (1993), pp. 46-84 (p. 81). Return to text

4. Matthews Grieco, p. 82. Return to text

5. Etienne Pasquier, ‘Monophile’, in Les oeuvres [...], 2 vols (Amsterdam: Compagine des Libraires Associez, 1723), cited in Jean-Paul Desaive, ‘The Ambiguities of Literature’, in A History of Women in the West, pp. 261-94 (p. 276). Return to text

6. Cf. Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England, 1540-1640, ed. by Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus (Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1985, pp. 11-46. Return to text

7. Preface to The Lucky Chance, cited in Renaissance Women: A Sourcebook, p. 260. Return to text

8. Quotations are from William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. by E. A. J. Honigmann, the Arden Shakespeare, 3rd edn (London: Thomson Learning, 1997, 2004). Return to text



General Background
Antony and Cleopatra
King Lear
A Brief Overview Of British Social And Political History
The Politics of the Catholic Church
The Influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare
International Relations and Politics
James VI and I and his Patronage of the Arts
Kingship in the Renaissance
Early Modern Attitudes to Madness
Political Theatre
Elizabethan and Jacobean Revenge Tragedy
The Religious Reformation, 1529-1559
The Influence Of Machiavelli On Shakespeare
The Succession of James I
Suicide in the Renaissance
Textual Variations in Shakespeare’s Plays
The Tragic Hero
The Transition from Medieval to Renaissance Drama
The Battle of Actium
Sources for Antony and Cleopatra
Marc Antony
The Contrast Between the Renaissance Prince Hamlet and Old Hamlet
New Words in Hamlet?
Is Hamlet a Problem Play?
Sources for Hamlet
Concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in Hamlet
‘And My Poor Fool Is Hanged’
The Double Role Of Cordelia And The Fool In King Lear
The Enclosure Acts
The Theme of Nature in King Lear
Nature and Cosmic Order in King Lear
Sources for King Lear
The Publishing and Performance History of Othello
Race in Othello
Sources for Othello
The Wife as Property in Othello