Women Role in Shakespeare’s Othello and Hamlet


The villain role of women in the Shakespeare’s plays Othello and Hamlet seems to have inspired the themes in both literary works. Currently, there exists an apparent insufficiency of analysis in the field of literature regarding the actual role of female characters in the plays. This paper seeks to highlight the villain role that women play especially in heightening conflict in the plays. The paper will analyze and compare the roles of women in Othello and Hamlet with the lieu of the fact that women characters have had a negative impact in the plays. I argue that women played villain and evil roles in the plays despite numerous groups holding a contrary view. In conclusion, the paper will shed light on the ignored and negative roles that women played in the two works of literature.

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Main Body

Shakespeare’s books, Hamlet and Othello have been misunderstood for a long time particularly in their depiction of women. While many people suppose that women characters played a supportive role to the respective protagonists, it is apparent that their contribution to the success or failure of the protagonists is wanting. In both books, women have adopted evil roles despite numerous analysts showing that they were heroic in their characterization. Due to their tender ages, they lack self-awareness and they are unable to make right decisions that could avert the tragedies that typify the literary works. Besides, women play a crucial role of prompting vengeance by engaging in sexual relations that lead to conflict in the books. It is therefore important to view women characters in Shakespeare’s books in the light of their evilness and the role they play.

Othello: Villain Role of Women

At the outset, it is important to suppose what would have taken place were some women such as Desdemona and Ophelia not in the play from the very beginning. In Othello, Desdemona, Bianca and Emilia are major female characters who precipitate the conflict that leaves Othello and Iago dead in the play. The conflict begins immediately after Othello marries Desdemona contrary to the wishes of Iago and Roderigo. The rest of the play is typical of antagonism that leads to the death of the major characters. All the conflict revolves around Desdemona. First, her evilness is apparent when she agrees to marry a black man in Venetian society (Othello).

From that, we witness an increase in incidences of conflict precipitated by racism (Bate and Rasmussen 3). By agreeing to marry Othello, Desdemona does not only go against the norms of the society but also increases the chances of resentment. She does it in a manner likely to mock her society and explains to her father that her new husband would share duties with him. To her, women should continue to have the perception that they are unsubordinated and little could be done about the situation. Against her knowledge, she marries a man who belongs to a different race, which precipitates the massive conflict in the book (Bate and Rasmussen 3). To that end, Desdemona serves a major cause of conflict in the play and as such, she is a villain.

Throughout the play, Desdemona seems to bear the name of a ‘betrayer’. In actual sense, Othello betrays her owing to his perceived adulterous and unfaithful character she portrays. However, this does not absolve her from her evil role in the play. The rationale is that she becomes obsessed with the military experiences of Othello and seems to overlook other facts that are important in the society. Despite the patriarchal nature of the society, she escapes the social structures and adopts a childlike behavior in protest of the status quo. In fact, she does not seem to get along with the Venetian society that places women in the periphery. This causes the society to be in conflict with its member leading to the fulfillment of her role’s objectives – to throw the society into conflict.

In the play, Bianca and Emilia are wives of Cassio and Iago respectively. They too do not play the heroic or protagonist characters and instead, they amplify the tragedy that ends the play. Emilia trusts her husband and does not hesitate to steal a handkerchief that Othello had given to Desdemona (Shakespeare 23). Ultimately, the handkerchief becomes the only source of evidence that Othello used to term Desdemona as an unfaithful wife. Her subservient behavior to her husband plays a negative role. Apparently, were it not for the handkerchief’s theft, Desdemona would not have faced her death. As such, Emilia plays a villain role similar to Desdemona in the play.

Bianca on the other hand, is not a morally upright female figure in the play. In fact, Cassio begins dating her knowing very well that she was a prostitute. In Venetian society, analysts point out that prostitutes were deviants and as such, the mainstream society received them with a cold heart. To be a prostitute according to the play is the only way to liberate oneself from the whims of patriarchal society (Bate and Rasmussen 3). Bianca had as such contravened the mores, norms and social structures of the society in search of freedom and liberation. Worse still, she plays a complementary role to Iago who is the main antagonist. She, like other women in the book fails to see the motives of Iago and consequently, ‘play to his tune’.

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In particular, Bianca believes Iago in his assertion that Cassio was having a sexual affair with Desdemona (Shakespeare 22). This escalates the conflict in the play. She goes ahead and sends Cassio out of her lodging. With nowhere to go, Cassio roams in the streets where Roderigo attacks him with the help of Iago. To that end, it is important to show the negative role that Bianca plays in escalating violence and conflict within the society of Venice. Contrary to numerous assertions, Bianca is not only engrossed in acts of antagonism but also plays a huge role in executing Iago’s plan that leaves many characters dead.

From the above analysis of major female characters in Othello, there would be a major change in the plot of the play were they not part of the play from the beginning. Apparently, the play would change its major theme of conflict where Desdemona’s marriage to a ‘moore’ would not have been possible (Bate and Rasmussen 3). As such, Roderigo and Iago who were jealous of the marriage would not confront Othello. This could have stopped the evil plans that were instrumental in making the story a tragedy. In addition, lack of female characters in the story would assert the dominance of males in the society and allow the females to play their respective roles of obedience. In fact, the major female characters go against the social norms. This threatens to tear apart the social fabric of the Venetian society (Shakespeare 23). Exempting Desdemona and Bianca from the play at the beginning would also reduce possible areas of antagonism. To this end, the play would change dramatically and diminish the major themes of the play if the female actors were absent from its onset. In itself, the play is a depiction of evil plots and misgivings.

Hamlet: Villain Role of Women

In the play, Hamlet, Shakespeare depicts women from a negative perspective. The major character, Hamlet, is embroiled in a battle to kill the murderer of his father (Old Hamlet) who was a king. From the onset of the novel, we witness Gertrude marrying her husband’s killer. The motivation behind it is her sexual immorality and the need to use her femininity to achieve her ends. Gertrude who is Hamlet’s mother does not remain faithful to the Old Hamlet. This does not only infuriate Hamlet but it also makes him to develop a negative perception about women. Particularly, he compares all women in the society to whores. This perception by the protagonist demystifies the assumption that women were only playing angel-like roles in the entire play. Indeed, lack of morality within the society makes Hamlet to act unpredictably (Blits 33). He brands Ophelia as dishonest and untrustworthy merely because of the role that Gertrude plays in the story. Despite of her knowledge about the motives of Claudius, Gertrude does nothing to caution his son of the impending evil plot by his uncle. It seems the two had conspired to kill the main protagonist.

Further, Gertrude seems to be aware of old Hamlet’s death and conceals the information to her son. In a patriarchal society in which the play is set, Gertrude does not only fail in her duties as a mother but also fails in her endeavors to keep her family intact (Shakespeare 11). Undoubtedly, Hamlet has no evidence against his uncle (stepfather) and depends on his father’s reappearance as a ghost to comprehend the truth. This is an apparent failure of Gertrude to bring up her family in a truthful and upright manner. Besides, Gertrude fails to inculcate the right beliefs and attitudes to his son. Hamlet perceives women as weak and dependent characters.

This could have led to his reduced desires to court, date and eventually marry Ophelia for the fear that she too could be like his mother (Blits 33). According to analysts, Gertrude does not allow anything to come between her and her adulterous and incestuous character. She gives her all to protect her marital engagement with Claudius and defends him against all allegations. To this end, Gertrude prompts the major conflict that leaves almost all major characters dead. Her failure to see beyond sexual relations leads to assumptions and presumptions that typify the relationship between Claudius and his nephew (Hamlet). Her shortsightedness makes her oblivious of the fact that Claudius was a brother of her deceased husband and indeed, her murderer. As such, Gertrude’s depiction in the play leads to questions about her motives and knowledge of the cause of conflict.

Ophelia is another character within the play that escalates conflict within the story. Despite Hamlet regarding her as a dishonest woman, she remains to be the center of attention in the play (Blits 34). In particular, Hamlet, Polonius and Laertes seem to be the main decision makers of her life. Like Gertrude, Ophelia is dependent on the decision made by men on her behalf. Despite Hamlet killing her father, Ophelia is engrossed in sexual relationships that could ensue between her and Hamlet. Because of her naivety and age, she could not withstand the death of her father. She becomes crazy.

This indicates that she was entirely dependent on men to live her life. Upon the return of Laertes from France, she is made to believe that her father’s death was instigated by Hamlet. Her unwavering desires of the heart do not make her believe a word from her brother. Instead, she feels relieved that she could be with Hamlet at last. Nonetheless, Ophelia suffers from delusion and is unable to contemplate the perceived ‘death’ of her lover. Coupled with her madness, her delusion makes her drown in the river. To that end, we witness a female character that is dependent and unable to make decisions on her own leading to her death.

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Blits points out that the death of Ophelia heightens the conflict in the play (33). It is upon her death that Laertes believes that Hamlet was out to kill his family members. This made him to conspire with Claudius. To the contrary, indecisiveness and dependence of Ophelia led to the misconception that Hamlet was a killer. This was to the advantage of Claudius who was now able to convince his relatives that Hamlet was not up to any good. Were it not for the dependent role played by Ophelia, Laertes could not have found a reason to be in conflict with Hamlet. To that end, Hamlet becomes a target and a victim of indecisiveness of Ophelia leading to the climax of the play that was marked by heightened rivalry.

As aforementioned, Blits says that the major female characters in the play, Hamlet, are villains (23). They escalate the apparent conflict within the society in this way. Shakespeare depiction of the two characters in the Hamlet served a huge role of ensuring that the play becomes and remains a tragedy. Hence, the plot and themes of the play would have changed tremendously in case Shakespeare excludes the female characters from the onset of the play. In addition, it is important to articulate that the play would not reach to the levels of conflicts that were apparent. First, Gertrude would be out of the picture and such, Hamlet would have perceived his uncle (Claudius) in a different way. It is clear in the play that the knowledge that Gertrude had married his uncle and illustrated unfaithfulness to the old Hamlet was the major point of enmity with Claudius (Shakespeare 14).

Since the story revolves around the two major adversaries, their enmity could have reduced substantially and possibly pacify the tensions and suspicions that Hamlet had expressed against his uncle. Second, the role of Gertrude in depicting women as tools and objects upon which men vented their anger would not have seen the light of day were she excluded from the play. Third, Ophelia’s madness and eventual death led to the belief that Hamlet had an evil plot against Polonius’ family. This led to the conspiracy of Claudius and Laertes against Hamlet. Besides, inability to make decisions was the single most important reason for the heightened conflict. As such, inclusion of women within the play served to escalate the animosity that led to the eventual death of the major protagonists. Thus, they played a villain role in the play, Hamlet.

Age and Depiction of Women in Othello and Hamlet

Major women characters in both plays seem to be tender in terms of age and they are dependent on the male characters for major decisions. In particular, Ophelia’s character in the play Hamlet is that of naivety and dependence. She entirely depends on her father (Polonius) and her brother (Laertes) to make any decision. Her lack of maturity brews conflict in the entire play especially when her father dies. She goes mad and is unable to control her emotions. To the advantage of the tragedy, her inability to cope with her father’s loss makes Laertes to conspire with Claudius. In fact, it is apparent in the play that Laertes vengeance was motivated partly because of her father’s murder and partly due to the inability of Ophelia to cope with the loss. Besides, she stands out a woman who would not defend herself against accusations by Hamlet about her dishonesty and untrustworthiness. This led to entrenchment of Hamlet’s negative perceptions about women. If Shakespeare included female characters who had reached adulthood, it would be possible that some of the conflicts witnessed would not occur.

In Othello, Desdemona seems to be very young and unable to realize the evil plans of Iago. Despite her intentions to marry Othello, the play depicts her father, Brabantio, as making the major decisions about whom she should marry. In particular, his father disapproval of Roderigo and approval of Othello was an illustration that Desdemona was not able to make her choices on her own. In addition, Bate and Rasmussen highlight that Brabantio was not comfortable with the fact that Othello was not from Venetian society (3). Further, Desdemona is unable to defend herself against accusations of infidelity by Othello. She is physically abused without resistance and eventually, his husband smothers her to death.

Unlike seemingly mature characters like Emilia who is able to understand Iago’s plot, Desdemona seems ignorant of the ongoing conflict. To that end, Desdemona could have been more vocal in pointing out the causes of the conflict and possibly, avert it (Bate and Rasmussen 3). Shakespeare’s depiction of young and dependent women in the play provides loopholes for exploring the theme of conflict and love that precipitated the eventual tragedy. As such, it would have been impossible for some actions that escalated the conflict to happen. That notwithstanding, the major roles that the young and naïve characters have played only serve to bring out the conflict that typifies the entire play.


In sum, Shakespeare’s plays Othello and Hamlet have projected women as the major causes of conflict. On the one hand, Desdemona’s defiance to marry a non-Venetian and Bianca’s immoral traits show the villain roles of the female characters in the play. On the other hand, Gertrude’s incestuous and adulterous behaviors have led to a negative portrayal of Hamlet and possible fall out with Claudius. For Ophelia, the inability to make rational and informed decisions owing to her tender age escalated conflict between Hamlet and Laertes. The latter conspires with Claudius to kill Hamlet. Coupled with their young age, the evil roles that women play in both plays advance the theme of conflict that is typical in both plays profoundly.

Works Cited

Bate, Jonathan and Rasmussen, Eric. Othello. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan. 2009. Print.

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Blits, Jan. Introduction: In Deadly Thought: “Hamlet” and the Human Soul. Langham, MD: Lexington Books, 2001. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet: The Prince of Denmark. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan Publishers, 1988. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello: The Moore of Venice. London: Macmillan Publishers, 1995. Print.

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