Although at first glance the character of Bianca appears to be relatively unimportant in “Othello”, a more compelling argument is that Shakespeare uses her to reinforce his message about the theme of gender. As one member of the play’s female triumvirate, Bianca is used to remind us that the silencing of women does not simply occur amongst the aristocracy and their servants, but is actually endemic throughout society.
Almost as soon as we encounter Bianca, we are led by the male characters to perceive her as a prostitute. She is a “caitiff”, a “customer” and a “bauble” to be manipulated by Cassio almost as much as Iago deceives Othello. Whilst Cassio protests his devotion to Bianca in person, when she is not on stage he descends into sexualised language – with the animalistic and derogatory connotations of “fitchew” perhaps being the most objectionable. And this is, perhaps, why readers often assume that Bianca earns a living through prostitution. However, on closer inspection of the text, there is no indication beyond the words of the male characters that this is the case. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Bianca may well be an honest needleworker. Certainly, her public protestations of absolute devotion to Cassio (“weary” is the time she spends away from him) are unexpected if her mode of employment is actually to dependent on custom from a range of men in the army. This point is reinforced by her name; Bianca means “white”, and thus suggests purity, innocence, and honesty – traits which create a link between this working-class, minor character and the affluent tragic victim, Desdemona. Is Shakespeare, therefore, using Bianca to highlight how the language of men can be used to transform the identity of a woman, thus symbolically silencing and disempowering them?
Further evidence of this is seen in the connections Shakespeare builds between the Bianca and Desdemona. Professor Lisa Hopkins posits that as Bianca and Desdemona are never seen on stage simultaneously, they may well have been played by the same actor. As already mentioned, they are linked by the play’s colour imagery and their fidelity to their lovers. They both handle the handkerchief, and Bianca is asked to “take the work out”, meaning copy the pattern. The handkerchief also inspires jealousy in their relationships. Both women are trapped in a patriarchal society in which they are unable to achieve financial and social stability without the assistance of men – yet these men literally and symbolically silence them. Yet where these two characters deviate is that Desdemona becomes less strong-minded and determined to hold her own; in Act 4 Scene 1 physical and emotional violence teach her that she needs to either relinquish her love or accept that marriage is not the pathway to equality that she might have thought in Act 1 Scene 3 and Act 2 Scene 1. She realises that she is no longer “our captain’s captain” and retreats into submissiveness. Bianca, on the other hand, refuses to accept this and remains vocal for much of the play. Unlike Desdemona’s faint protests about her innocence in Act 5 Scene 2, in the previous scene Bianca proudly declares “I am no strumpet, but of life as honest / As you that thus abuse me”. Bianca’s words echo motifs found throughout the play, and set her in direct opposition to Iago. Whereas he blasphemously claims “I am not what I am”, Bianca’s “I am” asserts her purity. Where Iago is incorrectly described as “honest”, when Bianca claims this attribute we have no evidence to disbelieve her. Perhaps Bianca provides us with a vision of what might have been for Desdemona, had she retained the outspoken confidence of her first appearance in Act 1. Bianca’s stubborn refusal to assume the identity she is given by others indicates that there is a way for women to live as they choose.
Yet, Bianca’s freedom is far from complete. She uses the same sexist language as the male characters, referring to the original owner of the handkerchief as a “minx”. She is denounced by Emilia at the end of Act 5 Scene 1, and her story-line remains unresolved at the play’s conclusion. Bianca is hardly a role model for female agency. But perhaps what we see here is Shakespeare’s realistic portrayal of the complexities of a woman’s survival in Renaissance England; whilst women were not above stereotyping their own gender, and were forced to compromise, Bianca’s indomitable spirit provides us with a glimmer of hope that women could gradually gain independence. There had recently been an unmarried female monarch, after all.