Demeaning Women in Word and Action
After the glowing picture of women in the first half of the play, we are little prepared for the barrage of negative terms and insulting actions that are directed toward women in Act IV. Recall that in 2.1, while waiting for Othello's ship to land, Cassio unstingly sings the praise of "divine" Desdemona (2.1.60-73). Later he will be unwilling to join in Iago's "gutter talk" about Desdemona when heading off to the watch with him (2.3.12-30). Othello's words at reuniting with Desdemona also express his high view of her: "I cannot speak enough of this content,/ It stops me here; it is too much of joy (1.2.196-197)." If anyone speaks negatively of women, it is Iago but we know that Iago is not only a conniving and diabolical figure but specifically wants to undermine Desdemona's fidelity. No "good" man speaks ill of women in the first two Acts.
Unexpected Language (4.1-4.2)
Thus, when the profusion of negative terms for women appears in 4.1., it greets us not unlike the slap that Othello administers to Desdemona in 4.1.240. It shocks. It makes us think that even though only one woman is eventually undermined (Desdemona) that the men have a potent vocabulary, ready at a moment's notice, to ridicule and destroy women's lives. Several characters use at least a dozen words in a few hundred lines to denigrate women. A list of the quotations and speakers, without comment, will show the cumulative effect of this device.
1. Iago speaking to Othello. "O, 'tis the spite of hell, the fiend's arch-mock,/ To lip a wanton in a secure couch, And to suppose her chaste (4.1.70-72)!"
2. Iago speaking to the viewers. "Now will I question Cassio of Bianca,/ A huswife that by selling her desires/ Buys herself bread and clothes (4.1.93-95)."
3. Iago continuing. "It is a creature/ That dotes on Cassio (as 'tis the strumpet's plague/ To beguile many and be beguil'd by one) (4.1.95-97)."
4. Cassio speaking to Iago when Iago asks him about Bianca's apparent commitment to him. "Alas, poor caitiff (4.1.108)."
5. Cassio speaking to Iago and continuing his description of Bianca. "Alas, poor rogue, I think, i' faith, she loves me (4.1.111)."
6. Cassio expressing his disbelief to Iago. "I marry her! What? a customer [prostitute]! Prithee/ bear some charity to my wit, do not think it so un-/ wholesome. Ha, ha, ha (4.1.119-121)!"
7. Cassio continuing with Iago. "This [i.e., the statement that he is about to marry Bianca] is the monkey's own giving out. She is/ persuaded I will marry her, out of her own love and/ flattery, not out of my promise (4.1.127-129)."
8. Cassio still speaking of Bianca. "She was here even now; she haunts me in/ every place. I was the other day talking on the sea-/ bank with certain Venetians, and thither comes the/ bauble.... (a plaything or trinket, 4.1.132-135)."
9. When Bianca arrives, and Cassio speaks in her direction. "'Tis such another fitchew [polecat or prostitute]! marry, a perfum'd/ one! (4.1.146-157)."
10. Bianca even gets into the act, using words to describe the woman from whom Cassio must have received the handkerchief. "This is some minx's token, and I must take out/ the work (4.1.153-154)?"
11. She continues, "There, give it your hobby-horse (mistress, 4.1.154)."
12. Iago to Othello after Bianca has tried to return to handkerchief to Cassio, "Yours [i.e., the handkerchief], by this hand. And to see how he/ prizes the foolish woman your wife! She gave it him,/ and he hath giv'n it his whore (4.1.175-177)."
13. Othello's reference to Emilia after she has left his presence, "She says enough; yet she's a simple bawd/ That cannot say as much (4.2.20-21)."
14. Othello, continuing. "This is a subtile whore/ A closet lock and key of villainous secrets (4.2.21-22)."
15. Othello addressing Desdemona, "Was this fair paper [i.e., Desdemona], this most goodly book/ Made to write 'whore' upon? What committed?/ Committed? O thou public commoner,/ I should make very forges of my cheeks (4.2.71-74)."
16. Othello to Desdemona. "Impudent strumpet! By heaven, you do me wrong./ Are you not a strumpet (4.2.81-82)?"
17. Iago to Roderigo, discussing Cassio's evening plans as they plot to knock out his brains. "He sups to-night with a harlotry (Bianca), and thither/ will I go to him (4.2.233-234)."
After Iago utters the last insult, the men disappear from the Act, except for a brief interaction between Othello and Lodovico in 4.3. The women are left to their own devices in trying to interpret the nature of Othello's attack on Desdemona. Like his use of words beginning in "en" to express the idea that the play is becoming characterized by a certain claustrophobia (see my essay on claustrophobia), Shakespeare here uses an abundance of terms suggestive of feminine infidelity to show that this issue is now dominant in the minds of the men. It is almost as if Shakespeare is trying to steer the huge and unwieldy tragedy through the sea language, and must use exaggerated and vivid terms to get the audience ready to think more precisely about the nature of marital fidelity as well as men's attitudes toward women.
The next mini-essay will discuss Othello's insulting actions toward women.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long