Demeaning Women Through Action
In addition to the numerous words used by several characters in 4.1 and 4.2 to describe unfaithful women, Shakespeare also has Othello say or do five additional things in these scenes that degrade women. The cumulative effect of the words and actions abasing women is to aid Othello in justifying his final insulting act: killing Desdemona. Shakespeare carefully tills the ground of hatred and insult so that the final act becomes explicable, even if it is still shocking.
A. The most obvious example of Othello's humiliating Desdemona through action is Othello's slap and reference to her as "Devil (4.1.240)!" This slap does not come out of the blue. Tension has built up in Othello's mind from the outset of the scene. In fact, his system was "overloaded" by Iago's insistent needling in the first 45 lines, leading to his physical collapse. The immediate cause of the striking is a letter Othello received through Lodovico recalling him to Venice. While waiting for Othello to divulge the letter's contents, Desdemona and Lodovico talk. She explains her concern to restore Cassio. "A most unhappy one [i.e., conflict between Othello and Cassio]. I would do much/ T' atone them, for the love I bear to Cassio (4.1.233)."
Othello then explodes with terms of biblical magnitude, "Fire and brimstone!" (4.1.234--see Luke 17:29 and the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which was destroyed by fire and brimstone--Gen. 19:24). After a brief exchange in which Othello accuses her of being mad ("I am glad to see you mad"--4.1.239), he strikes her. So shocking is this event that Lodovico will ask, after Desdemona has left, "Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate/ Call all in all sufficient (4.1.264-265)?" The last line also has a rich biblical cadence [not noted by the excellent treatment of Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare's Plays] in St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. After speaking of the end times, when the last enemy to God, death, will be destroyed, Paul then says, "And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all (I Cor 15:28, KJV). The divine-like figure Othello has fallen through this monstrous treatment of his wife.
B. But the shameful handling of Desdemona is combined with two insulting responses of Othello to show that he now considers her of no value to him. After Lodovico urges him to "Make her amends; she weeps (4.1.244)," Othello refuses and responds,
"O devil, devil!/ If that the earth could teem with[i.e., become pregnant] women's tears,/ Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile./ Out of my sight! (4.1.244-247)."
We use the phrase "crocodile tears" to stress a person's insincerity and falsity. So Othello is saying that each tear she sheds is evidence of her hypocrisy. She is a cheat and deceiver, not to mention the dozen or so demeaning sexual terms that appear in 4.1. In saying this Othello is adopting Iago's interpretation of Desdemona's action when she patiently and eagerly sat and heard Othello's stories of romance and adventure. When Iago made his first argument for her infidelity he said,
"She did deceive her father, marrying you,/ And when she seem'd to shake and fear your looks,/ She lov'd them most (3.3.206-208)."
That is, despite her apparent fear of Othello's stories, she really fell in love with him through them. To Iago this is a sign of her ingenious deception. He claims that even in the very act of falling in love with Othello, Desdemona deceived. She seemed to be afraid, but she was, in fact, in love. Now Othello has adopted that kind of logic. Desdemona's tears of apparent distress and humiliation in 4.1 must truly be indicative of her deceptive intents. They are "crocodile" tears. Desdemona is, literally, damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. If she appears faithful, it is an indication of artful deception. If she came across as a bawd, it would also be evidence of her infidelity. She has no maneuvering space, and Othello's verbal assault against her proves this.
C. The third insulting action by Othello occurs after he agrees with Lodovico to recall Desdemona. Rather, however, than this being a sign that Othello may relent and ask forgiveness, it is one more indication of a heart of stone. Lodovico says, "Truly an obedient lady:/ I do beseech your lordship call her back (4.1.248-249)." To which Othello responds, "Mistress (4.1.250)!" Then, when she turns, rather than saying anything to her, Othello just glares at Lodovico and says, "What would you with her, sir (4.1.250)?" Only Othello can make amends in such a situation, but he addresses Lodovico as if he could do something.
And then, to make matters worse, Othello mocks Desdemona for obeying him by turning around to hear what he would like to say. Othello uses the word "turn" four times in three lines to stress the 'turncoat' nature of Desdemona: "Ay, you did wish that I would make her turn./ Sir, she can turn, and turn; and yet go on/ And turn again (4.1.252-254)." 'Oh yes,' Othello says, 'She is a regular turner. She turned from me; she turned to Cassio; she probably did a turn with other men as well.' Then he ridicules her tears and her obedience. "And she's obedient, as you say, obedient;/ Very obedient (4.1.255-256)." Then he vents his fury directly at her, "O well-painted passion!...Get you away....Hence avaunt! (4.1.257-260)." She simply is a fake, a fraud, an emotional deceiver who tries to put on all the indicia of concern but really it is nothing but evidence of the most evil and delusory conduct.
Then, if this is not enough, the three words he utters before he departs are "Goats and monkeys (4.1.263)." These words go back to Iago again in his sharp description of the sexual license that Desdemona has been taking. He told Othello that it would be difficult to produce ocular proof of her infidelity. He says,
"It is impossible you should see this,/ Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys... (3.3.402-403)."
That is, the vivid phrases uttered by Iago sunk deeply into Othello's mind and his muttering of "Goats and monkeys" as he leaves the stage conjures up the uncontrolled licentiousness described by Iago in 3.3. 'Surely she is doing that, right in front of my eyes,' Othello thinks. His vitriol knows no bounds.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long