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Shakespeare’s Othello begins with a marriage between Othello and Desdemona. This marriage was the result of the strong bond of love which they felt together. During their marriage, Othello started to feel a sense of jealousy with Desdemona’s behavior. This jealousy was being created by Desdemona’s beauty and sexual power. With the presence of Desdemona, Othello felt belittled with her sexuality. Female sexuality is a threat to the patriarchal society, and Othello must control it. Desdemona’s sexuality greatly threatens her husband, Othello. To eliminate Desdemona’s sexuality and restore her purity, Othello must kill his wife. This will free Othello from her sexual influence. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Desdemona’s sexual threat initiates Othello’s insecurity towards their marriage, causing him to redefine himself as a man of violent action.
Early on in the play, Othello intimates that Desdemona’s sexuality is a threat towards himself and his behavior. Othello pinpoints the source of this degradation when he recounts his relationship with Desdemona: “She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,/And I loved her that she did pity them.” Othello moves from a martial world to one governed by maternal pity. This movement robs Othello of his manhood, returning him to a child-like state of dependence. For example, Janet Adelman states “Making himself susceptible to Desdemona’s pity, that is, Othello unmakes the basis for his martial identity, exchanging it for one dependent on her.” This self-sufficiency affected his masculine identity, which changed because of his new need of her love. This return to childhood behavior reawakens Othello’s sense of vulnerability that Othello managed to conceal as a soldier. Furthermore, Othello tells the senate, “For since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith,/Till now some nice moons wasted…” The idea that moons could waste Othello’s arms suggests that female sexuality (represented by the lunar menstrual cycle) can undermine Othello’s masculinity (represented by the arms that carry his weapons). Othello begins describing his relationship with Desdemona that her aura creates a continued sense of helplessness for Othello. In the beginning of the play, Othello begins to realize Desdemona’s threat towards him and his behavior by stating that he feels weakened by her presence.
In addition to his fear of domination by a women, Othello fears domination by his own feelings towards her. As stated by Martha Ronk “The consequent state of chaos, jealousy and sexual fantasy into which Othello plunges, literally undoes him as he falls to the ground in a trance.” Othello’s jealousy causes the decadence of his self-control and his conduct. He becomes enthrall with Desdemona’s behavior which is slowly causing his self-destruction with his feelings being control by Desdemona. Furthermore, Othello’s assurances to the senate that this will not happen “the young affects/In me defunct” sounds as if he is trying to convince himself more than the lords. Othello fears that the awakening of his sexual desires for Desdemona may draw potency from his martial prowess. Also importantly, Othello says about his marriage “If it were now to die,/’Twere now to be most happy.” Othello acknowledges that the contamination of his masculine power by female sexuality is preventative to his happiness. Othello’s character shortcomings reveals that he is helpless among the presence of Desdemona.
Othello must confront both aspects of Desdemona’s sexuality, first, through the consummation of their marriage, and with the possibility that she is having an affair. In realizing the situation, Othello cries out:
What sense had I of her stol’n hours of lust?
Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!…
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone!
Othello’s character was completely taken over by his weakness with his influence from Desdemona. Female sexuality destroys Othello’s masculinity: his ability for violent combat when he comes to face with Desdemona’s sexuality. Furthermore, Othello expresses his fear of female sexuality through the handkerchief which was given to Desdemona as a gift from Othello. Othello describes the handkerchief in being “A sibyl… In her prophetic fury sew’d the work;/The worms were hallow’d that did breed the silk;” which can be seen as a sexual reference with the image of the worms “breed[ing]“. Also importantly, the handkerchief also represents the power that female sexuality has over men. When explaining the significance of the handkerchief to Desdemona, Othello says “…The thoughts of people: she told her, while she kept it,/’T would make her amiable and subdue my father/Entirely to her love…” Othello fears that Desdemona will not equate her desires to his own. The possibility that she should give away the handkerchief, and thus control her own desires, causes Othello great distress. As stated by Rob Wilson “…who can make of Desdemona’s handkerchief a (false) sign of her marital falseness and maternal betrayal and of mere handshake an index (sign) of adulterous lust…” Because of the symbolic value of the handkerchief, Othello took the lost handkerchief as a sign of marital disobedience. Throughout the play, Othello must confront his own insecurity towards Desdemona and also the possibility that Desdemona is having an affair, which his jealous rage led to his final fall.
In order to regain his masculinity, Othello must control Desdemona’s sexuality. Othello first instinct is to violently destroy their marriage. He wants to “chop her into messes”, spilling her blood a second time. His second suggestion of poisoning her reminds us that Othello is truly the one respnsible for Desdemona’s “impurity”. The image of his giving his wife a poison is a distorted image of his sexually contaminating her through intercourse. At Iago’s suggestion, Othello decides to strangle her in “the bed she hath contaminated”. Shakespeare makes it abiguous with whom Desdemona has contaminated the bed. At first glance, Iago seems to be referring to Desdemona’s supposed affair with Cassio. However, Shakespeare never suggests that they used Desdemona and Othello’s bed. The only person we know for sure that had intercourse with Desdemona in that bed, thereby contaminating it, is Othello. Also importantly, Othello’s decision to strange his wife is an attempt to purify Desdemona and the bed: “Yet I’ll not shed her blood”. Neither his wife or his bed will be stained with “lust’s blood.” Emilia foreshadows Othello’s attempt to undo the consummation when she says “I might do’t as well I’ the dark…and undo’t when I had done”. As if in response to her words, Othello says that he will “Put out the light [the candle], and then put out the light [Desdemona]” Furthermore, Janet Adelman states “…if virginity is the ground of Othello’s desire, death is its only preservative.” Once Othello has “raped” Desdemona, she must die. In death, Desdemona loses her sexuality, thus regaining her purity and virginity. Othello can now absolve himself for making her impure, and once again admit his love for his wife: “I will kill thee,/And love thee after”.
Othello’s downfall was the result of his own devising. Iago may have aggravated the situation, but Othello’s own anxiety toward Desdemona’s sexuality would have forced her death regardless. The patriarchal society demands that a woman must not have desires of her own. In the tale of Othello, Desdemona’s, who is representing women in general, sexuality is a double threat towards the patriarchal society. Not only may a woman sexually desire any man she chooses, but a man’s desire for a women emasculates him by making him subservient to her desires. With that message, Othello reinforces that Shakespeare believes that female sexuality should be removed from the realm of the patriarchy.
Adamson, W. D. “Unpinned or Undone?: Desdeona’s Critics and the Problem of Sexual Innocence.” Detroit: Gale Research inc., 1997. 360-367.
Adelman, Janet. “Is Thy Union Here?: Union and Its Discontents in Troilus and Cressida and Othello”. Shakespearean Criticism, Vol. 22. Detroit: Gale Research inc., 1994. 339-354.
Pechter, Edward. “Have you not read of some such thing? Sex and Sexual stories in Othello.” Shakespearean Criticism, Vol. 37. Detroit: Gale Research inc., 1998. 269-276.
Rice, Julian. “Desdemona”. Shakespearean Criticism, Vol. 35. Detroit: Gale Research inc., 1997. 352-360.
Ronk, Martha. “Recasting Jealousy: A Reading of The Winter’s tale”. Literature and Psychology, Vol XXXVI, 1990. 50-77.
Shakespeare, William. Othello (New Penguin Shakespeare). New York: Penguin inc., 1981.
Wilson, Rob. “Jealousy: Othello and The Winter’s Tale”. Shakespearean Criticism, Vol. 44. Detroit: Gale Research inc., 1999. 57-64.
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