Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

Shakespeare’s Othello opens with Desdemona and Othello publicly defending their marriage and declaring their love for one another in front of an audience of senators. In their early scenes, the two illustrate a model of marriage based on love and women’s consent that was still developing during Shakespeare’s time. However, this model soon fails. Incompatible with the patriarchal social order dependent upon women’s chastity, the romantic foundation of their marriage soon folds under men’s misogynistic anxieties surrounding cuckoldry. The men of Othello possess the authority to choose when to listen to and believe women, and when to silence them; thus, a woman speaking against her husband (or at all, really) gets read as improper and incriminating as a sign of her wild, uncontrollable nature. Of Emilia, Iago remarks to Othello that “Her honor is an essence that’s not seen” (4.1.16) — and an “honorable” woman shouldn’t be heard, either. But while men silence women in fear of being made a cuckold, the women of Othello fear physical violence at the hands of their husbands. Although Shakespeare configures a parallel storyline of marital abuse for Desdemona and Emilia that culminates with their shared deaths, their voices unite and become a source of lasting resistance to the authorial violence of masculinist discourse.

From the play’s start, Desdemona reveals an awareness of her ability to speak and be heard by her husband, but because she transgresses her “proper” place in the domestic sphere, her speech becomes manipulated into supposed evidence of her impropriety. Shakespeare introduces Desdemona by having her boldly defend herself and her marriage in front of the senate, but it is the men who stage this scene: they invite her into this public space and call upon her to speak. Their need for her testimony is an exception, for they trust her voice as a white woman more than that of Othello, a Black man. When testifying before Brabantio that “so much duty as my mother showed / To you, preferring you before her father, / So much I challenge that I may profess / Due to the Moor my lord” (1.3.186-9), Desdemona connects herself to other women before her who have shared in the experience of transferring “loyalty” from father to husband; she asserts that she merely fulfilled what is expected of women upon marriage. In distinguishing herself from her mother, who “showed” her propriety, Desdemona herself must “profess,” and thus she links her demonstration of duty to her ability to speak. Later, after Cassio expresses his fear over losing his friendship with Othello, Desdemona reveals her faith in Othello as a listener as she tells Cassio:

Do not doubt that. Before Emilia here

I give thee warrant of thy place. Assure thee,

If I do vow a friendship, I’ll perform it

To the last article. My lord shall never rest;

I’ll watch him tame and talk him out of patience;

His bed shall seem a school, his board a shrift;

I’ll intermingle everything he does

With Cassio’s suit. Therefore be merry, Cassio,

For thy solicitor shall rather die

Than give thy cause away. (3.3.19-28)

By appointing herself as Cassio’s “solicitor” (3.3.27), Desdemona illustrates the trust she places in the authority of her speech, and consequently in her ability to persuade Othello and “talk him out” (3.3.23) of his disagreement. As both Cassio’s advocate and Othello’s wife, Desdemona promises she will “intermingle everything [Othello] does / With Cassio’s suit” (3.3.25-6), thus she asserts her ability to bring this public issue into the private, domestic spaces she shares with Othello. Later, after witnessing Desdemona publicly bring Cassio’s case before Othello, Iago claims authorship over Desdemona’s speech to distort her words into proof of her infidelity. On the grounds that Desdemona’s public speech is improper in itself, Iago uses her speech acts as incriminating evidence to manipulate Othello’s masculine anxiety of being made a cuckold by an uncontrollable wife.

Before his manipulation of Desdemona, Iago illustrates the violent potential of men’s fear of cuckoldry through his abuse of his wife, Emilia. Plotting against Othello, Iago tells Roderigo that “it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets / H’as done my office” (1.3.379-80), revealing Iago’s conviction that Emilia has cuckolded him. Though he has no evidence to prove that his suspicions are “true” (1.3.380), Iago names this anxiety to rationalize the violence he plans; he expects Roderigo to empathize with his reaction to Emilia and Othello’s supposed affair. When the audience first sees Emilia, Iago criticizes her to Cassio, saying that “would she give you so much of her lips / As of her tongue she oft bestows on me, / You would have enough” (2.1.100-3), publicly silencing her and mocking her voice before she says her first line. When Desdemona jokes with Iago that Emilia “has no speech” (2.1.100), Iago’s response that “I find it still when I have leave to sleep. / Marry, before your ladyship, I grant, / She puts her tongue a little in her heart / And chides with thinking” (2.1.104-7) works not only to stifle Emilia’s speech in this public space, but to criticize her for speaking and ‘chiding’ him in their shared private space. While Emilia’s response to this criticism, that Iago “[has] little cause to say so” (2.1.108) is short and terse, it reveals her recognition of and resistance to Iago’s verbal abuse. Later asserting that Iago “will not write [her] praise” (2.1.116), Emilia rejects his claim to authorship over her body and her speech. As she picks up Desdemona’s handkerchief that Iago has “a hundred times / Woo’d [her] to steal” (3.3.292-3) Emilia delivers a brief soliloquy in which she justifies her action. While her conclusion, “I nothing but to please his fantasy (3.3.299) can read as ‘I do nothing,’ perhaps it can also read as ‘I am nothing’ — with this, she acknowledges her husband’s claim to read and interpret her actions however suits his “fantasy.” After her soliloquy, in the play’s only moment where Iago and Emilia speak together without witnesses, he questions her “How now? What do you here alone?” (3.3.300); he thus immediately reads Emilia’s temporary elusion of his watch (and therefore, his control) as suspicious. Though Emilia does present the handkerchief to Iago, he “snatches” it from her grasp; on one level, Emilia’s awareness of the violent potential of her husband should probably cause her to suspect the malice in his motives, but this awareness can help explain why she feels compelled to ‘obey’ him.

Once Othello begins to “write” Desdemona as a whore, he silences her ability to publicly speak and be heard. But despite his accusations and his refusal to listen to Desdemona, she maintains faith in her voice and ability to reason with him. After Othello berates her in front of Emilia, Desdemona rationalizes his behavior, telling Emilia that

Men’s natures wrangle with inferior things,

Though great ones are their object. ‘Tis even so;

For let our finger ache, and it endues

Our other, healthful members even to that sense

Of pain. Nay, we must think men are not gods,

Nor of them look for such observancy

As fits the bridal. Beshrew me much, Emilia,

I was, unhandsome warrior as I am,

Arraigning his unkindness with my soul;

But now I find I had suborn’d the witness,

And he’s indicted falsely. (3.4.143-53)

Though she begins by speaking specifically of her husband, “state” (3.4.140) matters (which are men’s domain), and “Men’s natures” (3.4.143), she shifts into using first-person plural pronouns as she metaphorizes physical “pain”; in doing so, Desdemona includes herself (and perhaps, Emilia) in feeling an acute ache she perceives will spiral into something larger. In her acknowledgment that women cannot demand attentiveness from their husbands beyond their wedding day, Desdemona illustrates the incompatibility between the courtly love exemplified by the wedding ceremony, and the misogynistic fears of cuckoldry that invade once married. She concludes her speech by echoing her earlier “solicitor” metaphor in which she asserted her ability to persuade her husband — but she here inverts the metaphor to advocate against herself and her momentary ‘indictment’ of Othello. Her speech also demonstrates her need to justify to Emilia (a woman to whom marital abuse is unfortunately familiar) her continued devotion to Othello. But Emilia’s doubts and violent expectations of Othello frame the scene: she questions Desdemona “Is [Othello] not jealous?” (3.4.25) after witnessing his frantic interrogation over the handkerchief, and she undermines Desdemona’s speech by telling her “Pray heaven it be state matters, as you think, / And no conception nor no jealous toy / Concerning you” (3.4.154-6). At the start of the fourth act, Othello publicly strikes Desdemona in front of Emilia: in this moment, his abuse, now turned physical, cements the failure of Desdemona’s speech. After this moment, Desdemona recognizes that her speech can incriminate her in her husband’s eyes: she “cannot say ‘whore’” (4.2.161) in front of Iago and Emilia, knowing that saying so has the power to make her “that name” (4.2.118). As she pleads with Iago to talk to Othello, saying that she can “trespass ‘gainst [Othello’s] love” in both “discourse of thought” and “actual deed” (4.2.152-3), she paints not only her words and her actions as potentially incriminating, but also her private, unspoken thoughts.

Desdemona and Emilia share the stage alone, unobserved, just once before their deaths; though they share a similar experience of marital abuse, their private conversation illustrates that while Desdemona blames wives (and thus, herself) for the violent manifestations of men’s fear of cuckoldry, Emilia instead directs anger at husbands. Having been publicly “commanded” by Othello “to go to bed” (4.3.13), Desdemona asks Emilia to place her wedding night sheets upon her bed and requests that “If I do die before thee prithee, shroud me / In one of those same sheets” (4.3.24-5); though she maintains her commitment to loving Othello as she did on their wedding night, Desdemona senses that she will soon die. But rather than supposing that Othello will kill her, she seems to believe that her own heartache will cause her death. Speaking of her mother’s maid, Barbary, Desdemona connects her pain to that of other women before her; she tells Emilia that Barbary

…was in love; and he she loved proved mad

And did forsake her. She had a song of “Willow”;

An old thing ’twas; but it express’d her fortune,

And she died singing it. That song tonight

Will not go from my mind; I have much to do

But to go hang my head all at one side

And sing it like poor Barbary. (4.3.27-33)

Perhaps believing that Othello has “proved mad” (4.3.27) like Barbary’s lover, Desdemona aligns herself with Barbary, sensing that she will share in her “fortune” (4.3.29). The Willow song, as “an old thing” (4.3.29), holds the cultural space of a folk song, and therefore it speaks to a common ‘fate’ amongst women. Though Desdemona resists “sing[ing] it like poor Barbary” (4.3.33), the Willow song provides Desdemona with a new mode of expression. Through song, she can join (and possibly strengthen) her voice by connecting it with that of other women. In response to Desdemona’s song, Emilia, adopting Desdemona’s role as “solicitor,” presents an argument that places the blame of infidelity on husbands; unlike Desdemona, Emilia pays explicit attention to men’s often violent and abusive behavior. After Desdemona questions her if “there be women [that] do abuse their husbands / In such gross kind?” (4.3.61-2) Emilia tells her:

Yes, a dozen; and as many to the vantage as would

store the world they played for.

But I do think it is their husbands’ faults

If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,

And pour our treasures into foreign laps,

Or else break out in peevish jealousies,

Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,

Or scant our former having in despite;

Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,

Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know

Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell

And have their palates both for sweet and sour,

As husbands have. (4.3.84-96)

As she’s often silenced by Iago throughout the play, Emilia’s passionate, heightened verse in defense of wives (and their sexual desires) is incredibly striking. Emilia’s opening understatement that only “a dozen” (4.3.84) women would cuckold their husbands to gain “all the world” (4.3.63) inverts Desdemona’s Willow song; rather than speaking for women who share in heartache, Emilia claims a commonality between women who, in her view, rightfully cheat on ‘faulty’ husbands. Speaking of ways in which husbands “slack their duties” (4.3.87), Emilia directly references Othello and Iago’s behavior throughout the play: they have broken “out in peevish jealousies” (4.3.89), Othello has “struck” Desdemona, and both have publicly “throw[n] restraint upon” (4.3.90) their wives. By tying her generalized claims closely to their personal experiences, Emilia thus argues that she and Desdemona possess the ability to have “some revenge” (4.3.93). In her attempt to establish the humanity of women, Emilia uses the language of physical “sense” (4.3.94) to assert that women are real, feeling beings who exist beyond men’s misogynistic fantasies. Using first-person plural pronouns to claim kinship between herself and Desdemona (and all wives in general), Emilia lends her voice to Desdemona in a gesture of comfort and defense. But this bond shared between Desdemona and Emilia fails to include the only other woman in the play: Bianca. After Emilia calls Bianca a “strumpet” (5.1.122) in front of Iago, Bianca connects herself to Emilia in response by claiming they share honesty: “I am no strumpet, but of life as honest / As you that thus abuse me” (5.2.123-4). Though Emilia establishes a sisterhood with Desdemona by criticizing the anxieties that men often use to justify violence against their wives, her empathy doesn’t extend to Bianca, perhaps because she views her as a ‘literal’ whore.

The kinship between Emilia and Desdemona carries into the play’s final scene as their voices — and their deaths — become bound together. As Othello enters the private space of their bedroom and begins to reveal his violent intentions to Desdemona, her speech fails her; she pleads with Othello, repeatedly calling for Cassio to testify on her behalf, echoing the senate scene in which her voice carried an authority to persuade men. But Othello’s violent, misogynistic reading of Desdemona as “whore” cannot be altered by her speech. Begging entry into the room in response to Desdemona’s cries, Emilia’s voice haunts the scene as Othello smothers Desdemona; as Emilia pleads to “speak a word” (5.2.91) with Othello, her speech mirrors Desdemona’s earlier cries. As Desdemona slowly dies, she maintains ‘propriety’ in the sense that she dies defending Othello; but in doing so, her final words to Emilia, that “Nobody — I myself” (5.2.125) has killed her, are a lie. Though Emilia could not physically save her, she takes up Desdemona’s voice and testifies on her behalf, perhaps because she herself can “speak” to spousal abuse, in hopes of achieving justice for Desdemona. She begs the men to “have leave to speak” (5.2.196) and acknowledges that though “‘Tis proper [she] obeys” (5.2.197) Iago, she is “bound to speak” (5.2.185) for Desdemona; though very aware of the potential violent consequences of her speech as she stands in a room with Desdemona’s body, Emilia reveals her commitment to getting “some revenge” (4.3.93) for Desdemona. As Emilia breaks her alignment with her husband, Iago attempts to silence Emilia several times throughout her testimony. After she exposes the truth of the handkerchief, he calls her a “villainous whore” (5.2.231), again revealing his misogynistic anxieties that equate “disobedience” with evidence of sexual promiscuity or cuckoldry. But when she continues to speak, Iago kills Emilia to definitively silence her; though she attempts to intervene on Desdemona’s behalf, Emilia dies in front of several men who fail to intervene and take action against Iago on her behalf. Like Desdemona, as Emilia slowly dies, she speaks her finals words to Desdemona, asking:

What did thy song bode, lady?

Hark, canst thou hear me? I will play the swan.

And die in music. [Sings] “Willow, willow, willow.”

Moor, she was chaste. She loved thee, cruel Moor:

So come my soul to bliss, as I speak true.

So speaking as I think, alas, I die. (5.2.246-52)

Repeating Desdemona’s Willow song, Emilia unifies her voice not only with Desdemona’s, but with those of all the women who have sung “Willow” before her, and will sing it after her. Emilia dies asserting the truth of her speech in defense of Desdemona; her final line recognizes and discards the consequences of her impropriety in testifying against her husband, and asserts faith in her ability to author her and Desdemona’s legacies beyond their deaths. But though Desdemona and Emilia die at the hands of men’s misogynistic violence, perhaps their joined voices achieve a sort of justice: unlike Othello, the women die in truth, claiming the right to speak of themselves as they are.

Works Cited

  • Shakespeare, William, and Russ McDonald. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. New York: Penguin Books, 2001. Print.

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