According to Arthur Kirsch in his article, The Polarization of Erotic Love in Othello, Shakespeare writes Othello with “an uncomfortably intense focus upon the sexual relationship between a man and a woman in marriage”. The focus on sexuality greatly increases from Hamlet to Othello. When it comes to his reasoning for betraying Othello and seemingly wanting all of Othello’s attention focused upon himself, Iago’s sexual orientation becomes a primary concern, as well as Othello’s mental state and Iago’s characteristics as a pimp.
When Othello begins, Iago warns Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, of her apparent kidnapping and compares her to luggage, when in fact she leaves her father on her own in order to marry Othello. Using racial remarks, Iago tells Brabantio of Othello’s sexual access to Desdemona; “An old black ram/Is tupping your young white ewe!”. To Iago and Brabantio even though they do not need to worry about Desdemona’s sexuality, she “becomes more than just a material possession – she has evolved into a sexual one”; she also becomes a sexual possession to Othello, yet as her husband, he should worry about her sexuality, although he should not think of her totally as a sexual possession. Foreshadowing a future “affair”, Brabantio warns Othello, “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see; She has deceived her father, and may thee”, meaning Desdemona could potentially leave or deceive Othello. Othello trusts Desdemona, believes her to be an honest woman, and knows she would never commit adultery. Iago knows of Othello’s fear that Desdemona could cheat on him and uses this against Othello. With a sly tongue, he convinces Othello into thinking Desdemona cheated on him with his honorable lieutenant, Cassio. “Othello is both emotionally vulnerable to Desdemona and ambivalent about women in general, and it is precisely because his anxieties are multivalent and mutually reinforcing that Othello is susceptible to Iago’s murderous seduction”. Othello forgets all beliefs of Desdemona’s innocence and chastity, yet he still treats her “as a faithful wife while also considering her a base adulterer”; “I think my wife be honest, and think she is not”. When asked about his trickery by Emilia, Iago tells her that he simply gave Othello his opinion. “Such redemption, equivocal though it may be, is not offered in Othello because here suspicion quickly takes on the irrevocable status of Truth, and female deception becomes, not a hideous possibility, but a damned certainty”.
“Some critics deduce that Iago must be a latent homosexual”. Iago had all of Othello’s attention focused upon him while they served in the army, but when Cassio becomes Othello’s lieutenant and Desdemona marries him, Othello’s attention focuses upon Desdemona and Cassio. Jealousy overcomes Iago and he creates a plan to get rid of those occupying “his lover’s” attention. In 1949, Dr. Ernest Jones told J.I.M. Stewart that there is “no possible motive for Iago’s behavior in destroying Othello and Desdemona except the rancor of the rejected and jealous lover of the Moor”.
In his article, Approximations: Iago as a Plautine, Doctor K.J. Gilchrist of Iowa State University, proposed the idea of Iago acting as a leno, or pimp. Throughout the play, Iago “cannot refer to the consummation of love in any terms but by those which are merely carnal” and “dwells more on the carnal elements of our nature, not the higher faculty of reason”. He “makes Desdemona a prostitute… at least in the sight of Othello” and gives the idea of pursuing Desdemona sexually to both Cassio and Roderigo. Two major clues as to whether Iago represents a pimp come in Act 2 Scene 3, where he tells Cassio “‘she is sport for love’ and ‘I’ll warrant her full of game’, with sport describing Desdemona in bed”; in Act 2 Scene 1, Iago comments to Desdemona saying “‘you [women] rise to play, and go to bed to work'”.
Othello confronts Emilia, asking her about how Desdemona and Cassio interact, since wherever Desdemona goes, Emilia follows; “She says enough, yet she’s a simple bawd That cannot say as much” Othello thinks to himself after Emilia leaves to get Desdemona (4.2.20-21). He believes Emilia to be “a subtle whore” (4.2.21). Desdemona pleads with Othello, constantly telling him she did not sleep with Cassio. Just hours before her death and knowing that her death would come that night, Desdemona “asked Emilia to place the wedding sheets” on her bed, hoping the wedding sheets “would serve a double purpose as her burial shroud”. She begs Othello not to kill her and swears “He [Cassio] found it then, I never gave it to him” (5.2.67-68). Othello still does not believe his wife and smothers her within the sheets of their bed. Upon Desdemona’s death, Othello tells Emilia of her husband’s trickery. She does not believe her husband set up the lie that killed her mistress.
Emilia: O mistress, villainy hath made mocks with love!
My husband say she was false?
Othello :I say thy husband: dost understand the word?
My friend thy husband honest, honest Iago.
Emilia: If he say so, may his pernicious soul
Rot half a grain a day! He lies to th’ heart:
She was too fond of her most filthy bargain!
Emilia confesses her role in the deceit to Othello, how she stole the handkerchief and gave it to Iago. In her last breaths, she again tells Othello “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” (5.2.247-249). In her book Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama, Valerie Traub states “to be a woman in a Shakespearean drama means to embody a sexuality that often finds its ultimate expression in death”. In Othello, the two main women – Desdemona and Emilia – die because of sexuality.
Up until Othello’s death, even after both Emilia and Desdemona tell him the truth, Othello continues to believe Iago’s lies. John Todd called this “delusional belief in infidelity of the spouse”, the Othello Syndrome, after Othello’s reaction to Iago’s lie about Desdemona and Cassio. He characterized the symptoms to be “recurrent accusations of infidelity, searches for evidence, repeated interrogation of the partner, tests of their partner’s fidelity, and sometimes stalking”. Throughout the play, Othello constantly interrogates Emilia and Desdemona for answers. Yet, his overall confirmation of Iago’s lie comes about when Othello sees Cassio with Desdemona’s handkerchief in hand, which he assumes Desdemona left when she visited Cassio’s house to have sex with him.
Sexuality undoubtedly acts as the catalyst within Desdemona and Othello’s demises, working through a mixture of Othello’s mental state, Iago’s conflicting sexual orientation, treacherous plan, and workings as a pimp. Shakespeare wrote Othello with more sexual overtones and a more realistic sexual theme than any other of his plays; sexuality became the major theme behind the tragedy.
William Shakespeare. Edited by Arthur Honigmann. “Othello (Arden Shakespeare: Third Series)”.
Valerie Traub. “Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama“.
John Todd. “The Othello Syndrome: a study in the psychopathology of sexual jealousy”.
MedicineNet. “Definition of Othello Syndrome”.
Jordan Boyd-Graber. “Putting The Demon In Desdemona”.
Doctor K.J. Gilchrist. “Approximations: Iago as a Plautine”. Iowa State University.
Arthur Kirsch. “The Polarization of Erotic Love In Othello”.