A strong current of misogyny flows through Othello, and many of the play’s tragic events emerge from this source. Iago in particular serves as a mouthpiece for misogyny, frequently making offensive comments about women both in private asides and soliloquies and in public conversations. Iago firmly believes that women are universally untrustworthy and sexually deviant. In Act II he outlines his perception of women as elusive, mercurial, and deceitful: “You are pictures out of doors, bells / in your parlors, wild-cats in your kitchens, saints in / your injuries, devils being offended, players in your / housewifery, and housewives in your beds” (II.i.).
Later in the same scene he expresses his related suspicions about female sexuality. In one of his ironic couplets in “praise” of Desdemona he quips, “There’s none so foul and foolish thereunto / But does foul pranks which fair and wise ones do” (II.i.), where “foul pranks” means sexual acts. Iago’s misogyny also rubs off on others, most notably on Othello, who adopts Iago’s hateful vocabulary and refers to both Emilia and Desdemona as “whores.”
One could argue that Iago’s deep-seated misogyny represents the true source of the play’s dramatic action. After all, his unfounded suspicion of his wife’s adultery is what initially leads him to desire revenge against the men who have allegedly cuckolded him: Cassio and Othello. Iago admits as much in a covertly ironic statement he makes to Emilia in the final act. Referring to the wounding of Cassio and the near slaying of Roderigo, Iago asserts to his wife: “This is the fruits of whoring” (V.i.). In saying this to line Emilia, Iago clearly means that Desdemona’s alleged adultery has led to violence.
However, the audience also understands Iago’s words in another light. We know that it was Iago who perpetrated these violent acts, so when he characterizes them as “the fruits of whoring,” we can interpret him as covertly admitting responsibility while also denying fault. Such an interpretation makes sense when we recall Iago’s suspicion that both Cassio and Othello have slept with Emilia. In this sense, then, all of the events in the play unfold from Emilia’s supposed “whoring.” Thus, Iago’s words also serve as a warning to his wife.
Against Iago’s misogyny, Emilia provides a countervailing critique of women’s inequality. When Desdemona expresses surprise that the incident with the misplaced handkerchief should cause so much grief, Emilia reminds her mistress that men can always find ways to exploit women for their own purposes. She explains, “’Tis not a year or two shows us a man. / They are all but stomachs, and we all but food; / They eat us hungerly, and, when they are full, / They belch us” (III.iv.).
Later in the play Emilia goes on to make additional, subversive statements that go against the grain of the cultural misogyny of the contemporary era. When Desdemona asks her if she would consider committing adultery “for all the world,” Emilia scandalizes her mistress with her response: “The world’s a huge thing; it is a great prize / For a small vice” (IV.iii.). However, despite Emilia’s nascent feminism, her worldview remains centered on the importance of male power. She demonstrates as much when she qualifies her scandalous statement about adultery as follows: “who would not make her husband a / cuckold to make him a monarch? I should venture / purgatory for ’t” (IV.iii.).
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