The main male characters in Shakespeare’s play Othello kill their wives in order to defend their own honor. In the period setting of the play, to show honor, women are expected to be subservient to their husbands. The characters Iago and Othello reflect this attitude toward their respective wives, giving them reason to feel just in killing these women.
Iago kills Emilia because she dishonors him by revealing his manipulation of Othello and Cassio. Othello strangles Desdemona because of imagined infidelity, which makes him look like a fool.
Both men have different ideas of honor, perceive their own honorable status differently, have different relationships with their wives, and different feelings of remorse. Ultimately they both kill their wives to defend their own honor. Proud, noble, and brave warrior Othello is well respected and his military skills and adventures are widely known.
He is charismatic, charming, self-reliant and well-traveled. These personality traits made Desdemona fall in love with him, and by these, he measures his honorability. He measures his self-worth by the way he is perceived by others. That is the main reason why he perceives Desdemona’s alleged infidelity as ruining his honor. It makes him look like a fool and he feels that he has been taken advantage of because he is unwise and unfamiliar with the devious sexual practices of Venice women. Othello is also very trusting.
Of course, the question is why he believes Iago and doubts his wife. He believes “honest Iago” without question because Iago had served in the army with him and is generally regarded by all to be an honest man. The feelings of being an outsider and insecure in his social status are Othello’s character flaws and Iago takes advantage of these Achilles heels. For Iago, deception, manipulating, and killing are second nature. It doesn’t occur to him that he will be caught and he doesn’t have any conscience about what he has done. These characteristics show that Iago is self-absorbed and out for himself.
He is also greedy and jealous and plots to make everyone around him unhappy while seeking position and honor. High position and honor start his hatred of Othello. Iago sees Othello as being beneath him because of his race, but having all the glory and honor that he covets. The final straw, Cassio being made lieutenant over him, makes him take action and plot his revenge. This blow to his pride and honor is his motivation to engage Othello into a jealous and angry rage and brings Othello down to his level. Othello and Desdemona love each other, but for different reasons.
In his insecurity about being an outsider, marrying Desdemona gives him a way to be included among the nobles of Venice. She gives him status and the honor he wants. Othello sees Desdemona giving up everything to be with him. Desdemona defends her marriage to her father and the other nobles by saying “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind / And to his honors and his valiant parts, / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.”
His honorable and noble nature was one of the reasons she fell in love with him in the first place. Even on her deathbed, she covers for him when asked who did this to her saying, “Nobody—I myself. Farewell. / Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell!” Not much is written about Iago and Emilia’s marriage other than she was very much bound by duty.
When she steals the handkerchief for him she asks, “What will you do with’t, that you have been so earnest to have me filch it?” He replies “Why, what is that to you?” He doesn’t confide in her as Macbeth did Lady Macbeth. They did not work as a partnership, the focus was on Iago and his ambitions. She tries to stand up to him, “If it be not for some purpose of import, / Give me again.” And he just tells her to leave, dismissing her.
He doesn’t show any love or appreciation for her throughout the play, but she remains constant in her wifely duty. Othello ultimately kills Desdemona because he loses control of his passions. He normally possesses much self-control. It is easier for him to believe she would betray him because she easily betrayed her father. His trust in Iago’s honorable character leads him to doubt his feelings for his wife and introduces a new emotion to Othello–jealousy.
Iago plays on Othello’s new role as a husband because Othello and Desdemona were only married a short period of time and haven’t been able to build the kind of trust that comes from a long relationship. Since Othello is so self-reliant, it is hard for him to automatically put that trust in someone else. Her imagined infidelity mocks his honor and his insecurity making him think that he is such an outsider that he doesn’t even know that women in Venice always carry on affairs.
Because of his insecurity, it was easier for him to think that she was making a fool of him rather than giving her the benefit of the doubt. Iago kills Emilia to cover up his own evil deeds. Even after Iago tells her to hold her tongue, Emilia decides to tell the truth rather than let the nobles think that Desdemona was capable of infidelity. She tells how Iago has manipulated her and Othello. Iago kills her after she reveals his deception and he is unable to cover for himself.
Emilia admits that she gave her husband the handkerchief, Iago’s only tangible proof of Desdemona’s infidelity because he begged her to steal it. Emilia has always been a good wife by being dutiful and honoring her husband. As she tells the story about what happened, Iago says “Zounds, hold your peace! / Be wise, and get you home.” She defends Desdemona’s honor and yells at Othello, “Murd’rous coxcomb! What should such a fool do with so good a wife?”
The honorable Iago shows cowardice and flees after killing his own wife in front of the nobles. Even at the moment, he is going to kill her, Othello shows his love for Desdemona by kissing her and saying, “Be thus when thou art dead and I will kill thee, and love the after. / One more (kiss) and that’s the last! / So sweet was ne’er so fatal, I must weep, / but they are cruel tears. / This sorrow’s heavenly; It strikes where it doth love.”
He has loved her deeply all the way to her last breath, but rather than swallow his pride and live with her supposed infidelity, he kills his true love. While killing Desdemona, he feels it is his right to kill her because she has done such a huge injustice to him.
In his remorse after killing Desdemona, he realizes how his pride and honor have done and how he has been manipulated by his trust in the honest Iago Iago feels no remorse because his desires come comes above all other people. While he also feels it is his right to kill his wife, he feels he is only protecting himself because she will not do what she is told.
By honor, he means that Emilia must do all things required by him, right or wrong. His honor is so important that he will get it and defend it by any means, as shown in his devious dealings throughout the play. These women would have done anything asked of them, especially when it comes to their husband’s honor. They loved them, thought differently, and would not have done anything to dishonor their husbands or themselves.
In the end, they defended their husband’s honor with their own lives. For Iago and Othello, the lives of their wives meant less to them than their own honorable status.