Throughout Shakespeare’s didactic play “The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice”, the playwright utilizes the antagonist, Iago as a mouthpiece of misogyny and as the central character of the degradation of the women in the play. Iago presents the women in the play as having an appetite for a myriad of things, such as men, sex, and pleasure, with the sole intention to degrade women and to affect other characters’ perceptions of the natures and actions of the female constructs. This essay will serve to highlight key moments in the play where Iago has altered different characters’ opinions towards females.

In the given extract from Act 2 Scene 3, Iago performs a soliloquy revealing his schemes to sabotage Desdemona’s virtue and turn it against her. Iago adopts a highly misogynist and patriarchal attitude in his speech, which simultaneously depicts not only his dislike towards women but also the attitudes held by society regarding women in the Jacobean era. For centuries, women have always been regarded as lower than men, both physically and mentally, causing a huge difference between the treatment of men and the treatment of women.

With this, came the superiority and dominance of men, forcing women to take on maternal roles. Whilst men were fighting in wars for their country, women were not given the choice to do so, and were instead supposed to remain at home and care for their children. With this idea women having to take on maternal roles, along with religious ideals, came the idea that women should not have sex for pleasure, and should seek sex without the sole intention to bear a child. Sex was never supposed to be a pleasurable thing, it was simply to create life, and when a woman finds this process pleasurable, she is shunned and degraded for doing so.

This is precisely what Iago intends to do with Desdemona. The antagonist states: “For ‘tis most easy th’inclining Desdemona to subdue” suggesting that she finds it “easy” to “subdue” under the power of man. This accusation that is made by Iago, depicts that he believes Desdemona has a habit of giving into men, which indicates that she may have an appetite for such activities. To be able to keep with the Iambic Pentameter that Shakespeare uses throughout his works, the playwright combines “the” and “inclining” to create “th’inclining”.

This adds emphasis on the word, suggesting Iago’s strong belief that Desdemona is favorably disposed towards giving in to her lustful side and submitting to other men. Shakespeare here manipulates the language used by Iago to try and convince the audience of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness, and later, Othello. To end the soliloquy before Roderigo enters, Iago concludes “So I will turn her virtue into pitch, and out of her own goodness make the net that shall enmesh them all.” Here, one can see Iago’s intentions to maneuver Desdemona’s “virtue” against her, and the people around her.

The “pitch” that is mentioned by Iago refers to a sticky, black substance. The color symbolism here reflects how Desdemona’s virtue will be turned black due to Iago’s evil manipulating and plotting and the influence that he later has on the other characters’ depictions of women in the play, especially Desdemona.

Throughout the entirety of the play, one can witness the derogatory attitude which Iago employs towards the characters in the play, affecting those who surround him; however, it does seem that he targets the women in the play. It must be questioned why he has this hatred for not only women but also Othello. One does know that Iago believes that his wife, Emilia, and Othello had an affair outside of the timescale of the play: “I hate the Moor and it is thought abroad, that twix my sheets he had done my office.” Iago’s deep-seated misogyny and hatred towards Othello may have arisen from this allegation and the supposed affair could have made a lasting imprint on Iago that women crave sex and pleasure.

This may also give a reason for why Iago uses very explicit imagery when speaking of Desdemona and Othello in Act 1 Scene 1: “The old black ram is tupping your white ewe.” The highly pornographic imagery here symbolizes that Iago does not believe that Desdemona and Othello have sex for traditional reasons (to have a baby), but instead, they do it for pleasure, thus painting Desdemona as having a lustful appetite to the Jacobean audience. In the 17th century, which this play was first performed, England was still very much religious, and so they held very traditional beliefs at the center of society. It was believed that sex should be done within marriage and only to produce children and not for pleasure, thus to a Jacobean audience, the allegation that Desdemona was having sex for pleasure would have been highly criticized.

This is an example of how Iago contorts not only the other character’s views of women but also the audience’s views of women. A prime example that Iago successfully distorts the views of the characters towards women is in Act 5 Scene 2. Just as Othello is about to kill his wife, he regards her as a “strumpet” twice. The repetition of the derogatory term meaning whore, indicates Iago’s success at changing Othello’s view of his wife. It also starkly juxtaposes to his attitude towards her in Act 1 Scene 3 when he says, “How I did thrive in this fair lady’s love, and she in mine”.

The move from one extreme attitude to another, the first being utter admiration for Desdemona and the latter being distinct hate for her, serves to highlight how Iago’s persistent badgering that Othello should “look to [his] wife; observe her well with Cassio” as he says in Act 3 Scene 3 has had a detrimental effect on him, which eventually leads to the murder of Desdemona.

In conclusion, one can see how the comments that Shakespeare’s antagonist makes towards women, especially Desdemona, throughout the entirety of the play, inevitably affect the character’s opinions on females, more specifically, Othello’s view of his wife. The persistence of the comments made it near impossible for Othello to ignore, thus he acted upon the suspicions that Iago introduced, causing the early and unnecessary demise of Desdemona.

Cite this article as: William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team), "Misogyny and Sexism in Shakespeare’s Othello," in SchoolWorkHelper, 2019, https://schoolworkhelper.net/misogyny-and-sexism-in-shakespeares-othello/.

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