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Shakespeare’s Othello is about a man threatened by the relationship he has with his wife. The only means by which Othello can quell his insecurity is through violence. This paper traces Shakespeare’s repeated usage of the word “honest” and its link to Othello’s obsession with Desdemona’s virginity. As per the Oxford English Dictionary, the word has an association with a virtuous wife, as in ‘to make an honest woman of her.” Protecting her chastity, and later absolving her presumed sins is his way of ensuring this, but the intentions are not for her, but rather to free him. To what extent was this an inevitable end to their relationship, given the nature of it? Othello was bound to Desdemona as a dependent, thus leading to his inherent rejection of her.
From a structural perspective alone some outlying observations can be made about the use of the word “honest.” First, it appears a total of 52 times throughout the entire play. Many of the characters utter the word, but it is by far most frequently used by Othello and Iago respectively. Iago’s use of it is fairly clear; it functions as a manipulative precursor for inciting suspicion in Othello. Othello on the other hand utilizes the word in proclaiming both Iago’s good nature as well as the state of Desdemona’s purity. The degree to which his wife fulfills this trait is his most burning question, and the question which motivates him to do everything he does throughout the course of the play.
Othello’s personal insecurities are the reason why he takes the bait of Iago’s manipulations so keenly, but moreover why Desdemona is inherently a sexual threat to him. Othello traces the start of their relationship early on to the Duke of Venice in Scene 3 of the first act.
….When I did speak of some distressful stroke
That my youth suffer’d. My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs:
She swore, in faith, twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful:
She wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d
That heaven had made her such a man: she thank’d me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story.
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake:
She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have used:
Here comes the lady; let her witness it. (1.3.158-71).
Words such as “sighs,” and “pitiful” illustrate the pathetic state which he viewed himself and in viewing the support she provided him. Othello now had someone who he could sulk to and who would console the sorrows of a now washed-up now. He thus needed her in a way that emasculated him due to the fact that he is dependent. As a general and a leader Othello feels that he must emphasize masculine traits, but as a foreigner however he constantly worries about rejection by the country, his men, and his superiors. This self-doubt extends into his relationship with his wife. As his hesitation grew he speculated that his skin color, “Haply for I am black and have not those soft parts of conversation,” age, “…for I am declined into the vale of years,” (Shakespeare, 3.3.267-70) and lack of experience may be the reasons for Desdemona cheating on him. He is an old, washed-up man in his mind, and she was a young, beautiful woman who for some reason pitied him. Othello therefore felt inadequate from the beginning. Interestingly enough, these musings occur near the initial arising of Othello’s suspicions, and he preempts these lines with the claim that “This fellow’s of exceeding honesty,” in reference to Iago who has facilitated this doubt to come forth. Ironically it is the very dishonesty of Iago that is causing this unwarranted jealously, while Desdemona on the other hand maintains “honesty”, or the virtuous qualities of a woman (OED). Despite her true lack of transgressions, it is the nature of what Othello’s believes Desdemona sees in him that is the source of his anguish. The dependency clashes with the persona he wishes to put forth, and thus he easily convinces himself of it, so that he can end their relationship.
The idea of making an honest woman of Desdemona is related to the supposedly promiscuous nature of Venetian women, of which Desdemona is one. People in the 17th century considered Venice to be the “pleasure capital of Europe, especially in its sexual tolerance.” (Honigmann, 9) Thus Othello is all too quick to accept Iago’s assertion in Scene III of Act III.
I am glad of it; for now I shall have reason
To show the love and duty that I bear you
With franker spirit: therefore, as I am bound,
Receive it from me. I speak not yet of proof.
Look to your wife; observe her well with Cassio;
Wear your eye thus, not jealous nor secure:
I would not have your free and noble nature,
Out of self-bounty, be abused; look to’t:
I know our country disposition well;
In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience
Is not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown. (3.3.196-207)
He is already weary of differences in the sexual experience the two may share and this claim of her heritage being a possible source for promiscuity is all too easy for Othello to latch onto. Othello’s anxiety that he may be unable to satisfy Desdemona and therefore make an honest woman of her causes him to grow more enraged from the infidelity he suspects. He later goes on to claim that he “took [her] for that cunning whore of Venice” (Shakespeare, 4.2.91-2). She has come from an innocent beauty that he wished to “make honest” to a whore, a measure of control and dominance that he can no longer exercise. Othello’s to jealousy and rage towards her, I believe, would have been inevitable, regardless of Iago’s scheming. The shift from them courting one another to marriage is, in Othello’s mind, him holding onto a metaphoric crutch. This view of himself as weak is the fuel which feeds the underlying unhealthy relationship between Othello and Desdemona. This shows that a coupling built on one party providing all the emotional dependency is doomed to fail because the very nature of this will be rejected by the other party. With a character that is as both eager to be accepted but also has as much doubt in his own abilities like Othello, there couldn’t be any other way for this marriage to end.
A woman may maintain honesty by remaining pure, derived from chaste, a meaning for honest, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Chaste is also a root of chastity, which plays an important role. Othello’s obsession with Desdemona virginity is a central theme in the play. To marry and then have sex with Desdemona would be to make an honest woman of her, and is almost a way of taming her, for he believes her to be sexually above him. However, many obstacles prevent them from engaging in this act. When they retire to bed in Cyprus, Othello foresees “The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue: that profit’s yet to come ‘tween me and you.” (Shakespeare, 2.3.9-11) However, the brawl which Iago incites interrupts “bride and groom divesting them for bed,” (Shakespeare, 2.3.176-7) He is unable to consummate the marriage which is an obvious frustration. This leaves him uncertain of whether she is a virgin or not and thus makes the possibility of an affair all the more plausible to him.
The symbol of the Virgin Mary is drawn in parallel to Desdemona as a very strict application of this state of purity in woman. Desdemona claims to be “…a Christian…[who will] preserve this vessel for my lord.” (Shakespeare, 4.2.84-5) At this point, however, Othello is convinced through circumstance and his own insecurities that Desdemona’s affair with Cassio is fact. To him she has “damn[ed] thyself.” (4.2.37) The language regarding sin is further proof of this connection. The inability to control her sexuality threatens him, as he already felt it could very well trample his own.
Blood itself plays a role as an allegory for the loss of virginity, as well as drawing from violent imagery. Othello threatens “Thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust’s blood be spotted.” (Shakespeare, 5.1.36-7) The bed already been stained with lust according to Othello, through her affair with Cassio, and now this same blood (her blood) will fall again, but this time due to murder. There is also a parallel in how Desdemona’s death occurs in their bed, the spot where it was originally planned for a joyous consummation, which would make her honest, later an alleged affair, and now a violent crime. By seeding her blood, a metaphorically act of sex between the two, he is absolving her sins and freeing himself of the dependency he wishes to not have.
Othello’s murdering of Desdemona becomes in his mind a twisted way of making her “honest”. He repeatedly advises her to “confess thee freely of thy sin” (Shakespeare, 5.2.61), as if to allow her to absolve of her crime. He reasons to “the chaste stars” about why he must commit this act, further revealing how he believes that with her virginity and thus sanctity tarnished, she has sinned greatly. Another example of a parallel is Othello’s callings for Desdemona to return to bed. “All’s well now, sweeting; come away to bed,” (Shakespeare, 2.3.248-9) occurs following Cassio’s drunken fight, and is an attempt to prevent her from becoming riled up at the situation and possibly to try and quickly return to the bedroom where they can consummate their marriage. Then at the end of the play he orders her to “Get you to bed on the instant; I will be returned forthwith.” (Shakespeare, 4.3.5-6) His tone is harsh, and unbeknownst to her is foreshadowing her murder. This sharp contrast indicates the transformation that Othello has undergone. He will end what he feels to be a weakness, his dependency on her, by killing her. This will free him, for the affair Othello believes has transpired is a manifestation of all the doubt he perceives others to have in him.
Rhetorical patterns are a major factor in Othello; the word ‘honesty’ mirrors core ideas of the story, including manipulation of the truth. Othello couldn’t bear being so dependent on a woman because it undermined his masculinity and thus fueled the insecurities. He had no choice to reject her because he could not save her virginity; she had too much control over him. Ultimately their relationship was an unhealthy one because he took too much from it and this contorted his psyche.
- “honest, a.” Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press.
- Shakespeare, William, and E. A. J. Honigmann. Othello. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2001. Print.
- E. A. J. Honigmann. Introduction to Othello. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2001. Print.
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