"Women and Men in Othello"

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"Women and Men in Othello"

Critic: Carol Thomas Neely

Source: William Shakespeare's Othello, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 79-104. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Criticism about: Othello

[(essay date 1985) In the following essay, originally published in 1985, Neely contends that the central theme of Othello is marital love and that its primary conflict is between men and women.]

What should such a fool

Do with so good a woman?

Othello, 5.2.234-35

Relations between love, sexuality, and marriage are under scrutiny in Othello, as in the comedies, problem plays, and Hamlet. In more extreme form than in the problem plays, we see here the idealization and degradation of sexuality, the disintegration of male authority and the loss of female power, the isolation of men and women, and the association of sexual consummation with death. The festive comedies conclude with the anticipation of fertile marriage beds. The problem comedies achieve their resolutions with the help of midpoint bedtricks. The marriage bed is at the very heart of the tragedy of Othello; offstage but dramatically the center of attention in the first scene and again in the first scene of the second act, it is literally and symbolically at the center of the last scene and is explicitly hidden from sight at the conclusion. Whether the marriage is consummated, when it is consummated, and what the significance of this consummation is for Othello and Desdemona have all been an important source of debate about the play. Throughout its critical history, Othello, like the other problem plays, has generated passionate and radically conflicting responses--responses that are invariably tied to the critics' emotional responses to the characters and to the gender relations in the play. Othello, Iago, and Desdemona have been loved and loathed, defended and attacked, judged and exonerated by critics just as they are by characters within the play.

"Almost damned in a fair wife" is Leslie Fiedler's alternate title for his chapter on Othello in The Stranger in Shakespeare. In it he asserts of the women in the play: "Three out of four, then, [are] weak, or treacherous, or both." Thus he seconds Iago's misogyny and broadens the attack on what Leavis has called "The sentimentalist's Othello," the traditional view of the play held by Coleridge, Bradley, Granville-Barker, Knight, Bayley, Gardner, and many others. These "Othello critics," as I shall call them, accept Othello at his own high estimate. They are enamored of his "heroic music," affirm his love, and, like him, are overwhelmed by Iago's diabolism, to which they devote much of their analysis. Like Othello, they do not always argue rationally or rigorously for their views and so are vulnerable to attacks on their romanticism or sentimentality. Reacting against these traditionalists, "Iago critics" (Eliot, Empson, Kirschbaum, Rossiter, and Mason, as well as Fiedler and Leavis) take their cues from Iago. Like him, they are attracted to Othello, unmoved by his rhetoric, and eager to "set down the pegs that make this music." They attack Othello at his most vulnerable point, his love. They support their case by quoting Iago's estimates of Othello; they emphasize Iago's realism and "honesty" while priding themselves on their own. Their realism or cynicism gives them, with Iago, an apparent invulnerability. But, like "Othello critics," they share the bias and blindness of the character whose perspective they adopt. Most damagingly, both groups of critics, like both Othello and Iago, badly misunderstand and misrepresent the women in the play.

Iago critics implicitly demean Desdemona, for if Othello's character and love are called into question, then her love for him loses its justification and validity. Explicitly they have little to say about her. Othello critics idealize her along with the hero, but, like him, they have a tendency to see her as an object. The source of her sainthood seems a passivity verging on catatonia: "Desdemona is helplessly passive. She can do nothing whatever. She cannot retaliate even in speech; no, not even in silent feeling. ... She is helpless because her nature is infinitely sweet and her love absolute. ... Desdemona's suffering is like that of the most loving of dumb creatures tortured without cause by the being he adores." Iago critics, finding the same trait, condemn Desdemona for it. "But the damage to her symbolic value is greater when we see her passively leaving everything to Heaven. She ought in a sense to have embodied Heaven, given us a human equivalent that would 'make sense' of Heaven. For this task she had the wrong sort of purity." When Desdemona is credited with activity, she is condemned for that, too; she is accused of being domineering, of using witchcraft, of rebelliousness, disobedience, wantonness. Although discussion of her has frequently been an afterthought to the analysis of the men, recently she has been the focus of a number of studies. Both Othello and Iago critics tend to see good versus evil as the play's central theme, Othello versus Iago as the play's central conflict, and hence, the major tragedies as its most important context.

A third group of "Iago-Othello critics," including Kenneth Burke, Arthur Kirsch, Stephen Greenblatt, Stanley Cavell, Edward Snow, and Richard Wheeler, elide the divisions between the first two groups and view the play from a perspective more like my own. They see Othello and Iago as closely identified with each other; they are "two parts of a single motive--related not as the halves of a sphere, but each implicit in the other." They find the source of the tragedy in Iago-Othello's anxieties regarding women, sexuality, and marriage--anxieties that are universal and generated by underlying social or psychological paradigms. Like Iago-Othello, these critics find the tragedy inevitable and locate its "cause" in an impersonal, implacable agency outside of the protagonists: for Burke, this "cause" is the "disequilibrium of monogamistic love"; for Kirsch, it is "the polarization of erotic love," with its psychological and theological roots; for Greenblatt, it is ambivalent Christian views of marital sexuality as chaste and adulterous; for Snow, it is "the male order of things," the patriarchal society that represses male sexuality and suppresses female sexuality at the behest of the superego; for Cavell, it is universal (male) fears of impotence and deflowering, and of mortality; for Wheeler, it is the conflict among male autonomy, female sexuality, and nurturing femininity. These critics do not ignore or sanctify Desdemona; nor do they condemn her explicitly. All emphasize her active, loving, passionate sensuality and extol her worth. An effect of their focus is, however, that she, more than Iago, becomes the cause of Othello's destruction; it is her relaxed, frank, sexuality and the passionate response it arouses in Othello which generate the tragedy. These critics show how Desdemona's virtues catalyze Othello's sexual anxieties, but they fail to emphasize enough that she has the potential to provide a cure for them.

With this third group of critics, I argue that the play's central theme is love--specifically marital love--that its central conflict is between the men and the women, and that contexts as illuminating as the tragedies are its source, Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi and Shakespeare's preceding comedies. Within Othello it is Emilia who most explicitly speaks to this theme, recognizes this central conflict, and inherits from the heroines of comedy the role of potential mediator of it. She is dramatically and symbolically the play's fulcrum. It is as an Emilia critic, then, that I should like to approach the play, hoping to perceive it with something akin to her clearsighted passion.

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