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Turn, and Turn, and Turn Again: The Discourse of Honesty and Whoredom in Othello

Michael Bryson

        The discourse of race in Shakespeare's Othello has received a great deal of critical attention. Virginia Mason Vaughn, in her book Othello: A Contextual History, surveys this critical history, beginning with Marvin Rosenberg's 1961 book The Masks of Othello (a book documenting the nineteenth-century tendency toward representing Othello as light-skinned), and continuing through to Jack D'Amico's 1991 book The Moor in English Renaissance Drama. According to Vaughan herself, "The effect of Othello depends . . . on the essential fact of the hero's darkness, the visual signifier of his Otherness" (51). Arthur L. Little, Jr., in his article "'An essence that's not seen': The Primal Scene of Racism in Othello," claims that "The three crucial structural elements of Shakespeare's play are Othello's blackness, his marriage to the white Desdemona, and his killing of her" (306, emphasis added) as if there were no other "crucial structural elements." It is not my intention to undercut or undervalue the attention that has been given to the discourse of race, the opposition of black and white, in Othello; however, I contend that an exclusive focus on this discourse radically reduces and simplifies the play, and I wish to focus on a different discourse, a different opposition in the play-the discourse of honesty and whoredom, the opposition of falseness and loyalty.

        Dympna Callaghan, in her book Women and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy, makes the point that "Mysogynistic discourse . . . leads, directly or indirectly, to the death of the female tragic transgressor [among whose number in Renaissance drama she counts Shakespeare's Desdemona and Cordelia, and John Webster's Duchess of Malfi and Vittoria] . . . . [and such discourse] constitutes a substantial proportion of the discourses in Renaissance tragedy" (123). The discourses of Renaissance misogyny can be seen clearly in such pamphlets as Joseph Swetnam's The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Vnconstatnt Women (1616): "For women have a thousand ways to entise thee, and ten thousand waies to deceiue thee" (15); "they lay out the foldes of their haire, to entangle men into their loue; betwixt their brests is the vale of destruction, & in their beds there is hell, sorrow & repentance" (16); "Eagles eat not men till they are dead, but women deuoure them aliue: for a woman will pick thy pocket, and empty thy purse, laugh in thy face and cut thy throat" (16); "They will play the horse-leach to suck away thy wealth, but in the winter of thy misery shee will flie away from thee" (16). Women are here figured as deceiving, dishonest, and dangerous creatures concerned solely with the entrapment and destruction of men. They are portrayed as uncontrollable. The concern over the sexual fidelity of women-in reality a concern for masculine control over feminine sexuality-is reflected in John Raynolds' A Defence of the Ivdgement of the Reformed Churches (1610): "the truth deliverd by our Saviour Christ alloweth hime whose wife commiteth fornication, to put her away, and to marrie another" (2); "it is lawfull for him who hath put away his wife for whoredome to marrie another" (3).

        I do not mean to imply that Renaissance discourses concerning women are exclusively misogynistic; Raynolds implies that it is men, husbands, who have in his day gotten out of control: "the inordinat fansies and desires of our corrupt nature have so inveigled Adams seede in manie places, that men have accostomed to put awaie their wives vppon every trifling mislike & discontentment" (1). Raynolds goes on to say that "This perverse opinion & errour of theirs our Saviour Christ reproved teaching that divorcements may not be made for any cause save whoredome onely" (1). Thomas Gataker, in a sermon entitled A Good Wife God's Gift (not printed until 1637), says "There is a more special providence of God in a Wife than in Wealth" (138), and "Children are the gift of God; but the Wife is a more speciall gift of God: shee cometh in the first place, they in the second" (139). Such a defense of women, more particularly of "good" (obedient, chaste) wives may very well strike the late twentieth-century reader as misogynistic in its own way, but Gataker is certainly no Swetnam. A stronger defense of women against the misogynistic strains of Renaissance discourse on women is to be found in a poem entitled An Apologie For Womenkinde (1605): "sundry times of women I haue read, / Which for their honours, now long since are dead. / As Lucia and chaste Lucretia, / The Damesels Hyppo and Orythia: / But of one man as yet I neuer heard, / Who for his chastitie tooke such reward. / Then fondlings cease the female sexe to blame, / None truth can speake that turneth to their shame. / Their very paines by God to them enioyn'd, / Shewe how their mindes to goodnes are enclin'd. / For 'tis a rule; God sends his troubles such / As be his creatures able, less or much" (C). The entire female sex is here figured as more naturally virtuous than the male sex.

        The important point is that both the attacks upon, and the defenses of, women center around the issues of chastity, sexual faithfulness to a single man, and honor/honesty. The three female characters in Othello are all figured in terms of honesty and whoredom, and it is within this discourse that I will consider Othello, with its reproduction and representation of these discourses.

        The first mention of honesty in Othello comes from the lips of Iago, and it is, unsurprisingly, a negative reference: "You shall mark / Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave / That (doting on his own obsequious bondage) / Wears out his time, much like his master's ass, / For nought but provender, and when he's old, cashier'd. / Whip me such honest knaves" (I.i.44-49; all references are to The Riverside Shakespeare edition of 1974). Hereafter, much of the play turns on honesty (in the dual sense of truthful representation of self and events, and sexual chastity and faithfulness), as Iago masterfully gives the appearance of honesty to Othello, while undermining the appearance of honesty in Cassio and Desdemona. Early in the play, Othello assumes and relies on the honesty and faith of both his wife and his ensign; after Desdemona's father, Brabantio, warns Othello, "Look to her, Moor, if thou has eyes to see; / She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee" (I.iii.292,293), Othello exclaims, "My life upon her faith!" and then tells "Honest Iago" (I.iii.294) that he is leaving Desdemona with him. Othello expresses his belief (or at the very least his will to believe) in Iago's honesty throughout the play, right up until the final moments. "Iago is honest" says Othello to Cassio at II.iii.6; "I know thou'rt full of love and honesty" he says to Iago at III.iii.118; "I do not think but Desdemona's honest" says Othello to Iago at III.iii.225, even as Iago's rhetorical poison has begun to do its work.

        It is in the crucial seduction scene, III.iii., that honesty and whoredom begin to come together forcefully. After Iago has exited the scene, Othello is left alone with his new-born suspicions: "This fellow's of exceeding honesty, / And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit, / Of human dealings. If I do prove her haggard,1 / Though that her jesses were my dear heart-strings, / I'ld whistle her off, and let her down the wind / To prey at fortune" (III.iii.258-263). To "let her down the wind" is drawn from falconry, as is the image of "jesses [as] dear heart-strings." What is at work here is male ownership and control of female sexuality: the jesses (straps used to fasten the falcon's leash to the falconer's wrist) of Othello's heart strings are what would be loosed in order to "let her down the wind," thus putting Desdemona away, in Raynolds' sense, for unfaithfulness, for whoredom. This issue of control is further developed in Othello's lines on the "curse of marriage": O curse of marriage! / That we can call these delicate creatures ours, / And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad2 / And live upon the vapor of a dungeon / Than keep a corner in the thing I love / For others' uses" (III.iii.268-273). In the context of Iago's suspicion-mongering, "others' uses" are specifically sexual uses.

        Othello later demands that Iago "prove [Desdemona] a whore" (III.iii.359); Iago asks Othello if he would "grossly gape on? / Behold her topp'd?" (III.iii.395,396) literally watch Desdemona in the act of adultery. Iago, knowing of course that he is inventing Desdemona's whoredom, responds that "Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys"3 (III.iii.403), it would be impossible to provide such proof. Iago provides indirect "proof" in IV.i. as he manipulates Cassio (who yet believes that Iago is assisting him by encouraging his suit to Desdemona for intercession with Othello) and Othello (who, hidden, watches Iago and Cassio speak to each other). As Iago and Cassio talk of Bianca, a courtesan with whom Cassio has been involved, Othello mistakes (as he is intended to) talk of Bianca's reputed sexual nature for that of Desdemona: "She gives it out that you shall marry her . . . . I marry her! What? A customer! . . . . This is the monkey's4 own giving out" (IV.i.115-127). Thus Desdemona is once again, if only for Othello, figured as whorish, as uncontrollable (specifically by males, more specifically by Othello) in her sexual nature.

        Later, Othello questions Emila about whether she has seen any evidence of an affair between Desdemona and Cassio. Emilia denies that any such affair is going on, saying of Desdemona, "if she be not honest, chaste, and true, / There's no man happy; the purest of their wives / Is foul as slander" (IV.ii.17-19). After Emilia exits the scene Othello refers to her as "a simple bawd"5 and calls Desdemona "a subtile whore" (IV.ii.20,21). When Emilia returns with Desdemona, Othello's discourse of honesty and whoredom hits a new peak; as Desdemona protests that she is his "true / And loyal wife" (IV.ii.34,35), Othello tells her, "Swear thou art honest" (IV.ii.38), following that up with "Heaven truly knows that thou art as false as hell" (IV.ii.39). When Desdemona replies "I hope my noble lord esteems me honest," Othello compares her honesty to that of "summer flies . . . in the shambles"6. Finally, Othello hurls the word "whore" into Desdemona's face: "Was this fair paper, this most goodly book, / Made to write 'whore' upon?" (IV.ii.71,72). Desdemona is a "public commoner" (a euphemism for "whore"), that even the "bawdy wind, that kisses all it meets" does not wish to hear of (IV.ii.73, 78); she is an "Impudent strumpet," and the "cunning whore of Venice7/ That married with Othello" (IV.ii.81,89,90).

        Emilia, protesting on behalf of her mistress, complains to Iago that Othello has "bewhor'd" Desdemona, bitterly complaining that "A beggar in his drink / Could not have laid such terms upon his callet"8 (IV.ii.115,120,121); the discourse of honesty returns in the figure of the "cogging, cozening slave" (terms, respectively, for cheating and deceiving) who Emilia blames for having "devis'd this slander" (IV.ii.132,133).

        The discourses of honesty and whoredom are engaged in by women outside the presence of men as the ever-present Renaissance figure of the Cuckold makes his appearance in the conversation between Emila and Desdemona in IV.iii. In response to Desdemona's question, "Woulds't thou do such a deed [cuckold a husband] for all the world?" Emilia replies "who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch? I should venture purgatory for't" (64,75-77). Emilia, in her "hath not a woman eyes" speech of line 84-103, goes farther than any other character in the play to challenge misogynistic discourse: "I do think it is their husband's faults / If wives do fall" (86,87), a defense in agreement with that of An Apologie for Womenkinde. "Let husbands know / Their wives have sense like them; they see, and smell, / And have their palates both for sweet and sour, / As husbands have" (93-96), as direct a refutation of Joseph Swetnam as Shakespeare has to offer.

        Despite this one possibly redemptive moment, however, the discourses of honesty and whoredom ultimately take their misogynistic course. Iago, who has just gotten through stabbing Cassio in the leg, and killing Roderigo by stabbing him in the chest, publicly explains Cassio's misery as "the fruits of whoring" (V.i.116). Iago is referring, of course, to Cassio's affair with Bianca, whom Iago has just moments ago called a "notable strumpet" (V.i.78). Emilia, after arriving on the scene, also refers to Bianca as a strumpet (V.i..121). When Bianca protests that she is "no strumpet, but of life as honest / As you that thus abuse me" (V.i.122,123), Emilia rejects the comparison of her honesty with that of Bianca, thus undermining the anti-misogynist tone of her earlier scene with Desdemona in the very act of confirming the discourses of honesty and whoredom in her judgment of Bianca.

        In perhaps the most misogynist moment of the entire play, Othello determines that Desdemona "must die, else she'll betray more men" (V.ii. 6). In the moments before and after killing Desdemona, Othello refers to her as "perjur'd woman," "strumpet," "whore," "false," "a liar," and "foul," playing as one thundering chord all of the play's notes of honesty and whoredom. Emilia, who uncovers the plot near the play's end, is rewarded for her honesty by being called a "Villianous whore' (V.ii. 229) and then fatally stabbed by Iago. With her dying breaths she defends Desdemona, saying to Othello, "she was chaste" (V.ii.249).

        Perhaps the supreme irony of the misogynist discourses that permeate this play is that of the three women who are each, at one point or another, figured as whores, the only one who is not murdered is Bianca, who is described in the list of Dramatis Personae as "a courtezan." This term is not unambiguously a synonym for whore or prostitute, as the OED lists the oldest meaning of the word as a figure attached to the court of a prince or a pope; however, a usage that would translate as prostitute or whore is current in Shakespeare's time. Cassio refers to his relationship to Bianca as one of (or to) "a customer" (IV.i.119), a word that in Shakespeare's time could carry the twin meaning-in a sexual context-of purchaser and seller;9 Iago refers to Bianca as "a whore" at IV.i.177, and as a "notable strumpet" at V.i.78; Emila also refers to Bianca as a "strumpet" at V.i.121. Given the notably anti-female discourse which pervades this play (with the exception of Emilia's speech in IV.iii. 84-103), I do not believe that there is any reason to regard these characterizations as especially trustworthy. Why, for instance, would a prostitute, a "customer," express what is apparently the jealousy that Bianca gives voice to in III.iv and IV.i over the issue of where Cassio obtained the handkerchief he gives her?

        The tragedy of the fall of Othello and the deaths of Desdemona and Emilia is perhaps also the tragedy of the dominance of the views of Joseph Swetnam over those of Thomas Gataker and the anonymous author of A Defence of Womenkinde. The figure of the woman who simply cannot be trusted, of the woman who must be killed, "else she'll betray more men," is stamped all over Othello. This is an aspect of the play that I think has been under-examined in recent criticism. Adding an awareness of the pervasive nature of the discourses of honesty (specifically female honesty in the sense of chastity and sexual faithfulness, maintaining-or failing to maintain-an obedient state as the exclusive sexual property of the husband) and whoredom (any and all falls from the aforementioned state of chastity and sexual obedience) to the current discussions of the racial discourse in this play is necessary if we are to reach as full an understanding as we are able of Shakespeare's tragedy. Combining analyses of race- and gender-based discourses in this play will better serve the richness of the play and the complexities of our response to it, in a society still struggling with similar issues, nearly four hundred years after Othello.


1) A theriomorphic image for Desdemona. A haggard is defined by the OED as a wild female hawk caught when in her adult plumage, and as a wild and intractable (female) person. This reference thus bestializes Desdemona and paves the way for the whore, strumpet, and bawd references that come later in the play. Back to main text

2) A theriomorphic image for Othello. Toad can carry the sense of a base and slavish person (thus resonating with the racist discourse in this play). Shakespeare has earlier put toads in a curiously sexual context in Troilus and Cressida, where Ajax says (in reference to Ulysses), "I do hate a proud man, as I do hate the engend'ring of toads" (II.iii.159). A similar sexual context is employed in Iv.ii.57-62 of Othello, where Othello speaks his refusal to "keep" the place where he has "garner'd up [his] heart . . . . The fountain from which the current runs . . . . as a cestern for foul toads / To knot and gender in!" Back to main text

3) Further theriomorphic imagery associated with uncontrollable sexual passion. Back to main text

4) This time, a theriomorphic image for Bianca, one that works nicely in the deception of Othello, considering Iago's earlier use of the same image to describe Desdemona. Back to main text

5) A Pander or Pimp. After 1700 "bawd" became exclusively associated with a female figure, a procuress, whereas in Shakespeare's time a bawd could be female or male. Back to main text

6) Parasites feeding on the blood of slaughtered animals-possibly a reference to the ever-present possibility that Othello, as a warrior, may be slaughtered in battle. Back to main text

7) An image certainly meant to evoke the Whore of Babylon-Christendom's (especially Protestant Christendom's) female figure of absolute human evil and degradation. Back to main text

8) Another word for strumpet, drab, or whore. Back to main text

9) See the usage in All's Well That Ends Well at V.iii.286 where the King says to Diana, "I think thee now some common customer." Diana responds, at V.i.292, "Great King, I am no strumpet, by my life." Back to main text

Works Cited

  • Callaghan, Dympna. Women and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy: A Study of King Lear, Othello, The Duchess of Malfi, and The White Devil. New Jersey: Humanities Press International, 1989.
  • Gataker, Thomas. "A Good Wife God's Gift," Certain Sermons, First Preached, and After Published At Several Times. London: Printed by John Haviland for Edward Brewster, 1637.
  • Little, Arthur, Jr. "'An essence that's not seen': The Primal Scene of Racism in Othello," Shakespeare Quarterly 44 (1993), 304-324.
  • Raynolds, John. A Defence of the Judgement of the Reformed Churches. Printed by George Walters, 1610.
  • Swetnam, Joseph. The Araignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women: Or the Vanitie of Them, Choose You Whether. London: Printed for Thomas Archer, 1616.
  • Anonymous, An Apologie For Womenkinde. London: Printed by Ed. Allde for William Ferebrand, 1605.
  • Vaughan, Virgina Mason. Othello: A Contextual History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.