Analysing the male and female relationships in William Shakespeare’s Othello it is clear the sexes fail to understand each other, particularly on the men’s part. Whilst the women are more mature and tend to overestimate the men, the men are consumed by their vanity and reputation and cannot accept women honestly.
Desdemona and Othello’s lack of understanding for each other contributes to their miscommunication. Othello cannot fully trust Desdemona because his love his too idealistic and he fails to comprehend her honest and realistic approach to love:
She loved me for the dangers I had passed
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And I loved her that she did pity them.
This implies that Desdemona’s affections fuel his ego and he loves her for this more than anything else. Othello’s worshipping of Desdemona prohibits him from truly understanding her:
O my fair warrior!
…If it were now to die,
‘Twere to be most happy; for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort succeeds in unknown fate.”
He does not perceive her as human and capable of fault:
…And when I love thee not,
chaos is come again.
Desdemona on the other hand does not romanticise Othello, but approaches their love realistically and maturely. She loves Othello for the person he is and does not shy from the topic of consummation:
I saw Othello’s visage in his mind.
That I did love the Moor to live with him,
… if I be left behind…
The rites for which I love him are bereft me…
However, as much as Othello cannot understand her honest approach to love, nor can she comprehend his connection between their love and his honour. In this respect she overestimates Othello and fails to see his capacity for jealousy:
…I think the sun where he was born
Drew all such humours from him.
Unwittingly, she wounds his pride by lying about the handkerchief and pursuing Cassio’s disposition:
I say it is not lost…
This is a trick to put me from my suit.
Pray you let Cassio be received again.
The women are seen by the men as possessions and criteria for their honour. Othello cannot conceive that Desdemona is her own person and could have emotions and opinions separate to his. She shows her assertiveness when she defends Cassio, but in doing so questions Othello’s judgment. “You’ll never find a more sufficient man.” Where sexuality is concerned, he seeks complete control over her. Her faithfulness is not only needed for his ego, (“Cuckold me!”) but the possibility that Desdemona has sexual desires frightens and bewilders him:
…O curse of marriage
That we can call these creatures ours
And not their appetites!
Iago also reflects this possessiveness over his wife. He accuses Cassio and Othello of having leapt into his ‘seat’ which implies he owns Emilia, and is astounded when she defiantly reveals his malice at the end:
I will not charm my tongue…
What, are you mad? I charge you get you home.
Brabantio’s response to his daughter’s marriage holds a similar attitude. Desdemona, a “maiden never bold,” so still and quiet that she was scared of her own shadow, has been “stolen” from him. He clearly does not understand his daughter well for we soon see she is strong and assertive:
That I did love the Moor to live with him.
My downright violence and scorn…
May trumpet to the world.”
Throughout the play Roderigo’s behaviour is a prime example of how the men view the women as possessions. Hopelessly romanticising Desdemona, (who is not aware of his existence, let alone his love for her) he relentlessly pursues her attempting to purchase her through Iago:
Therefore make money…
I’ll sell all my land.
Iago speaks of Othello’s marriage in terms of piracy and of Desdemona as a treasure ship, reinforcing his ideas of women as possessions:
…he hath tonight boarded a land-carack.
Interestingly, Emilia comments on this weakness of all men. In contrast to the men’s complete misconceptions about women, Emilia shows awareness and perceptiveness of the opposite sex. She does understand that men stereotype women and forget they have their own minds:
…Let husbands know
their wives have sense like them: they see and
And have palates for both sweet and sour
As husbands have.
She recognises the jealousy of men’s natures.
They are not ever jealous for the cause,
But jealous for they are jealous.
However, although she succinctly predicts what is behind Othello’s behaviour, for all her worldliness, she fails to pinpoint the blame to her own husband. This suggests that maybe she doesn’t know him that well to consider him capable of such malice. “The Moor’s abused by some most villainous knave.”
Preoccupied with honour, the men categorise women into either ‘whores’ or ‘Madonnas,’ and fail to recognise them as individuals. Desdemona, a real ‘lady,’ is continually referred to as “divine” and all the men greatly esteem her. Their respect is close to worship. Casio says:
You men of Cyprus, let her have your knees.
Hail to thee, Lady!
Roderigo swears he loves her enough to “incontinently drown” himself. Even Iago says “Now I do love her too…” and suggests he would like to sleep with her.
Bianca, on the other hand, is immediately shunned for being a prostitute and is not worthy of such high regard. The play’s humanisation of her undercuts the men’s one-dimensional perception:
I am no strumpet, but of life as honest
As you that thus abuse me.
Unlike Desdemona, men cannot align their honour with such a woman as she has been ‘used’ and is no longer ‘pure.’ In contrast to his approach to the ‘divine Desdemona’ Cassio says of Bianca, “I marry her! What! A customer!” He is indifferent to her love for him, and Bianca does not realise that he will never take her seriously but always see her as a whore:
‘Tis such another fitchew! Marry, a perfumed one!
Desdemona does not understand how men can label women ‘whores’ for she insists that such a woman does not exist, and she therefore does not understand men’s preoccupation with honour:
-tell me, Emilia –
That there be women do abuse their husbands
In such gross kind?
Misogynistic attitudes perpetrated by Iago and eventually developed in Othello reveal a distrust of women, and affirm the lack of understanding between the sexes. To Iago, all women are whores. “You rise to play and got to bed to work.” He is rude to his own wife and unhesitatingly kills her. “Villainous whore!” (He stabs her.) With Iago’s manipulation, Othello adopts these views and his ‘divine’ Desdemona falls straight from Madonna to whore. She has tainted his reputation and wounded his ego, (or so he believes) and he must kill her before she corrupts other men. “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.” His words to her become bitter and scathing:
I took you for that cunning whore of Venice
That married with Othello.
The combination of their honour and misunderstanding of women makes the men easily jealous. We see this in their quickness to damn their wives as adulteresses without concrete evidence. Othello is so distrusting, the absence of a handkerchief becomes the ‘ocular’ proof, when ironically he has seen nothing. His jealousy makes him willing to condemn. “Damn her, lewd minx!” Iago also accuses his wife with unfounded suspicion of sleeping with Cassio and Othello:
He’s done my office. I know not if it be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.”
The men and women in Othello do not understand each other. The men’s preoccupation with honour and romantic ideals of love, leads them to misunderstand women viewing them as either whores or Madonnas and possessions for men. The women, in contrast, are more mature and realistic. However women such as Desdemona overestimate the men and are unable to empathise with their attitudes, or recognise their jealous natures.