Subverting Patriarchy In Othello (If You Want To Be Happy For The Rest Of Your Life, Never Make A Pretty Woman Your Wife)


Will I Am

Will I Am

In her essay, ‘Othello: Female Subjectivity and the Ovidian Discursive Tradition’, Evelyn Gajowski suggests that male“concern with possession is inflected in both the Petrarchan and the Ovidian discursive traditions that Shakespeare inherits, as well as in the institution of patriarchal marriage that characterizes his culture” (Gajowski, 84).  These influences serve as the core motivations that move the plot in Shakespeare’s Othello and, ironically, it is Othello’s strict, irrational and at times ignorant adherence to patriarchal custom, coupled with his random disregard for that same system, that exemplifies the issues present in the male characters of the play.  Desdemona, the victim of the play’s tragedy, is “remarkably resilient and strong when it comes to matters of the heart” and is endowed with the “intelligence and wit to make choices, [and] the independence and courage to takes risks” (51) whilst also displaying the “confidence and faith to give and accept love without hesitation or qualification” (52).  Each of these qualities, though, seems to be utterly lacking in the play’s male characters and though Desdemona does undermine patriarchy by eloping without her father’s consent, it is the lack of true patriarchal virtue on the part of the male characters that serves to undermine the patriarchal system and brings the play to a tragic end.


Othello after performing an honour killing?  Patriarchy is so fucked!

Othello after performing an honour killing? Patriarchy is so fucked!

Reason is one of the primary characteristics which seem to have been ascribed to the masculine realm by patriarchy.  It is also one of the characteristics that seems to be utterly lacking in Othello and contributes to the tragedy of the play.  As Gajowski points out, “Othello’s tragedy consists in the fact that he leaves the battlefield… and enters a world for which he is not fit” (59).  Military leaders are not known for employing reason, but rather for following orders.  With a strict military background, Othello does not have the logician’s tools needed to recognize that “fidelity cannot be put to the proof” (68).  One cannot prove a negative, so “Desdemona is doomed once Othello’s need of ‘ocular proof’ forces an equation in his mind” (68) that demands Desdemona provide evidence of her fidelity.  “As a solider” Othello “cannot tolerate the state of ambiguity” (68) that arises once Iago casts doubt on Desdemona’s fidelity.  What is troubling here is that Othello cannot even be bothered to perform a thorough investigation himself.  The play’s final scene demonstrates the truth was to be easily had should Othello have simply taken the initiative to ask Emilia or Desdemona for clarification.  With or without evidence though, Winifred Nowottny points out that marital fidelity “‘is the case par excellence where the only protection of the accused is that intuitive belief in her integrity which should have precluded accusation’” (53).  Because Othello is lacking this ‘intuitive belief’ in Desdemona and fails to recognize the inherent flaw in his demand for ocular proof, Desdemona’s fate is sealed.  Othello lacks understanding of philosophy and simple reasoning skills and as a result is easily manipulated by Iago, who employs a trick which any male figure who exemplified patriarchal masculinity would have been able to resolve instantly.  Because Othello does not possess strong reasoning skills, when he applies reason to Desdemona’s fidelity, the patriarchal standards ironically serve to undermine a relationship that exemplifies patriarchal standards.


The beautiful Maggie Smith played Desdemona in a film adaptation of 'Othello'.

The beautiful Maggie Smith played Desdemona in a film adaptation of ‘Othello’.

Othello also fails to employ reason to other aspects of patriarchy.  Male-homosocial relationships, for example, were often placed above heterosexual relationships in the Early Modern era.  This was not meant to be blindly applied to all homosocial relationships though, but rather those which exemplify patriarchal virtue.  Such virtue is utterly lacking in Iago.  Though Othello seems to recognize Iago as being inferior, given that he awards a military promotion to Cassio over Iago, Othello seems to thoughtlessly and irrationally place Iago above Desdemona.  Iago uses a passive, uncertain rhetoric when speaking to Othello of Desdemona’s fidelity.  When implicating Cassio via the recounting of words allegedly spoken whilst Cassio’s was sleeping, Iago downplays the implications by stating: “this was just a dream” (3.3.429).  He goes on to say that Desdemona “may be honest” (3.3.436), not that she isn’t, though the employment of the word ‘may’ implies a tentative honesty.  When he claims to have seen the handkerchief given to Desdemona by Othello, he tells Othello: “I am sure it was your wife’s, did I today/ See Cassio wipe his beard with” (3.3.441-442), he leaves a degree of uncertainty by following the statement with an ‘if’, concluding that: “If [the handkerchief] be that” (3.3.443) which Cassio used to wipe his beard, then it speaks against Desdemona’s honesty, but Iago doesn’t make the link explicit.  Iago’s uncertainty stands in sharp contrast to Desdemona’s finite rhetoric.  She steadfastly denies the claims, swearing upon her “life and soul” (5.2.49) that she had not been intimate with Cassio, adding that she “never did/ Offend [Othello] in [her] life” and “never loved Cassio” (5.2.58-59).  Of the handkerchief, Desdemona flatly stats that she “never gave it him” (5.2.67).  Despite Desdemona’s clear declarations, Othello chooses to place Iago’s passive implications over Desdemona’s forthright protestations and in turn unthinkingly and unreasonably places the homosocial relationship above the heterosexual relationship, facilitating the tragedy of the play and undermining an ideal patriarchal relationship via corrupt application of patriarchal values.


Suzanne Cloutier also played Desdemona in a film adaption of the play.

Suzanne Cloutier also played Desdemona in a film adaption of the play.

It is not only Othello’s lack of reason that leads to tragedy though, but also his lack of faith.  Though Othello “twice wages his life upon [Desdemona’s] faith” (54), when it is put to the test his faith is utterly lacking whilst Desdemona’s is unwavering.  In the final scene when Othello commands Desdemona to “be still” (5.2.46), she says simply: “I will” (5.2.47), despite the fact that she explicitly recognizes that Othello is in a homicidal state when she declares that he is “fatal then/ When [his] eyes roll so” (5.2.37-38).  She remains obedient and has faith in his commands, though his faith in her is utterly lacking.  It is clear that Othello not only fails to employ reason, but also fails to display the kind of faith that is required for a successful relationship.  Othello, when it comes to faith, is bested by his female counterpart, again demonstrating a deficiency that impedes his ability to fulfill the patriarchal roles expected of a husband, while Desdemona’s faith and obedience to her husband, which exemplifies patriarchal archetypes of women, ultimately and ironically allows Othello to destroy a relationship that is a model of patriarchal ideals.



A portrait of Desdemona.

A portrait of Desdemona.

Infidelity does not always call for a homicidal response, so it is perhaps important to ask why it lead to homicide in Othello.  The answer is clear as Othello explains in his confession when he states that he committed murder not “in hate, but all in honour” (5.2.292).  As Gajowski points out, Othello believes his “status in Venetian society depends upon his worthiness” (67), or rather, his honour.  It is important to note that by society, Gajowski is not referring to all Venetians, but rather the male Venetians of the court and the military realm.  Honour might be defined for some by the actions of an individual, but during the English Renaissance, as Gajowski notes, “male honor depend[ed] in part upon female chastity” (66).  With Othello’s military background, notions “of glory, honor, gallantry, and sacrifice give Othello, like all soldiers, something to live and die for” (67), but also something to kill for.  When Desdemona’s chastity is called into question, so too is Othello’s honour.  Gajowski quotes Coppelia Kahn who notes that there is “‘an interlocking chain of sexual offenses and revenges that make each of [the men] either cuckhold, cuckholder, or both, [with] each [man] in sexual competition’” (61).  Othello finds himself within this chain of ‘sexual offenses’ and the only means he perceives of restoring his honour is the same means in which he earned his honour on the battlefield: via the death of the enemy.  By embracing absolute ideals of chastity and honour and employing militaristic finality in his response to accusations against Desdemona’s fidelity, both elements that arise from the hyper-masculine realm of patriarchal society, Othello allows a perceived infidelity to lead to homicide.  Here again patriarchal ideals, coupled with a situation that is misconstrued by Othello, ironically lead to the destruction of a relationship that upheld patriarchy.


The controversial cover of Kanye West's album, 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' recalls certain themes present in 'Othello'.

The controversial cover of Kanye West’s album, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ recalls certain themes present in ‘Othello’.

Othello is not the only male who seems deficient in ‘masculine’ as traits as Cassio demonstrates a lack of restraint that was contrariwise to the expectations of men who personified patriarchal values in the era.  Cassio, like Othello, is easily influenced by Iago, demonstrating what might be referred to by patriarchal standards as feminine obedience.  Given that Cassio is of a higher rank than Iago, it should be Iago who is obedient to the instructions of Cassio, not the other way around.  When Iago suggests that Cassio drink to celebrate (2.3.40), and later suggests that Cassio solicit the support of Desdemona (2.3.313-314), Cassio agrees to do both without employing reason.  In the first instance, Cassio is given to drink in excess, leading to an altercation with Roderigo (2.3).  Both his excessive drinking and his partaking in a fight demonstrate Cassio’s lack of restraint which, in turn, dilutes his honour.  Cassio then, on the advice of Iago, asks Desdemona to speak to Othello on his behalf.  As Gajowski points out, Cassio “is… a man whose shame at his dishonorable conduct is so great that he is incapable of speaking to Othello on his own behalf” (66).  By going to Desdemona to plead his case, Cassio demonstrates his emasculation further as he cannot speak to Othello on equal terms.  His interactions with Desdemona, coupled with his lack of restraint, brings Cassio’s honour into question.  Both serve demonstrate Cassio’s failure to exemplify patriarchal ideals of virtue and both serve to fuel Othello’s suspicions and ultimately escalate the tragedy that destroys a relationship that had been an example of an ideal patriarchal relationship.



Jennifer Lawrence might make a great Desdemona should another film adaptation be made of Othello.

Jennifer Lawrence might make a great Desdemona should another film adaptation be made of Othello.

In order for the values of patriarchy to be perpetuated, the men and women within that society must exemplify those values when employing patriarchal standards to their personal interactions.  When one fails to exemplify the values of patriarchy, but rests on patriarchy to defend his, or her, actions, she, or he, will inevitably serve to undermine patriarchal values.  Though Desdemona is “remarkably resilient and strong when it comes to matters of the heart” and is endowed with the “intelligence and wit to make choices, [and] the independence and courage to takes risks” (51), Othello lacks the reasoning skills that typify patriarchal notions of reason, and so when appropriating patriarchal standards to guide him through personal situations, his flawed understanding, coupled with his absolute and blind application of patriarchal ideals, serve to undermine the very values which patriarchy seems to prize.  The same can be said of most of the other male figures in the play, notably Cassio.  The irony is of course that the women of the play seem to better exemplify patriarchal standards demanded by the men than do the men themselves.


Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Speak Your Mind