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Womanhood and Sexuality Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Prejudice Theme Icon
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
Jealousy Theme Icon
Manhood and Honor Theme Icon
Womanhood and Sexuality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Othello, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Womanhood and Sexuality Theme Icon

Two contrasting images of womanhood dominate Othello: the virtuous and loyal woman, or Madonna, embodied by Desdemona; and the whore, embodied, to a certain extent by Bianca. Yet over the course of the play, it becomes clear that these two different ways of describing women don't actually apply to real women. Instead, they are male fantasies imposed on women—ideals that men want woman to fulfill, and roles that women therefore purposefully play for men. For instance, Desdemona often describes her devotion to Othello in front of other people, underscoring that, even though she does love him very deeply, she is to a certain extent playing the role of the virtuous wife. Iago then stokes Othello's jealousy in part by forcing Othello to realize that there is no way for a man to tell the difference between a truly virtuous wife and one who is just playing the role of virtuous wife while actually acting as a whore and being unfaithful.

Meanwhile, Iago's wife, Emilia, complicates the simple contract between the Madonna and the whore. Initially, she wants to please her husband—and does so by stealing Desdemona's handkerchief, knowing that he has long hankered after it. Yet she is not wholly loyal, and even tells Desdemona in 4.3 that she believes many women, including she herself, would cheat on their husbands under certain circumstances. And, finally, she proves her own, independent virtue by defending Desdemona's virtue and revealing her husband's crimes in the process. So while womanhood in Othello is, therefore, often defined by men in terms of pure virtue or voracious and deceptive sexuality, the play ultimately shows that real women are far more complex.

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Womanhood and Sexuality ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Womanhood and Sexuality appears in each scene of Othello. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Womanhood and Sexuality Quotes in Othello

Below you will find the important quotes in Othello related to the theme of Womanhood and Sexuality.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
"Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her!
For I'll refer me to all things of sense,
If she in chains of magic were not bound,
Whether a maid, so tender, fair, and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunned
The wealthy curled darlings of our nation,
Would ever have, t'incur a general mock,
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom
Of such a thing as thou—to fear, not to delight."
Related Characters: Brabantio (speaker), Othello, Desdemona
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 1.2.82-90
Explanation and Analysis:

Brabantio and his men have arrived at the inn where Othello is staying. Iago has advised Othello to go inside in order to avoid a confrontation with Brabantio, but Othello has decided to stay, declaring that he is a loyal soldier and husband to Desdemona and thus he has nothing to be ashamed of. Brabantio, having learned about his daughter's marriage, accuses Othello of enchanting Desdemona and binding her in "chains of magic"; he claims there is no other explanation for why she would choose to marry Othello. He uses racist language to describe Othello, calling him a "thing" with a "sooty bosom," and saying that it would make more sense to fear him as opposed to love him. 

This speech is a pertinent example of the racial prejudice directed at Othello by the other characters. Brabantio's words reflect the widespread idea that Othello is not a normal human, but is either an animal-like "thing" or a fantastical being with supernatural powers. Note that Brabantio's horror emerges in particular from the thought of his daughter, whom he describes in terms that evoke pure white womanhood ("a maid, so tender, fair, and happy"), being intimate with Othello ("run... to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou"). Desdemona is presented as de-sexualized, an innocent child, whereas Othello is suggested to have sinister sexual powers akin to magical enchantment. As well as indicting Othello, this idea robs Desdemona of agency; Brabantio considers it impossible that she has chosen to marry Othello of her own free will. 


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Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
"I do perceive here a divided duty."
Related Characters: Desdemona (speaker)
Page Number: 1.3.209
Explanation and Analysis:

Othello has told the story of how Desdemona fell in love with him, and promised the other characters that if they ask Desdemona, she will confirm that she loves him and married him willingly. Desdemona arrives, and when Brabantio asks her who she obeys, she responds that she feels she has a "divided duty," although after this quote she admits that, because he is now her husband, her primary allegiance is to Othello. The behavior of Desdemona and Othello in this scene proves that they are both honorable, truthful people who are honest about their allegiances––a characteristic that puts them in direct contrast with Iago. 

The fact that Desdemona is questioned about her "duty" reveals that, in the world of the play, women are not considered people in their own right, but only ever exist in relation to men––first their fathers and brothers, and then their husbands. Indeed, one reason why Desdemona and Othello's marriage is considered so scandalous is because Desdemona has willingly chosen to marry a man her father did not select for her. Aside from this one act of rebellion, however, Desdemona unfailingly performs the submissive, dutiful role expected of women, as is evidenced in this quote. When asked about her marriage to Othello, Desdemona speaks of a "divided duty" between her husband and father, ignoring her own feelings altogether. 

Act 2, scene 1 Quotes
"Oh heavy ignorance! Thou praisest the worst best."
Related Characters: Desdemona (speaker), Iago
Page Number: 2.1.158-159
Explanation and Analysis:

Desdemona and Iago have arrived in Cyprus, and while they wait for Othello's ship to join them they engage in flirtatious conversation. Iago has entertained Desdemona by telling riddles about "foul and foolish" women; Desdemona laughingly accuses him of "heavy ignorance" for praising such qualities. To some extent, their exchange confirms Desdemona's sweet and earnest nature, as she rebukes Iago for praising negative characteristics. On the other hand, the decidedly flirtatious element of their conversations suggests that Desdemona is perhaps not entirely morally innocent. At the same time, she might also simply be fulfilling the expectation that women should always behave in a pleasant, agreeable manner, rather than expressing strong opinions. Such ambiguity highlights the difficulty of adhering to the strict, complex, and in some ways contradictory code of behavior demanded of women. 

In any case, the fact that Desdemona is at least mildly flirting with Iago lends a hint of plausibility to Othello's paranoia about her possible infidelity. A further layer of tension emerges from Desdemona's accusation that Iago "praisest the worst best." Although Desdemona is referring to Iago's humorous banter, she has unwittingly made an accurate judgment of Iago's fundamental personality. After all, Iago is a Machiavellian villain who does indeed value the worst qualities––selfishness, duplicity, and ruthlessness––over moral attributes such as fairness and honesty. The fact that Iago can jokingly present himself this way without Desdemona catching on to his true nature demonstrates both Desdemona's trusting innocence and Iago's deceptive charisma.

"If I were now to die,
Twere now to be most happy, for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate."
Related Characters: Othello (speaker)
Page Number: 2.1.205-209
Explanation and Analysis:

While they wait for Othello to arrive, Cassio has a brief private conversation with Desdemona, inspiring Iago to trick Othello into thinking that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Othello arrives, and declares that he could not be any happier and thus wouldn't mind if he died then and there. Othello's innocent joy in this scene could be said to tempt fate. Indeed, without realizing it, in this speech Othello accurately foreshadows that he will never be this happy again--and that he will soon die as well. The added tragedy underlying this statement is that Othello's wish to die happy will go unfulfilled; both his marital bliss and good reputation will be ruined before he dies.

Act 3, scene 3 Quotes
"Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; tis something, nothing;
Twas mine, tis his, and has been slave to thousands.
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed"
Related Characters: Iago (speaker), Othello
Page Number: 3.3.182-190
Explanation and Analysis:

Othello has noticed Cassio avoiding him and is suspicious; nonetheless, he has promised Desdemona to reinstate Cassio, but first asks for some time alone. With the other characters gone, Iago asks seemingly innocent questions about Cassio, and gives Othello advice that likewise appears to be well-intentioned, yet is actually designed to increase Othello's suspicions. In this passage Iago emphasizes the importance of reputation, saying that for a person's money to be stolen is ultimately meaningless, yet if his "good name" is ruined that leaves him "poor indeed." This passage shows the power of Iago's cunning strategy of undermining Othello. On the surface, he appears to be helping Othello by providing rational and wise advice; in reality, he is laying the foundation for Othello's coming frenzied paranoia. 

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
"Her honor is an essence that's not seen;
They have it very oft that have it not."
Related Characters: Iago (speaker), Desdemona
Related Symbols: The Handkerchief
Page Number: 4.1.20-21
Explanation and Analysis:

Iago has told Othello that he knows Cassio and Desdemona slept "naked in bed" together, but pretends to still want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Iago has repeatedly referenced the handkerchief, saying that it belongs to Desdemona and that she could therefore give it to whomever she wants; Othello asks if she could likewise give away her honor, and Iago replies that her honor is intangible, and that many seem honorable when they are actually not. Following Othello's obsession with "ocular proof," Iago now fixates on the distinction between visible and invisible evidence, and stresses the unreliability of evaluating Desdemona's "honor" because honor is not visible. 

Note that Iago's statement "they have it very oft that have it not"––meaning many people appear to be honorable but aren't––does not actually apply to Desdemona, but does accurately describe Iago himself. Indeed, the phrasing is reminiscent of Iago's statement earlier in the play, "I am not what I am." Once again, Iago is making wise and astute observations about the nature of human behavior, yet uses these observations to further his deceptive and evil plan. 

"A horned man's a monster and a beast."
Related Characters: Othello (speaker)
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 4.1.77
Explanation and Analysis:

Overcome with anguish about Desdemona, Othello has had an epileptic fit, during which time Cassio briefly enters and advises Iago on how to revive Othello. With Cassio offstage gain, Othello has regained consciousness and immediately accuses Iago of mocking him. Iago, bewildered, says that he hasn't, to which Othello responds "a horned man's a monster and a beast." At the time, folklore held that a cuckold––a man whose wife was unfaithful––would grow horns, making his humiliated status visible to the rest of society. Although irrational, this clearly represents a significant fear for Othello. Not only would Desdemona's infidelity ruin his reputation as a noble and manly husband, it would confirm the racist beliefs that, as a Moor, Othello is more like an animal or supernatural creature than a human. 

Act 5, scene 2 Quotes
"Put out the light, and then put out the light.
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,
Thou cuning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have plucked thy rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again;
It must needs wither."
Related Characters: Othello (speaker), Desdemona
Page Number: 5.2.7-16
Explanation and Analysis:

Othello, holding a light, has entered the bedroom where Desdemona lies sleeping. Watching her, he remarks on the purity of her snow-white skin, and vows not to shed her blood when he kills her. In this passage, he draws a parallel between putting out the light he is holding and extinguishing the light of Desdemona's life, and contemplates the finality of murdering her. Unlike a candle which can be relit, once Desdemona dies she will be gone forever. It seems as if Othello can almost predict the regret he will come to feel after murdering Desdemona and discovering her innocence. 

At the same time, the light in this passage can also be interpreted as a symbol for purity, and Othello's resolve to murder Desdemona is stoked by the fact that he believes she has already destroyed her purity and innocence by having an affair with Cassio. Both these metaphors emphasize the fragility of women's existence in the play, as both their honor and even their lives are at the mercy of men, who––as Othello demonstrates––cannot always be trusted to act rationally.