Study Guide

Othello Marriage

By William Shakespeare

Marriage

Act 1, Scene 2
Brabantio

BRABANTIO
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 curlèd darlings of our nation,
Would ever have, to incur a general mock,
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom
Of such a thing as thou—to fear, not to delight!
Judge me the world, if 'tis not gross in sense
That thou hast practiced on her with foul charms,
Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals
That weaken motion. (1.2.82-94)

Brabantio insists that Othello must have "enchanted" Desdemona – why else, asks Brabantio, would she run away from all the (white) eligible bachelors in Venice into the "sooty bosom" of the "Moor"? (Pretty obnoxious, wouldn't you say?) Brabantio's objection to his daughter's marriage to a black man gives voice to fears of miscegenation (when interracial couples marry/have sex, etc., resulting in "mixed race" children).

BRABANTIO
O, thou foul thief, where hast thou stowed my
   daughter? (1.2.80-81)

When Brabantio confronts Othello for eloping with Desdemona (without his permission), he accuses his new son-in-law of being a "foul thief," as if Desdemona is piece of property that has been unlawfully taken away from him. We see this same attitude earlier in the play when Iago awakens Brabantio in the middle of the night proclaiming loudly "Awake! what, ho, Brabantio! thieves! thieves! thieves! / Look to your house, your daughter and your bags! / Thieves! thieves!" (1.1.80-82). What's up with that?

History Snack: It turns out that it's pretty common in Shakespeare's plays (and sixteenth-to-seventeenth-century England in general) for daughters to be considered their father's property – unmarried women are often portrayed as something to be stolen, bartered for and/or traded by men. In The Taming of the Shrew, for example, when Baptista Minola bargains with his daughter's suitor, he treats Bianca like a possession and even refers to himself as a "merchant" who is undertaking a risky business deal (The Taming of the Shrew, 2.1.22).

Act 1, Scene 3
Iago

IAGO
I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that 'twixt my sheets
'Has done my office. I know not if't be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. (1.3.429-433)

We discuss this passage in "Jealousy," but it's important to the theme of marriage as well. Here, Iago suggests that his wife, Emilia, has cheated on him with Othello. Now, we know this is completely untrue. What we don't know is whether or not Iago actually believes that Othello has slept with Emilia. As we know, Iago lists multiple (and incompatible) motives for seeking to destroy Othello (elsewhere, he says he hates Othello because he was passed up for a promotion), so it's entirely possible that Iago's the one who makes up the rumor about Othello and Emilia. On the other hand, most men in the play assume that all women are promiscuous and unfaithful in general, so it's not so surprising that Iago would believe Emilia has been untrue.

Act 2, Scene 1
Iago

IAGO
Now, I do love her too,
Not out of absolute lust (though peradventure
I stand accountant for as great a sin)
But partly led to diet my revenge,
For that I do suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leaped into my seat—the thought whereof
Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards,
And nothing can or shall content my soul
Till I am even'd with him, wife for wife,
Or failing so, yet that I put the Moor
At least into a jealousy so strong
That judgment cannot cure. Which thing to do,
If this poor trash of Venice, whom I trace
For his quick hunting, stand the putting on,
I'll have our Michael Cassio on the hip,
Abuse him to the Moor in the rank garb
For I fear Cassio with my nightcap too, (2.1.313-329)

Iago is completely obsessed with infidelity. Earlier, we heard him say that he suspects Othello has slept with Emilia (a sentiment he repeats in this passage). Not only that, he also says he "fear[s]" that even Cassio is sleeping with his wife. What's Iago going to do about it? Why, he's going to try to sleep with Desdemona, which will allow him to get even with the "lusty Moor." If he can't do that, he wants to make Othello believe that Desdemona is screwing around with Cassio.

Act 3, Scene 3
Emilia

EMILIA
I am glad I have found this napkin.
This was her first remembrance from the Moor.
My wayward husband hath a hundred times
Wooed me to steal it. But she so loves the token
(For he conjured her she should ever keep it)
That she reserves it evermore about her
To kiss and talk to. I'll have the work ta'en out
And give 't Iago. What he will do with it
Heaven knows, not I.
I nothing but to please his fantasy. (3.3.334-343)

Why does Emilia steal Desdemona's handkerchief and give it to her jerk of a husband, Iago? (She has to know Iago is up to no good, doesn't she?) It seems that, despite (or perhaps because of) Iago's abuse, Emilia still craves her husband's love and approval, which is why she'll stoop to anything in order to "please" him. Check out our "Character" analysis of Emilia for more about her motives.

Iago

IAGO
She did deceive her father, marrying you,
[…]
OTHELLO
And so she did. (3.3.238, 241)

When Iago wants to make Othello suspect Desdemona's been unfaithful, he suggests a woman who disobeys and "deceive[s] her father is likely to screw around on her husband. Othello's response implies that he feels the same way. Instead of seeing Desdemona's decision to elope with Othello (despite her father's disapproval) as a sign of his wife's loyalty to him, Othello sees Desdemona's willingness to elope as a prelude to her infidelity. It seems that Othello's sexist assumptions leave him pretty vulnerable to Iago's plotting.

Othello

OTHELLO
O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours
And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapor of a dungeon 
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others' uses. Yet 'tis the plague of great ones;
Prerogatived are they less than the base.
'Tis destiny unshunnable, like death.
Even then this forked plague is fated to us
When we do quicken. (3.3.309-318)

Get your highlighter out because this is important. When Othello is convinced (by Iago) that Desdemona has cheated on him, he reveals something pretty interesting about himself. It seems that Othello believes all men, both "great" and "base," are "destin[ed]" to be cuckolds. FYI: A "cuckold" is a man whose been cheated on by his wife – cuckolds are commonly associated with horns, which is why Othello refers to cuckoldry as a "forked plague" that men suffer from.

So, if Othello believes that all men are destined, from the moment of their birth, to be cheated on by their wives, then this helps to explain why Othello is so easily convinced that Desdemona has been unfaithful, despite the fact that Iago never actually shows Othello any real evidence.

Act 5, Scene 1
Othello

OTHELLO
Minion, your dear lies dead,
And your unblest fate hies. Strumpet, I come.
Forth of my heart those charms, thine eyes, are
   blotted.
Thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust's blood be
   spotted. (5.1.36-41)

Because Othello believes Desdemona has been cheating on him, he rationalizes (in the most irrational and disturbing way) that it's fitting for him to kill his wife on the bed they share as a married couple.

Act 5, Scene 2
Emilia

EMILIA
O, who hath done this deed?
DESDEMONA
Nobody. I myself. Farewell.
Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell. (5.2.151-153)

When Emilia asks Desdemona who has harmed her, Desdemona blames herself instead of holding Othello accountable. As we know, this isn't the first time Desdemona has been abused by her husband, who accuses her of cheating on him, slaps her in public, and calls her a "whore" – actions that culminate in Othello murdering Desdemona. We can't help but notice that Desdemona exhibits a classic symptom of "battered woman syndrome" – instead of telling Emilia the truth about Othello strangling her, she blames herself (and not her attacker) for the abuse she endures.

OTHELLO
What sense had I of her stol'n hours of lust?
I saw 't not, thought it not; it harmed not me.
I slept the next night well, fed well, was free and
   merry.
I found not Cassio's kisses on her lips.
He that is robbed, not wanting what is stol'n,
Let him not know 't, and he's not robbed at all. (3.3.389-395)

In this passage, Othello tries to come to terms with Desdemona's alleged affair with Cassio. In doing so, he voices a pretty common desire among victims of infidelity – he says he'd be much better off if he just didn't know about it.

What's most interesting to us about this passage, however, is the way Othello uses the language of theft to describe Desdemona's supposed betrayal. When Othello laments the affair, he suggests that he's been "robb'd" by Cassio. Hmm. This sounds a whole lot like Brabantio's reaction to the news that Desdemona eloped with Othello (see 1.2.2 above), don't you think? When Othello (and Brabantio) say that Desdemona is something that has been "robb'd" or "stol'n" from them, they talk about her as if she's a piece of property that passes from one man to the next.