[EXPLICIT CONTENT, ADULT LANGUAGE AND SEXUAL IMAGERY AHEAD… SKIP IF EASILY OFFENDED.]
Anybody who’s spent any time on this blog knows I love the good, raunchy, dirty bit o’ bawdy. (sometimes too much) But I’m not alone… Shakespeare had quite the wicked wit himself, and he planted enough naughty bits to keep me occupied–usually happily–in every play. Back in Hamlet, though, I noted a disturbing trend: the increase of dirty concurrent with the decrease of fun. Troilus and Cressida got a little fun back, but ended diseased. All’s Well That Ends Well was a journey–a slog, really–from virginity to prostitution. And Measure for Measure? Well, sexuality so pervasive that even the bawdy stuff is subconscious.
So, where does that leave us with Othello?
Eric Partridge in his great dictionary of the dirty stuff, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, says that Othello is “slightly … bawdier” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001; page 57) than Measure for Measure, and that the pair make up “Shakespeare’s most sexual, most bawdy plays” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 57). I can’t argue that. And if I felt that Measure’s sexuality was so pervasive as to render it almost subconscious, then in this play, the sexuality is so pervasive as to make it commonplace. It’s like “fuck” in The Sopranos. It’s wall-to-wall. To mix the metaphors, it’s like carpet f-bombing. Everything is sexual.
It doesn’t take long for Iago to set the tone. Less than 100 lines into the play, he anonymously calls up to Brabantio, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram // Is tupping your white ewe” (I.i.87-8). This animalistic description of sex is only the first of many bawdy euphemisms employed in the play:
- Iago, in describing Othello’s marriage to Desdemona, tells Cassio: “Faith, he tonight hath boarded a land carrack” (I.ii.50); here, Iago equates Desdemona to a merchant ship, one to be “boarded” (which in turn meant to “have sex with”)
- left alone to ruminate on his plan, Iago tells us that his plan is “engendered” (I.iii.395); there’s only one way that his plan could have been made pregnant, and that’s through sex, which Iago calls “the act of sport” (II.i.226)
- Othello, too, has sex on the mind when he directs Desdemona to follow him their first night in Cyprus, “Come, my dear love. // The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue” (II.iii.8-9); it seems that the couple has not yet consummated their marriage–a notion seconded by Iago, as he tells Cassio that Othello “hath not yet made wanton the night with her” (II.iii.16)
- when Iago asks what kind of visual proof Othello will need to believe accusations of Desdemona’s infidelity, Iago hearkens back to the image he used with Brabantio: “Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on? // Behold her topped” (III.iii.395-6); Iago asks if Othello needs to watch another man on top of his wife, screwing her
- Iago, to stoke Othello’s jealousy, creates a ridiculous anti-bawdy image: “to be naked with her friend in bed // An hour or more, not meaning any harm” (IV.i.3-4). The words may say virtue, but the mind jumps to illicit sex
- in the same scene, both men discuss Desdemona’s “honor” (IV.i.14, 16); but then Iago plays upon the word’s homophone when he talks of Cassio’s lying “on her” (IV.i.34), again creating the mental image of missionary sex with her, of Cassio “cop[ing]” (IV.i.86) or copulating with Desdemona
- these word choices by Iago have an effect on Othello’s own diction, as he tells Desdemona that where he keeps his heart is now a place for “foul toads // To knot and gender in” (IV.ii.61-62); think back on Iago’s “engendered,” but now Othello is deep in the event itself
- once done deriding Desdemona, Othello calls in Emilia as if the latter is a pimp or bawd once the prostitute is done with her client: “We have done our course; there’s money for your pains” (IV.ii.93)
- Desdemona, singing her maid’s song, alludes to sex with “If I court more women, you’ll couch with more men” (IV.iii.56)
Emilia, too, talks of a sex obliquely: “I might do’t as well i’ th’ dark” (IV.iii.66)
- in the final scene, as Othello makes his case against Desdemona to those gathered in the bed-chamber, he talks of the sex between Desdemona and Cassio: “the act of shame” (V.ii.212), and “she did gratify his amorous works” (V.ii.214)
Whew, that’s a lot of verbal sex, but no real satisfaction.
And if the sex act gets a number of verbal stand-ins, we shouldn’t be surprised to find a number of euphemisms for sexual organs. We’ve got Othello’s use of “nose” (IV.i.140), for one part of Cassio that he’s going to cut off and “throw it to” (IV.i.141) a dog. I doubt that he’s really talking about a nose here; more likely, it’s another part of the body that sticks out (or in this case, up). And what comes (pun totally intended) out of that cock is referred to by Emilia as “our treasures” (IV.iii.88)–something wayward husbands pour into “foreign laps” (IV.iii.89)–and by Othello as “the slime // That sticks on filthy deeds” (V.ii.149-50)–the cum after the act. Vaginas are not left out of the not-so-dirty descriptors, either. When Emilia says that she has a “thing” (III.iii.301) for Iago, he jumps to a sexualized reading, saying it is “a common thing” (III.iii.302), doubling down on the dirty; “thing” could refer both to the “pudend” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 259) or pussy and cock and one connotation for “common” was anything available to all men, like a prostitute. Later, Othello equates Desdemona’s pussy to “the gate of hell” (IV.ii.92), something that the bawd Emilia keeps as the “opposite to Saint Peter” (IV.ii.91).
Lust, that emotional and psychological motivator of those sexual organs, gets multiple descriptors, too:
- Othello says that his desire to be with Desdemona is pure and “not // To please the palate of [his] appetite” (I.iii.261-62) as “the young affects // In [him are] defunct” (I.iii.263-64); he says he’s old and no longer virile
- when Iago tries to reassure Roderigo later, he sounds somewhat obsessed with desire:
- “our wills are gardeners” (I.iii.321); during Shakespeare’s day,
- “will” not only meant volition and desire, but sexual desire, as well.
- “lies in our wills” (I.iii.326)
- “our raging motions, our carnal stings or unbitted lusts” (I.iii.330)
- “It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will.” (I.iii.334-35)
- “Moors are changeable in their wills” (I.iii.345)
- “lust and foul thoughts” (II.i.256)
- Iago describes Desdemona as “sport for Jove” (II.iii.17) and “full of game” (II.iii.19), whose words are “a parley to provocation” (II.iii.21) and “an alarum to love” (II.iii.24); Cassio doesn’t take the lust-bait, however, referring to her only in chaste terms
- Iago tells Othello that Desdemona’s “will, recoiling to her better judgment, // May fall to match you with her country forms, // And happily repent” (III.iii.236-38). Now, this one deserves a more than cursory listing: If “will” here is desire, then the second line might read “may come to compare you with those suitors from her own country,” and that could work (especially upon the ego of Othello, at which Iago has been chipping away). However, there was another sexual meaning to “will”: it could also mean the sexual organ itself (both male and female). So, let’s say, just for argument’s sake that “will” here is Desdemona’s pussy, then the next line could be read as “may fail to allow your cock into her pussy.” “Say whaaaa?” you say? Hear me out: First of all, while the Quarto text reads “fall,” the Folio text reads, “fal.” It’s possible then that this “fal” is “fail,” not “fall.” “Match” had an original definition including “to mate” (“match, v.1; I.1a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 10 February 2016.). And as we remember from Hamlet, “country” could mean “pudend” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 110), or the first syllable of that word (I’ll wait… got it? good). Thus, the line could take on an even more sexualized meaning that we originally thought (and that original thought was already pretty sexual).
- when Othello examines Desdemona’s hand in Act Three, Scene Four, he finds it “moist” (III.iv.36), and symbolic of “fruitfulness and liberal heart” (III.iv.38); you can’t bear fruit–children–without sex, and the concept of “liberal” connotes being “licentious” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 174) and sexual; its moisture comes from “a young and sweating devil here // That commonly rebels” (III.iv.42-43), a devil sweating from sex (and there’s that word “common” again!)
- he further calls the hand “frank” (III.iv.44); “frank” can mean “generous” (“frank, adj.2; 2a” OED Online.), which–judging by Desdemona’s response–is how she interprets it; however, it could also mean “open” (“frank, adj.2; 3a” OED Online.), which flirts with a sexual reading and “lusty” (“frank, adj.2; 5” OED Online.), which flies by flirtation and gives that sexual interpretation a lap dance.
And with that flirt and a lap dance, let’s call it a day. Tomorrow: whores, cuckolds, animals, rhymes, and more!