[EXPLICIT CONTENT, ADULT LANGUAGE AND SEXUAL IMAGERY AHEAD… SKIP IF EASILY OFFENDED.]
OK, yesterday, I recounted my love for bawdy, and discussed what Eric Partridge said about Othello in his great dictionary of the dirty stuff, Shakespeare’s Bawdy: 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). As I mentioned yesterday, I can’t argue that. In Othello, the sexuality is so pervasive as to make it commonplace.
With sex, sex organs, and lust out of the way, let’s take a look at whores…
Like the conclusion to All’s Well That Ends Well, we get quite a whole lotta of whore-talk in Othello:
- Iago calls Bianca the courtesan a “huswife that … sell[s] her desires” (IV.i.94) and a “strumpet” (IV.i.96)
- Cassio doesn’t seem to have much of a different opinion, calling her “a customer” (IV.i.119), or whore
- Bianca, jealous at the thought that Cassio’s new handkerchief came from another woman, tells him to give it back to his “hobbyhorse” (IV.i.152), something he can ride sexually (technically not a whore, but still…)
- as mentioned before, Othello treats Emilia like a bawd, but only after–in an extended aside to us–he calls her that explicitly: “a simple bawd…a subtle whore” (IV.ii.20, 21)
- Othello calls Desdemona “that cunning whore of Venice” (IV.ii.89), and in that speech’s aftermath both Emilia and Desdemona also use the phrase (IV.ii.120 and 161, respectively)
- Iago claims that Cassio’s injuries in the street fight are “the fruits of whoring” (V.i.117), said to insult the present Bianca
If the women are whores, then it’s “destiny unshunnable” (III.iii.275) for men to become cuckolds, and the play seems pretty damned obsessed with it:
- Iago urges Roderigo to “cuckold” (I.iii.366) Othello
- Iago says that “it is thought abroad that ‘twixt [his] sheets // [Othello]’as done [his] office” (I.iii.379-80)
- he later reiterates the charge–“I do suspect the lusty Moor // Hath leaped into my seat” (II.i.292-93)–then accuses Cassio of also making him a cuckold: “I fear Cassio with my nightcap too” (II.i.304)
- Othello, once Iago has poured pestilence into his ear, bemoans “this forked plague [that] is fated to us” (III.iii.276)…the forks being the horns springing from his head, which cause “a pain upon [his] forehead, here” (III.iii.284)
- the Moor later says that his “occupation’s gone” (III.iii.357), and while “occupation” could mean his regular job of soldiering, it could also mean his physical occupation inside Desdemona
- after Othello’s fit, the Moor feels mocked when Iago asks, “Have you not hurt your head?” (IV.i.59), as the emerging horns would, of course, bring pain; if there was any doubt to this reference, Othello removes it by saying, “A horned man’s a monster and a beast” (IV.i.62); Iago then takes the horned beast metaphor one step further by telling the Moor, “Think every bearded fellow that’s but yoked // May draw with you” (IV.i.66-67), which works on two levels: a husband is yoked to his wife, but beast of burden–also yoked–have horns…like a cuckold
- the only time Othello uses the word itself is when he also says he will kill her: “I will chop her into messes! Cuckold me!” (IV.i.196)
- in Emilia’s last conversation with Desdemona, she asks a most pragmatic question: “who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch?” (IV.iii.75-76); from the female perspective within the play, even cuckoldry can be seen as a action of a loving wife
It shouldn’t be surprising that, with the concept of the cuckold being a horned beast and our first bawdy example being the black ram/white ewe, animals also play a part in the sexual imagery of the play. As if the ram/ewe statement was too subtle, Iago then turns an image of bestiality: “your daughter covered with a Barbary horse” (I.i.110). This hits all the father’s hot buttons: his daughter, taken sexually (“covered”) by an animal, and an African one at that. And if that wasn’t blatant enough, Iago warns that if action isn’t taken soon, “You’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have coursers for cousins, and jennets for germans” (I.i.110-12). Iago sinks the knife in completely when he tells Brabantio, “Your daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs” (I.i.115). When Iago later attempts to console Roderigo, he says he would never drown himself over a woman (“the love of a guinea hen” [I.iii.315]); in fact, he’d rather “change [his] humanity with a baboon” (I.iii.316). Later, when Iago talks of how Othello would see Desdemona and Cassio in the act, he uses animal examples: “It is impossible you should see this, // Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys, // As salt as wolves in pride” (III.iii.402-04). Sex, and humanity, is reduced to animal instinct. Even Cassio gets in on the not-fun: he refers to Bianca as a polecat (“fitchew” [IV.i.144]), but one “perfumed” (IV.i.144)…one can only assume to cover its stench and make it more sexually alluring. Bianca, in a fit of jealousy, says that Cassio has a new lover, one she refers to a a “minx” (IV.i.151), which was defined as a “pet dog” (“minx, n.; 1” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 10 February 2016.) before it meant a “wanton woman” (“minx, n.; 2b” OED Online.). And don’t forget Othello’s reference of “foul toads // To knot and gender” (IV.ii.61-62).
If foul toads aren’t nasty enough, then how about disease? In a play with little humor, even the Clown (a character cut in most productions) discusses sexually transmitted diseases. He asks if the musicians if they’d been to Naples, which Shakespeare’s audience equated with syphilis (it was called the “Neapolitan bone-ache”), a disease that could cause noses to fall off. Of course, this makes the clown’s “nose” (III.i.4) comment a disease reference; according to Partridge (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 255), the clown’s following “thereby hangs a tail” (III.i.8) becomes a limp-dick joke (or is that a limp dick-joke?).
The closest we come to fun bawdiness is Iago’s performance of praise as they wait for Othello to arrive in Cypress. In this scene where we find Iago’s highest verbal complexity and reading grade level, he presents bawdy jokes in couplets:
- “Nay, it is true, or else I am a Turk; // You rise to play, and go to bed to work.” (II.i.114-15)
Women do their best work in bed.
- “If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit — // The one’s for use, the other useth it.” (II.i.129-30)
Beauty (“fairness”) is meant to be used…by brains (“wit”)
- “If she be black, and thereto have a wit, // She’ll find a white that shall her blackness fit.” (II.i.132-33)
If a woman is black but is smart, she’ll find a white man who will like her (blackness).
- “She never yet was foolish that was fair, // For even her folly help her to an heir.” (II.i.136-37)
A fair woman can never be foolish because her foolish (slutty) behavior will get her children.
- “There’s none so foul, and foolish thereunto, // But does foul pranks which fair and wise ones do.” (II.i.141-42)
No woman can be ugly but loose, as she does the same thing (sex) as the good-looking and smart ones do.
Then in the midst of his most complex speech, another couplet:
- “She that in wisdom never was so frail // To change the cod’s head for the salmon’s tail.” (II.i.154-55)
Here, he describes a woman with enough wisdom to trade something useless (“the cod’s head”) for something of value (“the salmon’s tail”); of course, that would also mean she has enough sense to trade a scrotum (cod) for a cock (tail).
But then, as if to completely deflate any sense of wit or fun, during his next aside while watching Cassio interact with Desdemona, Iago comments on Cassio kissing his fingers by saying, “Would [his fingers] were clyster pipes for your sake!” (II.i.176). Ah, kissing “enema” (“clyster, n.; 1a” OED Online.) pipes. That’s witty. And fun.