Iago as Gender Trickster: The Manipulation of Gender Roles in Othello

Iago as Gender Trickster:
The Manipulation of Gender Roles in Othello

Of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, the story of the rise and fall of the Moor of Venice arguably elicits the most intensely personal and emotional responses from its English-speaking audiences over the centuries. Treating the subject of personal human relationships, the tragedy which should have been a love story speaks to both reading and viewing audiences by exploring the archetypal dramatic values of love and betrayal. The final source of the tragic action in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice has been attributed to various psychological, mythical, racial, social sources: Othello’s status as racial outsider in Venetian society, his pagan roots in Christian society, hubris and/or hamartia in Othello or in Desdemona.

While any of these interpretations no doubt helps to inform fuller discussion of the play, I would like to focus the question of the cause of this tragedy in another area: the realm of gender. I will argue that the tragedy occurs as a result of the protagonists’ overwhelming adherence to their society’s stereotyped gender roles and that Iago further encourages and manipulates these gender roles to his own ends. In this essay, I use the word “gender” to describe those physical, biological, behavioral, verbal, textual, mythic, and power dynamic cues that signal to others in the society, specifically the society of this play, that one is perceived as belonging or not belonging to a specific category of masculine or feminine (Bornstein 26-30). I will also use Kate Bornstein’s definition of “gender roles”: the “positions and actions specific to a given gender as defined by a culture” (26). Iago is a gender trickster, subtly and subversively manipulating the gender roles of the drama’s protagonist lovers. Existing outside of the world of static gender role, Iago is keenly aware of the limitations and weaknesses of gendered existence and attacks those points in Othello and Desdemona for the purpose of Othello’s destruction.

The most illusive character in all of Shakespeare’s drama, Iago is perhaps the most difficult to explore psychologically for the simple reason that he lacks a personal self. He dons and sheds gender like a closet of clothes, adorning each article as it suits him. Ultimately evolved from the Vice figure of the medieval English morality plays, as Bernard Spivack has convincingly argued, Iago is the Shakespeare’s dramatic and humanistic manifestation of the abstracted evil which governed the dramatic movement of the previous generations of English plays. The self he presents to the world is bound only by circumstance and not by constitution. One key to Iago’s power is his “improvisational ability” (Gutierrez 12). Like the mythical Satan as Prince of Lies, he makes up his fabulous stories as he goes along, playing off of others’ actions and reactions to his ever-spinning web of lies. Iago switches between the facades of emotion easily and fluidly. He admits and affirms his hatred of Othello in the opening lines of the play (I.i.1-9) [All citations are from the Bantam edition.] and reveals his intentions of betraying Othello at his earliest convenience (I.i.44). In the very next scene, not more than 150 lines later, we find Iago in his role as sycophant openly fawning before the mighty Othello and appealing to his martial experience and, relating to Othello his defense of his good name (I.ii.6-10).

Fluidity of emotion points to a multiplicity of gender in literature. Camille Paglia writes that “free movement among mood states automatically opens one to multiple sexual personae” (88). In searching for a term to describe Iago’s sexual/gender multiplicity, Paglia’s “court hermaphrodite” is most appropriate. She names the Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½court hermaphrodite’ as “history’s most repellent androgyne” (142). Later, we will explore the difference between androgyne and hermaphrodite and why it is more proper to consider Iago a hermaphrodite. As court hermaphrodite, Iago appears “wherever there is wealth, power, and fame” (143); in this case, Iago is fueled by the power of hate, the power to destroy that which one finds loathsome merely for the irrational sake of ability and for some imagined spite. “Flattery and malice,” Paglia continues, “come from the same forked tongue. The sycophant is an androgyne because of his pliability and servility” (143), an exact description of Iago’s character. Responding to Othello’s every manly action, Iago “is purely reactive, a parody of femininity, each word and deed a cloying mime of the ruler’s desire” (Paglia 143). Psychologically, emotionally, and morally a null, Iago, we must reemphasize, lacks gender in the most fundamental sense. Iago “has no gender because he has no real self or moral substance” (Paglia 143).

Iago acts only for himself with no motive other than an irrational and unexplainable hate: “In following him, I follow but myself” (I.i.60). Iago exemplifies those who “Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves” (I.i.53), who make “shows of service on their lordsâÂ?¦” (I.i.54). He reveals his shiftiness in his conspiratorial conversations with Roderigo as well as in his monologues. The transparency and malleability of his character is made all too clear in the First Act when, in the space of one scene, he makes the intentionally obscure claim that “Were I the Moor I would not be Iago” (I.i.59) and reveals that “I am not what I am” (I.i.67). Guided by the two-faced god Janus (I.ii.33), Iago is the master of false appearance.

Though the audience knows him to be crafty, Iago is constantly associated with honesty. The epithet “honest Iago” recurs like a mantra (I.iii.287; I.iii.297; II.iii.6; II.iii.241; III.iii.131; IIII.iii.131; III.iii.258; III.iii.397; V.i.32; V.ii.154), as if the other characters are attempting to convince themselves of his veracity in word and deed. Iago’s intentions are obvious to the audience in a way that is hidden to the other characters. Moments after declaring his hatred for Othello, this career soldier innocently declares to Othello that he could never “do no contrived murder” since he “[lacks] iniquity/ Sometime to do me service” (I.ii.3-4).

Because he has no core gender, Iago easily assumes both masculine and feminine masques when needed. He is doubly or even multiply gendered, assuming either or both masculine and feminine attributes at will. Professionally, Iago is a man of war, a career militarist whose “eyes had seen the proof/ At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other groundsâÂ?¦” (I.i.29-30). He is a husband, a cuckolded husband, if one believes the gossip from “abroad” (I.iii.388). He is a confidante, a comrade-in-arms to Othello, his social superior. Although publicly defined by these masculine categories, Iago reveals through his private actions “his dissatisfaction with his world and his devious machinations against it call into question his gender identification and his allegiance to patriarchal society” (Gutierrez 13).

The actions which call into question Iago’s gender identification are stereotypically feminine. That they are performed in private allies Iago with the presumably feminine space of the domestic sphere. Nancy Gutierrez describes Iago’s role in the marriage of Othello and Desdemona as a third party. Iago is, Gutierrez writes, “a kind of demon lover intruding on the marriage of Othello and Desdemona” (6). Indeed, Othello seems to be the sole masculine participant in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s homosocial triangle in which the female partner is bartered between two males. Iago seems to be in competition with Desdemona for Othello’s attention, his confidence, and his trust. Part of Iago’s strategy to destroy Othello “is to Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½feminize’ his position by adopting the slippery and indefinite nature attributed to women” (Gutierrez 10). In many of his exchanges with Othello, Iago sounds like a coquettish lover, coyly flattering his master and manipulating him with language. This is perhaps most repulsively evident in the infamous temptation scene, Act III, scene 3. Iago dominates the direction and focus of the scene, literally creating infidelity before Othello’s eyes. Iago parodies the stereotypical behaviors of the Renaissance woman as gossipy wisp. In the entire scene, Iago uses the sycophantic “My lord” or some variation no less fourteen times. Iago’s drops comments in passing – “I like that not.” “Nothing, my lord; or if – I know not what.” (III.iii.35,37) – that are meant to distract Othello from reality, like Hippomenes dropping the golden apples before Atalanta. A man accustomed to straight-forward communication style and plain speech, Othello is easily provoked by Iago’s subtle hints.

One is tempted to describe Iago’s mixture of gender characteristics as androgynous. Before coming to such a conclusion, we must come to an understanding of the concept of androgyny in Shakespeare’s work. Shakespeare “uses androgyny in his plays as a center for characters’ inner transformations” (Martin 1). Martin notes in her dissertation that “An important skill for an androgynous mind is to be able to call up similar images in the myths and folklore of various people, because the androgyn [sic] constantly desires to synthesize – to evaluate, compare, and then find a common ground for all human beings” (12). Martin argues that “Shakespeare is able to span the gap between gender and sexuality by centering his plots around the plausibility of androgyny and how it can demonstrate Edenic Christian myth by upholding a sense of balanced duality” (67). In Shakespeare, the androgynous is an ideal state of human existence, a moral, emotional, and social goal. The inverse of such a conception is the hermaphrodite.

Grotesquely conceived, the hermaphrodite is monstrous, a symbol of the degradation and devolution of humanity. Iago is clearly an example of such monstrosity. The offspring of such creatures is evil. Iago is a hindrance, a plague even, to normal sexual unions, the unwanted third wheel in Othello’s marriage. Whallon contends that “we may have the impression, though vaguely (since no words tell of it), that Iago caused Othello to be summoned just when [Othello] was about to know his bride for the first time” (72). Using the language of pregnancy and childbirth, he speaks of bringing “this monstrous birth” of his destructive vision “to the world’s light” (I.iii.404-5). Othello spots this monstrosity in Iago just before the temptation scene: “…some monster in thy thought/ Too hideous to be shown” (III.iii.119-20). Iago as monstrous hermaphrodite demonstrates all the evil of which humans can conceive, the horrible union of the worst in men and women.

Iago’s hermaphroditic position yields him powerful insight, but his “insight is of the sort which reduces all impulse and motive to basenessâÂ?¦” (Bayley 130). Iago understands others because he understands himself: “…knowing what I am, I know what [Desdemona] shall be” (IV.i.74). Iago is more than “a bit of dramatic mechanism” (105), as J. I. M. Stewart describes him; he is a full character, enriched all the more by his lack of self. Iago is so successful in his plot to destroy Othello because he is so different from him; indeed, Iago is unlike any other character in the play or his world. Iago must be inhuman and “dramatically, Shakespeare’s Iago must have nothing in common with Othello; love must not be a link between them, and Iago must not be subject to the common human passion” (Bayley 135). He sees love as evidence of the lesser nature of human beings, “merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will” (I.iii.337-8). Iago is devoid of all positive human emotion and his “outlook” on life is “based on his non-comprehension of love” (Bayley 136).

Iago intimately understands the nature of gender as a masque behind which each of us plays a role. He keenly notes in III.iii.168-174 “the self-portrait everyone paints of themselves, the well-guarded persona by which they live” (Bayley 176). Iago does not merely exist to “label others and so get them in his power” (Bayley 180); he knows they have already labeled themselves, and so uses their own labels against them. Iago is driven to compel others to behave in accordance with their expected gender roles. He also knows that gender role is casually connected to the use of language. “Of all the characters in the play,” writes Martin Wine, “Iago is the only one who understands the arbitrary nature of language as an endlessly manipulable system of signs that are social and cultural in origin” (30). Iago himself is a sign: “I am not what I am” (I.i.67), implying a separation between the signifier of “Iago” and the genderless signified nature of the creature by that name.

Iago would not be able to show how monstrous he is if not for the spectacle of the marriage of Othello and Desdemona. Their marriage is a spectacle because of the very real differences between them, aside from the obvious physical distinctions. Othello is the masculine persona, as defined by his culture. Desdemona is his perfect complement in gender, the feminine persona. This perfect complementarity is necessarily flawed because, as Erickson writes, “love often affects men and women differently in Shakespeare’s dramaâÂ?¦” (ix). These two loves are easily seen in the “love duet” of Act II, Scene I, in which Othello returns from the threatened war with the Turks. Bayley’s commentary on the love of the protagonists in this scene is especially revealing: “Othello’s is the masculine and romantic: his opening hyperbole invokes the romantic commonplace – Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½Love calls to war’ – and also receives Desdemona into his wholly martial personality, just as she had wished in refusing to remain Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½a moth of peace’ [I.iii.259]” (159). Bayley further identifies a blindness to the other in both Othello and Desdemona, writing that “the singers in the duet are too preoccupied with the vision of their own love really to perceive the nature of their partner’s” (161). Separated by their mutual understanding of the gender of the other, the protagonists address trivialities rather than the issue of gender role expectations. Martin characterizes gender role expectations in Shakespeare’s plays: “to be Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½manly’ is to be aggressive, daring, bold, resolute, and strong, especially in the face of death, and to be Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½womanly’ is to be gentle, fearful, pitying, wavering, and soft, a condition often signified by tearsâÂ?¦” (26). Othello and Desdemona match these characterizations all to well. Their marriage should be a union of two souls, “a sign of human fulfillment signifying completion” as it does in the comedies (Martin 67). “The tragedy in each of these plays,” Matthew Proser writes of the great tragedies, “partly ensues because of the discrepancy between the main character’s self-conception and his full humanity as it is displayed in action” (3).

Othello’s character, as has been stated before, is purely masculine. He is nothing if not a man. His masculinity is declared, described, and descried throughout the play. Within the first twenty lines of the first scene, we learn that Othello is man “loving his own pride and purposes” evading Iago’s supporters “with a bombast circumstance/ Horribly stuffed with epithets of warâÂ?¦” (I.i.13-15). He relishes the language, the culture, and the action of war. Famed both on and off the battlefield, Othello’s actions speak louder than words. He does not fear Brabantio’s accusations for his “services âÂ?¦ / Shall out-tongue [Brabantio’s] complaints” (I.ii.18-9). Indeed, Othello needs no words, or few words at the most, as when he quells the fighting between his men and Brabantio’s with the simple command: “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them” (I.ii.60).

Othello is a free man who, having known the bondage of slavery, will not yield to the confines or limitations set by others. Not even the love of his life, that of “gentle Desdemona” (I.ii.25), can loose him of his “unhousÃ?©d free condition” (I.ii.26). Desdemona does for Othello what he can not do for himself: feel. Her compassionate, tender response to “the story of my life” (I.iii.131) answers that which Othello lacks in himself. “Because of her ideal response (I.iii.157-60, 169-70), Othello makes Desdemona the repository and guardian of his story” (Erickson 90), the housekeeper of his unhousÃ?©d condition. So much does Othello place his trust in her that she becomes his “Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½fair warrior’ to such a degree that (apparent) loss of Desdemona’s love automatically entails loss of his heroic vocation: “Othello’s occupation’s gone” (III.iii.373)” (Erickson 91). Othello’s love for Desdemona, and hers for him, gives his life meaning (Wine 38). Yet Othello’s “love for Desdemona was to him a marvellous revelation of himself rather than a real knowledge of her” (Bayley 146), a new and exciting glimpse into the realm of the feminine potential within himself, the ability to feel his own hardship and pity his own life.

Until his marriage to Desdemona, Othello has suffered in silence the loneliness isolation and desperate separation he felt as a man against the world. This warrior, whose life is a tale that “would win [the Duke’s] daughter too” (I.iii.173), has known “battles, sieges, fortunes”, “most disastrous chances,… moving accidents by flood and field,/ … hairbreadth scapes…” (I.iii.132,136-8). Othello knows and understands both the benefits and deficits of isolation and independence and in encountering the new world Desdemona offers, experiences “a shock that is produced by the collision of words used with different meanings” (135). He embodies the feelings of man in general, the proud sense of achievement and independence and, like bachelors everywhere, feels the sting of “the loss of freedom, of the Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½unhousÃ?©d condition’, a loss which he has already faced in his large way and put aside” (Bayley 160). He is unable and unwilling to give up his life as a soldier and finds in Desdemona a partner with whom he can continue this life. She reinforces his sense of purpose , acting “as a marvellous mirror through which to see his own experience” (Bayley 163). Love brings order to Othello’s life (Wine 38), as opposed to the “Chaos” (III.iii.100) of his previous military life.

Despite the Senate’s suspicions to the contrary, Othello vows that he would not “your great and serious business scant/ When [Desdemona] is with me” (I.iii.270-1). He is a man who “commands/ Like a full soldier” (II.i.37-8). In the middle of the play, Act III, scene 2, we see Othello checking the fortifications of his troops’ ships. Rather than spend all of his waking hours with his new bride, he chooses to dine with “the captains at the citadel” (III.iii.64-65).

Life is lived through action for Othello. In his mind, “action, warlike action, is the habit which fails to acknowledge other potential modes of being, and which therefore becomes a killing habit” (Proser 93). Othello, under normal circumstances, knows when to take action. He warns his men that “Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it/ Without a prompter” (I.ii.84-5). Othello does not allow himself the vulnerability of any emotion other than rage, anger, or violent passion. Language fails him under positive circumstances. When he returns to Desdemona at Cyprus, he is unable to express his ecstasy at seeing her: “I cannot speak enough of this content./ It stops me here; it is too much of joy.” (II.i.196-7). He can not speak, but he can act, and he kisses her there. Othello is easily misguided by Iago’s words because he is a man of quick action and little thought, a man who has little use for words except as an active form and engaging an audience, as when he testifies before the Senate. Just as Othello can seduce the Senate with his speech, so too can Iago seduce Othello with his. Once Iago’s words ignite the flame of Othello’s irrational jealousy, he loses the power of language and resorts wholly to unthinking violent action. Othello’s loss of syntax and pained exclamations in the temptation scene (III.iii), specifically lines 35 to 43, reveal his loss of the capacity for language, as does his trance in the same scene.

Pained by supposed betrayal and infidelity, Othello believes himself deceived by the very mode of being he himself knows best, action, and responds accordingly, with an even more violent reaction. Ironically, a point that I’ve not seen critics comment upon before is that Othello himself, if one is to read the stage direction, is the cause of the loss of the handkerchief he gave to Desdemona: “[He puts the handkerchief from him, and it drops.]” Othello reacts to his own action. In the end, his submission to action at the expense of thought is revealed in the admission of guilt, when he describes himself as “one that loved not wisely but too well” (V.ii.354). The adverb “wisely” points to what Othello lacks, attention to thought, while “too well” can only refer to his activity in loving.

Othello maintains a rigid belief in the certainty of people, things, and ideas. To Othello, “conviction of any sort is fatally more acceptable to him that uncertainty” (Bayley 195). Othello admits this of himself: “To be once in doubt/ Is once to be resolved” (III.iii.193-4). “Of all Shakespeare’s heroes,” writes Matthew Proser, Othello is one of only two men “who remain most permanently unaware of their own natures” (94), that is, his own adherence to the gender role system. His obsession with Desdemona’s complementary femininity is the key to Iago’s manipulation of Othello. Many critics have found evidence of sexual anxiety and insecurity in Othello, a feeling of inadequacy in his relationship with a much younger woman of a social sphere different from his own. Aware of this anxiety, Iago evokes image which scheme against the one in which Othello has placed all of his unfettered confidence: the image of the pure and chaste Desdemona. The mere suggestion of infidelity is enough to release Othello’s anxiety to destructive action. How much more does the vulgar image of “[Beholding] her topped” (III.iii.412) unnerve Othello. Othello has placed “My life upon her faith” (I.iii.297) and to hear of Desdemona’s transgression, “Chaos is come again” (I.iii.100).

Despite the flimsy evidence before him, Othello allows himself to be controlled by his rage and hurt pride. In the murder scene, he never allows Desdemona the chance to defend herself against the calumnies leveled by Iago, nor does he offer a reason for his taking of her life. He is all action and little talk. When he does speak, he does so generally, telling her “I would not kill they unpreparÃ?©d spirit” (V.ii.33). In the end, he denies her even the opportunity to redeem herself through prayer (V.ii.87). After Desdemona’s death, Othello is a new man. In the final scene, Othello “sees himself as [his marriage state’s own worst enemy], and in his last speech he converts himself into the kind of outward enemy he is capable of handling” (Proser 96), an enemy with whom he can fight and beat in battle. No longer bound by the complementary femininity of Desdemona, nor the gender role manipulation of Iago, Othello ends his life by regressing to his masculine persona “by recalling his military achievements and devotion to public service” (Rose 154-55). Thus, Othello ends the same way he begins, a man of action dedicated to a life of military service.

The near exact opposite of Othello, Desdemona embodies the Renaissance ideals of femininity. Like Othello, there are moments in her characterization which promise that she will become fully realized as an androgynous person. Martin Wine writes that “although her fidelity, her innocence, is never in question to us, an open and frank sexuality emanates from Desdemona that at least renders plausible Iago’s hold on Othello and holds out hope for Roderigo” (15). Desdemona’s rigid adherence to her gender role leads to her own death. She is too much the innocent damsel in distress to overcome her plight. For Desdemona, “the problem lies in her own innocence – in her refusal to see evil in the world” (Garber 25). Desdemona’s shortsighted vision extends not only to herself, but to Othello as well. “When she sees Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½Othello’s visage in his mind’ (I.iii.247) she sees only the noble public man, and not the insecure and vulnerable private one” (Garber 25). In the end, Desdemona succumbs “to a naÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ve, insistent, and unhelpful purityâÂ?¦” (Rose 154).

From the start, Desdemona is portrayed as the symbol of feminine purity and passivity. Her father, by no means unbiased, calls her “a maid so tender, fair, and happy” (I.ii.67) and his description is supported by others. Cassio calls her “a maid/ That paragons description and wild fame” (II.i.63-4) and “divine” (II.i.75). She properly speaks of her “divided duty” (I.iii.183) to both her husband and to her father before the Senate and likens her relationship to Othello to her mother’s relationship to her husband (I.ii.188-9). Enamored of this exciting man of the world, Desdemona is in love with images and fancies. She sees, not the man himself, but “Othello’s visage in his mind” (I.iii.255). Desdemona is compared to the Virgin Mary by Cassio at Cyprus (II.i.86-9).

Desdemona is also the paragon of stereotypical feminine passivity and obedience. Iago says of her that “she holds it a vice in her goodness not to do more than she is requested” (II.iii.314-6). She “entreats” (III.iii.84) Othello to forgive Cassio. Whatever the range of emotion that Othello may show (or hide), Desdemona is “obedient” (III.iii.97). She thinks her husband far beyond the trifles of jealousy, that he “Is true of mind and made of no such baseness/ As jealous creatures are…” (III.iv.27-8). Horribly recalling the common symptoms the modern-day battered wife, Desdemona repeatedly makes excuses for Othello’s inexcusable actions. “My lord is not my lord,” (III.iv.126) she says. Her weak response to Othello’s striking her – “I have not deserved this.” (IV.i.244) – not only implies that there are times when she believes that she should be struck, but still reflects her attitude of subservience to Othello, reinforced a few lines later when she answers his command to leave “I will not stay to offend you” (IV.i.250). Later, she is “a child to chiding” before Othello (IV.ii.119).

The murder scene is perhaps one of the most painful experiences to see on the stage. The scene threatens everything we feel of love and compassion. Few can witness the horrible action without being moved. Desdemona eerily foreshadows her own final lines and adds to the sickening irony of the play when she says of Othello “his unkindness may defeat my life,/ But never taint my love” (IV.ii.167-8). To the end, she sees no imperfection in her husband; his whole character and mind “have grace and favor in them” (IV.iii.21-2). Ever the innocent one, Desdemona refuses to acknowledge any guilt to Othello for “Why I should fear I know not,/ Since guiltiness I know not; but yet I feel I fear” (V.ii.40-1). The final pain comes to us when Desdemona attempts to lay the blame for her murder upon herself (V.ii.128).

Oscillating between extremes, Othello allows us to glimpse the inner workings and the inner torments of the mind in love. The play is also a study of gender, the ways by which Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s culture, and our culture define men and women. The play offers a vision of the positive and negative experiences of gender, the benefits of androgynous integration, and the harmful effects of gender rigidity. Beneath the abstract and the symbol, however, is the human. The Tragedy of Othello is first and foremost about a man who falls in love and loses himself in that love. The audience must be consoled in the hope that after death, Othello and Desdemona may join each other in a place that exists beyond the boundaries of gender.

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