Othello is one of the most extraordinary characters in all of Shakespeare’s dramas. He enjoyed unheralded success on the battlefield, which gave him the reputation as one of Venice’s most able generals. The Moor’s military proficiency placed him in a class by himself in the same way his ethnicity distinguished him from his Venetian counterparts. These are two highly identifiable characteristics of Othello. But a much lesser discussed issue of the Moor was his sexual disorder – impotency. There is much evidence in the drama to support the idea that Othello was impotent in both sexual and social relationships.
Othello’s sexual impotence stifled the consummation of his marriage to Desdemona as the two never experienced sexual intimacy. His sexual disorder then sparked a social impotence: powerlessness in dealing with his wife and friends. In terms of shaping the final events of the drama, Othello’s impotency played an even more vital role than his military might or Moorish heritage. Throughout Othello, there is evidence suggesting that Othello and his wife Desdemona never consummated their marriage. Shortly after murdering his wife, he remarked, “cold, cold my girl? Even in thy Chastity” (V. ii. 273-4). The final word ? chastity – brings what actually transpired in their bedroom into serious question.
By referring to Desdemona as chaste, Othello was divulging that he and his wife never had sexual intercourse? Other passages from the play indicate that this is indeed the case. Upon his arrival at the citadel in Cyprus, Othello invited his wife to their room for the second time with the following utterance: Come, my dear love The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue, That profit’s yet to come ‘tween me and you (II. ii. 8-10). In these lines the reader learns that intercourse did not take place on the their wedding night in Venice. The word “purchase” refers to Othello’s acquisition of Desdemona by means of the wedding itself and the phrase “fruits are to ensue” symbolizes the “sweetness” of sexual pleasure that was presumably forthcoming that night in Cyprus. Line 10 establishes that this fruit or “profit” of pleasure as “yet to come,” so one can conclude that their only other night spent together – their wedding night – did not contain such profits.
The fruits of Othello and Desdemona’s second evening together were equally nonexistent. Shortly after the two retired in an attempt to finally consummate their marriage, Othello was interrupted by shouts of the fight. The Moor then made a conscious choice to leave the bed and investigate the fight in the street. Neither lago, Rodrigo, nor Montano entered the chamber to summon Othello to restore order; the general did so purely on his own. And since the Moor was not obligated to leave the chamber, it would seem that nothing was occurring in the bedroom to maintain his interests.
After Othello restored order, Desdemona appeared in the street to inquire about these events. Othello was quite surprised to see her and said “look if my gentle love be not raised up” (II. iii. 248). “Raised up” often is used as a synonym for awaken. If Desdemona was sleeping, then she and her husband were not sharing the experience of sexual intercourse. Therefore, the first evening in Cyprus did not include a consummation of marriage between the Moor and Desdemona. Othello and Desdemona never made love; the “profits” were never collected.
Othello and his wife never had sexual intercourse, but such a conclusion does not mean that both lacked a desire to do so. Desdemona and Othello genuinely loved each other, which is largely supported by their rebellious choice to marry. Desdemona faced a tremendous amount of opposition from her father. But she instead decided that a life with Othello was worth the pain and strife of abandoning her parent. Both Desdemona and Othello also publicly expressed their love for each other. Othello proclaims, “She loved me for the dangers I had passed/ And I loved her that she did pity them”(I. ii. 166-7). In the same scene Desdemona states, “I love the Moor to live with him” (I. iii. 244). The mutual love between the Moor and his wife resulted in an immediate urge to consummate their marriage. After their appearance before the Duke Othello had but an hour before he had to leave for Cyprus.
He could not wait to have his wedding night, so he told Desdemona to make haste: Come, Desdemona. I have but an hour Of love, of worldly matter, and direction to spend with thee. We must obey the time (I. iii. 293-5). In Cyprus, Othello equally craved the “hour of love. Desdemona excitedly kissed her husband after they were reunited in Cyprus, an act indicative of her sexual desire. These facts illustrate that Othello and Desdemona loved each other deeply and genuinely. They both also possessed a strong desire to share the experience of sexual intercourse. There was motivation to make love as well as an opportunity for it to take place. Something must have happened in the couple’s bedroom to make intercourse impossible, and this incident happened not only once but twice. What was this circumstance? Impotency.
For an argument to be made that Othello was impotent, his symptoms must be consistent with the causes of such a condition. The flowing is a medical description of impotency taken from the National Kidney and Urologic Disease Information Clearinghouse: Experts believe that psychological factors cause 10 to 20 percent of cases of impotence. These factors include stress, anxiety, guilt, depression, low self- esteem, and fear of sexual failure. Such factors are broadly associated with more than 80 percent of cases of impotence… (NIDDK Website).
The most overwhelming connection between Othello’s life and these factors is stress. Othello had many stressors in his life – the responsibility of defeating the Turks, Desdemona’s disapproving father, and being black in an all white culture. One can only imagine the pressure of being commissioned to lead a crucial mission to defeat a menacing advisory such as the Turks. The fate of Venice was resting upon Othello’s shoulders; he could not fail. In addition to this formidable task, Othello faced the difficulty of being different from his counterparts.
Racism was an issue that the black Moor felt on several occasions, and such treatment was immensely stressful. Elliott Butler-Evens in his essay “Haply, for JAm Black”: Othello and the Semiotics of Race and Otherness makes the following conclusions about Othello and the racist sentiments in the drama: The association of him with blackness and its numerous signifieds, however, clearly locates him in the world of the undesirable. This blackness is articulated in a culture in which black is the color of degeneracy and damnation (Butler-Evans 146).
A prime example of Othello’s placement into the realm of the undesirable takes place in Act I. Barbantio identifies Othello’s “sooty bosom” (I. iii. 69), and associates the Moor with Pagan Witchcraft. From Barbantio’s anti-marriage speech it is quite clear that Othello is categorized in a negative fashion just because of his ethnicity. Barbantio claims that his daughter could never be attracted to “such a thing as thou” (I. iii. 70), so Barbantio therefore concluded that their marriage must have resulted from the supernatural capabilities of the once-Pagan Moor.
To classify being called both a witch and a dehumanized “thing” as stressful is quite an understatement! Such slurs would have severely damaged Othello’s self-esteem was well. According to the description of impotency, the anxiety and stress produced by the pressure of Othello’s military commission, combined with the classification as “undesirable,” could be the cause Othello’s impotence. The love between Desdemona and Othello, their willingness and failure to consummate their marriage, and Othello’s stressful lifestyle all fit together in confirming the idea that the Moor was impotent.
There is however, symbolic evidence that points toward this same conclusion. Othello faced the option of murdering Desdemona by means of either stabbing or suffocation. In the drama it was much more common for the characters to die by means of the knife as lago, Emilia, and Othello all die by stabbing. Yet the Moor chose an alternative method to commit his murderous act. Of the four characters who do not survive the end of Act V, Desdemona is the only one not to die by the sword. This is an extremely metaphorical fact because Othello’s decision to asphyxiate Desdemona as opposed to stabbing her symbolizes his impotency.
It was impossible for Othello to raise his knife to penetrate Desdemona’s body. Othello’s difficulty raising his knife parallels his inability to erect his genitalia, as the sword is an extremely common phallic symbol. The events that took place while Othello and Desdemona were attempting to consummate their marriage combined with the symbolism involved in Desdemona’s murder point toward Othello’s sexual dysfunction The sexual dysfunction that plagued Othello was not merely a sexual hindrance. Othello’s sexual impotency had such a massive effect that he soon became impotent in his social relationships.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “impotent” as “having no power or ability to accomplish anything; powerlessness; helplessness; ineffective. ” After Othello fails in consummating his marriage in both Venice and Cyprus he becomes impotent in his relationships with his wife and friends. It is only natural that a sexual dysfunction would effect Othello in more areas than his sex life. Impotence On-Line describes the psychological effects that normally stem from such a condition: The inability to perform sexually makes many men feel they have “failed. This can lead to feeling of inhibition, lack of self-esteem and self- condemnation. The inability to have or maintain an erection can grow to be a constant source of unhappiness (CEI. net). Insecurities and low self-esteem would logically stem from Othello’s impotence because he was such a successful masculine figure. The Moor was an incredibly strong war hero who consistently achieved his military goals. Being impotent would naturally cause Othello to doubt his previously unquestioned manhood.
Therefore it is not farfetched to claim that Othello was quite insecure about himself because of his impotency, as such a comment is consistent with the above psychological description. Othello’s insecurities that resulted from his sexual impotency made him almost completely powerless in his dealings with others, most particularly lago and Desdemona. The pieces of evidence that lago provided, namely the handkerchief and Cassio’s dream, were merely circumstantial. Yet, Othello not only adopted them as proof, but he also did so rather promptly.
In fact, Othello all but concluded that Desdemona was guilty before he even spoke to her. Othello stated the following before even conversing with his wife: She’s gone. I am abused, and my relief must be to loath her. 0 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 other’s uses (III. iii. 266-72). By classifying Desdemona as “gone” Othello is stating that his wife has departed from the faithfulness that she once professed.
A highly probable reason for this quick espousal of Iago’s claims is the Moor’s insecurity about his own manhood. Since he could not meet Desdemona’s sexual needs, it would seem more likely to him that his wife would look elsewhere for someone who could. Othello says that he cannot claim Desdemona’s “appetites” for himself, but his wife could be utilized for “other’s uses. ” This suggests the Moor’s knowledge of his sexual inadequacies as well as his fear that Desdemona will find others to fulfill her sexual appetites.
If the Moor and Desdemona had a satisfying sex life, the latter would have virtually no reason venture into Cassio’s bed. But since this was not the case, Othello categorized their lack of a marital consummation (which was his fault) as Desdemona’s motivation to commit adultery. Only an insecure Othello would have fallen for lago’s deceptions. A self-confident Othello would have written off lago’s claims, as he would have vehemently doubted Desdemona’s motivations for such activity and saved his judgment. Instead Othello was ashamed of his failed masculinity and saw a possible motivation for his wife’s alleged adultery.
And as a result of his self-consciousness, Othello accepted the fallacious rumors of lago. Othello was thereby powerless to lago’s lies because of his insecurities. He was also extremely ineffective in communicating with Desdemona. This lack of power and ineffectiveness in making sound judgments defines his social impotence. Although the circumstances behind Othello and Desdemona’s failure to consummate their marriage seem to point overwhelmingly toward impotency, some critics of Othello offer that the sex never occurred because of the Moor’s incapability of expressing love.
Such individuals claim that Othello’s many experiences on the battle field with suffering and death transformed him into a figure that was so absent of feeling that he could not be intimate with those around him or extend affection to those he cared about. This explanation of why Othello and Desdemona never had sex can be disproved through an analysis of Othello’s relationships with Cassio and lago. The Moor and his military colleges developed close relationships, and in many ways such affinities were quite intimate. Othello, Iago, and Cassio developed what is known as work intimacy.
Carl Koch gives the following description of work intimacy in his text book Living a Christian Lifestyle: When people share tasks that bond them together in affirming ways they experience work intimacy. Sharing responsibilities, decisions, and the satisfaction of a job well done brings people together because they can appreciate one another and feel mutual support (Koch 157). A task such as saving a nation from the arch enemy qualifies as job that would bond people together. Iago, Cassio, and Othello also seemed to affirm one another. Othello often denotes lago as “most honest”(II. iii. ) and Cassio as “good Michael”(II. iii. 6). Hence, it is not uncommon for Othello to compliment his officers. The three celebrate their victory over the Turks as a job well done. Othello appreciates the service of Cassio and lago as he often compliments their good qualities and thanks them for their duties. Therefore, a sense of work intimacy is present between Othello and lago and Cassio. As a result it is erroneous to state that Othello is incapable of being intimate because he is largely associated with work intimacy. Othello also expressed his love for Iago and Cassio during the drama.
Othello verbally professed his affection for both characters. To Cassio he says, “Cassio I love thee/ but no longer be mine officer” (II. iii. 246). To lago Othello says, “I greet thy love /not with vain thanks but with acceptance bounteous”(III. iii. 467,8). Besides these obvious oral proclamations, Othello expressed his love for Iago and Cassio by simply promoting their interests. Eve Sedwick in her book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire argues that the concepts of “‘men-loving men’ and ‘men promoting the interests of men”‘ are intrinsically bound together.
Sedwick offers that there is no definite break the in male homosocial continuum, so homosocial relationships are therefore connected to “male loving male” relationships. Othello promotes the interests of lago and Cassio, as well as the interests of all the men in Venice so he therefore expresses his love for all the men he affects. When Othello advances Cassio to be his lieutenant he is thereby promoting Cassio’s interests. When that is applied to the unbroken homosocial continuum, Othello is in affect loving Cassio.
By fighting the Turks Othello is promoting the interests of Venice, and that is an expression of his love for his people. Hence, Othello not only expresses his love for others with his words, but he also did so with his actions. Therefore, Othello must be capable of loving and expressing his love. When one correctly categorizes Othello as being capable of expressing love and sharing intimacy it is evident that the only reason why he and his wife did not consummate their marriage was impotency. Othello was impotent both sexually and socially. This hypothesis has been supported with an abundance of circumstantial and symbolic evidence.
From the circumstantial perspective we see that Othello and Desdemona loved each other. Both greatly desired to consummate their marriage, but they failed to do so on multiple occasions. Othello’s stressful military lifestyle is consistent with a major cause of impotency. After their consummation failed, Othello acted in an extremely insecure fashion which is consistent with the psychological effects of impotency. These facts, combined with the symbolism involved in Desdemona’s death, substantiate the claim that Othello’s impotency is as imperative to his character as his Moorish ancestry.