Othello: Sexual Disfunction

Table of Content

Othello, a remarkable character in Shakespeare’s plays, achieved unparalleled success as a general in warfare and gained the prestigious position of one of Venice’s most skilled generals. His exceptional military abilities set him apart, along with his ethnic background from the Venetians. These two distinct qualities define Othello. However, rarely discussed is an aspect of the Moor – his sexual dysfunction or impotence. The play presents ample evidence indicating that Othello was impotent in both his personal and societal relationships.

Othello’s inability to have sexual relations with Desdemona prevented their marriage from being fully realized, leading to powerlessness in his relationships with his wife and friends. This sexual dysfunction had a significant impact on the events of the play, surpassing even Othello’s military might and Moorish heritage. Throughout the play, there are indications that Othello and Desdemona never consummated their marriage. After killing his wife, Othello mentioned her chastity, raising doubts about what occurred in their bedroom.

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By calling Desdemona chaste, Othello revealed that he and his wife had never had sexual intercourse. Other passages in the play confirm this. When Othello and Desdemona arrived in Cyprus, he invited her to their room for the second time, saying, “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). These lines reveal that they did not have sex on their wedding night in Venice. The word “purchase” means Othello acquiring Desdemona through their wedding, and the phrase “fruits are to ensue” symbolizes the sexual pleasure that was expected on their wedding night in Cyprus. Line 10 confirms that this pleasure or “profit” is still to come, meaning their only other night together – their wedding night – did not include such pleasures.

Othello and Desdemona’s second evening together resulted in no actual fruits. Right after they went to bed with the intention to consummate their marriage, Othello heard shouts of a fight and decided to leave the bed and check out the situation. lago, Rodrigo, and Montano did not come into the room to call Othello to restore order; he did it voluntarily. Therefore, it appears that nothing was happening in the bedroom to keep his attention.

After Othello restored order, Desdemona entered the street to inquire about the events. Othello was surprised to see her and exclaimed, “look if my gentle love be not raised up” (II. iii. 248). “Raised up” is often used to mean awakened. If Desdemona was sleeping, it means that she and Othello did not have sexual intercourse. Therefore, on their first evening in Cyprus, their marriage was not consummated. Othello and Desdemona never made love; they never collected the “profits”.

Both Othello and his wife desired sexual intercourse despite not engaging in it. Their love for each other was deep and evident in their defiant decision to marry. Desdemona faced opposition from her father but chose to leave her family for Othello. They openly expressed their love, with Othello stating that Desdemona loved him for the dangers he had faced, and he loved her for pitying them. Desdemona herself declared her love for Othello, saying she loved him enough to live with him. Their profound mutual love led to a strong desire to consummate their marriage. After appearing before the Duke, Othello had only an hour before leaving for Cyprus.

Desdemona and Othello eagerly awaited their wedding night. Othello urged Desdemona to hurry, expressing his desire to spend time with her in love and worldly matters. They were both eager for the “hour of love”. When they were reunited in Cyprus, Desdemona enthusiastically kissed Othello, showing her sexual desire for him. These details demonstrate the deep and genuine love between Othello and Desdemona, as well as their strong desire to engage in sexual intercourse. However, something prevented them from being intimate on two separate occasions. This circumstance was impotency.

In order to argue that Othello was impotent, his symptoms must be consistent with the causes of impotence. The National Kidney and Urologic Disease Information Clearinghouse (NIDDK) explains that 10-20% of impotence cases are due to psychological factors such as stress, anxiety, guilt, depression, low self-esteem, and fear of sexual failure. According to the NIDDK website, these factors account for over 80% of all impotence cases.

The primary connection between Othello’s life and these factors is stress. Othello faced various stressors in his life, including the duty of defeating the Turks, Desdemona’s disapproving father, and the challenge of being black in a predominantly white society. The weight of the responsibility to lead a vital mission against the Turks must have been unimaginable. Venice’s destiny hinged on Othello’s success; failure was not an option. Furthermore, Othello also grappled with the challenges of being distinct from his peers.

Racism was a recurring issue for the black Moor, causing significant stress. According to Elliott Butler-Evans in his essay “Haply, for JAm Black”: Othello and the Semiotics of Race and Otherness, there are clear indications of Othello being associated with the negative connotations of blackness. In this culture, black is seen as a symbol of degeneracy and damnation (Butler-Evans 146).

A notable instance of Othello’s categorization as undesirable occurs in Act I when Barbantio refers to Othello’s “sooty bosom” (I. iii. 69) and links the Moor with Pagan Witchcraft. Through Barbantio’s speech opposing the marriage, it becomes evident that Othello is negatively labeled purely based on his ethnicity. Barbantio argues that his daughter could never feel attraction towards “such a thing as thou” (I. iii. 70), thus concluding that their union must have been influenced by the supernatural abilities possessed by the once-Pagan Moor.

Being called a witch and dehumanized as a “thing” was incredibly stressful for Othello, to say the least. These insults had the potential to severely damage his self-esteem. Considering the definition of impotence, the pressure from Othello’s military position and being deemed “undesirable” could have resulted in anxiety and stress, ultimately leading to impotence. The challenges faced by Desdemona and Othello in consummating their marriage, along with Othello’s high-stress lifestyle, all contribute to the belief that he was impotent.

Symbolic evidence suggests that Othello’s choice to suffocate Desdemona carries metaphorical significance. In the play, characters like lago, Emilia, and Othello typically meet their end through stabbing. Nevertheless, Othello opts for a distinct method when committing his act of murder. It is important to acknowledge that Desdemona stands alone in Act V as the sole character who does not perish by a sword. This detail highlights Othello’s powerlessness as he decides to employ suffocation instead.

Othello’s struggle to lift his knife to harm Desdemona mirrored his inability to achieve arousal, as the knife served as a widely recognized phallic symbol. The implications of Desdemona’s murder combined with the challenges faced during their attempts to consummate their marriage allude to Othello’s sexual dysfunction. This issue extended beyond mere sexual hindrance and significantly impacted his interpersonal relationships.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “impotent” as lacking the power or ability to accomplish anything, resulting in powerlessness, helplessness, and ineffectiveness. In Othello’s relationships with his spouse and friends after failing to consummate his marriage in both Venice and Cyprus, he experiences impotence. It is only natural that such a sexual dysfunction would impact various aspects of Othello’s life.

According to Impotence On-Line, men often feel they have “failed” due to their inability to perform sexually. This leads to feelings of inhibition, low self-esteem, and self-condemnation. The inability to achieve or maintain an erection can become a constant source of unhappiness (CEI.net).

Othello’s impotence would inevitably give rise to insecurities and diminished self-esteem due to his strong masculine image as a successful military figure. Being an exceptionally formidable war hero who consistently achieved his military objectives, Othello would naturally question his formerly unquestioned manhood because of his impotence.

It is reasonable to suggest that Othello’s insecurity stemmed from his impotence, which aligns with the earlier psychological analysis. His sexual inadequacy led to profound vulnerabilities, rendering him nearly helpless in his interactions with lago and Desdemona. While lago’s evidence, including the handkerchief and Cassio’s dream, was purely circumstantial, Othello readily accepted them as proof.

Desdemona, according to Othello, was already presumed guilty before any conversation took place. Even before speaking to his wife, Othello expressed his thoughts: “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 labeling Desdemona as “gone,” Othello suggests that his wife has strayed from her once professed faithfulness.

A possible explanation for why Othello readily accepts Iago’s accusations is his own insecurity about his masculinity. Because he believes he cannot satisfy Desdemona’s sexual desires, he assumes it is more likely that she would seek fulfillment from someone else. Othello acknowledges that he cannot fulfill Desdemona’s “appetites” himself, but fears that she could be used by others for their own purposes. This implies that Othello is aware of his sexual inadequacies and worries that Desdemona will turn to others to satisfy her sexual needs.

If the relationship between the Moor and Desdemona had been satisfying in a sexual manner, then Desdemona would have had no reason to stray into Cassio’s bed. However, since this was not the case, Othello attributed their lack of sexual intimacy (which was his fault) as the reason for Desdemona’s inclination towards infidelity. Only an insecure Othello would have been swayed by lago’s deceptions. A self-assured Othello would have dismissed lago’s accusations, as he would have strongly doubted Desdemona’s motivations and reserved his judgment. Instead, Othello felt ashamed of his own unsuccessful masculinity and found a potential motive for his wife’s alleged adultery.

Othello’s susceptibility to false rumors, spread by Iago, stemmed from his self-consciousness and insecurities. This hindered his ability to discern the truth. Moreover, Othello’s ineffective communication with Desdemona revealed his lack of authority and inability to make wise decisions. Critics argue that the failure of their marriage consummation further illustrates Othello’s social impotence, possibly linked to his struggles in expressing love.

There is a belief that Othello’s time on the battlefield, where he witnessed suffering and death, led to him becoming emotionally distant and unable to form close relationships with loved ones like Desdemona. However, this perspective can be contested by looking at Othello’s connections with Cassio and Iago. The Moor and his companions formed strong bonds that can be seen as intimate in different ways. Othello, Iago, and Cassio had a special kind of closeness known as work intimacy.

According to Carl Koch’s textbook Living a Christian Lifestyle, work intimacy occurs when people share tasks that create a bond and mutual support. Sharing responsibilities, making decisions together, and feeling satisfaction from a job well done brings people closer together. For example, saving a nation from an enemy is a task that would create this kind of bond. In the play Othello, characters Iago, Cassio, and Othello also affirm each other. Othello frequently refers to Iago as “most honest” and Cassio as “good Michael.” This shows that it is not uncommon for Othello to praise his officers. The three characters celebrate their victory over the Turks together and Othello appreciates the service of Cassio and Iago, frequently complimenting their qualities and thanking them for their duties. This demonstrates a sense of work intimacy between Othello and both Iago and Cassio. Therefore, it would be incorrect to say that Othello cannot be intimate because he is clearly associated with work intimacy. Additionally, Othello also expresses his love for Iago and Cassio during the course of the drama.

Othello professed his love for both Cassio and lago, expressing it verbally and through actions. To Cassio, he said “Cassio I love thee/ but no longer be mine officer” (II. iii. 246), while to lago he said “I greet thy love /not with vain thanks but with acceptance bounteous” (III. iii. 467,8). Othello also promoted the interests of both men as a way to show his affection for them. Eve Sedwick argues in her book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire that the ideas of “men-loving men” and “men promoting the interests of men” are inseparable.

According to Sedwick, there is no clear separation between the male homosocial continuum and “male loving male” relationships. Othello supports the interests of both lago and Cassio, as well as all the other men in Venice, showing his love for all the men he affects. By promoting Cassio to the position of his lieutenant, Othello is also advancing Cassio’s interests. In the context of the unbroken homosocial continuum, this can be seen as Othello expressing his love for Cassio.

Othello’s dedication to Venice and love for his people is evident through his engagement in battle against the Turks, demonstrating both his words and actions. Therefore, it can be concluded that Othello possesses the ability to express and feel love. Analyzing Othello’s capacity to convey affection and establish intimacy reveals that his unconsummated marriage with Desdemona was a result of his impotence, affecting him both sexually and socially. This idea is supported by significant circumstantial evidence as well as symbolic evidence.

There is clear evidence from the circumstances that Othello and Desdemona were deeply in love. They both had a strong desire to consummate their marriage, but faced multiple failures in doing so. Othello’s demanding military lifestyle played a significant role in his impotency. Additionally, Othello became extremely insecure after their failed attempts at consummation, which aligns with the psychological effects often associated with impotency. These facts, combined with the symbolic significance of Desdemona’s death, provide compelling evidence to support the argument that Othello’s impotency is just as important to his character as his Moorish ancestry.

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Othello: Sexual Disfunction. (2017, Apr 08). Retrieved from


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