One particularly troubling aspect of Othello is how women are repeatedly called transgressors, while the actual malefactors of the play are male. Othello’s male characters are often found detailing the undesirable facets and cuckolding tendencies of women. Iago’s punning lines “She’ll find a white that shall her blackness fit,” (2.1.136) and “She never yet was foolish that was fair,/For even her folly helped her to an heir” (2.1.138-139) both serve to paint a picture of women as calculating users of men. These references are continued in this scene and in no way mention males as potentially corrupting influences or pursuers of taken women. The first four acts all have at their center the machinations of Iago: calculating, cruel, and destructive. Roderigo waits in the wings, being used himself (by Iago) but hoping to bring down Othello to claim Desdemona.
The continued action of the play paints a bleak picture for women’s lot: guilty upon suspicion and the whipping girls for the fancied slights perceived by their husbands. Act 4 presents the emotional unraveling of Othello as he grapples with suspicions of Desdemona’s lechery. Othello’s own admission of instability offers a travesty on reason: “Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction” (4.1.38-39). Here, the great man’s logic is replaced by the idea that if I feel that I have been mistreated, I have been mistreated. The absolute humiliation and perplexity of Othello continues as Iago’s dissimulation comes to a head. Asked by Cassio if he has hurt his head after he has swooned in act four (something Othello takes to be a reference to a cuckold’s shameful horns), he goes on to ask if he being made fun of. “A horned man’s a monster and a beast” (4.1.59), he says a few lines later. This line foreshadows the murder of Desdemona and is a terse commentary on the entire plot: men acting badly at the great expense of women.
The heavy irony in gender relations is almost oppressive: the fact that the men of Othello actively lament the lascivious and lying natures of women, while themselves plotting and executing lies and sexually-laden intrigues is bound to either amuse, enrage, or provoke some ambivalence in an audience. I think Shakespeare touches on some of the basic double-standards that underlie human sexual mores: a good key can open many locks, but a good lock can only be opened by very few keys. Men who have many women are just being men, but even suspicion of lax sexual conduct in women makes them whores. In the context of Othello, the jealousies, insecurities, and suspicions of men all have the greatest toll on women. None of whom do anything wrong. Emilia’s short discourse on women’s equal measure of humanity in act four is almost shouted away by the coming demise of Desdemona. “Let husbands know/ Their wives have sense like them,” (4.3.92-93) Emilia says. The impression can be taken that, though some admissions of equal human entitlement for women might be raised, the actual sum at the end of the play argues for little hope, as the emotionally led, brutish whimsy of men can wag an accusatory finger that is as good as proof.