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Men Beware Men: Shakespeare's Warnings for Unfair Husbands Ruth Vanita There is a strange moment in Othello when lago seems to step out of the play and make a general comment on the basis of the play's action about male-female relations in actual life. Worked up to a pitch of jealous hysteria, Othello has fallen into a fainting fit. lago stands over his prostrate body, prefiguring the spectacle at the play's end. lago now speaks in what could be termed a soliloquy but is clearly a comment addressed to the audience: Thus credulous fools are caught, And many worthy and chaste dames even thus (All guiltless) meet reproach. (IV.i.45^16)1 These lines have received scant critical attention, but they are remarkable in their departure from dramatic convention. Not only do they (through the use of the plural) project the tragic hero as ordinary rather than unique; more importantly, they also reduce his status by deflecting audience attention from his visible suffering to the widespread and less visible sufferings of women. The lines seem somewhat out of character for lago, who almost always speaks of women in misogynist and cynical terms. To characterize a woman, or indeed anyone at all, in unqualified positive terms ("worthy," "chaste," "guiltless") is very unlike him. To say that there are "many" such women in existence seems scarcely consonant with the world view he routinely expresses . lago here seems to act as a choric commentator, issuing a warning to the audience. But which section of the audience is being warned, and against what? Surely those men like Othello, and like the numerous other jealous husbands in ElizabethanJacobean drama who believe slander purveyed against their 201 202Comparative Drama wives by other men. lago warns men in the audience against their foolish propensity to believe male innuendo against women. Othello is, among other things, a domestic tragedy, and domestic tragedies, as Keith Sturgess puts it, "belong with the popular kind of didactic material known as 'warning' literature. . . . A domestic tragedy teaches a simple moral lesson."2 The kind of lesson such plays normally sought to teach is indicated by their titles: Women Beware Women, A Warning to Fair Women, A Woman Killed with Kindness. In most of these tragedies, a woman is unfaithful to her husband; in some she even murders him; often she is led astray by a woman friend who plays the bawd. Othello too can be read as, among other things, a "warning" play, as perhaps the most powerful salvo fired in the debate that raged in the theater of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries around the question of the unfaithful wife. That there was a debate and a range of divergent opinions rather than just one set of "Elizabethan" or "Jacobean" notions is suggested not only by the evidence of the plays but also by the tentative tone of the dramatist's direct addresses to the audience.3 For example, the Epilogue to A Woman Killed with Kindness compares this play to wine about which five patrons of a tavern had five different opinions, and concludes: "Excuse us then; good wine may be disgrac'd/ When every several mouth hath sundry taste."4 Is a man justified in killing the wife suspected of—and apparently convicted of—infidelity? Can infidelity be established beyond doubt? What kind of evidence should a man accept? Should he trust his own and/or his male friends' judgment? Is a tendency to infidelity innate in woman's nature? These and related questions are raised repeatedly, almost obsessively, in many plays of the time. Nancy Cotton Pearse has demonstrated that these plays (which she terms "chastity plays") had evolved certain dramatic conventions of plot, characterization and imagery.5 One effect of such conventions would be that the audience could anticipate each event and each character's next move. Variations on the convention assume significance insofar as they have a surprise effect and establish a questioning of the assumptions on which the convention is based. The two major patterns were: 1 . The chaste woman is falsely suspected by her betrothed or husband and is put through a chastity test which she trium...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 201-220
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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