While reading act four of Othello, I began to notice the way males question female characters’ faithfulness in a brutal and troubling way. This pattern was last seen with Claudio in the recently read comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. The glaring accusations by both Othello and Claudio are strikingly related, with the main exception being Othello acting on another level of hostility with his impassioned speech directed toward the innocent Desdemona. This supports the prevalent idea mentioned in class that comedy and tragedy are not that distant from one another. Othello and Much Ado both feature some element of warfare and are set it the Mediterranean. More importantly, villains fool prominent male characters. While Claudio and Othello fall prey to believing lies by Don John and Iago, respectively, they are dissimilar in the ferocity of their accusation in each play’s act four.
Shakespeare is unafraid of providing heart wrenching scenes of men brutally attacking wronged women. Claudio tells Leonato to “Give not this rotten orange to your friend./ She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour” (4.1.30-1). This statement and entire speech is quite alarming and harsh as it assails Hero’s honor in numerous ways, not excluding her being compared to a rotting piece of fruit. It is difficult to think that Shakespeare could heighten the level of allegation, but he is successful in Othello. During act four, scene two, Othello in a mocking manner, says to Desdemona, “I took you for that cunning whore of Venice/ That married with Othello” (lines 93-4). Desdemona is labeled a prostitute outright by her husband. Earlier, the accusatory scene features Othello telling his wife to “damn” herself and that God knows she is as “false as hell” (4.2.37 & 41). The words “damn,” “hell,” and “whore,” evoke stronger responses from the audience than Claudio’s “rotten orange” speech. While both are arresting, Shakespeare shows true ferocity with his tragedy of Othello. I suppose the accusations by the men are appropriate for the play genres in which they are found. Othello, being a tragedy, should be on the extreme end of intensity to evoke pathos, whereas Much Ado, a comedy, eventually has resolution. If Claudio’s words were replaced by Othello’s speech, I doubt Much Ado could ever end in regeneration.
The physicality of the two acts four are vastly different. In Othello, the Moor cannot contain himself from the bubbling anger he feels towards his wife and Cassio. Here the audience sees Othello reach a new limit of fierceness.
OTHELLO [to DESDEMONA]: I am glad to see you mad.
DESDEMONA: Why, sweet Othello!
OTHELLO: Devil! [He strikes her] (4.1.234-5).
The physical abuse described here is a conspicuous example of how Othello outdoes Claudio with his anger towards his love. The striking of his wife is a severely uncomfortable part of the play that signifies how altered Othello has truly become. Claudio’s verbal attack on Hero ends with him leaving her on the floor. She only fainted at the claims made by her beloved and was not attacked by him. This seemed like a harsh moment, but after reading Othello act four, it appears merciful.
The actual questioning of both men towards the women is similar. We see Claudio address Hero at the church with “Know you any, Hero?” after the Friar questions if either knows why they should not be married (4.1.13). Claudio wants to get Hero to state the “inward impediment” of disloyalty that he thinks she has (4.1.11). Similarly, Othello says to Desdemona, “Why, what art thou?” when harassing her and getting her to admit that she has been false with Cassio (4.2.35). In Shakespeare’s time, the idea of a woman “cuckolding” her husband was thought immensely despicable. These two instances reveal the paranoia of men in regards to their women being faithful or not.
Shakespeare reveals two examples of men inquiring after a female’s faithfulness with the tragedy of Othello and the comedy of Much Ado About Nothing. It is interesting to note how he uses a more severe tone for the questioning and speeches in tragedy compared to comedy.