What judgments does Iago pass on women in his conversation with Desdemona and Emilia? What is the purpose of his statements?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When Iago talks with Desdemona and Emilia in Act II, Scene 1 of Othello, he expresses his view that women are deceiving and hypocritical.

In this scene, Iago observes his wife, Emilia, being kissed by Cassio, and this seems to ignite his criticism of women. While Cassio excuses his "bold show of courtesy" to Emilia by saying that it is a custom where he comes from, the kiss contributes to Iago's jealousy and resentment toward Cassio.

Then, in his conversation with Emilia and Desdemona, Iago expresses his view that women are hypocritical, telling them that they are "pictures out of doors" but "wildcats in your kitchens" (2.1.110). That is, they act as though they are sweet in public, but in private they are argumentative and unruly. Iago adds that women act as though they are only being nice when they hurt others, but when others hurt them, they become "devils" and are hateful. Then, Iago adds, "You rise to play, and go to bed to work" (2.1.115). In other words, women are lax in matters of housework but shameless in bed.

While the purpose of Iago's accusations is not immediately apparent, his remarks about the women in this act foreshadow his later punishment of them. Iago's insults also reveal his duplicity; although on the surface they might seem teasing, there are serious overtones to his words.

mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Othello Act II, Iago uses verbal irony to reveal his misogynistic attitude toward women:

Come on, come on; you are pictures out of doors,
Bells in your parlors, wild-cats in your kitchens,
Saints m your injuries, devils being offended,
Players in your housewifery, and housewives' in your beds.

AND

You rise to play and go to bed to work.

It is clear that Iago relishes his male reputation, as it affords him the voice to make such damning statements about women in front of women.  They cannot retaliate, only laugh it off.

The Elizabethan culture was overtly sexist, full of double standards.  Men could talk; women were to remain quiet.  Men were educated; women were not.  Men could have affairs; women were to remain virgins.  So, Iago is saying that women are deceivers: they only toy with men, pretending to be domestic housewives ("rise to play"), but really all they want it sex ("go to bed to work").

In this way, Iago characterizes these otherwise pure women as common prostitutes, even in marriage.  The irony, of course, is that Iago is the deceiver who will have these two women murdered in a bed by the play's end.