Purity and impurity

Bawdy and bestial

We first learn of the marriage of Othello and Desdemona from the conversation between Iago and Roderigo, as they plan to inform Brabantio of his daughter’s elopement. Iago seems to take delight in describing the marriage in bawdy and sexual terms:
‘Even now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe.’    

‘you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse;’

‘your daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs.’ (Act 1 Scene 1)
This crude account of the act of love is distasteful and clearly shows Iago’s cynical and bestial attitude to the marriage and sexual love in general. 
There is a marked contrast between Iago’s attitude and that of Cassio towards Desdemona in Act 2 Scene 3:

Cassio She’s a most exquisite lady.
Iago   And I’ll warrant her full of game.
Cassio Indeed, she’s a most fresh and delicate creature.
Iago   What an eye she has! Methinks it sounds a parley to
      to provocation.      
Iago is trying to lead Cassio into being indiscreet about his commanding officer’s wife, describing her only in terms of sexual conquest, whilst Cassio is full of praise for her beauty and goodness. Later, when Iago insinuates to Othello that Desdemona is not as innocent as she seems, he increases his master’s violent jealousy by focusing on the bestial nature of her supposed unfaithfulness: ‘Foul disproportions, thoughts unnatural!’ (Act 3 Scene3). He goes on to depict the behaviour of the two adulterous lovers as ‘prime as goats, as hot as monkeys.’ 
In Act 4 Scene 1 Iago twists the knife by talking of ‘the bed she hath contaminated.’ This provokes Othello to speak of his love as a ‘fountain’ which has dried up or become ‘a cistern for foul toads / To knot and gender in.’ (Act 4 Scene 2) When he is convinced that Desdemona has to die, he summarises her punishment in these words: ‘Thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust’s blood be spotted.’ He can only think in terms of contaminated sexual union. All memory of their words of love to each other has disappeared.

The purity of innocence

The tragedy of Desdemona’s death is heightened by the way in which the language of the play stresses her essential purity of heart. From the start of Othello, the marriage between Desdemona and Othello is shown as a true romance. Othello describes their relationship: ‘She loved me for the dangers I had passed / And I loved her that she did pity them.’ (Act 1 Scene 3) 
Desdemona is the epitome of innocent love. Following her heart to marry where she truly loves, there is never any idea that she would be unfaithful – indeed, she can hardly contemplate the idea that other women might cheat on their husbands:
DES:  Dost thou in conscience think, tell me, Emilia,    
That there be women do abuse their husbands
In such gross kind?   
EMIL:        There be some such, no question.
DES:  Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?
EMIL: Why, would not you?
DES:         No, by this heavenly light!
(Act 4 Scene 3)     
Even under the extreme pressure Othello subjects her to, she loyally protests that she is ‘Your wife, my lord, your true and loyal wife.’ Desdemona therefore stands as a direct contrast to the world-weary cynicism of Iago, which has tainted even his wife, Emilia. 
Yet Emilia finds something attractive in Desdemona’s integrity, something she wants to uphold when it seems to be submerged by the slurs laid upon her. In the last scene of the play, the terms Emilia uses to describe her mistress are associated with light (‘angel’, ‘heavenly’), goodness (‘sweetest’, ‘innocent’, ‘good’) and fidelity (‘she was chaste; she lov’d thee,’). Shakespeare heightens the tension between good and evil by characterising one with pure, even holy, expressions of love and loyalty, and the other with the base, unholy and corrupt concepts of human physicality.
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