ABSTRACT

In response to Cassio’s apology for his “bold show of courtesy” in greeting Iago’s wife with a kiss, Othello’s villain reflexively links unauthorized kisses not only with the bedroom, but with the curtain lecture—the wife’s chiding of her husband in bed while he tries to sleep: “Sir, would she give you so much of her lips / As of her tongue she oft bestows on me,” Iago tells Cassio, “you would have had enough … / I find it still when I have list to sleep” (Othello II.i.102–7). 1 When Emilia defends herself against the charge (“You have little cause to say so”), Iago summarily rests his case by defining all women as two-faced performers: “pictures out of doors [and] wildcats in your kitchens … Players in your huswifery, and huswives in your beds [,] You rise to play, and go to bed to work” (111–17). Iago’s allusions to “bedwork” and the “bestowal” of lips and tongue casually merge lusty female sexuality with the equally lusty performance of a curtain lecture, an oral performance already attributed exclusively to women for centuries. In this, he follows a firmly established literary tradition. From the second century to the nineteenth, descriptions of the curtain lecture wife depict her incessantly talking—catechizing her husband about his activities and accusing him of infidelity to cloak her own sexual indiscretions. Reviewing the fictions of the curtain lecture wife in literary texts and examining them as they recrudesce in Othello reveals the curtain lecture to be an integral image that, on the one hand, reinforces the argument Iago pours into Othello’s ear and, on the other, effects the unraveling of that argument.