Critical Essays Major Themes
Explore the different themes within William Shakespeare’s tragic play, Othello.
Themes are central to understanding Othello as a play and identifying Shakespeare’s social and political commentary. In Othello, the major themes reflect the values and the motivations of characters.
In Othello, love is a force that overcomes large obstacles and is tripped up by small ones. It is eternal, yet derail-able. It provides Othello with intensity but not direction and gives Desdemona access to his heart but not his mind. Types of love and what that means are different between different characters.
Othello finds that love in marriage needs time to build trust, and his enemy works too quickly for him to take that time. The immediate attraction between the couple works on passion, and Desdemona builds on that passion a steadfast devotion whose speed and strength Othello cannot equal.
Iago often falsely professes love in friendship for Roderigo and Cassio and betrays them both. For Iago, love is leverage. Desdemona’s love in friendship for Cassio is real but is misinterpreted by the jealous Othello as adulterous love. The true friendship was Emilia’s for Desdemona, shown when she stood up witness for the honor of her dead mistress, against Iago, her lying husband, and was killed for it.
Appearance and Reality
Appearance and reality are important aspects in Othello. For Othello, seeing is believing, and proof of the truth is visual. To “prove” something is to investigate it to the point where its true nature is revealed. Othello demands of Iago “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore, be sure of it, give me the ocular proof” (Act 3, Scene 3).
What Iago gives him instead is imaginary pictures of Cassio and Desdemona to feed his jealousy. As Othello loses control of his mind, these pictures dominate his thoughts. He looks at Desdemona’s whiteness and is swept up in the traditional symbolism of white for purity and black for evil. Whenever he is in doubt, that symbolism returns to haunt him and despite his experience, he cannot help but believe it.
Appearance vs. Reality 2
Especially relevant to the issue of Iago’s character; for although he is called “honest” by almost everyone in the play, he is treacherous, deceitful, and manipulative. This also applies to Desdemona, as Othello believes that she is deceitful and impure, although she is really blameless and innocent. This theme contributes greatly to the tragedy, as Iago is able to engineer his schemes due to the perception of others of his honesty. Othello’s decision to murder his wife is hastened by a conversation in which Cassio speaks of Bianca; Othello assumes the man is talking about an affair with Desdemona.
Misrepresentation allows Iago to gain trust and manipulate other people; he is able to appear to be “honest,” in order to deceive and misdirect people. Although the word “honest” is usually used in an ironic way throughout the text, most characters in the play go through a crisis of learning who and who not to trust. Most of them, unfortunately, trust in Iago’s honesty; this leads to the downfall of many characters, as this trust in Iago’s “honesty” became a crucial contributor to their undoing. Discovering or uncovering reality would have changed the course of the play.
Jealousy is what appears to destroy Othello. It is the emotion suggested to him by Iago in Act 3, Scene 3. Iago thinks he knows jealousy, having rehearsed it in his relationship with Emilia to the extent that Emilia believes jealousy is part of the personality of men, but Iago’s jealously is a poor, weak thought compared to the storm of jealousy he stirs up in Othello.
Iago has noticed Othello’s tendency to insecurity and overreaction, but not even Iago imagined Othello would go as far into jealousy as he did. Jealousy forces Othello’s mind so tightly on one idea, the idea that Desdemona has betrayed him with Cassio, that no other assurance or explanation can penetrate. Such an obsession eclipses Othello’s reason, his common sense, and his respect for justice.
Up to the moment he kills Desdemona, Othello’s growing jealousy maddens him past the recall of reason. Upon seeing that she was innocent and that he killed her unjustly, Othello recovers. He can again see his life in proportion and grieve at the terrible thing he has done. Once again, he speaks with calm rationality, judging and condemning and finally executing himself.
Race is an extremely important theme, as it leads to Othello’s insecurity, which Iago is able to manipulate. Despite his standing and military prowess, Othello never feels comfortable in Venice because of his otherness. As a Moor, he is constantly stereotyped as “savage” or “animal”, even though he speaks eloquently and displays more gentlemanly qualities than those who judge him. Thus, Othello perceives himself to be a rough outsider, though he is nothing of the sort. Othello’s race sets him apart, and makes him very self-conscious; it makes him work hard and look carefully after his reputation, so he is regarded as equal to the white people that surround him. This has perhaps led to his success, but the prejudice that surrounds him – especially with respect to his marriage to Desdemona – has tragic consequences
Iago’s scheme would not have worked without the underlying atmosphere of racial prejudice in Venetian society, a prejudice of which both Desdemona and Othello are very aware. Shakespeare’s Desdemona copes with prejudice by denying it access to her own life. Her relationship with Othello is one of love, and she is deliberately loyal only to her marriage.
Othello, however, is not aware how deeply prejudice has penetrated into his own personality. This absorbed prejudice undermines him with thoughts akin to “I am not attractive,” “I am not worthy of Desdemona,” “It cannot be true that she really loves me,” and “If she loves me, then there must be something wrong with her.”
These thoughts, inflamed by Iago’s hints and lies, prevent Othello from discussing his concerns and fears directly with Desdemona, and so he acts on panicked assumption. In order to survive the combined onslaught of internalized prejudice and the directed venom of Iago, Othello would have had to be near perfect in strength and self-knowledge, and that is not fair demand for anyone.
Othello is defensively proud of himself and his achievements, and especially proud of the honorable appearance he presents. The allegations of Desdemona’s affair hurt his pride even more than they inflame his vanity and jealousy; he wants to appear powerful, accomplished, and moral at every possible instance, and when this is almost denied to him, his wounded pride becomes especially powerful.
Othello is charged with using magic to woo Desdemona, merely because he is black, and therefore, “pagan.” Yet, Othello does have real magic, in the words he uses and the stories he tells. Magic also reappears when Desdemona’s handkerchief cannot be found; Othello has too much trust in the symbolism and charm of the handkerchief, which is why the object is so significant to him.
Order vs. chaos
As Othello begins to abandon reason and language, chaos takes over. His world begins to be ruled by chaotic emotions and very shady allegations, with order pushed to the side. This chaos rushes him into tragedy, and once Othello has sunk into it, he is unable to stop his fate from taking him over.
Othello’s lack of self-knowledge makes him easy prey for Iago. Once Iago inflames Othello’s jealousy and sets the darker aspects of Othello’s nature in motion, there is nothing Othello can do to stop it, since he cannot even admit that he has these darker traits. Even after he has murdered his wife, and has learned that Iago set a trap for him, Othello is unable to acknowledge the character flaws that were manipulated. He asserts he is “honorable” even in murder. This theme is related to pride, as Othello’s pride blinds him to his weaknesses, precipitating his downfall.
Good vs. Evil
Iago’s battle against Othello and Cassio certainly counts as an embodiment of this theme. Iago and his evil battle to corrupt and turn the flawed natures of other characters, and he does succeed to some extent. By the end of the play, neither has won, as Desdemona and Emilia are both dead, and Iago revealed and punished. Othello is a tragic character, but one that is neither good nor evil. His flaws are easily manipulated, and he is unable to see the truth while blinded by pride. He is a good soldier and a good man, but this good is twisted and he commits an evil act.
Desdemona is the embodiment of goodness in the play, as she has done no wrong and seeks only to love and to help her friends. However, she resigns herself to her death out of this goodness. The ruin of innocence is a key ingredient to tragedy, but one could interpret that Desdemona did not have to suffer her fate. Othello represents a grey area between good and evil, where self-interest clouds even the best intentions, and people on both sides end up dead.
Iago / Othello
Although its title suggests that the tragedy belongs primarily to Othello, Iago plays an important role in the plot. He reflects the archetypal villain, and has the biggest share of the dialogue. In Othello, it is Iago who manipulates all other characters at will, controlling their movements and trapping them in an intricate net of lies. He achieves this by getting close to all characters and playing on their weaknesses while they refer to him as “honest” Iago, thus furthering his control over the characters. A. C. Bradley, and more recently Harold Bloom, have been major advocates of this interpretation. Other critics, most notably in the later twentieth century (after F. R. Leavis), have focused on Othello.
As the Protestant Reformation of England proclaimed the importance of pious, controlled behaviour in society, it was the tendency of the contemporary Englishman to displace society’s “undesirable” qualities of barbarism, treachery, jealousy and libidinousness onto those who are considered ‘other’. The assumed characteristics of black men, or ‘the other’, were both instigated and popularised by Renaissance dramas of the time; for example, the treachery of black men inherent to George Peele’s ‘The Battle of Alcazar’ (1588).
Religious / Philosophical
Many critics have noted references to demonic possession throughout the play, especially in relation to Othello’s seizure, a phenomenon often associated with possession in the popular consciousness of the day. Another scholar suggests that the epileptic fit relates to the mind-body problem and the existence of the soul.
There have been many differing views on the character of Othello over the years. A.C. Bradley calls Othello the “most romantic of all of Shakespeare’s heroes” (by “hero” Bradley means protagonist) and “the greatest poet of them all”. On the other hand, F.R. Leavis describes Othello as “egotistical”. There are those who also take a less critical approach to the character of Othello such as William Hazlitt, who said: “the nature of the Moor is noble… but his blood is of the most inflammable kind”.