Themes of Othello
The incompatibility of military heroism and love; the danger of isolation- Othello is the perfect soldier, but his directness means he is unable to understand the subtleties of political life and affairs of the heart. Jealousy
Jealousy 1: The play opens with a discussion of jealousy. Iago is upset because Othello selected Michael Cassio as his lieutenant. He is jealous of Cassio’s position both in the military and with Othello’s service. This initial jealousy is the catalyst for the play’s sequential plot of mixed jealousy and destruction.
Jealousy 2: Brabantio is partially jealous of the Moor for stealing his daughter’s love. He no longer may be the most important man in Desdemona’s life. Jealousy 3: The lovesick Roderigo has trouble with his hidden feelings for Desdemona and is jealous watching the two in love.. Jealousy 4: Iago openly divulges his plan of destruction, which incorporates jealousy as the key factor.
He intends to create a strong sense of jealousy in Othello by setting up the mirage of an affair between Desdemona and Cassio.
Jealousy 5: Iago plants seeds of jealousy in Othello and then speaks of the ‘green-eyed monster’ as a force to be feared. Jealousy is personified as a monster. Jealousy 6: As the play concludes, all causes of jealousy are proved false. Desdemona was never unfaithful, but Othello realizes the truth too late. Jealousy is the source of pain and death for these tragic characters; the green-eyed monster has succeeded in killing them.
Revenge 1: Iago’s plot against Othello is partially motivated by revenge. He feels wronged because he was not made lieutenant. He is bitter and upset and wants to hurt Othello and destroy his world. Revenge 2: Brabantio craves revenge for the loss of his daughter. He takes revenge by bringing Othello before the Duke to request his imprisonment. Revenge 3: Iago develops his elaborate plot of revenge. He will implant a false sense of jealousy in Othello, thereupon destroying Othello’s relationship with Desdemona. Revenge 4: Again, Iago explains his plot. He is describing his plan of action as a web in which he will catch a fly. The intricate deception all comes down to revenge. Revenge 5: Emilia and Desdemona touch upon the theme of revenge lightly in this eloquent discussion. They discuss the necessary actions to take when husbands and wives are unfaithful…perhaps revenge is the appropriate course of action.
Revenge 6: Othello ponders his decision to kill Desdemona, partially motivated by revenge. He believes himself to be cuckolded by Desdemona and must defend his honour. At the same time, he feels that he must defend mankind and all other men from a woman who would betray her husband so. He ultimately decides that he must end her life. In Othello, Shakespeare explores factors that play an important role in the formations of one’s identity – race, gender, social status, family relationships, military service, etc. Othello is also concerned with how an individual’s sense of identity (which can break down and be manipulated by others) shapes his or her actions.
Questions About Identity
1.Does Othello’s identity transform over the course of the play? What about Desdemona’s? 2.How does Othello and Desdemona’s relationship impact each of the characters’ identities? 3.Why does Cassio lament that he’s lost his “reputation”?
4.Do we ever get a chance to see the real Iago? Why or why not? 5.The contrast between what is reality and the appearance of something is also used by Shakespeare. There are many references to it, with Iago saying that ‘Men should be what they seem’ (and Iago is clearly not what he seems), to Othello asking for ‘ocular proof’ or proof that he can see. Of course, what Othello actually sees isn’t what he thinks it is. So when he sees and hears Cassio talking about Desdemona, Cassio is actually talking about another woman.
6.Othello also believes the story about Cassio wiping his beard on the valuable handkerchief. The only ‘proof’ is Iago’s word, which is a lie. Othello is fooled in other ways too – he hears a scream and then assumes Cassio is dead, but he is only injured. However, the most important difference between reality and appearance is that Othello continues to think that Iago is of ‘exceeding honesty’, but everyone in the audience knows this isn’t the case.
Othello is one of the first black heroes in English literature. A military general, he has risen to a position of power and influence. At the same time, however, his status as a black-skinned foreigner in Venice marks him as an outside and exposes him to some pretty overt racism, especially by his wife’s father, who believes his daughter’s interracial marriage can only be the result of Othello’s trickery. Because the play portrays fears of miscegenation (the intermixing of races via marriage and/or sex), it’s nearly impossible to talk about race in Othello without also discussing gender and sexuality.
Questions About Race
1.Which characters in the play make an issue of Othello’s race? What kinds of stereotypes are at work in this play? 2.How does Othello’s race affect his relationships to his wife and to other characters? 3.How does Othello’s race play a role in the hero’s self-identity?
Othello Theme of Gender
Gender relations are pretty antagonistic in Othello. Unmarried women are regarded as their fathers’ property and the play’s two marriages are marked by male jealousy and cruelty (both wives are murdered by their own husbands). Most male characters in Othello assume that all Venetian women are inherently promiscuous, which explains why female sexuality is a huge threat to men in the play. Othello is easily convinced his wife is cheating on him and feels emasculated and humiliated as a result.
Shakespeare’s play explores some common sixteenth century anxieties about miscegenation (interracial sex and marriage) by examining the relationship between a black man who marries a white woman, accuses her of being unfaithful, and then strangles her on her wedding sheets. In Othello, most male characters assume that women are inherently promiscuous, which explains why all three women characters in the play are accused of sexual infidelity. It also explains, in part, why it’s possible for Iago to so easily manipulate Othello into believing his wife is having an affair. Othello is also notable for its portrayal of homoerotic desire, which seems to be a factor in Iago’s plot to destroy Othello and Desdemona.
Questions About Sex
1.Why does Brabantio object to Desdemona’s marriage to Othello? 2.How does Iago describe Othello’s sexual relationship with Desdemona? How does Iago’s attitude about race factor into his description of Othello and Desdemona’s lovemaking? 3.Is there any textual evidence of homoerotic desire in Othello? 4.What is the role of Bianca, a Venetian courtesan and one of the play’s three female characters?
We should also note that it’s impossible to discuss gender and sexuality without considering race – several characters in the play, including Othello, believe that black men sexually contaminate white women, which may partially explain why Othello sees his wife as soiled. Questions About Gender
1.What kinds of assumptions do male characters make about women? How do male characters view female sexuality in the play? 2.Do male characters ever feel emasculated? If so, when? What triggers such feelings? 3.When Iago tells Brabantio that Othello has eloped with his daughter, why does he call Othello a “thief”? What kinds of assumptions about daughters are being made here? 4.Why does Desdemona want to go to war with Othello?
TURNING POINT • The climax occurs at the end of Act III, scene iii, when Othello kneels with Iago and vows not to change course until he has achieved bloody revenge. Iago’s planting of the seed has reached fruition and our ‘hero’ is convinced that Desdemona is unfaithful.
1. Were I the Moor I would not be Iago.
In following him I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so for my peculiar end.
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am. (I.i.57–65)
Explanation for Quotation 1 >>
In this early speech, Iago explains his tactics to Roderigo. He follows Othello not out of “love” or “duty,” but because he feels he can exploit and dupe his master, thereby revenging himself upon the man he suspects of having slept with his wife. Iago finds that people who are what they seem are foolish. The day he decides to demonstrate outwardly what he feels inwardly, Iago explains, will be the day he makes himself most vulnerable: “I will wear my heart upon my sleeve / For daws to peck at.” His implication, of course, is that such a day will never come.
This speech exemplifies Iago’s cryptic and elliptical manner of speaking. Phrases such as “Were I the Moor I would not be Iago” and “I am not what I am” hide as much as, if not more than, they reveal. Iago is continually playing a game of deception, even with Roderigo and the audience. The paradox or riddle that the speech creates is emblematic of Iago’s power throughout the play: his smallest sentences (“Think, my lord?” in III.iii.109) or gestures (beckoning Othello closer in Act IV, scene i) open up whole worlds of interpretation.
3. Haply for I am black,
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have; or for I am declined
Into the vale of years—yet that’s not much—
She’s gone. I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her. O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours
And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapor of a dungeon
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others’ uses. Yet ’tis the plague of great ones;
Prerogatived are they less than the base.
’Tis destiny unshunnable, like death. (III.iii.267–279)
Explanation for Quotation 3 >>
When, in Act I, scene iii, Othello says that he is “rude” in speech, he shows that he does not really believe his own claim by going on to deliver a lengthy and very convincing speech about how he won Desdemona over with his wonderful storytelling (I.iii.81). However, after Iago has raised Othello’s suspicions about his wife’s fidelity, Othello seems to have at least partly begun to believe that he is inarticulate and barbaric, lacking “those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers [those who avoid practical labor and confine their activities to the ‘chambers’ of ladies] have.” This is also the first time that Othello himself, and not Iago, calls negative attention to either his race or his age. His conclusion that Desdemona is “gone” shows how far Iago’s insinuations about Cassio and Desdemona have taken Othello: in a matter of a mere 100 lines or so, he has progressed from belief in his conjugal happiness to belief in his abandonment.
The ugly imagery that follows this declaration of abandonment—Othello finds Desdemona to be a mere “creature” of “appetite” and imagines himself as a “toad” in a “dungeon”—anticipates his later speech in Act IV, scene ii, in which he compares Desdemona to a “cistern for foul toads / To knot and gender in,” and says that she is as honest “as summer flies are in the shambles [slaughterhouses], / That quicken even with blowing” (IV.ii.63–64, 68–69). Othello’s comment, “’tis the plague of great ones,” shows that the only potential comfort Othello finds in his moment of hopelessness is his success as a soldier, which proves that he is not “base.” He attempts to consider his wife’s purported infidelity as an inevitable part of his being a great man, but his comfort is halfhearted and unconvincing, and he concludes by resigning himself to cuckoldry as though it were “death.”
5. Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well,
Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinable gum. Set you down this,
And say besides that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog
And smote him thus. (V.ii.341-354)
Explanation for Quotation 5 >>
With these final words, Othello stabs himself in the chest. In this farewell speech, Othello reaffirms his position as a figure who is simultaneously a part of and excluded from Venetian society. The smooth eloquence of the speech and its references to “Arabian trees,” “Aleppo,” and a “malignant and a turbaned Turk” remind us of Othello’s long speech in Act I, scene iii, lines 127–168, and of the tales of adventure and war with which he wooed Desdemona. No longer inarticulate with grief as he was when he cried, “O fool! fool! fool!,” Othello seems to have calmed himself and regained his dignity and, consequently, our respect (V.ii.332).
He reminds us once again of his martial prowess, the quality that made him famous in Venice. At the same time, however, by killing himself as he is describing the killing of a Turk, Othello identifies himself with those who pose a military—and, according to some, a psychological—threat to Venice, acknowledging in the most powerful and awful way the fact that he is and will remain very much an outsider. His suicide is a kind of martyrdom, a last act of service to the state, as he kills the only foe he has left to conquer: himself.
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