Universal Themes of Jealousy and Manipulation in Othello by Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s Othello unveils the numerous ways a text can still be relevant and valued over time despite the development of society, aspects and new beliefs. The universal themes of jealousy and manipulation are predominant in the text and enlighten audiences both contemporary and Elizabethan.
At the beginning of the play, Othello was a general hero who was cool, calm and collected. However, through a series of illusions conjured by Iago, who deeply knew the destructiveness of jealousy, he destroyed Othello. “Trifles light as air are to the jealous confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ: this may do something. The Moor already changes with my poison”. Iago essentially swears to show Othello that there is proof that Desdemona is indeed cheating. His words portray double meanings and contain aspects of allusion which paint Iago’s language as evasive. It also highlights just how complex all of Iago’s illusions are.
In Act 3, Scene 3, Othello demands that Iago provide him with ‘ocular proof’ of Desdemona’s infidelity. But Iago instead provides the circumstantial evidence of the handkerchief, which Othello, consumed by his jealousy, accepts as a substitute for ‘ocular proof.’ Othello’s jealousy impedes his ability to distinguish between reality and appearance. This theme is considerably prominent in modern society. A typical example would be in relationships. When someone you like starts dating someone else. You’d feel jealousy and in certain cases, you’d start plotting to deteriorate the relationship. This, unfortunately, may result in bullying, disputes and in worse case scenario, suicide of the victim, similarly to Othello.
As Iago makes insinuations about Desdemona’s adultery and Othello pressures him to reveal what he knows, Iago warns Othello against succumbing to jealousy. “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock/The meat it feeds on”. The metaphor used to compare jealousy to a monster, conjures an offensive visual that Iago knows will intensify Othello’s concern. Further, the symbolism of the colour ‘green’ links to the idea of jealousy and envy.
In the opening scene of this play, Iago utters “I am not what I am” during a conversation with Roderigo. On the surface, he signals that he is not what he appears to be. However, a deeper, more subversive message is also present. The phrase serves as a parodic allusion to a well-known biblical quote, where Moses asks God his name and God responds with: “I am that I am.” By transforming God’s words in a negative formulation, Iago indicates his identity as a diabolical figure. This theme of manipulation is relevant today as the current society suffers tremendously from the lack of realism. Facades are put on and others make themselves believe that the lives of others are better than their own. This environment surrounding Othello, is much like our modern society, supported by lies and deception, that ultimately lead to his downfall.
Act 4, scene 2 presents to the audience a heated conversation about the distressed Desdemona on the situation of being called a ‘whore’ by her husband. Meanwhile, Iago, a bystander ‘hasn’t’ the slightest idea what is happening. This is portrayed through the repetition of questions Iago asks Desdemona: “What is the matter, lady?”, “What name, madam?” and “Why did he do that?”. This facade evokes emotions of anger and annoyance from the reader. However, Iago then proceeds to comfort Desdemona and blames Othello’s foul mood on his “business of state”. Here, the dramatic irony further stimulates strong emotions from the reader. Shakespeare uses deception as a plot device in Othello to show the harsh consequences that can come from lies and to teach everyone that honesty is a virtue that should be cherished.
In the second act, Iago says to Cassio: “And, good lieutenant, I think you think I love you”. The addressing of Cassio as a ‘good lieutenant” gives his statement a positive ring and eases Cassio. He further uses the repetition of “think” to reinforce the trust of their relationship. Iago successfully inspires an atmosphere of goodwill and fraternity. Occurrences like this are common in our modern society. Politicians rely on propaganda, lies and deceptions to manipulate citizens to obtain a status they desire. This is reflected in Iago, who developed a status as “Honest Iago”, which allowed him to address other characters without failure.
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