Themes in Shakespeare's Othello

by Professor Gabriele Bernhard Jackson, English Department

Themes | Important Speeches | Imagery | Connections with some other works taught in IH | Modern issues in Othello

I. Themes

Racism: In the language of Roderigo, Iago, and Brabantio in 1.1, 1.2, 1.3. Note that Brabantio's fellow senators do not pick up on it, nor does the Duke. 2 important lines for discussion: Desdemona's "I saw Othello's visage in his mind" (I.3.252), the Duke's "Your son-in-law is far more fair than black)(I.3.290).

Crucially important is Othello's apparent ability to ignore all this, especially his reaction at I.2.59-61. On Cyprus, Montano's color-blind appreciation of Othello (II.1.30, 35-36, 38) contrasts with Iago's references to Othello's blackness to Roderigo (II.l) and Cassio (II.3).

The crisis comes in III.3; after softening Othello up by implanting suspicion and doubt in his mind, Iago refers to his appearance outright (232-242); I get the class to help paraphrase this passage. In Othello's reaction (267-70, 392-94), "black" has become a negative adjective. I ask the class to say what has happened to him and to relate this to his subsequent breakdown. The entire theme is related to that of RELIGION.

Religion: Two dichotomies are emphasized in the play: Turk vs. Christian and divine vs. diabolical.

Turk vs. Christian

This enmity is both economic and religious, since the Turks are Moslems. That this is an operative distinction in the play is clear from Othello's reference to a Turk he once killed as "the circumcised dog" (V.2.356). Othello is a Christian and fights for Christians. He identifies with Christian culture; when the fight between Cassio and Montano throws the town into an uproar, Othello asks, "Are we turned Turks. . . ?" (II.3.161-62). He also attributes the destruction of the Turkish fleet to God. (Those historically oriented may wish to cite the parallel - obvious to any audience in 1604 - with the destruction of the Spanish Armada by a storm in 1588 as Catholic Spain was about to invade Protestant England.)

As Othello becomes obsessed with the handkerchief, he focuses on its (real or invented) magic power, a concept that connects him vaguely with pre-Christian (and, for that matter, pre-Moslem) belief. Similarly, he first says he will chop Desdemona into little bits (IV.1.196), then prepares to kill her as "a sacrifice" (V.2.66). When he realizes what he has actually done, he kills himself as he once killed the Turk - that is, he executes the Turk he sees himself as having become (the Turk standing for "anti-Christian," "anti-civilization"). This act reclaims his lost dignity and moral identity at the cost of his life.

Question: is Othello a Christian hero? Is he a hero at all?

Divine vs. diabolical

Iago introduces religious language (although not religiously) in I.1; tells Brabantio he "has lost half his soul" and equates Othello with the devil (91). The implied connection here is Othello's blackness. However, Iago also says Brabantio "will not serve God if the devil bid you" (108-09), implicitly identifying himself (the bidder) as the devil. In soliloquy he later invokes Hell and night (end of Act I) and "Divinity of Hell" (II.3.341) and compares himself to "devils" putting on "their blackest sins" while pretending to be heavenly (342-44), but to others he continues to refer to Othello as the devil (II.1, to Roderigo). When Othello invokes heaven to witness his intended revenge, Iago imitates him but invokes the stars and the elements (ignoring the morally defined cosmos). Iago is a tempter who exploits everyone's weaknesses (including his wife's desire for affection from him) and he is also the "father of lies" in this play. Near the end, Othello says he is looking for Iago's cloven hoof and wounds Iago, who taunts him by providing "evidence" that he is indeed a devil (V.2.287-89); Othello later calls Iago "that demi-devil" who has ensnared his soul (V.2.302-03). On the other hand, Emilia calls Othello a "blacker devil" for murdering Desdemona (V.2.132,134). Othello believes he would be damned if he had killed his wife without just cause (V.2.138), and when he finds out he has done exactly that, he believes he will be damned on the day of judgment and calls for devils to take him immediately (V.2.273-81). ` Desdemona is called "divine" by Cassio (11.1.73), who asks the grace of heaven upon her (85-87), and Roderigo says she is "full of most blest condition" (II.1, in conversation with Iago), which Iago pooh-poohs. Othello calls her "my soul's joy" (11.1.184); he still sees her as heavenly after Iago has begun to poison his mind (111.3.281-83) and even when he is about to kill her (IV.2.37); she often invokes heaven, and Emilia calls her an angel (V.2.131). The above only calls attention to some of the major uses of this dichotomy; there are many, many other religious references. The play can be read as the temptation and downfall of a good, almost great, man: a recasting of this religious paradigm in modern psychological terms. Questions that can be raised: Which (if either) is the devil, Iago or Othello? Does Iago succeed in making Othello "live down to" Iago's description of him as a "black devil"? If Iago brings out the devil in Othello (and Roderigo?), does this suggest a more general proposition about all of us? And where and how does Desdemona's heavenliness fit in?

Harmony and Chaos: The love of Othello and Desdemona is presented as a form of perfect harmony. The union of opposite colors is the strongest image of this harmony. It is also expressed quite clearly when the two meet on Cyprus; Othello wishes that their kisses may be the greatest "discords" they will ever create, and Iago picks up the musical allusion by saying he will destroy the "tuning" of their "music" (II.198-201). Their arrival on Cyprus coincides with the dispersal of the threat of war and the subsiding of a storm. Chaos is mentioned by Othello in a religiously charged line: should he ever cease loving Desdemona, it would mean that chaos had reemerged (III.3.91). In other words, Othello's ceasing to love Desdemona would negate the Creation. Of course, Othello means it is impossible; but later he says he is blowing all his love away (III.3.452), and both moral and cognitive chaos do descend as the liar and illusionist Iago gains almost total control. The confused interaction of killing and wounding in the dark street among Roderigo, Cassio, and Iago, followed by the accusation of Bianca, is a perfect image of this chaos.

Emilia is the agent who restores moral order, a most important moment in the play. I ask students what exactly she does that is such a relief to us, and why it is such a relief.

This theme is hard to get across because it seems abstract, but linking deception, abuse of trust, crime, and despair on the one hand and mutual support and belief on the other helps.

I find the theme worth working at because it allows me to ask questions about tragedy that involve a nightmare vision of the world, beyond individual people's misfortunes. 

II. Important Speeches

  • Othello's account of his adventures (1.3.128-68)
  • Desdemona's reply to her father and appeal to senate: (1.3.180-89, 248-59)
  • Iago's initial plan: I, last speech
  • Iago's additional motives and continued planning: II.i, last speech II.3.341-533
  • Othello's self-doubt and doubt of Desdemona (111.3.262-77)
  • Othello's pain and farewell to his occupation (111.3.351-63)
  • Othello's vow of revenge and Iago's vow to aid him (111.3.460-76)
  • Othello's breakdown (IV.1.35ff.)
  • Othello's despair at Desdemona's supposed betrayal ( IV.2.48-63)
  • Emilia's feminist manifesto (IV.3)
  • Othello's preparation to kill Desdemona (last long speech V.2)
  • Othello's reaction to the killing (first speech V.2.97-102)
  • Emilia's scorn of Othello's threat (V.2.163-68)
  • Othello's 2 last speeches (V.2.260-83, 339-57)

III. Imagery

Animals, especially in Iago's speech and later Othello's Light and darkness, the latter including night and storm: many refs., but note especially Othello's "Put out the light" in V.2, first speech The web or net: Iago 11.1.168-9, 11.3.352-3; magic "web" of the handkerchief, 111.4.7 Othello associates himself with the sea: 1.2.26-28; III.3.460ff.; V.2.268-69 and water (fountain): IV.2.60 after the deception, stony and cold things: 111.3.461, 466; IV.1.178-79; V.2.253-54; he describes Desdemona this way, too: V.2.3-5 Desdemona as the pearl Othello threw away: V.2.347-49 (fits in with images just mentioned); suggests the biblical pearl of great price

IV. Connections with some other works taught in IH: 

Othello and Oedipus: the hero's quest to punish the enemy results in the discovery that he is the enemy. Crime, self-punishment, and redemption. Emilia and Antigone: the imperfect heroine; the woman treated with contempt; the woman who goes against patriarchal orders; the heroic/fatal act performed out of emotional loyalty and moral principle.

Othello and Sundiata: the hero fights on behalf of a religion; the complications of the African heritage; the importance of magic; the hero who creates his own civilization vs. the uprooted colonial-era hero.

Othello and the Old Testament: the Creation vs. the bringing of Chaos; rising from the animals to humans vs. seeing humans as animals (Iago, and later Othello); breaking of commandments

New Testament: concern with Christianity; image of pearl of great price (Desdemona)

Iago and Machiavelli: the pursuit of power; the low assessment of human nature; the refusal to credit virtue or high principles.

Iago and Galileo: rationalism; careful observation; refusal to accept traditional opinions; contempt for "the bookish theoric" and valuing of practical experience.

V. Modern issues in Othello

Attention to individual psychology High value of romantic love Relation of wife to husband Financial scam (Iago/Roderigo) Elaborate deceptions for personal advantage Racism Social stratification and mobility, including job level Mobility between cultures European recognition of Moslem power.

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