Critical Essays Major Symbols and Motifs


Explore the different symbols within William Shakespeare's tragic play, Othello. Symbols are central to understanding Othello as a play and identifying Shakespeare's social and political commentary.


The significance of red is love, red strawberries like red hearts on the love token handkerchief, and like the red stains from Othello and Desdemona's first night of love on the marriage sheets. Such red on white is private and dear to the heart of Othello, and he expects it to be similarly dear to his wife. It is the belief that Desdemona gave away his handkerchief, and the sexually implications of the gift, that drives him to kill her.


The candle Othello blows out just before he murders Desdemona symbolizes him extinguishing her life.


Beginning in Act 1, Scene 1, Iago introduces the animalistic imagery. According to Iago, there is something bestial and animalistic about Othello ("The old black ram"); he's base and beastly, somehow beneath everyone else in Venice because of his North African heritage. The animal imagery permeates the play, often referring to Othello's "otherness."


Shakespeare often uses different locations to represent mindsets. In Othello, Venice represents civilization, while Cyprus symbolizes the wilderness. The idea is that what happened in the Cyprus never would happen in the civilized city of Venice.