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.
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.
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.