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Misunderstanding is an important theme in William Shakespeare’s Othello, and examples of misunderstandings appear throughout the play. Iago is often the cause that other characters fail to understand things correctly, and Roderigo and Othello are most often the victims of his deceptions. Roderigo, for instance, fails throughout most of the play to understand that Iago has consistently been deceiving him, yet he, ironically, although the obvious fool of the play, in some ways seems more suspicious and distrustful of Iago than is Othello. Thus at one point Roderigo says to Iago, “I do not find that thou dealest justly with me.” A bit later, he again says to Iago,
'Faith, I have heard too much, for your words and
performances are no kin together.
Only just before he dies, however, does Roderigo realize how fully he has misunderstood the true nature of Iago: “O damn'd Iago! O inhuman dog!”
Another character who misunderstands the full evil of Iago is Emilia, his own wife. Their marriage does not seem to be an especially happy one, as is implied on more than one occasion, but it never seems to occur to Emilia that Iago is as capable of such profound malice as he eventually demonstrates. Thus, at first she cannot believe that Iago has so deceived Othello that Othello has killed Desdemona. Othello’s accusations of such deception shock her. When she realizes the truth, however, she also realizes that both she and Othello have completely misunderstood Iago’s nature. She therefore exclaims about Iago,
. . . may his pernicious soul
Rot half a grain a day! he lies to the heart . . .
However, perhaps the most striking moment of misunderstanding in the whole play occurs when Iago manages to convince Othello – while Othello stands nearby, watching and listening – that Cassio has been having sex with Desdemona. Iago thus manages to lead Othello into misunderstanding while Othello is fully conscious. Iago arranges it so that Othello misinterprets all that he sees and hears. When Cassio departs and Othello approaches, Iago continues the deception. Speaking of Cassio, he asks Othello,
Did you perceive how he laughed at his vice?
Othello. O Iago!
Iago. And did you see the handkerchief?
Othello. Was that mine?
Iago. Yours by this hand: and to see how he prizes the foolish woman your wife! she gave it him, and he hath given it his whore.
Perhaps no other scene in Othello is more crucial than this one to the eventual tragedy of the play, and perhaps no other scene contains more examples of misunderstanding in so many ways and on so many levels.
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