Chance and coincidence play significant roles in William Shakespeare’s play Othello. Examples of chance or coincidence in the play include the following:
- After Michael Cassio has been stripped of his office by Othello, he takes Iago’s advice and appeals to Desdemona for help. By chance, just as he is leaving her, he is spotted by Iago, who is approaching with Othello:
[Enter OTHELLO and IAGO]
Iago. Ha! I like not that.
Othello. What dost thou say?
Iago. Nothing, my lord: or if—I know not what.
Othello. Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?
Iago. Cassio, my lord! No, sure, I cannot think it,
That he would steal away so guilty-like,
Seeing you coming.
Othello. I do believe 'twas he.
This chance sighting of Cassio gives Iago the opportunity to begin sowing seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind about the virtue of Cassio and the loyalty of Desdemona. Iago would probably have thought of a way to sow such seeds in any case, but the chance departure of Cassio from Desdemona, just as Othello approaches, provides an ideal opportunity for Iago to begin to work his evil magic.
- The most famous example of chance or coincidence in the play is the accident of Desdemona dropping the handkerchief when Emilia is nearby to retrieve it and later give it to Iago. She loses the handkerchief because Othello, by chance, just happens to have an epileptic episode that causes Desdemona to wipe his forehead with the cloth that means so much to him. Losing the handkerchief is one thing; losing it when Emilia is nearby to see it lost is another. The results of the loss of the handkerchief, of course, prove disastrous.
- Another example of bad luck occurs when Desdemona, trying to distract Othello from the topic of the lost handkerchief, chooses precisely that moment to urge him to show mercy to Cassio. Ironically, every time she pleads on Cassio’s behalf, she only (inadvertently) makes Othello more and more jealous and enraged. She could have tried to distract him by talking about almost any other subject, but instead, by chance, she talks to him about the one subject that will anger him the most.
- Later, by chance, Othello happens to have an epileptic episode just as Cassio happens to approach. The episode gives Iago the opportunity to deceive both Cassio and Othello (when Othello comes back to consciousness).
- Then, by chance, Bianca happens to approach just when Othello can see (but not really hear) her interacting with Cassio, and, by chance, she has brought the handkerchief with her, which she has found by chance.
Chance, then, plays a crucial role at various points throughout Othello. In fact, one seventeenth-century critic of the play joked that the moral of the work is that ladies should be careful not to lose their linen. The play does emphasize the roles of personality (especially the personalities of Othello and Iago) and design (especially Iago), but chance and coincidence are also important factors in this drama.