It appears that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. In reality, they are not.
It appears that Desdemona has Cassio in her heart when she pleads for his reinstatement as lieutenant. In reality, she is just doing him a favor.
It appears that Cassio slips away from Desdemona when he sees Othello coming. In reality, Cassio was just giving Desdemona space to talk with Othello about being reinstated as lieutenant.
It appears that Desdemona has given her most cherished handkerchief to Cassio. In reality, Iago planted the handerkerchief on Cassio.
When Iago and Cassio are talking, it appears that Cassio is laughing and talking about his affair with Desdemona. In reality, he is talking about Bianca, his mistress.
It appears that Iago is Othello's friend. In reality, Iago is Othello's worst enemy.
In Othello, the theme of appearance versus reality requires not only deceit such as that practiced by Iago, who is anything other than "honest Iago" (I.iii.294), but also Othello's misdirected trust, his own insecurity in thinking that his beautiful Desdemona, a "heavenly sight" (v.ii.281), has been unfaithful and the circumstantial evidence which preys so heavily upon Othello.
The events, feelings and circumstances that reveal this theme include:
- Iago's admission at the beginning when he says, "I am not what I am" (I.i.66). Iago's mastery is unequaled as he fools everyone and thus uses them, particularly Roderigo and Emilia, as unwitting participants in his schemes.
- Othello's trusting nature which Iago uses to manipulate him because, as Iago is aware, Othello "thinks men honest that but seem to be so" (I.iii.394), meaning that if men act graciously towards Othello, he believes in them and does not question their motives.
- The circumstances that surround the "ocular proof" (III.iii.364), being the physical evidence of the missing handkerchief in Cassio's possession which will convince Othello of Desdemona's infidelity.
- The doubt that Iago has managed to create in Othello as he lies about hearing Cassio utter Desdemona's name, talks of the handkerchief and even manages to make Othello believe Iago and Cassio are discussing Desdemona when in fact they are discussing Bianca.
- Othello's jealousy which makes him believe the unbelievable.
- Othello's closing statement when, still concerned with appearances and what others may think, Othello makes an appeal that they "speak of me as I am" (V.ii.345), and not what he appears to be. He is a murderer but wants it to be understood that he "loved not wisely but too well" (347), and it is this that is responsible for him seeming to be nothing more than a "malignant and turbaned Turk" (356).
- The fact that the last thing Othello does is "die upon a kiss" (362) reveals the complete disparity between the reality and the result.
I’d like to talk about Othello’s character in relation to appearance vs. reality.
- A negative first impression: The audience hears about Othello before they even meet him. Iago and Roderigo open the play, and all they can say is how much they hate “the Moor,” as they call him. They tell Desdemona’s father Brabantio that she has run off with Othello and is now in “the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor.” Brabantio is furious.
- A more positive reality: When we actually meet Othello, we discover that he is a well-respected general. He is also incredibly well-spoken, in spite of suggesting otherwise: “Rude am I in my speech, / And little bless'd with the soft phrase of peace.” Brabantio insists that Othello stole his daughter, but both Othello and Desdemona assert that the relationship is mutual. The powerful duke asserts that Othello’s tales of adventure “would win [his] daughter too.” He also tells Brabantio, “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.” The duke is saying that Othello might be black and unattractive on the outside (according to racist views of beauty at the time), but on the inside he is “fair,” attractive and virtuous.
- A negative hidden reality: Unfortunately, in spite of Othello’s love for Desdemona and his renowned patience, there are negative forces at work within Othello and his society. He appears to be very well-adjusted, and even Iago admits that he has virtues:
The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not,
Is of a constant, loving, noble nature,
And I dare think he'll prove to Desdemona
A most dear husband.
- The most obvious source of evil that turns Othello’s personality on its head is Iago, his wicked ensign. He lies to and manipulates Othello, using society’s misogynistic views of women and racist ideologies to frighten him. Though Othello is not by nature a jealous person, he is proud, and he secretly believes certain societal stereotypes. He begins to think that it is not natural for Desdemona, a young white woman, to love him: “how nature erring from itself--”.
It is up to the audience to decide what Othello’s true nature is. Views of his character, including his own, are tainted by racism. Some (such as Roderigo and Brabantio) view him as undesirable simply because of the color of his skin. Others (like the duke and Desdemona) know the value of his noble personality. Iago manages to bring out the very worst in him, turning Othello’s latent fears into violence against his own wife. He is yet another example of appearance vs. reality in Othello.