Othello Analysis

  • Othello shows the swiftness with which jealousy can take hold. Othello's tragedy arises from his inability to discern truth from false tales meant to elicit jealous rage. Thus Iago’s manipulations, unchecked, drive him to madness.
  • The play offers an implicit note of caution about honor. The limits and perils of honors can be found in the actions of Othello and Desdemona, whose respective commitments to honor enable their tragic downfalls.
  • Iago is a villain, but he cultivates a special relationship with the audience, with whom he is unusually forthright. This allows the audience to understand first-hand the effects of Iago's charms. 

Analysis

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Last Updated on June 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 838

Othello is a Shakespearean tragedy first performed circa 1604 that details the deteriorating relationship between the eponymous Moorish general and his noble wife, Desdemona. It shows how both grudges and jealousy can fester, leading to disastrous outcomes. In this way, the play is a comment on the role of resentment in human life. It shows the disastrous results of unchecked jealousy in the actions of Iago, who plots revenge for unclear reasons, and Othello, who allows himself to be manipulated and who ultimately kills his innocent wife. 

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One notable aspect of the play is the rapidity with which jealousy takes root. Iago need only plant the idea of Desdemona’s infidelity, and within one scene, Othello is convinced that she has been unfaithful. Seeing Othello’s rapidly growing jealousy, Iago plays upon it, changing his own story several times throughout the play. He begins only by suggesting that Desdemona and Cassio may have an interest in one another. But by the end of that act, he begins to make definitive statements, such as that Cassio is bragging about bedding Desdemona. Just as Othello grows more jealous, Iago grows bolder in his schemes and lies: at the start of the play, he is merely suggesting the possibility of infidelity; by the end, he has murdered several characters. Such seems to be the nature of Othello’s jealousy and Iago’s villainy. They, like the husbands in Emilia’s speech, “are all but stomachs, and we all but food; / To eat us hungerly, and when they are full, / They belch us.”

Just as jealousy and resentment are shown to lead to ruin, the play seems to offer a message of caution about the strict adherence to honor. For instance, the end of the play presents Othello as ambivalent about murdering his wife. In the past several scenes, he has been cruel to Desdemona, at one time striking her out of anger. It is surprising, then, that he would kiss his wife in the final scene. He is convinced of her dishonesty, but he no longer seems certain that he wants to kill her. He thus cites honor and justice as “the cause” that must be served by her death, and it is this same sense of honor that drives him to commit suicide when he realizes that Iago has been deceiving him all along. 

Desdemona herself maintains the honorable role of Othello’s “true and loyal wife.” Though a number of characters question her relationship with Othello, especially Emilia and Lodovico, a sense of duty seems to compel her to remain true to her husband. Similarly, it is Cassio’s honor that is in question when he is spurred to fight with Roderigo, and which causes him to lash out at Montano. While Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio each might be considered heroes of the story for their adherence to honor and duty, it is this adherence that leads to a number of fatal decisions: to kill a wife, to adore an abusive husband, to attack a provocateur. While Othello seems to be about the follies of jealousy, it is just as much about how a strong sense of duty can be ruinous. If Othello represents staunch honorability, and Iago represents a dishonorable opposite, it may be that somewhere in the middle is the safest course.

It may be unfair to say that Iago is the polar opposite of Othello’s honor, and it is unclear how the audience is to feel about Iago. On the one hand, he is, by his own admission, a villain. On the other, he is intimate with the audience, speaking directly to them and letting them know his plans. The fact that he connects to the audience despite his villainy may be a way for the audience to place themselves in the play. Most of the characters in Othello seem taken in by Iago, and throughout the play, characters refer to the high value of his friendship and honesty. Given Iago’s ability to charm the audience, audience members may be better able to sympathize with the characters who are taken in by his trickery.

Something worth considering is that Iago serves the role of ensign, or flag bearer for Othello. This may have been a touchy subject for the English audience in 1604. King James IV of Scotland had succeeded Queen Elizabeth after her death a year prior, and with his succession, he brought many Scottish noblemen and family members to advise him. While he was generally considered a good leader, there were a number of plots to overthrow him early in his English career. He also changed the flag, combining the English, Scottish, and Irish flags into one to represent his reign. The fact that this had happened roughly during the time that Shakespeare was writing Othello, and the fact that Iago’s role in the play is to bear a flag, may have made viewers suspicious of Iago, creating a distance from him that would be difficult to understand in modern contexts.

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