Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1298

In the midst of the play's "corruption scene" (Act III, Scene 3), Iago says to Othello that "men should be what they seem" (III.iii.127). Here the arch-villain is referring to Cassio, but the irony is plain enough, as Iago has already disclosed to Roderigo in the opening scene of this tragedy: "I am not what I am" (I.i.65). At that stage, Iago elaborates on the meaning of this seeming paradox:

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Though I do hate him as I do hell-pains,
Yet, for necessity of present life,
I must show out a flag and sign of love,
Which is indeed but sign.
(I.i.154-157)

Via Iago's interwoven schemes, the demise of Othello is propelled by the disparity between appearances, on the one hand, and underlying reality, on the other. It is most often through Iago that this gap is highlighted within the play's text. At the very end of Act II in one of several soliloquies in which Iago reveals his villainy to the audience, Othello's "ancient" says:

When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now: for while this honest fool
Plies Desdemona to repair his fortune,
And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,
I'll pour this pestilence into his ear—
That she repeals him for her body's lust;
And by how much she strives to do him good,
She shall undo her credit with the Moor.
So will I turn her virtue into pitch.
(II.iii.346-355)

Iago, the agency of human evil, is able to twist the distinction between what something is and what it appears to be, and it is this deception that stands at the bottom of Othello's tragic tale.

Consistent with this theme, much is made in Othello of perception, of looking, of seeing. Again in the corruption scene, Iago directs Othello, "Look to your wife, observe her well with Cassio" and then adds again "look to't" (III.iii.197,200). Reacting to Iago's intimations about Desdemona, Othello warns that Iago must be sure that he can prove Desdemona to be a whore, commanding his ancient to "Give me ocular proof" (III.iii.360). It is the "ocular proof" of the mislaid handkerchief that seals Desdemona's doom and Othello's own demise. A prime example of Iago's ability to use Othello's visual perceptions against him takes place in the exchange between Iago and Othello at the start of Act IV. Here Iago suggests scenes for Othello to envision, such as finding Desdemona and Cassio in an embrace or in bed together, and then leaves their evident meaning open for Othello to discover, thereby fanning the flames of murderous jealousy.

Iago is not the only character who exhorts Othello to "look" at Desdemona. In Act I after hearing of his daughter's intention to abide by her "betrayal" of him, Brabantio warns Othello: "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see; / She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee" (I.iii.292-293). Congruent with this motif, the subject of trust, its loss and its misplacement, is clearly a salient theme in Othello. The central plot of this tragedy pivots upon Othello's loss of trust in Desdemona (and to a lesser extent, Cassio), and the irony of his misplaced trust in Iago. It is, in fact, remarkable how fully the Moor gives himself over to the trust of his ancient. After Brabantio's departure from the Duke's court, Othello tells the Duke of Iago, "A man he is of honesty and trust. / To his conveyance I assign my wife" (I.iii.284-285). Indeed, even after Emilia accuses her own husband of treachery, Othello is unable to accept her charge: "My friend, thy husband, honest, honest Iago" (V.ii.155).

The theme of honor and reputation intertwines with those of perception and trust. In the play's second act, Iago tells Othello that Brabantio "prated, / And spoke such scurvy and provoking terms / Against your honor" (I.ii.6-8). To this, the proven hero of Venice replies, "My parts, my title, and my perfect soul, / Shall manifest me rightly" (I.ii.31-32). The title character of Othello is supremely concerned with the reputation that he has earned as a man of military adventures and victories for the sake of his adopted homeland. Right before stabbing himself to death, Othello says to Lodovico, Gratiano and Cassio:

I have done the state some service, and they know't—
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice.
(V.ii.340-344)

To the end, Othello is concerned with how he appears in the eyes of others, with his name, and with the reputation that it bears and the authority that it carries. The theme surfaces in other contexts. In Act II, Scene 3, Othello says to the drunk and disorderly Cassio,

What's the matter
That you unlace your reputation thus
And spend your rich opinion for the name
Of a night-brawler?
(II.iii.184-187)

After his superior leaves and shorn of his guard command, Cassio laments to Iago, "O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!" (II.iii.253-255).

In this exchange, Iago avers: "Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving. You have lost no reputation at all, unless you repute yourself a loser" (II.iii.259-262). But when it comes to the corruption of Othello, Iago has a much different opinion about the value of one's good name.

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
(III.iii.155-161)

The question of whether reputation, or how others see us, is meaningless or supremely important need not be answered for us to understand what Shakespeare says conclusively about "honor," "name," or "renown": that it can be used against us by a skillful practitioner of the practical black arts like Iago.

In seeking to rouse Brabantio against Othello, Iago alarms him by saying that "even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe" (I.i.88-89). Modern Shakespeare critics have naturally focused on the racial implications of a Black Othello coming into conjugal union with a White Desdemona. Leaving this dimension of their relationship aside, there is also a vast difference in age between Othello and Desdemona; indeed, the Moor is perhaps of the same age as his bride's father, Brabantio. While their love is certainly passionate, Desdemona is above all a pure and chaste heroine; it is these qualities that attract the Moor to her, and they are, in fact, the same attributes that fathers tend to cherish and protect in their daughters. Here we also observe that it is the father of the city, the Duke of Venice, who ultimately decides the dispute between Othello and Brabantio. At first, the Duke sides with Desdemona's biological father; but upon learning that Othello is the object of Brabantio's complaint, he shifts his judicial viewpoint significantly, calling the Moor "our own proper son." In essence, the patriarchal figure of the Duke allows Othello to "adopt" Desdemona. Throughout the play, Othello consistently identifies himself with the state as the basis of his own personal authority and, in this capacity, acts like a father. But Othello is not capable of paternal authority, for his insecurities as a racially-distinct outsider conspire with Iago's plans to generate behavior that is both bestial and childish.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596

*Venice

*Venice. Northeast Italian seaport on the Adriatic that is the setting of the three scenes of the play’s first act. This affluent Renaissance city was greatly admired by Elizabethans, and utilized by William Shakespeare in his earlier play The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596-1597). Ruled by a duke and a senate, Venice was an autonomous, powerful republic at this time, with a flourishing commercial economy. Venetian ships plied the seas from the Adriatic through the Mediterranean, trading wool, furs, leather, and glass. In the play, Iago cynically describes Venice as a place of moneybags, treachery, and promiscuity, and insinuates that a Black man can never be other than an outsider. Playing upon Othello’s sense of alienation, he suggests that Desdemona’s choice of him was unnatural and thus temporary.

Before Brabantio’s house, Iago and Roderigo call out with shouts of alarm and obscene insinuations about his daughter Desdemona, which escalate almost into a brawl, until Othello appears to calm the fray. This outdoor setting, dark and noisy, creates a feeling of unrest and tension.

Duke’s council chamber

Duke’s council chamber. Awe-inspiring room to which Othello is summoned before the Duke and the special session of Senate. In this Venetian crisis, with the Turkish fleet now bearing down on the island of Cyprus, a possession of Venice, Othello’s services are necessary. However, he must defend himself first from the accusations of Brabantio, who claims that he has stolen Desdemona by witchcraft. Although alien to Venetian culture as a Moor, Othello has previously proven his worth to the state and he defends himself from Brabantio’s charges persuasively. Into this solemn chamber peopled with the powerful hierarchy of Venice, Desdemona appears to declare her love for Othello, which convinces the Duke to support the marriage and enlist Othello in the war against the Turk.

*Cyprus

*Cyprus. Important island trading post in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and a Venetian possession from 1489 to 1571. It provides the setting for the last four acts of the play and, symbolically, represents the edge of the civilized world; beyond is the Ottoman Empire, the enemy infidels. The second act of Othello opens at an open place near the quay of a Cyprus seaport. The tempest-tossed, Venetian seafarers reach safety. The location emphasizes the distance from their familiar world. Although the Turks have now drowned, Cyprus is a barren military outpost, a citadel, lacking many of the comforts of Venice. It is a masculine world, isolated and contained; Desdemona is at the mercy of the men around her.

Cyprus citadel

Cyprus citadel. Governor’s castle within whose soldiers’ quarters, orchard, and halls the remainder of the play unfolds. This citadel is the spot where civility and barbarity merge. There, Iago is free to advance his plans for Othello’s destruction, first by making Cassio drunk, leading to his dismissal, and then by using lies and insinuations to increase Othello’s jealousy. At a distance, Othello sees the encounter between Cassio and Bianca and his handkerchief pass between them; he is then convinced of the falseness of Desdemona. The isolation of the island from the civilized world contributes to the absolutism of the play.

The setting of Desdemona’s murder in her citadel bedchamber is cruelly appropriate. “Strangle her in her bed,” says Iago. The room brings together the sexual possessiveness of Othello, Desdemona’s innocence, and Iago’s passion for destruction. But it also represents a place in which the truth is revealed, where Venice, in the person of Lodovico, brings civility once more, and where Othello can feel remorse.

Advanced Themes

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Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

Perhaps the predominant impression created by Othello is that of the terrible destructiveness of jealousy. Othello's suspicions regarding Desdemona's fidelity provoke him to rage and violence, and the collapse of his pride and nobility is swift. The speed and intensity of these changes in the hero have led some critics to question whether Iago's insinuations actually cause Othello's doubts or merely unleash his pre-existing fears. Shakespeare's analysis of the nature of jealousy is not limited only to the character of Othello, however. Both Roderigo and Bianca are torn by jealousy: he desires Desdemona and she yearns for Cassio. More importantly, Iago displays numerous symptoms of jealousy. His bitterness at being passed over for promotion and his suspicions that his wife has had an affair with Othello prompt his desire for revenge and give rise to his malicious schemes. Although various forms of jealousy are displayed by these characters, they are all based on unreasonable fears and lead to equally irrational behavior.

Another significant aspect of Othello, one related to the jealousy theme, is Shakespeare's manipulation of time in the play. For centuries, readers have noted that the play has a dual time scheme: "short" time, in which the action on stage is an unbroken sequence of events taking place over the course of a very few days; and "long" time, in which characters' statements and other indications suggest that a much greater period of time has passed. Thus, for example, a close reading reveals that all the events from his arrival on Cyprus to Othello's death take place in less than two days. This compression of time heightens the sense of reckless passion and the extreme rapidity of Othello's fall. By contrast, Othello's references to Desdemona's "stolen hours of lust" (III. ill. 338) and to his sleeping well in ignorance of the supposed trysts between his wife and Cassio, as well as Bianca's chastisement of Cassio for keeping "a week away … seven days and nights … eight score eight hours" (III. iv. 173-74), reflect a longer passage of time. This extension of time may reflect the irrational quality of Othello's and Bianca's jealousy, by which their fears cause them to exaggerate. At the same time, it makes their doubts seem more plausible: if days or weeks have passed, there has indeed been time for repeated trysts between Desdemona and Cassio. Furthermore, in "long time" Othello's decline appears less sudden and absurd, thereby preserving the audience's sympathy with the proud and noble Moor.

Shakespeare's presentation of a Black man as the hero of this tragedy has provoked much comment. In Shakespeare's England, Blacks were considered exotic rarities. They were commonly feared as dangerous, threatening figures, sexually unrestrained and primitive. On stage, Blacks were often stereotyped as villains; Shakespeare himself had employed this figure in Aaron in Titus Andronicus. With his presentation of the proud, virtuous soldier Othello, Shakespeare defies many of these stereotypes. In fact, actors and critics for centuries insisted that this noble "Moor" was an Arab rather than an African. However, several characters display racist attitudes and clearly designate Othello as Black; this discrimination is most notable in Iago, who not only expresses his own racism but plays on the prejudices of others in his schemes against Othello. Thus, while rejecting stereotypes in his depiction of Othello, Shakespeare also presents characters who attack the hero's color and use his race to isolate and destroy him.

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