Explain the theme of "loyalty and betrayal" in the play Othello.

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The play opens with Iago's speech regarding what he feels is Othello's disloyalty to him in promoting Cassio. This initial act of betrayal of friendship occurs outside of the play, but it initiates a series of actions that highlight the theme of "loyalty and betrayal."

What does Othello owe Iago, who has served him faithfully in wars past? What does Iago owe Othello now that he has been pushed aside in his promotion? What does Othello owe the Venetian state in promoting him? In what way is his romance of Desdemona an act of betrayal itself, since she is clearly the consummate insider and he the consummate outsider, seemingly encouraging her to betray her father? These questions circulate in the first busy scenes of the play without time for anyone to address them properly, as the Turks threaten the state and necessitate Othello's and Desdemona's move to Cyprus.

On Cyprus, the themes of betrayal and loyalty intensify as attention turns to Iago's betrayal of Othello, casting suspicion on the marriage Iago knows is faithful. Cassio's betrayal of his code of honor in getting drunk and brawling leads to further complications that Othello misreads as infidelity with Desdemona, who was seemingly being courteous and faithful to laws of friendship in seeking his reinstatement. In the middle of the play, Othello's own absolute confidence in his marriage ("And when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again" {3.3.101-2}) turns just 300 lines later to contempt and disgust:

By the world,
I think my wife be honest and think she is not.
I think that thou art just and think thou art not.
I’ll have some proof! Her name, that was as fresh
As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black
As mine own face. If there be cords, or knives,
Poison, or fire, or suffocating streams,
I’ll not endure it. Would I were satisfied!
However, he cannot be satisfied in this matter, for he either has faith in his wife or not, and every act that he perceives of her is filtered through that lens of trust or mistrust.

The theme is most poignantly addressed in the scene between Emilia and Desdemona as they discuss whether there are some women who would betray their husbands. While innocent herself, it seems, Emilia argues that marital infidelity is er so rare nor so inconceivable as Desdemona thinks:

But I do think it is their husbands' faults
If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite;
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth: is't frailty that thus errs?
It is so too: and have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so. (4.3)

This may be a momentary interlude between the two women of little driving import, yet it speaks volumes on the theme of "betrayal and loyalty." According to Emilia, the trust or faith a person has in another is a fragile thing, and once abused, it breeds acts of revenge. Each small act of betrayal among people who depended on loyalty produces emotional pain and retaliation. Because faith in another's loyalty and love is nearly impossible to prove (as Brabantio suggests in the first act), once in doubt, a person may never regain his or her confidence in the beloved's faithfulness.

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In Act I of Othello, Iago is disloyal to Othello as he exposes his secret marriage to Desdemona by summoning Brabantio.  Brabantio is disloyal to Othello because he had liked him up until he married his daughter.  The Duke is the only one loyal to Othello, as he makes him General to Cyprus and even lets Desdemona accompany him.  Desdemona is disloyal to her father, as she deceives him by eloping.  Iago is disloyal to Roderigo, as he openly says "I am not what I am" and just uses him for money.  Othello is loyal to all, although Iago complains that he was passed over by the Moor to be his lieutenant.  Disloyalty to women and loyalty to male reputation, to me, are the primary tragic mistakes in the play.

In Acts II-IV, Iago ensnares two prime victims: Cassio and Desdemona who only APPEAR to be disloyal to Othello.  Othello puts too much faith in the possession of the handkerchief, and nearly everyone has their hands one it: Emilia, Iago, Cassio, and--worst--Biancha, a prostitute.  When Othello sees this, he effectively divorces Desdemona and swears a blood oath to Iago to commit double murder against the adulterers.

In Act V, as the previous editor said, Desdemona is loyal to Othello to a fault.  Her foil is Emilia, who is disloyal to Iago, which, of course, makes her loyal to the memory of Desdemona.  Both are killed by their husbands.  Loyal or disloyal to husbands, either way, women are doomed in this play.

Shakespeare would have us believe, then, that his society was riddled with sexism, misogyny, and double standards in marriage that state men can talk openly and have affairs openly, but women can do neither.

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One of the driving forces behind the actions of Iago, Othello, as well as even Cassio and Desdemona revolve around their loyalties and the betrayals, mainly those perpetrated by Iago.  The loyalty to Iago is what leads Othello to his tragic destruction and Iago uses that to his utmost advantage.

Desdemona is loyal to Othello to a fault, and has difficulty challenging him or expressing her worries about him to anyone besides her nurse.  Her nurse's loyalty is what drives her to be the one that will discover much of the action and expose some of the treachery before her death at the hands of Iago.

Betrayal, by Iago, of everyone and everything that he is ostensibly loyal to, Othello, Cassio, the army, his friends, etc., is even brought about by what he says as disloyalty to him despite all his loyal service when Othello chooses Cassio over him as his new Lieutenant.

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Explain the symbols that represent the theme of "loyalty versus betrayal" in the play Othello.

In Othello, the major symbols that represent the dualities of loyalty and betrayal are the rank of Lieutenant, the handkerchief, and, quite simply, words.

  • Rank of Lieutenant:

Iago is insanely jealous that he was passed over for this rank.  How could Othello give the rank to a younger, less experienced bureaucrat like Cassio?  As a result, Iago hates the Moor and vows revenge.  In his plan, Iago gets Cassio drunk and into a fight so that Othello strips Cassio of the rank, leaving it an open position for Iago to fill.  So, by the end, the disloyal Iago aligns himself with Othello, and they plot to murder both the loyal Desdemona and loyal Cassio.  Dramatic irony at its finest.

  • The Handkerchief:

"There's magic in the web of it."  The handkerchief is a symbol of morbid love and jealousy to Othello.  Whoever is in possession of it is also in possession of Othello's extreme emotions.  It is a magical kind of puppet-master that controls loyalty and betrayal throughout the play.  Everyone has his hands on it: Othello, then Desdemona, Emilia, Iago, Cassio, and Bianca.  It goes from a loyal lady to a prostitute, and when Othello sees it in possession of a woman other than Desdemona, he vows to kill his wife for infidelity.

  • Words:

He who controls language controls others.  Like the devil in the Garden of Eden, Iago uses words to tempt his subjects.  His words publicly seem to be honest, but privately we and Roderigo know they are lies.  Othello calls Iago "honest" throughout the play, a word synonymous with loyalty.  By baiting Othello toward jealousy and murder, Iago successfully takes away language from the Moor and causes him to become a mute beast.  This "Beauty and the Beast" is no fairy tale that ends happily ever after.

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