What is the theme of the play Othello?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The theme of jealousy is central to Shakespeare's Othello. Jealousy drives the plot and subplots forward, and it is the primary motivation for the central conflict of the play.

IAGO: O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But O, what damned minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!

OTHELLO: O misery! (Act 3, scene 3)

By the time Iago warns Othello against jealousy, the "green-eyed monster" is already feeding on Othello's mind and inflaming his emotions.

Everything that Iago tells Othello and everything that Othello sees with his own eyes—as orchestrated and manipulated by Iago—leads Othello to believe that Desdemona is unfaithful to him with Cassio. Othello is blinded and enraged by his jealousy, and he ultimately kills Desdemona as a result of this all-consuming jealousy.

Othello isn't the only character in the play affected by jealousy. Roderigo is a relatively minor character, but his love for Desdemona and his jealousy of Othello contribute to the subplot in which Cassio loses his position as Othello's lieutenant. Roderigo goads Cassio into a fight, which leads to his demotion. This causes Cassio to ask Desdemona to speak to Othello on Cassio's behalf, which only strengthens Othello's suspicions about Cassio and Desdemona, further inflaming Othello's jealousy.

Roderigo's jealousy also extends to Cassio, whom Roderigo tries to kill because of his apparent closeness to Desdemona.

Iago, too, suffers from jealousy that eventually leads to his demise. Iago reveals his jealousy of Cassio in act 1, scene 1, when Iago learns that Othello has chosen Cassio rather than Iago to be his lieutenant.

IAGO: I know my price, I am worth no worse a place.
... This countercaster [Cassio],
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I—God bless the mark!—his Moorship's ancient.

Iago's jealousy and envy of Cassio contributes directly to the Cassio-Desdemona subplot, which leads to Othello's jealousy and contributes to Roderigo's jealousy of Cassio.

Iago also harbors jealousy against Othello for what Iago suspects is his wife Emilia's infidelity with Othello.

IAGO: And it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets
He has done my office. I know not if't be true;
But I for mere suspicion in that kind
Will do as if for surety. (Act 1, scene 3)

This suspicion of his wife's infidelity clearly drives Iago's plot against Othello, but it also reveals Iago to be jealous of Othello's marriage to Desdemona, toward whom Iago seems to have feelings beyond pure physical attraction.

IAGO: Now, I do love her [Desdemona] too,
Not out of absolute lust, though peradventure
I stand accountant for as great a sin,
But partly led to diet my revenge,
For that I do suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leap'd into my seat; the thought whereof
Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards,
And nothing can or shall content my soul
Till I am even'd with him, wife for wife;
Or failing so, yet that I put the Moor
At least into a jealousy so strong
That judgement cannot cure. (Act 2, scene 2)

Iago incites Othello's jealousy to such an extent that Othello's "green-eyed monster" consumes him and leads him to kill Desdemona.

Iago, too, is consumed by his own "green-eyed monster," which causes Iago to commit hateful acts that lead to the deaths of Desdemona, Othello, Emilia, and Roderigo—and which will likely lead to Iago's own torturous death, to be supervised by Cassio, the first target of Iago's jealousy and sole survivor of Iago's villainous plots.

LODOVICO: [To Cassio] To you, Lord Governor,
Remains the censure of this hellish villain,
The time, the place, the torture. O, enforce it! (Act 5, scene 2)

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the themes of Othello, by Shakespeare?

There are many themes in this play, but here a few that are frequently discussed and studied.

The fragility of human relationships and the nature of jealousy:

Shakespeare does an excellent job of showing the main characters' weaknesses in this play. Even though Othello loves Desdemona he is easily tricked into hating her. Iago doesn't need to do much to destroy their relationship. Othello is ready to believe that his wife has been unfaithful. Quickly his rage turns to anger. The tragedy explores the relationship between jealousy and love, and reveals how fragile romantic love can be.

Race and prejudice:

Othello is a Moor. This means he is a darker-skinned man. Despite his accomplishments on the battlefield, many characters, including his father in law, have a difficult time accepting him because of his ethic background. The play explores the nature of race relations through this character.

Iago and evil:

Iago is based on the idea of a tempter. The name Iago actually means the planter. In many ways this is the way the devil is thought to work. He finds human weaknesses and uses temptation to destroy us through these weaknesses. Unlike many other villains, Iago doesn't even have proper motivation. While he claims to want a promotion and lightly suspects his wife has been unfaithful, one gets the idea that Iago is doing most of this for sport. He enjoys it. This explores the nature of true evil, and how sometimes wicked people can take joy in tormenting others.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the main themes in the play Othello?

I would have to go with the theme of duality as one of Shakespeare's most important ideas in the tragedies: what appears to be reality is often not. Notice how often the word "seem" is used in the play: "Men should be what they seem." This familiar lament is ironically stated and discussed repeatedly by Othello and with, ironically, the most two-faced character in the play. It happens over and over in the plays. Here, it ends in total disaster for Othello, who is far too trusting to understand the reality of Iago. Othello's simplistic military code is no match for Iago's Machiavellian manipulations.

The second most important theme would then be the nature of jealousy, one of our most primitive emotions. Shakespeare explores its permutations with 3 different couples, all of whom have one partner who is fairly consumed by it and the other who deals with it as it affects their relationship. Ultimately, it destroys or at least seriously hurts all 3 couples. Desdemona and Emilia are basically killed because of it. Shakespeare has many penetrating observations about this emotion. The one that strikes me is that he says that jealous souls are never jealous for a reason, but because they are jealous. In other words, there is no good reason for them to be jealous. They just are. That is scary stuff and well worth considering as a warning.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the main themes in the play Othello?

The difficulty in controlling doubt and the intensely complex landscape of human emotions strikes me as thematic fields of play in "Othello."  The exploitation of Othello's insecurity and the manipulation engineered by Iago are the most powerful levels where themes are apparent for me.  Iago's own jealous nature and his resentment are present and the theme I get from this is how individuals can be motivated by their own subterranean demons.  Iago sets out to destroy everyone's own sense of happiness only because he was denied his.  For his part, Othello, despite his accomplishments and endeavors, is completely trapped by his own demons of insecurity and doubt, making him completely pliable for Iago.  The theme of how human beings must master doubt and insecurity by living in peace with them as opposed to overcoming them might be the most relevant theme in such a dynamic.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the themes of Shakespeare's Othello?

Another theme in the play could be honor and honorable action, especially as it concerns members of the military, who often consider themselves a "band of brothers."

Iago is able to win both Cassio's and Othello's faith and trust in his word as truth, possibly because they serve together in the military, and this creates the belief that they will always act with each other's best interests at heart.  So, Iago is able to connive Cassio into drinking more than he should and then into appealing to Desdemona to help him win back his place, taken from him by Othello for instigating a drunken brawl.

He is also able to win Othello's confidence and trust, because he has been his ancient and served him faithfully through many battles.  Iago is assumed to be honest by Othello, maybe not so much because he knows him as a civilian person, but because he has seen how he behaves in battle.

So military honor and how it operates in the ways that the men see each other is also a theme of the play, one that colors the men's judgement of each other.

 

Posted on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the themes of Shakespeare's Othello?

Most obviously, the play is about jealousy and the damage that jealousy can do to a relationship.  In the play jealousy is a "green eye monster that mocks the meat it feeds upon."  At the heart of the play, we have two jealous men, Iago who is jealous because he is jealous, and Othello, is becomes inflicted with the "poisonous mineral" because of Iago's lies and machinations.

But the play is also about the way men view women:  the tendency to view women as prizes that are won, and women's infidelity as attacks on their pride.  This inability to see women truly without generalization and without stereotyping is a central idea of the tragedy.

Another theme is the insider/outsider theme.  Othello's race, while not a factor in his achieving prestige as a military man, makes him feel insecure in his marriage.  "Haply for I am black" Othello cries, and when comparing himself to Cassio, who is one of the "curled darlings" of Desdemona's country, he feels as if he has lost her.  Part of Iago's manipulation of Othello is to make him feel as if he is an outsider to Venetian society.

And of course as is common with Shakespeare, the play explores the appearance versus reality idea.  "When devils with the blackest sins put on, they do at first with heavenly shows as I do now," Iago boasts.  Iago, clearly the devil of the play, is seen by every major characters as honest, honorable, and trustworthy.  Desdemona, who is clearly the angel of the play, is viewed as deceitful and ungrateful by her father and a whore by her husband.

 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What themes are conveyed in Othello?

Shakespeare conveyed a number of themes in Othello, many of them connected to each other.

This play is about jealousy, and what happens when we let jealousy overtake us. You might have heard of jealousy as a "green-eyed monster" in colloquialisms or pop culture. Shakespeare coined this phrase, and it can be seen in Iago's words to Othello. Iago tells Othello to "beware," yet meanwhile Iago is manipulating Othello into thinking his wife is cheating on him: Iago plants the seed in Othello's mind, provides "proof" by having Emilia steal Desdemona's handkerchief, all of which ultimately leads to Othello's downfall when he is consumed by this jealousy. We can see that the theme of jealousy is tied to the theme of deception, since Iago deceives Othello and manipulates his jealous side.

Othello accepts Iago's manipulation of the handkerchief as "ocular proof," showing us the theme of appearances vs. reality. While the handkerchief makes it appear that Desdemona is cheating, she really is not. Iago claims to help Othello (and other characters as well—Desdemona, Cassio, and Roderigo), but in reality he is using all of them for his own gain. The prejudice against Othello (another theme) is tied to appearances vs. reality as well.

Othello is judged for his skin color. Despite his accomplishments, we can find multiple references to Othello's appearance and examine how characters are prejudiced against him. Iago convinces Brabantio that Othello has stolen his daughter, Desdemona. Iago refers to Othello as a "black ram," and if that reference to his skin was not obvious enough, it is highlighted when he refers to Desdemona as a "white ewe." Iago goes on to call Othello "the devil." Brabantio believes Iago, instead of trusting that his daughter and Othello are genuinely in love. Even when Othello and Desdemona prove this before the Duke of Venice, Brabantio leaves Othello with a warning.

Here we see how often Shakespeare's themes overlap and are connected to each other.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on