Othello Significant Allusions
by William Shakespeare

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Significant Allusions

Biblical Allusions: Biblical allusions appear throughout Othello and many of Shakespeare’s other works as well. Shakespeare’s audience was well-acquainted with scripture, and so his use of biblical allusions adds to the richness of the text and extends its frame of reference. 

  • Iago’s line “I am not what I am” (1.1.65) is a reversal and bastardization of Exodus 3:14: “And God answered Moses, I am that I am.” Shakespeare is telling the audience that Iago is a dangerous dissembler who stands in direct opposition to the Christian God. 
  • The characterization of Iago as a foil to God resurfaces in act 5, scene 2 when Lodovico, calling for Iago, says, “Where is that Viper? Bring the villain forth” (5.2.328). The comparison of Iago to a snake is another, albeit veiled, comparison of Iago to Satan, who appears in serpent form in the Garden of Eden. 
  • Cassio reviles his own inebriated actions using a subtle biblical allusion. After his drunken brawl with Roderigo, Cassio remarks, “It hath pleased the devil drunkenness to give place to / the devil wrath: one unperfectness shows me another” (2.3.286–7). Cassio’s wording here is a play on Ephesians 4:27: “Neither give place to the devil.” The allusion suggests both the wickedness of Cassio’s actions as well as his assistance to the devil, embodied in Iago, the one who incited Cassio’s brawl in the first place.

Classical Allusions: Like many writers of the Renaissance, Shakespeare mined the stories of Roman and Greek mythology for allusions, which would have appealed to audiences who were knowledgeable of classical mythology. They also add to the richness and metaphorical range of the text. 

  • Diana, the goddess of the moon, hunting, chastity, and childbirth, is alluded to in Othello, chiefly due to her association with “chastity” and purity. Iago poisons Othello’s mind to the point that Othello is positive that the virtuous Desdemona has been unfaithful to him: “Her name, that was as fresh / As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face,” Othello remarks (3.3.383–90). 
  • Shakespeare alludes to the two-faced Roman god, Janus. Iago is similarly two-faced, portrayed again and again as someone who is duplicitous and not to be trusted. Throughout the play, Iago is revealed to be an adept liar capable of gaining the trust, however misplaced, of the people he wants to manipulate: “By Janus, I think no,” he says, evoking his own pantheistic counterpart (1.2.33). 
  • Because Othello is centered on the dynamics of erotic relationships, it is fitting that Shakespeare refers to Eros, or Cupid, the Greco-Roman god of desire. When Othello and Desdemona discuss their marriage before the Venetian court, Othello speaks of “when lightwing’d toys / Of feather’d Cupid seel with wanton dullness / My speculative and officed instruments” (1.3.284–6). The allusion illuminates the way erotic desires— represented by Cupid—can thoroughly redirect one’s attentions.

Roman Histories: Shakespeare’s exposure to other countries and cultures than that of Elizabethan England is a matter of critical debate. Specifically in Othello, it is apparent that much of his information regarding the cultures of the Mediterranean through which Othello has travelled is taken from Naturalis...

(The entire section is 791 words.)