The main themes in Othello are trust and deception, race and the outsider, the consequences of jealousy, and tensions between women and men.
- Trust and deception: The relationships in Othello often exist on the line between trust and deception, with treacherous Iago commanding trust and honest Desdemona receiving doubt.
- Race and the outsider: Othello's Moorish background places him at a distance from his peers, despite his sterling reputation.
- The consequences of jealousy: The tragedy of the play is driven by the effects of unchecked jealousy.
- Tensions between women and men: The women in the play occupy a precarious position in a world of men marked by misogyny and violence.
Trust and Deception
Perhaps the most prominent theme that runs through Othello is that of trust and deception. Early in the play, Iago sets this theme in motion, suggesting that he is not always as he seems and that he is capable of being whomever he needs to be if it suits his cause. A number of characters praise Iago for his integrity, and both Othello and Cassio refer to him as “honest Iago,” although they are ultimately victims of his deceit. On the other hand, Desdemona plays a faithful wife, not even blaming her husband when he wrongfully murders her, and yet her husband has no trust in her. The play repeatedly illustrates the difficulties of knowing whom to trust in which circumstances—especially when there is deception afoot.
This question of whom or what to trust extends to viewers or readers of the play. Iago often refers to being someone he is not. Iago even self-consciously plays the role of the villain, which he makes evident to the audience when he says, “What’s he then that says I play the villain?” In this particular line, the play seems self-aware. All of the characters in the play are, in fact, playing parts, and by extension, deceiving the audience. In this case, audience members are willingly deceived, suspending their disbelief and allowing the players to spread fiction. In this way, Shakespeare may not necessarily have a specific moral related to trust and deception in Othello. Rather, Othello may simply provide broad exploration of the limits of trust: when is it unwarranted, when is it necessary, and when can deceit be seen as entertainment as opposed to a moral transgression?
Race and the Outsider
Racial politics in Elizabethan England were emergent, because world exploration and interactions between races were still fairly new to England at the time. However, by the time Othello was written, Queen Elizabeth had proclaimed that too many Africans were entering England and began to discourage their entry to the country. In this way, one can certainly see how Africans might be viewed in a negative light during the time that Othello was first performed. They were seen as infidels and non-Christians, which may explain why Shakespeare included a passage in which Othello explains his transition to Christianity. Were Othello not Christian, it would have been harder for the Elizabethan audience to identify with the protagonist of the play.
Regardless of his Christianity, Othello is still seen as an outsider. This underlying racist attitude is reflected in many of Iago’s statements that liken Othello to a lustful animal (e.g., “the beast with two backs”). While there was a racist attitude emerging in England, Africa was also considered to be an exotic, mysterious place that most English people had never witnessed firsthand. This attitude is evident early in the play when Brabantio accuses Othello of seducing his daughter through magical charms or spells. Othello himself has given Desdemona a handkerchief that was enchanted by an Egyptian witch and stained with virgin’s blood. In a play that is otherwise void of any kind of supernatural elements, these allusions to magic are seemingly related to Othello’s African heritage. Despite his recognized merit as a general, Othello is not welcome to become a part of Brabantio’s family, and as a Black man, he is to some degree considered an outsider by Venetian society. It is impossible to know Shakespeare’s artistic intent, but Othello is clearly a sympathetic and admirable character, despite his being an outsider in both the world of the play and Elizabethan England.
The tension between belonging and being...
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an outsider can be seen in other characters as well. Desdemona, for instance, occupies a tenuous position as a woman on the frontlines of Cyprus. While the war never actually occurs, she cannot know that it will not happen when she opts to follow her husband to battle. Emilia, as Desdemona’s attendant, must follow her mistress to Cyprus, and Emilia’s presence there is also questioned. All of these outsiders are eventually killed. The question of who has a right to claim certain spaces is even present in the first few lines of dialogue in the play. Cassio has been promoted to the position of lieutenant, but whether or not he deserves that role is unclear based on his experience and the testimony of others in Venice.
The Consequences of Jealousy
Othello charts the downfall of Othello and Desdemona in the hands of Iago’s schemes. While Iago is the most culpable figure, it is Othello’s unhindered jealousy that allows events to descend into tragedy. In act 3, scene 3, Iago memorably personifies jealousy as a destructive force:
O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;It is the green-eyed monster which doth mockThe meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in blissWho, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger.
There is a note of dramatic irony in the fact that Iago tells Othello to “beware… the green-eyed monster,” for it is Iago himself who sows the seeds of the very jealousy he speaks of. Iago’s personification is apt in that jealousy deranges one’s senses, blinds one’s reason, turns one into a monster. In act 4, scene 1, Iago tells Othello that Cassio has bragged of bedding Desdemona. Othello is so overcome with jealousy that he loses his powers of reason and speech, muttering “Handkerchief—confessions—handkerchief!” and falling into a trance.
The final repercussions of Othello’s jealousy arrive in act 5, when he becomes the “green-eyed monster” of which Iago has warned him. As he prepares to murder Desdemona, he ignores her truthful testimony of innocence. Indeed, his eyes—symbolic of reason—have been occluded by the senseless force of jealousy, and he cannot hear her pleas. This central tragedy of the play is a chilling testament to the consequences of unchecked jealousy.
Tensions Between Women and Men
Throughout Othello, there is a constant thread of tension between women and men. In its subtlest form, this tension manifests in the somewhat tenuous presence of Desdemona and Emilia in Cyprus, a military encampment that can be viewed as a masculine sphere. In its harsher forms, this tension erupts in expressions of outright misogyny and even violence against women. Throughout the play, discussions occur regarding the differences between man and woman, most notably Iago’s comments in the second act about how all women are prostitutes. This chauvinistic view of women is allowed to exist in the masculine world of the military. It is not surprising that someone as villainous as Iago would maintain this view, and neither Desdemona nor Emilia seem prepared to respond to his claims, whether due to their abhorrence or their baselessness.
It is only in Desdemona’s bedchamber, which can be viewed as a comparatively feminine sphere, that Emilia feels safe to express her own views—namely that women and men are equally sexual, that men wrongfully mistreat their wives, and that sex can be a way for women to reclaim their lives and independence. Unfortunately, there are few such spaces in Cyprus, and Desdemona and Emilia cannot comfortably exist in this masculine world. By the end of the play, both women are killed by the hands of their militant husbands.