The main themes of Othello are the differences between appearances and reality, the destructiveness of jealousy, and the importance of honor and reputation.
- Appearances and reality: Iago’s schemes make it difficult for the other characters to see through appearances and understand reality. That divide is the source of the play’s tragedy.
- Jealousy: Much of the play’s action can be understood as a tragic chain of jealous behaviour. Iago is initially driven to revenge by jealousy, and in the end Othello murders Desdemona out of misplaced jealousy.
- Honor and Reputation: Many of the characters’ reputations are diminished, whether due to racism or careful misinformation.
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:
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.
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.
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"...
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