In Shakespeare's Othello, themes are essential to the working of the play. The text is a rich tapestry of plot, character, poetry and theme – elements which come together to form one of the Bard's most engaging tragedies.
OthelloTheme 1: Race
Shakespeare’s Othello is a Moor, a black man - indeed, one of the first black heroes in English literature.
The play deals with interracial marriage. Others have a problem with it, but Othello and Desdemona are happily in love. Othello holds an important position of power and influence. He has been accepted into Venetian society based on his bravery as a soldier.
Iago uses Othello’s race to ridicule and belittle him, at one point calling him “thick lips”. Othello’s insecurities surrounding his race ultimately lead to his belief that Desdemona is having an affair.
As a black man, he doesn’t feel he is worthy of his wife’s attention or that he has been embraced by Venetian society. Indeed, Brabanzio is unhappy about his daughter’s choice of suitor, due to his race. He is quite happy to have Othello regale stories of bravery to him but when it comes to his daughter, Othello is not good enough.
Brabanzio is convinced that Othello has used trickery to get Desdemona to marry him:
“O thou damned thief, where hast thou stowed my daughter? Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her, For I’ll refer me to all things of sense, If she in chains of magic were not bound, Whether a maid so tender, fair, and happy, So opposite to marriage that she shunned The wealthy curled darlings of our nation, Would ever have t’incur a general mock, Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom Of such a thing as thou”
Brabanzio: Act 1 Scene 3.
Othello’s race is an issue for Iago and Brabanzio but as an audience we are rooting for Othello, Shakespeare’s celebration of Othello as a black man is ahead of its time, the play encourages the audience to side with him and take against the white man who is mocking him just because of his race.
Othello Theme 2: Jealousy
The story of Othello is propelled by feelings of intense jealousy. All of the action and consequences that unfold are the result of jealousy. Iago is jealous of Cassio’s appointment as lieutenant over him, he also believes that Othello has had an affair with Emilia, his wife, and harbours plans for revenge on him as a result.
Iago also appears to be envious of Othello’s standing in Venetian society; despite his race, he has been celebrated and accepted in society. Desdemona’s acceptance of Othello as a worthy husband demonstrates this and this acceptance is due to Othello’s valour as a soldier, Iago is envious of Othello’s position.
Roderigo is jealous of Othello because he is in love with Desdemona. Roderigo is essential to the plot, his actions act as a catalyst in the narrative. It is Roderigo who goads Cassio into the fight which loses him his job, Roderigo attempts to kill Cassio so that Desdemona stays in Cyprus and eventually Roderigo exposes Iago.
Iago convinces Othello, erroneously, that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Othello reluctantly believes Iago but is finally convinced of his wife’s betrayal. So much so that he kills her. Jealousy leads to Othello’s degradation and ultimate downfall.
Othello Theme 3: Duplicity
“Certain, men should be what they seem”
Othello: Act 3, Scene 3
Unfortunately for Othello, the man who he trusts in the play, Iago, is not what he seems he is scheming, duplicitous and has a deep malevolent loathing for his master. Othello is made to believe that Cassio and Desdemona are the duplicitous ones. This mistake of judgement leads to his downfall.
Othello is prepared to believe Iago over his own wife because of his faith in his servant’s honesty; “This fellow’s of exceeding honesty” (Othello, Act 3 Scene 3). He doesn’t see any reason why Iago might double cross him.
Iago’s treatment of Roderigo is also duplicitous, treating him as a friend or at least a comrade with a common goal, only to kill him in order to cover up his own guilt. Fortunately, Roderigo was more savvy to Iago’s duplicity than he knew, hence the letters exposing him.
Emilia could be accused of duplicity in exposing her own husband. However, this endears her to the audience and demonstrates her honesty in that she has discovered her husband’s wrongdoings and is so outraged that she exposes him.