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Themes in Othello

Jealousy: In contemporary culture, Othello has become known as the quintessential parable about the tragic effects of jealousy. Iago’s primary tactic in bringing Othello to ruin is to sow seeds of distrust in the general’s mind. Iago manipulates the play’s events to lead Othello to believe that Desdemona is having a sexual affair with Michael Cassio. The great irony at the heart of the play is that the jealousy—the “green-eyed monster”—is an illusion, but yields real disaster.

Racism: Othello’s ethnic background is the source of a great deal of tension in the play. Beyond being referred to as the “Moor,” his lineage is never revealed. Scholars continue to debate the meaning of “Moor.” By some definitions, the term refers to those of North African origin, but in other cases it encompasses those of all Arab civilizations. Othello’s race serves as the source of one of the play’s central metaphors: black as wicked, defiled, or dishonest. Morally charged black and white imagery surfaces throughout the play.

Emotion and Reason: In a conversation with the forlorn, lovestruck Roderigo, Iago encourages the man to use his reasoning faculties to overcome his powerful emotions. The contrast between reason and emotion becomes a central theme of the play. Othello presents himself as a rational individual in the first act, but he descends into a mindless frenzy by play’s end. Iago is, as he claims, cerebral and cunning, but his actions are ultimately driven by emotional motives—in his case, a desire for revenge.

Themes Examples in Othello:

Act I - Scene III

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"'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are gardens, to the which our wills are(340) gardeners;..."   (Act I - Scene III)

Iago’s thesis is that human emotions must be controlled by reason, lest they run our lives. Iago firmly believes in a self-aware cultivation of the soul, and that industry and moderation can be practiced through rational thought. While Iago’s message of self-control is valid, it goes hand in hand with his ruthlessness of character.

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"as truly as to heaven I do confess the vices of my blood,..."   (Act I - Scene III)

Othello addresses his race, understanding that his position as a Moor is problematic in his courtship of Desdemona. Most intriguing is that he depicts his race in a negative light: he “confesses the vices of [his] race.” It is not clear whether Othello actually considers his race a vice, or whether he means to debase himself to appeal to the Duke and Brabantio.

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"To fall in love with what she fear'd to look on!..."   (Act I - Scene III)

Brabantio refers once again to Othello’s racial background. His understanding is that Othello, as a Moor, is an object of fear, not affection. When Brabantio speaks of errors “against all rules of nature,” he means miscegenation. Brabantio refers once again to Othello’s race. His understanding is that Othello, as a Moor, is an object of fear, not affection. When Brabantio speaks of errors “against all rules of nature,” he means miscegenation, or interracial relationships. This touches on the play’s theme of conflicted race relations.

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"For nature so preposterously to err, Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense, Sans witchcraft could not...."   (Act I - Scene III)

Brabantio views Desdemona’s marriage to a black man as an aberration against nature. As he has done and will continue to do, Brabantio claims Desdemona was bewitched or coerced. Brabantio’s perspective touches on the play’s theme of racial conflict.

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"She never yet was foolish that was fair;(150) For even her folly help'd her to an heir...."   (Act II - Scene I)

As in the case of the woman of “blackness and wit,” Iago claims that the woman who is “foolish [and] fair” will succeed so long as she makes an “heir.” Iago assumes that the purpose of all women is to procreate. This attitude reflects both the historical setting of the play, as well as Iago’s particularly low regard for women. This moment is exemplary of the play’s ongoing interest in gender relations.

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"And yet, how nature erring from itself—..."   (Act III - Scene III)

Othello thinks of the racial divide between Desdemona and himself. Brabantio has remarked time and again that Desdemona’s love for Othello is an aberration from nature. Othello finds this insecurity resurfacing in the context of Desdemona’s possible adultery.

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"She did deceive her father, marrying you; And when she seem'd to shake and fear your looks,(230) She loved them most...."   (Act III - Scene III)

Iago succeeds in recasting Othello’s courtship with Desdemona as evidence of her duplicitous nature. In this exchange, Iago evokes what psychologists refer to as “confirmation bias.” After planting doubt in Othello’s mind, Iago compels him to look for evidence, knowing that he will find further grounds for jealousy even where they do not exist. The growth of jealousy based on nonexistent evidence becomes one of the play’s central themes.

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"Think'st thou I'ld make a life of jealousy,(200) To follow still the changes of the moon With fresh suspicions? No!..."   (Act III - Scene III)

True to his character, Othello does not believe in Iago’s stance of jealousy. In a reiteration of the theme of emotion versus reason, Othello uses reason to suppress any potential flarings of emotion. As he judiciously puts it, “I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove.”

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"Who steals my purse steals trash..."   (Act III - Scene III)

Iago pretends to be reluctant to reveal the fictitious affair between Cassio and Desdemona because stealing a person's honor is far worse than stealing his/her money. According to Iago, "Who steals my purse steals trash" because money doesn't compare to honor; honor can only belong to a specific person, whereas money doesn't change based on who possesses it. The idea of reputation is the idea on which Iago will build all of his deceit.

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"'Tis very good; I must be circumstanced...."   (Act III - Scene IV)

Bianca echoes the disgruntlement Emilia often expresses. Emilia operates according to Iago’s orders, and she feels like nothing more than “food” to his “stomach,” to use her metaphor. In much the same way, Bianca feels that she “must be circumstanced,” as if she were a tool or resource to be used.

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"But jealous for they are jealous. 'Tis a monster(170) Begot upon itself, born on itself. DESD: Heaven keep that monster from Othello's mind!..."   (Act III - Scene IV)

Emilia’s words cut to the heart of the play’s message about jealousy. Jealousy is “a monster/Begot upon itself.” Jealousy does not need to be founded on any external cause; rather, it fuels itself. The audience knows Emilia is correct, for Othello’s jealousy is based on Iago’s fictions. The dramatic irony increases in Desdemona’s response: a plea to “keep that monster from Othello’s mind!” We know it is too late.

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"his unbookish jealousy..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Shakespeare may well have invented the adjective “unbookish” here to describe Othello’s emotionally charged jealousy. This phrase reiterates one of the play’s central themes: the dichotomy of reason versus emotion. “Unbookish” here most nearly means “without reason.” One of Iago’s core beliefs as a character is that one ought to apply reason rather than follow one’s emotions.

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"O, it comes o'er my memory, As doth the raven o'er the infected house, Boding to all..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Othello’s simile alludes to the ancient practice of augury—predicting the future, often by reading the activity of birds. As with many of Shakespeare’s metaphors, there are multiple meanings to unpack. The example Othello uses—ravens flying over an infected house—points to an omen of death, which serves as an important piece of foreshadowing. The metaphor of his mind as an “infected house” bolsters the theme of jealousy as a monstrous, poisonous force.

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"Heaven stops the nose at it, and the moon winks;(85) The bawdy wind, that kisses all it meets, Is hush'd within the hollow mine of earth, And will not hear it...."   (Act IV - Scene II)

In beautiful imagery, Othello reiterates the theme of Nature as a means of judging human action. To illustrate how unnatural Desdemona’s actions are, Othello paints a personified picture of heaven, with the moon and the wind scorning her.

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"I durst, my lord, to wager she is honest, Lay down my soul at stake. If you think other, Remove your thought; it doth abuse your bosom.(15) If any wretch have put this in your head, Let heaven requite it with the serpent's curse! For if she be not honest, chaste, and true, There's no man happy; the purest of their wives Is foul as slander...."   (Act IV - Scene II)

This passage represents a note of clarity and truth amidst the sea of confusion. Indeed, Emilia has never seen any signs of infidelity because there are none. Emilia is bold enough to challenge Othello on his assumptions despite his position of authority. Emilia goes on to make a broader statement about the nature of relationships between men and women. She deconstructs the widely accepted double standard that expects women to be entirely chaste and pure. To Emilia, such an expectation is unrealistic, for “there’s no man happy” regardless of a woman’s supposed virtue. Emilia’s comments reveal a great deal about Elizabethan society and remain relevant to this day.

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"Then let them use us well; else let them know, The ills we do, their ills instruct us so...."   (Act IV - Scene III)

In Emilia, Shakespeare has created a spokeswoman with a female perspective on the play’s events. In this speech, Emilia calls into question the causes for the supposed failures of women, citing the thoughtless actions of men. Emilia humanizes women too, for women “see and smell/And have their palates for both sweet and sour/As husbands have.” Emilia’s perspectives are central to the play’s approach to gender relations.

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"All that's spoke is marr'd...."   (Act V - Scene II)

Gratiano’s famous line gets at one of the core problems explored in Othello. Throughout the play, language proves to be deceptive and insufficient. From Iago’s lies to Othello’s cryptic final utterances, words consistently sidestep the truth or fall short of it. Communication between characters often fails. For Othello and Desdemona, such failures bear fatal consequences.

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"O, banish me, my lord, but kill me not..."   (Act V - Scene II)

Faced with death, Desdemona realizes how precious every moment of existence can be. She starts by asking to be banished rather than killed. Then she reduces her request and asks just to live for one more night. Then when Othello remains adamant, she asks for "But half an hour!" And finally she pleads, "But while I say one prayer!" In other words, she is just begging for a minute or two more of precious life before entering eternal darkness. Shakespeare had an uncanny ability to places himself in his different characters' positions. He can be Othello and then Desdemona, moving back and forth in his imagination as he creates his moving dialogue.

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"When I have pluck'd the rose, I cannot give it vital growth again..."   (Act V - Scene II)

This simple metaphor, so strikingly appropriate to the occasion, is characteristic of Shakespeare's poetry. He typically favored common, natural imagery that would often echo thoughts that are familiar—albeit thoughts most of us have never put into words. When one plucks a beautiful flower one has actually killed it. At that point there is no way to undo the damage done, just as Othello cannot undo the murder he has committed.

This scene in which Othello murders Desdemona is compelling because he is killing the thing he loves best in all the world. In fact, he later tells Emelia:

If heaven would make me such another world
Of one entire and perfect chrysolite,
I'ld not have sold her for it.

This scene in Othello explores a theme that Oscar Wilde later discussed in his 1897 poem "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," which contains the following stanza:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

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