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The major themes of Othello are 1) appearance and reality, 2) society's treatment of the outsider; and 3) jealousy.
1. APPEARANCE AND REALITY
Can we ever know the truth about a person? Is it possible to know if someone is lying to us? How can we discover what lies behind the words someone tells us?
Shakespeare was fascinated with these questions. Many of his most evil characters were thought by others in the play to be sincere and truthful. In Othello, this theme has its most potent and dramatic realization in the character of Iago.
Iago fools everyone in the play into believing he's honest. No one even suspects him of treachery, until the final act when Roderigo first realizes how badly he's been fooled. In short, Iago proves that evil intentions can be masked behind a facade of honesty.
The theme emerges in other characters: Brabantio is deceived by Desdemona's reaction to Othello, assuming she fears him when she truly loves the Moor. Othello suspects that Desdemona is unfaithful, despite her innocent looks. Othello also feels he's being deceived by Cassio, whom he trusts and who appears loyal. Emilia's exterior suggests salty indifference, but she turns against her husband and dies in defence of Desdemona. Even Bianca, who is suspected of dishonesty, is ultimately seen as a sincere and caring woman. And Othello, considered a barbarian by many in the play, is gentle and noble until driven to near-madness by the cruel manipulations of his most trusted "friend."
The inability to judge true from false is a human dilemma that we have all faced. In Othello's case, the dilemma proves fatal. Shakespeare dramatizes the problem by showing the consequences of trusting someone whose mask of honesty is perfect, almost to the very last.
2. SOCIETY'S TREATMENT OF THE OUTSIDER
Everyone has known the feeling of being alienated from a group, whether it's as the new kid at school, as a member of an ethnic or religious minority, or as someone who holds an unpopular opinion.
Shakespeare points that problem in Othello by making his hero an outsider, one who doesn't quite belong in the society in which he lives. From the very beginning, when he's held in suspicion by a man who accuses him of seducing his daughter with mysterious charms, Othello stands apart from everyone else. As a man of another race and from another country, much of the conflict he faces is due to the reigning opinion that he doesn't quite belong.
Othello's sensitivity to the issue becomes clear when Iago uses it as proof that Desdemona couldn't be faithful to a man so foreign-such a match is "unnatural," he says. Othello's self-confidence, once so strong, is easily eroded by Iago's ability to convince him that he's inferior to the men of Venice. Shakespeare dramatizes through Othello the tragedy of a man whose insecurities about his background, fed by public opinion, weaken his defenses and allow his worst instincts to take over.
Othello represents how jealousy, particularly sexual jealousy, is one of the most corrupting and destructive of emotions. It is jealousy (fed by his innate sense of evil) that prompts Iago to plot Othello's downfall; jealousy, too, is the tool that Iago uses to arouse Othello's passions. Roderigo and Bianca demonstrate jealousy at various times in the play, and Emilia demonstrates that she too knows the emotion well. Only Desdemona and Cassio, the true innocents of the story, seem beyond its clutches.
Shakespeare used the theme in other plays, but nowhere else is it portrayed as quite the "green-eyed" monster it is in this play. Since it is an emotion that everyone shares, we watch its destructive influence on the characters with sympathy and horror.