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Free Study Guide-Othello by William Shakespeare-Free Online Booknotes
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The Theme of Appearance vs. Reality

The theme of Appearance vs. Reality is one of the Themes of Othello. Iago states this theme when he tells Roderigo that he will wear his heart upon his sleeve. Othello asserts that, "Men should be what they seem". But throughout, Othello’s own "appearance" raises some doubt about the validity of this assumption. His soul is not openly reflected in his face. Similarly Iago’s evil is not reflected in the honesty of his face.

So conscious is Othello of the gulf between appearance and reality that he laments the passage of old customs and their replacement with others that cannot guarantee certainty. As he takes Desdemona’s hand, he observes "the heart of old gave hand, but our new heraldry is hands nor hearts". This leads finally to his own analysis of the contradictions that he believes she embodies: "O thou black weed why art thou so lovely fair?" In reality, Desdemona does not embody these contradictions. For her, his blackness is of no significance at all. She sees "his visage in his mind" and holds this view consistently throughout the play.

The Theme of Deception and Self-deception

Characters in Othello are divided into two groups. On the one hand, there are characters who are victims of deceit. On the other hand, there are characters who deceive themselves. Iago is an arch deceiver, and all the other characters in this play are his dupes. He deceives them and uses them to achieve his own ends. Roderigo, Othello, Cassio, and Desdemona are key victims of his deception. Roderigo is constantly deceived by Iago, to the point that he turns over his wealth into the villain’s hands. Cassio is another victim of the deception practiced by Iago. Since Iago has a grudge against him, he decides to work against him and bring about his ruin, which he accomplishes through deception.

Of all the characters in the play, Othello himself is the most deceived by Iago. Because Iago wants revenge on the General for ignoring him for a promotion, he sets out to destroy Othello. He manipulates him into believing that his fair and innocent wife is having an affair with Cassio.

When Desdemona pleads for Cassio, at Iago’s suggestion, the Moor’s jealousy is further ignited. Then Iago deceives Othello by offering the "planted" handkerchief as a proof of Desdemona’s infidelity. Othello’s deceit is so thorough that he easily succumbs to Iago’s suggestion that Desdemona must be killed for her evil ways. As a result, Iago equally deceives Desdemona.

Othello is also a study in self-deception. Iago, Roderigo, Othello, and Brabantio are victims of self-deception. Brabantio is a character who is entirely self-deceived. He is of the view that his daughter, Desdemona, will follow his command and forsake her new husband. Though Iago is an arch-deceiver in the play, he is also self-deceived because he fails to understand the true nature of his wife Emilia. He does not realize that Emilia would be the means of exposing him. Roderigo, too, is self-deceived in as much as he thinks that he can gain the love of Desdemona and possess her, even after her marriage to the Moor. Othello, however, is the most self-deceived of all, for he does not accept the innocence and purity of his lovely young wife. He believes that Desdemona has been unfaithful because he is black, mysterious, and older. In truth, none of these things matter to Desdemona. She loves Othello deeply and purely for who he is.

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