Allusions in Othello

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Shakespeare's Othello is a difficult text to understand for many reasons. The play contains frequent allusions, or references, that modern readers are not familiar with. This lesson will examine some of these common allusions.

Othello and Allusion

Shakespeare's play Othello was written and first performed around 1603. It is the story of Othello, a Moor (or North African) who becomes an army general in the Italian city of Venice and marries Desdemona, the daughter of a senator. Othello's downfall comes when his evil underling Iago, angry after being passed over for promotion, tells Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio, Othello's lieutenant, who received the promotion over Iago. The jealousy of this perceived affair causes Othello to murder Desdemona.

Like all of Shakespeare's plays, Othello can be difficult for modern readers to understand. Much of this, of course, is due to the now outdated language that Shakespeare uses, since the play was written over 400 years ago. But another common cause of confusion for modern readers is Shakespeare's use of allusion.

Allusion Explained

An allusion simply means a reference to another work of literature or art. It is still used today in TV shows like The Simpsons, which frequently quotes lines or whole scenes from popular movies or other TV shows. When The Simpsons makes a reference to The Godfather, for example, the writers assume their audience, or at least most of them, will be familiar with The Godfather and understand the allusion.

Shakespeare did the same thing, making allusions that he assumed his audience would get. But he often referenced texts that are not as familiar to people today. Two of Shakespeare's favorite sources for allusions were the Bible and classical mythology.

Allusions to the Bible

While many people still read the Bible today and there are some who know it very well, in Shakespeare's time it would have been expected that most of his audience had a strong familiarity with it. Church attendance and religion were a part of everyday life in England during Shakespeare's time. Even though much of Shakespeare's audience couldn't read, they would be familiar with the stories and characters in the Bible from attending church services.

One important biblical allusion comes in the first scene of the play, as Iago tells Roderigo that he plans to destroy Othello after being passed over for promotion in favor of Cassio. At the end of a long speech in which he lays out his plan to follow Othello 'to serve my turn upon him' (I.i.45), Iago ends with the line 'I am not what I am' (I.i.71).

One could read this line as Iago expressing his two-faced nature, pretending to befriend Othello in order to betray him. However, a reader familiar with the Bible would recognize this as an inversion of a famous line. When Moses encounters God in the form of a burning bush in the Book of Exodus, he asks God for his name, and the reply is 'I am that I am,' a confounding statement that speaks to the essential unknowability of God.

By parodying and reversing this statement, Iago seems to be positioning himself as the opposite of God, or, to put it another way, the Devil. Shakespeare seems to be saying that Iago's scheming is not just revenge from a slighted soldier, but the work of evil itself.

This invocation of biblical evil comes up again at the end of the play. Having realized he has been duped into murdering Desdemona, Othello gives one final speech before committing suicide. In the speech, he declares how he wants to be remembered, stating that he wants to be remembered 'Like the base Judean, threw away a pearl richer than all his tribe' (V.ii.406-407). This reference to a 'base Judean' (meaning someone of the Jewish faith) is often interpreted as a reference to Judas, the disciple of Jesus who betrayed him, or 'threw away a pearl richer than all his tribe.' By comparing himself to one of the great villains of the Bible, Othello takes blame for what he did, even though Iago had been the cause.

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