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  • 0:02 Othello and Iago: A…
  • 1:01 Background
  • 2:13 Relationship to Venice
  • 3:18 Thoughts on Love
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
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.

Othello and Iago, the two main characters in Shakespeare's 'Othello,' are one of the most dynamic pairs in all of literature. The ways in which they complement each other and also oppose each other fuel the events in this tragedy.

Othello and Iago: A Powerful Pair

Shakespeare's Othello is, at one level, a play about doomed romance as Othello falsely suspects his beloved bride Desdemona of infidelity and eventually murders her. But as many critics have pointed out, the most important relationship in the play is probably not Othello and Desdemona, but instead Othello and Iago.

The relationship between Othello, general of the Venetian army, and Iago, his ensign, or flag-bearer, fuels the drama of the play. Iago's simmering hate and resentment towards Othello leads him to dupe Othello into thinking Desdemona is unfaithful. But, Iago's plan only works because Othello trusts him as a dear friend.

Othello and Iago's personalities are in some ways complementary and in other ways completely opposed, and that is what drives the play. The similarities and differences in their backgrounds, relationships to Venetian society, and views on love fuel this relationship.

Background

Othello and Iago have some similarity in their background. Both are not members of the Venetian upper class, as Brabantio, Desdemona, and Cassio all are and instead, they have spent their lives as soldiers. We see this in the first scene of the play when Iago complains about being passed over for promotion in favor of Cassio. Iago calls Cassio 'A great arithmetician...That never set a squadron in the field, Nor the division of a battle knows' (1.1.30-34). Iago is saying that the well-educated and moneyed Cassio has never actually been in battle, while Iago is a real soldier who knows how to fight.

Othello, as well, is a career soldier. As a Moor, or North African, he is definitely not a member of upper-class Venetian society but has proved himself so well in battle that he has been promoted to general. And this is the first major difference between Othello and Iago. While Iago remains in the relatively low position of ensign and seethes about it, Othello has risen through the ranks and been rewarded. And this in spite of the fact that, as a Moor, he is even more of an outsider than the low-born Iago is.

Relationship to Venice

The contrast in Othello and Iago's social positions, as the play opens, leads to the next big point of conflict: their relationship to Venetian society. Othello longs to be accepted by Venice, and at the beginning of the play, in which he marries Desdemona and is given Brabantio's blessing, seems to indicate that he has been. Iago, on the other hand, has no interest in rising as Othello has, and instead, his resentment has led him to want to tear down everyone above him.

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