Love in Othello

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  • 0:00 Shakespeare on Love
  • 1:02 Romantic Love
  • 2:59 Familial Love
  • 3:55 Self-Love
  • 5:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Bishop
Although Othello ends in tragedy, love is a prevailing theme that motivates many of the play's characters into action. Love in Othello is both an exploitable virtue and a vehicle for destruction.

Shakespeare on Love

Shakespeare uses love as a theme throughout his many plays, including his tragedies. In his comedies, love propels characters to act against their self-interests and reveal their true nature. Though Shakespeare generally places less focus on love in his tragedies, Othello is an example of how Shakespeare masterfully manipulates love as a tragic theme, or cause of misery and sadness, to reveal his characters' vulnerabilities. In this lesson, we will explore the theme of love and how it motivates the play's main characters. In Othello we can break down the theme of love into three categories: romantic love, familial love and self-love. Most of the principal characters exemplify at least one of these types of love.

Romantic Love

The protagonist, Othello, is a general in the Venetian army. Though mighty and fierce on the battlefield, Othello is transformed to a smitten lover in Desdemona's presence. Desdemona is Othello's wife and equally enamored of him. Desdemona and Othello's love is polarized in many ways: She is a Venetian beauty from a noble family, while he is a Moor, or person of African descent, from Cyprus, enslaved as a child. The love shared by Othello and Desdemona overcomes these obstacles, which at the time would have seemed monumental. Their love is the subject of disdain among at least one other important character, the villain Iago, who has a grudge against Othello.

This romance is the real thing, but it is steeped in adversity. They must overcome their social and racial differences as well as the perceptions of others. Iago in particular resents their marriage, calling Desdemona's love for Othello a 'violent commencement.' Barbantio, who is Desdemona's father, also objects to the match, believing that Desdemona deceived him in eloping with Othello.

Bianca is also in love, but these feelings are not mutual. Her lover is Cassio, who does not take her seriously, nor does he appear to have any intentions of committing to her. This is clearly a one-sided romance, and Bianca eventually realizes this, which fuels her pivotal outburst. The outburst is the scene in which Bianca angrily waves the handkerchief Cassio found in his quarters, the same handkerchief that Othello recognizes as Desdemona's. In both of these examples, Shakespeare uses romantic love as a catalyst for destruction.

Familial Love

Othello features one example of familial love, but it plays an important role in the narrative. At the beginning of the play, Iago engineers an inquiry into the circumstances under which Othello married Desdemona. It is in this scene that we meet Barbantio, Desdemona's father who believes that Desdemona should have married someone of higher social stature, and that she must have been 'bound in chains of magic' or manipulated into the marriage.

So strong is Barbantio's belief that he agrees to the inquiry and brings both Othello and Desdemona before the duke. Here we see Desdemona caught between familial love for her father and romantic love for her husband. She professes her love for Othello publicly and as a result severs her familial allegiance. Desdemona effectively exchanges the sheltered bonds of family for romantic love.

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