One of Shakespeare's more famous plays, 'Othello' is a classic tragedy featuring love, jealousy, and ultimately, death. In this lesson, we will explore some of the play's strongest themes.
Love, deception, jealous, murder; while these may sound like story lines from a Hollywood soap opera, they represent some of the big ideas from Shakespeare's classic play, Othello. In this play, Shakespeare tells the story of Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army. Othello is married to Desdemona, the daughter of a Senator named Brabantio. We learn that Othello has two major enemies who plot to destroy him: Roderigo, who is also in love with Desdemona, and Iago, Othello's employee, who is upset that another man named Cassio has been promoted over him. Over the course of the play, Iago comes up with a scheme to trick Othello into believing that Desdemona is cheating on him. In the end, Othello falls for Iago's sinister plot and winds up killing Desdemona, then himself.
Let's explore some of the major themes in Othello that lead to its tragic conclusion, including racial prejudice, manipulation, and jealousy.
Prejudice is a major theme in Othello, mainly because Othello is black and Desdemona is white. Many times throughout the play, we see the characters using openly racist language to describe Othello, calling him such names as an 'old black ram,' 'a Barbary horse,' and referencing his 'thick lips'.
Othello is frequently described as if he were an animal or a hypersexualized beast, descriptions that reflect the widely held beliefs about black men during this time. For example, when Iago goes to alert Brabantio that his daughter, Desdemona, is being physically intimate with Othello, he refers to them as being animalistic, telling Brabantio, I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.
Desdemona's father finds it hard to even believe that his daughter could genuinely love a black man, and accuses Othello of using trickery to convince Desdemona to marry him.
Throughout the play, we learn that Iago is a master manipulator. He is able to twist information, and create a false sense of reality that convinces Othello to believe that Desdemona is actually cheating on him, though he doesn't have a shred of actual proof. For example, at one point in the play, Iago manipulates a scenario in which Othello watches Desdemona talking to Cassio, the man she is supposedly cheating with. The conversation is totally innocent; however, Iago manipulates Othello into thinking that Cassio is openly flirting with his wife.
OTHELLO: Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?
IAGO: Cassio, my lord! No, sure, I cannot think it
That he would steal away so guilty-like,
Seeing you coming.
Once Iago has twisted Othello's mind into fully believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful, he further manipulates Othello into killing Desdemona.
IAGO: Do it not with poison. Strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated.
OTHELLO: Good, good. The justice of it pleases. Very good.
As this play unfolds, we learn that there is plenty of jealousy to go around. Roderigo is jealous of Othello, because he is in love with Desdemona. Iago is jealous of Cassio, because Othello has promoted Cassio to the position of military lieutenant over Iago. For this reason, Iago has made up his mind to manipulate both Othello and Cassio.
IAGO: Cassio's a proper man. Let me see now:
To get his place and to plume up my will
In double knavery--How, how? Let's see.
After some time, to abuse Othello's ear
That he is too familiar with his wife.
Once Iago has created his plot, he plants seeds of doubt in Othello's mind about Desdemona's friendship with Cassio. At first, Othello is careful about not wanting to let jealousy take control of him until he has absolute proof of Desdemona's infidelity:
OTHELLO: For she had eyes, and chose me. No, Iago;
I'll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;
And on the proof, there is no more but this:
Away at once with love or jealousy.
At this, Iago creates the proof that Othello needs to see. He gets his hands on a handkerchief that Desdemona has dropped by mistake and gives it to Cassio as a sure sign to Othello that Desdemona is cheating. This causes Othello to jump off the deep end. The mere idea of Desdemona being with another man is enough to make Othello insanely jealous, and eventually drives him to kill Desdemona, and himself.
Shakespeare's classic play Othello is about a man who falsely accuses his wife of cheating on him, and believes this lie so strongly that he eventually takes her life. Some of the major themes in this play include racial prejudice, manipulation, and jealousy. Specifically, Othello is regarded as a beast by other characters because he is black. Iago is jealous of Cassio because Othello promotes him to a higher military position. As a result, Iago manipulates Othello into believing that his wife is unfaithful, creating a jealous rage within Othello that ultimately destroys him.
As a result of this video, you should be able to:
- Summarize the plot of Othello
- Discuss the major themes in Othello