Main Themes of Othello

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  • 0:02 Plot Overview
  • 0:57 Major Themes
  • 1:08 Racial Prejudice
  • 2:07 Manipulation
  • 3:19 Jealousy
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Danielle Washington

Danielle is a certified English Language Arts educator with 8 years of classroom experience, and has an education specialist degree in curriculum and instruction.

Expert Contributor
Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for six years.

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.

Plot Overview

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.

Major Themes

Let's explore some of the major themes in Othello that lead to its tragic conclusion, including racial prejudice, manipulation, and jealousy.

Racial Prejudice

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.

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Additional Activities

Othello: Further Exploration

This lesson explained the main themes in Shakespeare's Othello. Use these activities to explore this play in more detail. Choose one or more of the following prompts based on your interests.

Shakespeare's Challenging Plays

Othello is considered one of the more challenging Shakespeare plays to stage because of the racism in the text. Other such plays include The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice. Consider these plays carefully. What are their merits? What are their drawbacks? Write a paragraph explaining your thoughts: should these plays be staged? How can theatre directors and actors work to stage them in a way that works for modern audiences?

Compare and Contrast

Othello is based largely on jealousy and misinformation. Many texts, especially plays, use these ideas to create conflict between characters and thereby advance the plot. Think of another work, either by Shakespeare or another writer, that employs misinformation in a similar way to Othello. Write an essay comparing and contrasting the two works. Is one more effective than the other? How does misinformation contribute to the dramatic irony of the play?

Examples: Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, and the film Memento (2000).

Staging Othello

Imagine that you are a theatre director and you are going to put on a production of Othello. Consider carefully how you will tell the story. Who will you cast in the main roles? You can use celebrity actors if you want to. What will the costumes look like? The set pieces? How will all of your choices contribute to the main themes of the story? Write a detailed proposal for your production.

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