Themes in Othello by William Shakespeare
As a play, "Othello" encompasses many things but more than anything else it is a study of pure evil. Although Othello is an accomplished professional soldier and a hero of sorts, he is also a minority and an outcast in many ways. As a Black man and a Moor (which means he's a Moslem), Othello has at least two qualities, which make him stand out in the Elizabethan world. He is also married to a Caucasian woman named Desdemona, which creates an undercurrent of hostility as evidenced by the derogatory remark "the ram hath topped the ewe".
Othello's problems begin when he promotes one of his soldiers, Michael Cassio as his lieutenant. This arouses the jealousy and hatred of one of his other soldiers, Iago who hatches a plot to destroy Othello and Michael Cassio. When Cassio injures an opponent in a fight he is rebuked, punished, and subsequently ignored by Othello who must discipline him and teach him a lesson. Iago convinces Desdemona to intervene on Cassio's behalf and then begins to convince Othello that Desdemona is in love with Cassio.
This is actually one of the most difficult Shakespeare plays to watch because the audience sees the plot begin to unfold and is tormented by Othello's gradual decent into Iago's trap. As with other Shakespeare plays, the critical components of this one are revealed by language. When Othello is eventually convinced of Cassio's treachery, he condemns him and promotes Iago in his place. When Othello tells Iago that he has made him his lieutenant, Iago responds with the chilling line, "I am thine forever". To Othello this is a simple affirmation of loyalty, but to the audience, this phrase contains a double meaning. With these words, Iago indicates that the promotion does not provide him with sufficient satisfaction and that he will continue to torment and destroy Othello. It is his murderous intentions, not his loyal service that will be with Othello forever.
Iago's promotion provides him with closer proximity to Othello and provides him with more of his victim's trust. From here Iago is easily able to persuade Othello of Desdemona's purported infidelity. Soon Othello begins to confront Desdemona who naturally protests her innocence. In another revealing statement, Othello demands that Desdemona give him "the ocular proof". Like Iago's earlier statement, this one contains a double meaning that is not apparent to the recipient but that is very clear to the audience who understands the true origin of Othello's jealousy. Othello's jealousy is an invisible enemy and it is also based on events that never took place. How can Desdemona give Othello visual evidence of her innocence if her guilt is predicated on accusations that have no true shape or form? She can't. Othello is asking Desdemona to do the impossible, which means that her subsequent murder is only a matter of course.
I know that to a lot of young people this play must seem dreadfully boring and meaningless. One thing you can keep in mind is that the audience in Shakespeare's time did not have the benefit of cool things such as movies, and videos. The downside of this is that Shakespeare's plays are not visually stimulating to an audience accustomed to today's entertainment media. But the upside is that since Shakespeare had to tell a complex story with simple tools, he relied heavily on an imaginative use of language and symbols. Think of what it meant to an all White audience in a very prejudiced time to have a Black man at the center of a play. That character really stood out-almost like an island. He was vulnerable and exposed to attitudes that he could not perceive directly but which he must have sensed in some way.
Shakespeare set this play in two locations, Italy and Cypress. To an Elizabethan audience, Italy represented an exotic place that was the crossroads of many different civilizations. It was the one place where a Black man could conceivably hold a position of authority. Remember that Othello is a mercenary leader. He doesn't command a standing army and doesn't belong to any country. He is referred to as "the Moor" which means he could be from any part of the Arab world from Southern Spain to Indonesia. He has no institutional or national identity but is almost referred to as a phenomenon. (For all the criticism he has received in this department, Shakespeare was extrordinarlily attuned to racism and in this sense he was well ahead of his time.) Othello's subsequent commission as the Military Governor of Cypress dispatches him to an even more remote and isolated location. The man who stands out like an island is sent to an island. His exposure and vulnerability are doubled just as a jealous and murderous psychopath decides to destroy him.
Iago is probably the only one of Shakespeare's villains who is evil in a clinical sense rather than a human one. In Kind Lear, Edmund the bastard hatches a murderous plot out of jealousy that is similar to Iago's. But unlike Iago, he expresses remorse and attempts some form of restitution at the end of the play. In the Histories, characters like Richard III behave in a murderous fashion, but within the extreme, political environment in which they operate, we can understand their motives even if we don't agree with them. Iago, however, is a different animal. His motives are understandable up to the point in which he destroys Michael Cassio but then they spin off into an inexplicable orbit of their own. Some have suggested that Iago is sexually attracted to Othello, which (if its true) adds another meaning to the phrase "I am thine forever". But even if we buy the argument that Iago is a murderous homosexual, this still doesn't explain why he must destroy Othello. Oscar Wilde once wrote very beautifully of the destructive impact a person can willfully or unwittingly have on a lover ("for each man kills the things he loves") but this is not born out in the play. Instead, Shakespeare introduces us to a new literary character-a person motivated by inexplicable evil that is an entity in itself. One of the great ironies of this play is that Othello is a character of tragically visible proportions while Iago is one with lethally invisible ones.