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Othello

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English Literature

Hatred, racism, and the thirst for power: it is not only the contemporary world that is preoccupied with these issues; these social problems were also prominent during the early modern period. In Shakespeare's famous tragedy, Othello (1603), these human evils take centre stage and today's readers continue to be fascinated with the play's antagonist, Iago, and his absolute villainy. Let's explore this drama packed with hatred, fear, villainy, and complex relationships.

Othello: Overview

Othello is one of Shakespeare's tragedies and is tightly packed with complex relationships, particularly those between the titular character, Othello, and the play's villain, Iago, and also between Othello and his wife, Desdemona. Unusually for a Shakespearean drama, the play remains focused on a central story without introducing further subplots to distract the reader.

Among the fascinating aspects of Othello is the description of the titular character, as Othello's 'otherness' is highlighted throughout the play. In addition to being labelled a 'Moor' (1.1.42), meaning a citizen of North Africa, Othello is also described as having 'thick-lips' (1.1.72) and being an 'extravagant and wheeling stranger' (1.1.151). This is indicative of how far back and deep the history of racism towards people of colour in England goes. Fuelled with hatred, it is this 'otherness' that Iago exploits, with devastating results for Othello and Desdemona.

The term 'otherness' is used particularly in the context of sociology to identify the characteristics of individuals who are identified as not belonging to a dominant group, leading to the 'other' being alienated, or 'othered', and made to submit to the dominant majority.

Food for thought: During Shakespeare's time, black actors were not employed to perform on stage. How would the use of a white actor for the role of Othello change the reception of the play?

Othello: Summary

The play is set in Venice and opens with Iago, a low ranking officer in the Venetian army, in conversation with Roderigo. Both men are enraged by a man named Othello, who is an important figure in the state. Not only has Othello eloped with Desdemona, who Roderigo claims to be in love with, but Othello also passed Iago over for promotion, promoting another man named Cassio to the rank of lieutenant instead. Being passed over has evoked a jealous rage in Iago, who sets out to manipulate Roderigo, Othello, Cassio and Desdemona for his own benefit. He informs Desdemona's father, Brabantio, of the couple's elopement.

Brabantio, upset with the marriage, shows up before the Duke of Venice (to whom Othello, as a high-ranking government official is answerable) for retribution, claiming that Desdemona has been stolen by Othello (Brabantio calls Othello a 'thief' on numerous occasions, see 1.2.74-79 for an example of this). Establishing himself as a reasonable and good man, Othello pleads his case, and Desdemona confirms that she has not been stolen but is in love with Othello. While Brabantio is not happy with the marriage or the idea of Othello going unpunished, he recognises Othello's importance in the stately affairs of Venice. In the meantime, Iago continues to scheme Othello's downfall, who he hates.

Through various schemes, Iago plants the seed of doubt in Othello's mind concerning Desdemona's loyalty. Iago claims that there is an ongoing affair between Desdemona and Cassio and engineers situations that manipulate Othello into believing him. Consumed by jealousy, Othello attempts to kill Desdemona. She dies, but not before telling Emilia that Othello is mistaken. Emilia then exposes Iago's deception. Iago fatally wounds Emilia before escaping but is captured and then stabbed by Othello. Othello, now heartbroken and full of guilt, is informed that he is no longer the governor of Cyprus and that the post is now granted to Cassio.

Othello: Characters

Brabantio

Brabantio is a senator in Venice and the father of Desdemona. He is displeased with Desdemona and Othello's union and claims that Othello has somehow tricked and bewitched Desdemona into marrying him. When Desdemona goes against her father's claim that she was 'stolen' by Othello, Brabantio warns Othello that just as Desdemona has defied him, someday she will defy Othello, thus casting the first seed of doubt in the mind of Othello against Desdemona.

Michael Cassio

Cassio is promoted to the rank of lieutenant by Othello. He is a gentleman who genuinely respects Othello and hopes to reconcile with him when Iago spurs Othello against Cassio by claiming he is having an affair with Desdemona. Cassio respects Desdemona and is devoted to Othello. Because of his noble nature, he becomes lieutenant and later governor, despite being much younger than Iago.

Desdemona

Othello, Desmonda, StudySmarterDesdemona on her death bed after being attacked by her husband Othello, pixabay.

Desdemona, Othello's wife, is one of the main characters in the play. Due to false rumours that she had an affair with Cassio, Othello tragically murders Desdemona despite her true loyalty towards him. Her defiance of her father and deception of him by eloping with Othello, who is the perceived 'other' in the play, indicate her strong and assertive character. At the same time, in the face of her husband's accusation, she accepts his death sentence but asks for one more day to prove her loyalty, thus implying that she is blindly devoted to Othello.

Emilia

Emilia is Iago's wife and also a pivotal character in the play. Her exposure of Iago's machinations shows that she is aware of Iago's vengeful nature. She is devoted to Desdemona, and her troubled relationship with Iago contrasts with the loyalty Desdemona feels towards Othello, thus emphasising the injustice of Desdemona's murder.

Iago

Iago is a soldier in the Venetian army. He is a master manipulator and among the most hateful villains in Shakespearean texts. He thinks quickly on his feet and finds a way to turn any situation on its head to benefit him. He is misogynistic, for he believes women are subservient to men and good only for sex, and he cares only for himself. He fatally wounds his wife, Emilia, for exposing his treachery, thus exposing his brittle and troubled relationship with her. Arguably, Iago has no moral compass, and jealousy seems to be the main driving force behind his actions.

Othello

Othello is the protagonist of the play and is a gentleman and governor of Cyprus, which is a colony of Venice. He fiercely loves and is married to Desdemona. He is referred to as a 'Moor' in the play and is othered because of it, despite being a hero due to many war victories. Othello is manipulated by Iago and is unaware of Iago or Roderigo's hatred towards him. Despite being gentle and honourable, Othello is driven by a jealous rage to doubt his wife's loyalty and ends up murdering her due to Iago's manipulation. This paints Othello as a flawed and tragic hero.

Roderigo

Roderigo is a citizen of Venice and a suitor of Desdemona who rejects him in favour of Othello, who she then marries in secret. Roderigo, like Othello, is also manipulated by Iago, who does not have Roderigo's interests at the forefront of his plans. Largely, Roderigo is a pawn in Iago's plot to bring down Othello.

Othello: Structure

Othello is largely character-driven and can, therefore, be described as a tragedy of character. This is made evident in Iago's emergent hateful and vengeful nature, Othello's descent into a jealous rage, and Desdemona's tragic end based on misunderstanding, mistrust and manipulation.

As is typical of most Shakespearean plays, the play is divided into a total of 5 Acts. Also, Shakespeare often employs the blank verse (lines written in the iambic pentameter) for a significant portion of the play.

However, the lack of a subplot is one factor that sets Othello apart. Because there is no subplot, the focus is retained on the main action, thus heightening the sense of foreboding and gripping the reader's or audience's attention.

Some of the key literary and poetic devices used in the play are:

  • Imagery - animal imagery in particular, e.g., Iago views Othello as a 'black ram' (1.1.97), and in contrast, Desdemona is seen as the fair and demure 'white ewe' (1.1.98).
  • Asides - numerous characters, Iago in particular, express themselves in 'asides,' i.e., monologues where other characters are not present (a lengthy aside would be a 'soliloquy'). Through asides, the author can convey information that they want the audiences to be aware of, in particular the internal workings of a character's mind and their feelings.
  • Symbolism - a good example of a symbol in the play is the handkerchief, symbolising the love and loss in Othello and Desdemona's relationship.

Othello: Themes

Jealousy

The main motivator behind the actions of Othello, Iago and Roderigo is jealousy, which is evident from the opening scene of the play. Roderigo is jealous of Othello for marrying Desdemona, who he desires. Iago is jealous of Cassio, who is promoted over him to the rank of lieutenant. Othello, due to Iago's manipulations, grows jealous of Cassio because of his alleged affair with Desdemona and ends up murdering his wife in a jealous rage. For both Othello and Iago, their jealousy is all-consuming and leads to disastrous consequences. Iago's hatred of Othello is fuelled by jealousy and drives him to manipulate the other characters. Othello's jealousy blinds him to all reason and leads to the wronged murder of Desdemona. Through the actions of various characters in the play, William Shakespeare paints jealousy as a sin that makes people abandon all reason and is the cause of tragedy and pain.

Deception and Manipulation

The relationships in the play grow increasingly complicated and lead to tragedy because of deception and manipulation, largely caused by Iago. Iago's manipulation of other characters leads them to easily trust him, which he then uses to his advantage, painting him as the absolute evil villain with no redeeming attributes. Arguably, Iago's manipulation is what leads other characters to gradually become deceptive and mistrust others. For example, Othello, who loves and is devoted to Desdemona, starts doubting her loyalty towards him, and his mistrust of her leads him to believe she is unfaithful towards him. He also grows distrustful of his lieutenant, Cassio, who deeply respects Othello. Roderigo, too, is manipulated into plotting against Othello and Cassio because of his desiring Desdemona, which Iago senses and exploits. Iago, at the nexus of the web of deceit, draws the other characters into mistrusting everyone while continuing to trust Iago and confide in him.

Otherness

Othello is perceived as the 'other' in the play. Particularly in sociology, the term 'otherness' is used to describe the characteristics of individuals that do not conform to the majority, which may result in alienation from or submission to dominant groups. While Othello is the most obvious 'other' in the play, women, too, are othered. This is especially visible when Iago claims that women are worthless and continues to insult his wife, Emilia. The underlying disrespect towards and othering of women is also evident in Othello's increasing tyrant-like behaviour towards Desdemona once he begins to distrust her. Roderigo, too, sees Desdemona as an object that he would like to possess at all cost.

Othello: Conclusion

Othello is a remarkable play for numerous reasons, including the complexity of Iago's villainy, Othello's tragic downfall, and Desdemona being wronged by the one man she is devoted to. The audience, with their awareness of Iago's deception, is able to identify him as a villain. On the other hand, the characters within the play do not learn of Iago's deception right up till the end, thus painting him as a master manipulator. Othello's character, too, is complex because his fierce love for Desdemona transforms him into a murderer, and he ends up losing his wife as well as his powerful position in the Government.

Othello (1603) Overview - Key takeaways

  • Othello is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare.
  • The titular character of the play, Othello, is perceived to be a person of colour and is othered because of it.
  • Iago is one of Shakespeare's most complex villains, who manipulates people around him to get what he wants and which leads to tragic consequences.
  • Jealousy is the driving force behind the actions of most characters in the play.
  • The main themes of the play are jealousy, deception and manipulation, and otherness.

Othello

Othello is a play by William Shakespeare written in 1603

Iago is a low ranking officer in the Venetian army. Othello passes Iago over for a promotion, instead elevating the rank of Cassio to the rank of lieutenant. This is why Iago hates Othello.

The play Othello is set in 15th century Venice.

Othello is a play that warns against misunderstandings, mistrust, and manipulation. It also demonstrates how jealousy tends to ruin the lives of people. Based on the various aspects that influence Othello's decisions, one can analyse the meaning behind the play.

Consider the main character, Othello, and how he is influenced and manipulated by Iago. His mistrust and tendency to become quickly enraged cost Desdemona her life and Othello his reputable position in the Government. In unpacking his character, and that of Iago, one can uncover the main message of Othello to always guard oneself against external and internal forces that lead us to make hasty and/or wrong decisions.

Final Othello Quiz

Question

Who wrote the play Othello?

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Answer

William Shakespeare

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Question

Which of the following is NOT true about the character Othello?

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Answer

Othello married Juliet Capulet

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Question

Which of the following is true of the play Othello?

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Answer

There are no subplots.

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Question

Who kills Desdemona in Othello?

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Answer

Her husband

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Question

In which city is the play Othello set?

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Answer

Venice

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Question

What does Othello suspect of Desdemona?

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Answer

She is having an affair.

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Question

Which of the following is NOT a character in Othello?

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Answer

Octavius

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Question

Which character manipulates Roderigo?

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Answer

Iago

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Question

Which of the following is NOT true of Othello

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Answer

He is a citizen of the Netherlands.

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Question

Which of the following objects is the symbol for the loss of love between Othello and Desdemona?

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Answer

A handkerchief

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