Othello Themes

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  • Othello: Themes
    • Jealousy
      • Jealousy and destruction: Form of tyranny. it destroys love, honour and nobility in those it afflicts. Makes male protagonists murderous and violent. Nature of jealousy not to be satisfied- Iago continues plotting against Cassio after he has disgraced him and is not content with disturbing Othello's peace of mind: he must continue until Desdemona is dead.
      • Imagery of jealousy: suggests an all consuming, irrational emotion. It is 'the green-eyed monster, which doth mock/The meat it feeds on'. Strong sense of devouring and being devoured, which fits with Iago's description of Othello as being 'eaten up with passion' when he believes Desdemona is unfaithful.
        • Shakespeare explores the monstrous power of jealousy again in The Winter's Tale, where King Leontes becomes convinced his wife, Hermione, has been unfaithful. Unlike Othello, whose mind is poisoned by a villain, Leontes jealousy is fuelled by his own thoughts.
      • Professional jealousy- Iago's professional jealousy linked to sin of envy that sets tragic events of play in motion. Iago envies Cassio primarily because he is promoted to a post Iago has coveted. Iago envious of Cassio's superior manners and social status.
      • Sexual jealousy- Bianca, Iago and Othello all suffer sexual jealousy. Iago's aim is to make Othello suffer as he suffers because he fears he has been cuckolded. Jealousy of Bianca and Othello is a response to feelings of genuine love when they believe their partners have been unfaithful.
        • Othello cannot bear the thought of Desdemona's 'stolen hours of lust'. He feels he has been 'robbed'. He feels jealous because he has lost possession of something he held dear. Links to the Jacobean view of women as "possessions" of men.
          • Finally, 'Othello' suggests jealousy is ridiculous and humiliating, as well as terrifying and corrosive. Iago's motives for revenge are inadequate and proofs he provides flimsy. Horribly humiliating that Othello, a renowned and experienced soldier should kill his wife and himself because of a handkerchief, which has absurdly come to symbolise his and Desdemona's honour.
    • Love and Relationships
      • Double standards- Men have more personal freedom and women are judged by them and in relation to them. Bianca's vulnerable status as 'strumpet' reminds us of the double standard. Socially acceptable for Cassio to consort a cortesan, but presumptuous for Bianca to expect him to marry her. Men toy with and discard women as they choose, Iago uses double standards to his advantage when he blackens Desdemona's name.
      • Couples- Initially Desdemona and Othello stand out from the other couples because they have a harmonious relationship and the other relationships are not happy.
        • Relationship of Bianca and Cassio is an unequal match between a 'customer' who feels a limited affection and a 'bauble', whose genuine love makes her unhappy. Cassio reveals the limitations of this relationship- which he clearly feels is unworthy in some way- when he tells Bianca to be gone because he would not be seen in her company.
        • Emilia and Iago- chilling match. Marriage has made Emilia cynical about male-female relationships. She knows she is merely 'food' for Iago, acceptable until she disobeys him and refuses to be silent, at which point her husband tries to kill her.
          • Misogyny of Iago casts a dark shadow over Othello's relationship with Desdemona. The hero and heroine symbolise a meeting of two minds despite their differences in Act I & II. Othello and Desdemona love each other harmoniously because of their perceived differences. These differences become distorted by an interloper, a man who cannot bear to see two lovers 'well tuned'. The envious, unhappily married Iago destroys true love.
      • A love triangle? - Possible to see Othello-Desdemona-Iago. Iago seeks to displace Desdemona. Iago's response to the feminine reveal a mixture of fear and loathing. Part of his contempt for Othello is located in his fear that Desdemona has power. Mocking reference to Desdemona as Othello's general- can't bear the fact that a female exerts influence.
        • Iago's derision of love and the female is also illustrated when he sneers about Desdemona being able to 'play the God' with Othello. Iago loathes the idea of a man being in thrall to a woman, believeing Othello is weakened and trapped by love. Othello's soul is 'enfettered' to Desdemona, so much so that 'she may make, unmake, do what she list..With his weak function'.
          • Iago responds to this by denigrating Desdemona and making her seem unreliable. Powers struggle comes into sharp focus when we consider the vow Iago makes to Othello end of Act 3 Scene: 'I am your own for ever'. Iago's fake love destroys Othello's real love. Othello begins to assert his masculine power in an overbearing way because he believes that Desdemona has begun to assert herself sexually. To any Renaissance husband, this would be unacceptable.
    • Race and Colour
      • Othello's race- Before Othello black characters in Renaissance drama were usually villains. The wealth of imagery of black and white and light and dark suggests that colour is significant in the play. At the time Othello was written there were various stereotypes of the black man, most of them negative. from the medieval period onwards the devil was often depicted in art as a black man surrounded by the flames of hell. Other traditions associated the black man with lust, sin and death.
      • Contrasting views of Othello's blackness- When Desdemona is forced to explain her choice in marrying Othello she says she 'saw Othello's visage in his mind'. This suggests that either Desdemona looked past his colour or that Othello's stories and origins excited her. If Shakespeare is urging us to see that racial differences do not matter in love then Desdemona holds a radical pov for a Jacobean heroine.
        • even when Othello doubts attractions as a middle-aged husband, more noble and impressive than any of the other male characters in the play. Othello is compelling because he is different. His history is fascinating and heroic. Heroine made an active and positive choice. Othello stresses this when he says 'she had eyes and chose me'. It is Desdemona who insists- publicly- on being allowed to enjoy her marital rights, not Othello.
          • Negative view of Othello's blackness. To Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio, Othello's colour and racial background are alarming. Their references to a 'sooty bosom', 'the thicklips' and 'an old black ram' who practices witchcraft construct a negative racial stereotype of Othello. This stereotype very familiar to Shakespeare's audience.


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