Shakespeare allows us to see a world in which one man, highly successful and prolific in one area, that of the military realm, is unfit to war in the realms of the more intimate relationship. Othello, effectively an outcast, is swept up in his naivete, believing the word of one man as opposed to the honesty and actions of others. Shakespeare’s play delves into the themes of dishonesty, gullibility, and the stark contrast between vaster conflicts and those of the more claustrophobic.
Themes – Honesty and Dishonesty
One can easily see within the play that one character, Iago, represents the Machiavellian archetype, the scheming plotter whose every word is a calculated dishonesty. However, we also see that almost every other character is representative of the opposite. Othello is a trusting, perhaps too trusting, man of honour. His adeptness to the battlefield has perhaps tainted his view upon the civilian world. Instead of two clearly opposing sides in a game of warfare, Othello must trudge the uneasy plains of lies, deceit, and duplicity. We also see, in the character of Desdemona, a fierce and strangely unbending love.
This love inspires her to face her disownment, showing how powerful her love truly is. If one were to view these two characters as stalwart beacons within the play, illuminating a great sense of purity and honesty, Iago would be the void outside the luminescence. We also see how the relationship between the honest and the dishonest is not a conflicting or even a fairly equal one. Instead, the dishonest clearly rule the honest. Iago, despite his position, manages to effectively manipulate his general.
This conveys the idea that, though Othello may be a greater general in some way, his honesty makes him an easy target for the dishonest in a non-warring scene. From this, one can see how Shakespeare might be trying to communicate how those seemingly free of substantial sin can be so easily tainted by those burdened with abundant vices.
Themes – The blurring of Morals
We are not introduced to Othello until the second scene of the first act. To begin, we are introduced to the character of Iago, Who appears to be upset due to his supposed mistreatment, exemplified in Cassio receiving the promotion instead of him. It is also hinted by Iago that Othello and Cassio are sleeping with his wife, a bit of information that leads us to support Iago wholeheartedly. However, come the introduction of Othello proper, we see something quite on the contrary.
Instead of a greedy and perhaps exploitative general, we see an intimate and emotional lover who is adamant to proclaim his infatuation with another. When we see the relationship between Desdemona and Othello, and soon the character of Casio himself, our allegiances swap. We now know and understand quite completely that Iago is a deceptive and manipulative character that should not be trusted. By choosing to effectively deceive the audience into believing Iago is a decent man, Shakespeare allows the audience to be within the shoes of the characters.
A large proportion of Shakespeare’s tragedies succeed from the dramatic irony, we now know Iago to be a duplicitous sort yet the characters do not. By first making us believe the opposite, Shakespeare shows how dishonest people can so easily blend into their surroundings, making it more understandable, though not completely, when Othello trusts Iago. Although this soon turns into a strange sort of satire when Othello believes the word of a friend and not his lover, It shows how efficient Iago is at deceiving others.
Symbols – The Handkerchief
The importance of the handkerchief as a symbol mainly derives from its liquid nature. By this, one means to say that the importance of it as a representation changes depending upon the perspective of each character. We see that Iago views the handkerchief as a tool, perhaps signifying Othello himself. When he looks upon the handkerchief, he sees a means to an end, a cog in his Machiavellian system. From this, the symbolism is quite cold and sterile, if not sinister. The handkerchief represents the key to the downfall of a greater man.
However, if you were to look at the handkerchief through the eyes of Desdemona, we gain a far more intimate and romantic symbolism. We understand that the handkerchief was the very first gift that Othello gave Desdemona. From this, one can understand why she may look upon the item with her sense of loyalty, it very much represents the bond. Already, one can see how the symbolism has changed completely, from a nefarious tool in a more nefarious plan, to a more simple symbol of love and passion.
Furthermore, it is within Othello’s perspective that we gain perhaps the most nuanced idea regarding the handkerchief. Othello’s perspective changes quite drastically, firstly from the shared symbol of unity held by Desdemona, to a symbol of her infidelity. Iago’s utilisation of the symbol, a symbol which, to him, is simply a tool, infects Othello’s perspective on the symbol until he is thoroughly within the thrall of Iago.
Devices – Dramatic Irony
We, as either a reader or a spectator, must bear witness to the plotting of Iago. His many asides, asides that happen to detail his machinations, inform us of his deeper character. We are perhaps the only individuals to know about the treachery until later in the play. By being allowed to know such things, Shakespeare may be allowing us to focus our attention upon the more cerebral matters within the play. Firstly, because we know the rough outline of the situation, we are more likely to comprehend each and every twist and turn. For us, there is no mystery. There is no puzzle to solve.
By allowing us to direct our attention wholly towards the matter of Othello‘s downfall, we can identify the more subtle critiques. We are more likely to pick up on mistakes made by Othello which allows us to better criticise his actions. It makes the downfall, or Othello’s jealousy, seem more apparent. We are watching the tragedy of Othello and not the mystery of Iago.
Devices – Pathetic Fallacy
We see that a storm, or tempest, has divided Othello’s ships from the enemies, effectively defeating these aforementioned opponents. This is initially comforting, as we know that, from our perspective, a battle was technically won. Othello returns triumphantly. This allows the events of the play to take place. By thinking of this, one could also argue that the existence of a storm is the ignition that has started the blaze of the tragedy, for without the storm, Othello may never have embroiled himself in his impending imbroglio.
One can also easily state that the storm is representative of the impending tempest of emotions and politics that will soon take place. One can also make a claim that the image of a storm is somewhat claustrophobic, mirroring the contrast between the earlier and vast scenes of the play and the more tight and intimate, though more anxious, scenes around the end. The troubling events of the play are much akin to the eye of a storm, seemingly placid and pacific though most definitely dangerous.
Iago is angry that Othello (the general of the army), has promoted Cassio to be his lieutenant instead of him. Othello secretly marries Desdemona, the daughter of a senator in Venice (Brabantio). Iago therefore tells Desdemona’s father about the secret marriage to cause trouble for Othello.
Desdemona’s father makes a formal complaint about Othello’s behaviour to the Duke of Venice. His complaint is ignored and the Duke sends Othello to Cyprus to continue fighting in a war. Othello goes to Cyprus and takes his new wife Desdemona with him, together with Iago and Michael Cassio.
Iago encourages Cassio to get drunk whilst on duty. Cassio ends up in a drunken fight and is demoted from his position as lieutenant. Iago begins to plant seeds of suspicion in Othello’s mind about his wife’s relationship with Michael Cassio. Iago gets hold of a handkerchief belonging to Desdemona and hides it in Cassio’s room pretending it is proof of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness.
Desdemona pleads with Othello to give Cassio his job back. She does this innocently, but Othello takes this as proof of her feelings for Cassio. Iago continues to manipulate Othello to the point where Othello murders his new wife as punishment for her supposed unfaithfulness. Iago’s wife, Emilia, tells Othello that Iago has lied. Othello realises his tragic mistake and commits suicide over the body of his wife as Iago is arrested.