Introduction to Othello

One of the most celebrated and widely performed tragedies of Shakespeare encompassing the feelings of love, hatred, deceit, and social ills prevalent in the Elizabethan society and the present world without any marked change, Othello was written in 1603 and first performed in 1604. The Tragedy of Othello explores the questions of racial prejudice and jealousy. The story talks about Othello, a black general suspecting his wife, Desdemona. He is led to believe that she has committed adultery and is no more loyal to him. The plot primarily revolves around two characters: Othello, a general of black descent recruited in the Venetian army, and Iago, his military officer. Othello, a brave commander, wins successes on the battlefield but falls prey to Iago’s treacherous machinations at home and kills his innocent wife, Desdemona because of his error of judgment. Realizing his mistaken jealousy, he commits suicide.

Summary of Othello

The play opens with a discussion between Roderigo and Iago in which Roderigo tries to convince Iago that he loves Desdemona, the daughter of Senator Brabantio. However, Roderigo has come to know that she has already married Othello. Iago hates Othello as he has promoted Cassio and left Iago, a junior.

Iago and Roderigo plot to create a misunderstanding between the couple. To do this, they spread this news that Desdemona has eloped with Othello. Brabantio, then, accuses Othello that he has won the love of his daughter through witchcraft. Later, Othello’s statement regarding his love for Desdemona is taken as real by the senator when he says that Desdemona is in love with him not because of magic but because of his successes on the battlefield and subsequent popularity in Venice. Desdemona also testifies to this fact. In the meantime, Iago joins Othello and does not let him know his evil intentions. Then new order for invasion comes from the Duke to which Othello is to confront the Cyprian navy. Desdemona asks Othello to let her accompany him on this expedition.

The next day, they come to know that a tornado has shipwrecked the Turkish fleet Othello is to take on. When Cassio arrives there, along with Iago, Roderigo, Desdemona, and Emilia, board it. Cassio welcomes Desdemona by grasping her hand firmly. Iago, in an aside, informs the audience that he will trap Cassio by using this hand-clasping scene. Meanwhile, Othello announces his marriage plan the next night. Iago assures Roderigo that he will hurt Desdemona’s love for Othello and plans to remove Cassio from the scene to contact Othello first. He then makes Cassio drunk and compels Roderigo to have a duel with him. Cassio chases him and stabs him. Hearing this confusion, Othello immediately reaches the scene where Iago tries to pose as if he is reluctant to tell the truth, and then narrates Cassio’s whole story in the brawl. Othello dismisses him there and then after hearing this. On the other hand, Iago assures Cassio that he will help him to meet Desdemona. However, he considers before the audience otherwise about his intention of creating jealousy in Othello.

In the plot to make Othello jealous, Iago persuades Cassio to meet Desdemona to convince Othello for his position. Desdemona, not sensing the trick, demonstrates sympathy for Cassio’s cause and promises to help him. When Iago and Othello enter just before Cassio gets ready to leave, Iago poisons Othello’s ears about him. When Desdemona requests him to forgive Cassio, Othello becomes convinced that she has betrayed him. During supper time, Othello thinks that he does not feel well. When Desdemona gives him her handkerchief to tie it around his head, he let it fall down that Emilia picks up and gives it to Iago. Having already planned to make it proof that the handkerchief’s presence in Cassio’s room is a testimony of their relationship, Iago shows it to Othello, saying that he has seen Cassio wiping his beard with it. Othello, in his fury, pledges to exact revenge upon both.

When night falls, Othello asks Desdemona about the handkerchief, but she tries to change the subject, which infuriates Othello. Later, Iago furthers his design and asks Othello to himself see the reality. Later, he asks Cassio to speak about Bianca, a prostitute. Cassio laughs after making Othello assured about his secret relationship with Desdemona. Then Bianca comes with the same handkerchief, censuring him for making a copy of it, which was basically a love token from another beloved. Simultaneously, Othello receives a letter from Venice for his replacement with Cassio. Enraged over this betrayal, he calls Desdemona a promiscuous person.

While this is happening, Iago assures Roderigo that things are going in the right direction and that he must kill Cassio to give a final twist to the story. Instead of Roderigo, who misses his target, Iago himself hits Cassio and slips away from the scene. Meanwhile, Othello smothers Desdemona despite her pleadings and informs Emilia about it. When all others enter, Emilia comes to know about Iago’s conspiracy and tells Othello of the handkerchief’s reality at which he feels aggrieved. Furious at Emilia’s revelation, Iago kills Emilia and tries to escape but is caught red-handed. Then, Othello falls upon Iago, injuring him, to tell the truth, and commits suicide out of the grief of killing his loyal wife. Iago is, later, executed for his conspiracy.

Major Themes in Othello

  1. Jealousy: Jealousy is a major theme in Othello’s tragedy, as demonstrated through Othello’s dignified character, the Moor. A number of other characters also experience jealousy, but Othello is at the top of the list. Othello, being a hero, enjoys a good reputation and has notable qualities. However, as the play progresses, jealousy clamps down his mind, and his decisions are colored with jealousy that Desdemona is betraying him, leading him to kill her and take his own life.
  2. Rashness: The play is replete with rash decisions. The characters, especially Othello, Iago, Cassio, and Roderigo, make miserable decisions due to their hasty natures, feelings of jealousy, and racism. A notable example is Brabantio, who does not understand Othello, and Othello, who does not trust his wife, Desdemona.
  3. Racialism: The play shows the theme of racialism prevalent in Venice in that, though Othello has won the post of a general in the Venetian military, he is stilled called a black ram, a racial term. These allusions clarify that race is an important factor that generates vicious feelings toward the subject like Othello in this play. Iago makes certain remarks for Othello, such as Barbarian. Roderigo, too, calls him “thick-lips,” which also refers to his African identity.
  4. Religion: The play Othello also shows the religious thematic strand through various characters. Othello is called a “Moor,” which suggests a person other than white, somebody, belonging to an Arab or African origin. Hidden meaning refers to the feelings of the white as they are the center, and this black man is the other living in the inhuman periphery or outside the true Christian circle.
  5. Human Evil: The play also suggests that certain flaws in human nature are difficult to uproot. For example, Othello has the seeds of jealousy and doubt, but when Iago paves the way for this, he quickly traps him in this web. Iago, on the other hand, has the flaw of jealousy, too, which makes him contrive a conspiracy against Othello. Therefore, these evils reside lurking in their natures and prompt them to take action when they see suitable settings.
  6. Military Heroism and Love: Military prowess and love go side by side in Othello and work as another powerful thematic strand in the play. Othello creates his own niche in the Venetian society with his valor and battlefield dexterity. He also wins the love of a white lady because of his battlefield successes. That is why, despite her father’s urgings and use of a slur against the Moor, do not budget her from her stand of loving that hero.
  7. Manipulation and Exploitation: The play is suggestive of manipulation and exploitation, the hallmarks of the evil minds. These strains work well and establish themselves as the main thread in that they take tragedy successfully toward its end. Iago establishes himself as the main manipulator who twists information so that it increases doubts in Othello’s mind.
  8. Love and Hate: In Othello, love seems to overcome all other hindrances but faces defeat from petty issues. Despite its power, it appears weak in that a little doubt tarnishes its strength. Love, in the case of Othello, remains in the heart but is unable to make its way to his mind. Desdemona’s love is pure, but Othello’s love for her soon turns into doubt. Therefore, it turns into hate so much so that he kills her.
  9. Appearance and Reality: Appearance and reality work as two major themes in Othello. Othello believes in what is based on truth, and that truth may be fake and fed him with, as Iago does in this case. He manages events in such a way as to make him believe that Desdemona is not fair. He believes in the imaginary picture portrayed by Iago.
  10. Courage and Cowardice: Courage and cowardice are two other themes working in this play. Though of Moorish descent, Othello attains the status of a general just because of his bravery, valor, and commitment to his profession. Iago, on the other hand, is a coward who harbors malicious designs to stab anyone whom he wants to remove from his path.

Major Characters in Othello

  1. Othello: The protagonist of this tragedy, Othello, ethnically, is a Moor, but has become a general in the Venetian army because of his loyalty and raw courage on the battlefield. Despite this, he becomes an easy prey to his weaknesses to jealousy because of his race and color. Iago, being a villain, twists the facts to convince Othello about his wife’s disloyalty, to whom Othello loves the most. His error of judgment leads him to the level where he kills his wife and commits suicide.
  2. Desdemona: The daughter of Brabantio, a Venetian senator, she crosses the racial boundary to marry the black Moor, Othello, out of her love for him. Despite loving such a person, she demonstrates her qualities of purity and innocence. She bravely defends her decision to marry Othello even when confronting her father. That is why she always trusts Othello and responds in a dignified manner when Othello confronts her to respond to infidelity allegations. Even her death is a dignified one in that she does not put up much resistance to her husband when he is adamant about killing her.
  3. Iago: Othello’s ensign, Iago’s role is that of a perfect villain in this play. The apparent reason for his enmity toward Othello is that he has promoted his junior Cassio to the lieutenant’s rank, leaving him behind. The shrewd Iago keeps his desires to himself, which seems to surface through his wily tactics of exacting revenge. In fact, he is an archetypal antagonist who weaves machinations perfectly to gain his desired objectives. His dexterity in manipulating others is excellent, though he himself is caught in this game.
  4. Michael Cassio: A young soldier promoted by Othello to the lieutenant’s rank, Cassio irks Iago for his loyalty to the general. Despite being a good and devoted fellow, he involves himself in a messy brawl with Cassius due to Iago’s machinations. Then he feels ashamed at his rashness. However, he is a credulous fellow to some extent in that Iago exploits Cassio’s good looking face and his youth to deceive Othello into believing that he has illicit relations with his wife.
  5. Emilia: Emilia is Iago’s wife and the attendant of Desdemona. Although she is skeptical about her husband’s character, she is devoted and loyal to her mistress until the end of the play.
  6. Roderigo: A wealthy young man, Roderigo loves Desdemona and wishes to earn her love even after she has married Othello. Being a jealous suitor, he tries to convince Iago to pave the way for him to win Desdemona’s love at every cost, which costs him dearly in monetary terms, too.
  7. Bianca: She is a Cyprian prostitute who has trapped Cassio as her visitor. Cassio often plays with her and falsely promises her that he would marry her.
  8. Brabantio: An honorable Venetian senator, Brabantio is the father of Desdemona. He, being a friend of Othello, feels cheated when Othello marries his daughter Desdemona in secret.
  9. Duke of Venice: He is officially doing his duties as the Duke of Venice. Despite the anti-Othello lobby around him, he holds Othello in good stead, both as a person as well as a military man. His role is to bring both Othello and Brabantio to an agreement and send the latter to counter Turkish forces in Cyprus.

Writing Style of Othello

William Shakespeare, similar to his other tragedies, has used blank verse, interspersed with occasional prose, in Othello. It is a combination that gives him the flexibility to achieve his desired impacts on the audiences. This play originally tests the ability of the language how much it can hide the truth. Sometimes, it uses grand and, occasionally, ordinary style, indicating the double meanings of the language. Shakespeare shifts from verse to prose and vice versa to change the impacts of what he wants his audience to listen to and understand. The dramatic climax is achieved when the machinations of Iago reach a logical end. While the denouement justifies the tragic hero’s error of judgment and the villain’s best archetypal role in performing his villainy, the dramatic irony keeps the audience stick to their seats and wait for the next moment. The play employs a host of literary terms and stylistic devices to win the audience’s attention to create this suspense.

Analysis of Literary Devices in Othello

  1. Alliteration: The play, Othello, shows several examples of alliteration. For example,
    i. To mourn a mischief that is past and gone. (Act-1, Scene-III, Line, 205)
    ii. ‘Thou told’st me thou didst hold him in thy hate.( Act-1 Scene-1, Line, 7)
    iii. ’Twas pitiful,’twas wondrous pitiful. ( Act-2, Scene-1, line 232)

In the first example, the sound of /m/, in second of /h/, and in third /t/ and /p/ sounds are repeated. This repetition of these sounds in quick succession creates a sort of musicality in the verses.

  1. Allegory: Allegory is the underlying story of the play having moral implications. In Othello, the handkerchief event relates to an allegory, as it symbolizes love as well as a tool of conspiracy. Upon losing it, Desdemona loses her love as well as the trust of her husband.
  2. Apostrophe: The play shows an excellent example of an apostrophe when Desdemona calls her ignorance. For example,
    i. O, heavy ignorance. Thou praisest the worst best. But
    what praise couldst thou bestow on a deserving woman. (Act-II, Scene-I, Lines, 141-142).

These two lines show that Desdemona is asking her ignorance that it praises the world in the worst way. Therefore, it is a good use of the apostrophe.

  1. Assonance: The assonance is the repetition of the vowel sound in a line. For example,
    i. ‘It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
    ii. The meat it feeds on.’ (Act 3 scene 3 lines 171-173)
    iii. ‘Not poppy nor mandragora / Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world / Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep’( Act 3 Scene 3, Lines 329–336)

In the first line, the sound of /e/, while in the second again /e/ and in the third /o/ has been repeated to show the use of assonance.

  1. Antagonist: Othello has a powerful antagonist in the shape of Iago. His conspiracies and machinations develop the story and heighten the dramatic effect. Othello, though, has seeds of jealousy, falls because of Iago’s malicious designs. In all the Shakespearean tragedies, he is deemed as the most celebrated antagonist.
  2. Allusion: The play shows good use of allusions. For example,
    i. Iago: I am not what I am.(Act-1, Scene-1, Line-67)
    ii. Where is that Viper? Bring the villain forth. (Act-5, Scene-2, Line328).

The first line alludes to God’s address to Moses in Exodus 3:1, while the second line alludes to the Biblical concept of the snake as the villain in the story of Adam and Eve.

  1. Conflict: There are certain conflicts among the characters, such as a conflict between Cassio and Roderigo, another between Iago and Othello, and still another between Iago and Cassio. There is also a mental conflict going in the mind of Othello. On the one hand, he has an African descent, which compels him to think about himself as inferior to others, while on the other hand, he has to show others that he is a brave fellow. Both the conflicts end with his suicide.
  2. Consonance: The play shows various examples of consonance. For example,
    i. ‘Not out of absolute lust, though peradventure
    stand accountant for as great a sin.’(Act-I, Scene-I, lines 217-218)
    ii. The gutter’d rocks, and congregated sands, (Act-II, Scene-1, Line 73)

In the first line /t/, while in the second example, the /d/ sound has been repeated. This repetition of consonant sounds creates a type of music in these verses.

  1. Dramatic Irony: Othello shows dramatic irony in that Iago’s designs is not known to either Othello or Cassio. Both belief in his truthfulness and loyalty. However, the audience knows that he has secretly hatched a plan to kill both of them.
  2. Foreshadowing: The play shows good use of foreshadowing. For example,
    i. ‘Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul
    But I do love thee! And when I love thee not,
    Chaos is come again’ (Act-III, Scene-III, Lines, 90-92).
    ii. The poor soul sat sighing, by a sycamore tree,
    Sing all a green willow. (Act-IV, Scene-III, Lines 40-41).

As spoken by Othello, the first example foreshadows his fear that chaos comes when he does not love her. On the other hand, the second example shows Desdemona sensing the worst that is yet to come.

  1. Imagery: Othello shows various examples of imagery. For example,
    i. Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul,
    Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
    Is tupping your white ewe. (Act-I, Scene-I, Lines, 85-86).
    ii. I am about it, but indeed my invention
    Comes from my pate as birdlime does from frize. (Act-II, Scene-I, Line 125).
    iii. Come on, come on. You are pictures out of doors,
    Bells in your parlors, wild cats in your kitchens. (Act-II, Scene-I, Lines 109-110).

These are three examples of the use of imagery as the first one shows animal imagery, the second one bird imagery, and the third one shows uses of different images.

  1. Litotes: The play shows a good example of Litotes. For example,
    i. Not that I love you not. (Act-III, Scene-IV, Line, 195)
    Actually, Cassio wants to say that he loves him, but he uses double negatives to mean positive.
  1. Metaphor: Othello shows several metaphors. For example,
    i. Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
    Is tupping your white ewe. (Act-I, Scene-I, Lines, 85-86)
    ii. O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
    It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
    The meat it feeds on. (Act-III, Scene-III, Lines, 168-169)
    iii. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are
    gardeners: so that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce. (Act-I, Scene-III, Lines, 320-321).

The first example shows Othello compared to a ram and Desdemona to a ewe, and the second shows jealousy as the green-eyed monster and the third bodies as gardens.

  1. Mood: The play shows the mood of cynicism, doubt, frustration, happiness, and suspicion prevalent throughout the tragedy. Iago is the main character who sets the tone for the play. Although extreme frustration and grief take over the play when Othello kills Desdemona and commits suicide, it comes as a relief when Iago’s plan is reviled. Overall, the end is a very depressing mood.
  2. Protagonist: Othello is the protagonist of this tragedy, for he has the qualities to be declared a tragic hero. Despite his good nature, courage, and a great position in the army, he falls prey to the evil designs of the villain, i.e., Iago, and suffers due to his pride and jealousy.
  3. Pun: The play shows a great use of puns. For example,
    i. And I, God bless the mark, his Moorship’s ancient. (Act-I, Scene-I, Line, 31)
    ii. Clown: O, thereby hangs a tale.
    Musician: Whereby hangs a tale, sir? (Act-III, Scene-I, Lines, 10-11).

The first example shows Iago playing upon “Moorship” and the second shows Clown and Musician playing upon the word “tale.”

  1. Paradox: Othello shows various examples of paradoxes such as:
    i. In following him, I follow but myself. (Act-I, Scene-I, Line, 60).

This shows very good use of the paradox used by Iago for himself. However, another paradox is in the situation of Othello that he loves Desdemona intensely and then suddenly hates her so much that he kills her.

  1. Rhetorical Questions: Othello shows the use of rhetorical questions. For example,
    i. What tell’st thou me of robbing? This is Venice,
    My house is not a grange. (Act-I, Scene-I, Lines, 103-104)
    ii. What profane wretch art thou? (Act-I, Scene-I, Lines, 113)

These two rhetorical questions have been used by Brabantio not to get responses from Iago but to tease him about why it is happening in Venice and who the hell he is to tell this.

  1. Simile: The play shows excellent use of similes. For example,
    i. ‘Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards. (Act-II, Scene-I, Lines, 224-225)
    ii. ‘Thou, Iago, who hast had my purse
    As if the strings were thine’ (Act-I, Scene-I, Lines, 1-3)
    iii. Dangerous conceits…Burn like the mines of sulphur. (Act-III, Scene-III, Lines 329).

These three examples show that Iago’s mental agony is compared to a poisonous mineral, purse to a string, and burning of the heart to that of the mine. All these examples show the use of “like” and “as” to show that they are similes.

  1. Soliloquy: The play shows several examples of very good soliloquies. For example,
    i. And what’s he then that says I play the villain?
    When this advice is free I give and honest,
    Probal to thinking and indeed the course
    To win the Moor again? For ’tis most easy
    The inclining Desdemona to subdue
    In any honest suit: she’s framed as fruitful
    As the free elements. (Act-II, Scene-III, Lines, 312-319)
    ii. Like to the Pontic sea,
    Whose icy current and compulsive course
    Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
    To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
    Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
    Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love,
    Till that a capable and wide revenge
    Swallow them up. (Act-III, Scene-III, Lines, 452-460)

These are two very good examples of soliloquies, the first one spoken by Iago and the second by Othello.

  1. Verbal Irony: Verbal Irony means the appearance and reality of a statement given by a character. The apparent words may have similar meanings but implied meanings are different. Iago’s speeches, most of the time, are replete with verbal irony. He says something but intends different, and the audience understands his intentions. When Iago says to Othello; My lord, you know, I love you. (Act-III, Scene-III, Lines, 118), he means otherwise. In fact, Iago dislikes Othello, but here he says quite the opposite, and the irony is that Othello responds to him in the same ironical way saying, “I think though dost.” (Line, 119).