Othello -Themes Introduction

If a play is to work successfully, its themes will not seem abstract or theoretical because they will be seen by the audience in the form of ‘real’ issues in the ‘lives’ of characters, and will be explored through parallel and contrasting experiences. The plot of Othello is directly centred on questions of gender, sexuality, race and status These are all key issues for us today- Othello is a play with much contemporary relevance The play offers insight into extreme human emotions and questions the idea that a civilised society is orderly and secure
Below are some notes on some of the main themes with questions to explore. 1. Love/ Jealousy/Revenge It is common in Shakespeare studies to say that Othello is a tragedy of jealousy. You should question this. Iago first uses the word, warning Othello to ‘beware the green eyed monster’. Othello says he is not a jealous man. Desdemona says the same. Emilia explains that ‘jealous souls’ are ‘jealous for they’re jealous’- there is no cause. What is your understanding of the treatment of jealousy in the play? Think about these questions: • • • • • What understanding do you have of the love between Othello and Desdemona? How can Othello just blow it away? Why is he so consumed with the desire to kill Desdemona- and to use his own bare hands to do it? Is it enough to say, simply, he is a ‘jealous soul’? What views of love and jealousy is the play offering?

2. Heaven and Hell/ Good and Evil/ Christianity and Heathenism Throughout the play, questions are raised about who is good, honest, true, honourable- and who or what is evil. At the end of Act 3 Scene 3, Othello, a professed Christian, swears ‘by yond marble heaven/. That his bloody thoughts’ will never turn black until a ‘wide revenge’ has been accomplished. In Act 5 Scene 2, he believes that he is an agent of justice in killing Desdemona. He believes that he must resist the distraction of her most irresistible beauty. From the moment his uncertainties are aroused, he is not sure whether she is an angel or a whore. The play seems to ask the question, ‘If Christian judgement can be perverted so totally by powerful emotions and if evil can work so effectively through vulnerable emotions and insecure characters, how secure is any belief or any sense of good?’ What are your views of the treatment of Good and Evil in the light of this statement? Think about: • Which of the characters in the play are constructed as ‘good’ and which are ‘evil’? Which can be seen as both? • How is religious imagery used to represent and emphasise this theme? • How is Desdemona presented ?

How does the theme link to the social and religious context of the play (think about the religious/supernatural entities and concepts of Shakespeare’s time)?

3. Appearance and Being/ (belief, trust and seeming)/ Honesty The plot depends on characters fatally giving their trust. It also depends on characters believing the way things seem to them, when the audience knows the situation to be otherwise. How is honesty presented in the play? What issues arise from Shakespeare’s treatment of this theme? Think about:


• • •

Why do Roderigo, Cassio and Othello trust Iago? Why does he seem ‘honest’ to them? Why does Othello believe Iago’s stories and innuendoes about Cassio and interpret Cassio’s behaviour with Iago and Bianca (Act 4 Scene 1) in the way he does? Why does Desdemona continue to trust Othello even after he has struck her? Does Emilia trust her husband? What are the implications of your answer to this question?

4. Order and chaos/Politics and the State The play depicts a Venetian state which believes it represents Christian order against the threat of Turkish infidels. At the same time, a senator, Brabantio, believes his idea of Venetian order has been disrupted by the black man- the very man charged with fighting the Turks- who has seduced his daughter by black magic. At Cyprus, natural chaos in the form of the storm at sea destroys the enemy and seems to favour the Venetians. However, their order is threatened from within by a drunken street brawl- but Othello restores order by dismissing his newly appointed lieutenant. There is a hint that Othello may lose control. In Act 3. we are presented with the sight of Othello, so far the effective and dignified commander and loving husband. Thrown into emotional chaos. As Desdemona faithfully sticks to her belief in love and marriage, the consequences of Othello’s mental chaos engulf them both. In Acts 1 and 2, Othello quells street brawls. In Act 5 he watches, hoping that Cassio will be killed. In the two scenes of Act 5, public and private situations are the scenes for the coming together of public and private chaos. How do you understand the treatment of Order and chaos in the play? Think about: • To what extent is order restored? Brabantio thought that Othello, the black outsider, was the source of the disorder. He prophesised that Desdemona had betrayed him and he would betray Othello. • Do you see things this way? • Or do you think the cause of chaos is the Venetian, Iago? • How secure is civilised Christian order in the face of powerful individual emotions?

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