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Othello Themes

by William Shakespeare

Major Themes

Appearance vs. reality

Especially relevant to the issue of Iago's character; for although he is called "honest" by almost everyone in the play, he is treacherous, deceitful, and manipulative. Also applies to Desdemona, as Othello believes that she is deceitful and impure, although she is really blameless and innocent.

Race

Race is an extremely important theme; it has a great amount of influence on how people regard Othello‹for those who distrust black people merely on looks never like Othello, like Iago. Race also determines how Othello perceives himself as a rough outsider, though he is nothing of the sort. Othello's race sets him apart, and makes him very self-conscious; it makes him work hard and look carefully after his reputation, so he is regarded as equal to the white people that surround him.

Pride

Especially important with regards to Othello; Othello is defensively proud of himself and his achievements, and especially proud of the honorable appearance he presents. The allegations of Desdemona's affair hurt his pride even more than they inflame his vanity and jealousy; he wants to appear powerful, accomplished, and moral at every possible instance, and when this is almost denied to him, his wounded pride becomes especially powerful.

Magic

Usually has something to do with Othello's heritage. Othello is charged with using magic to woo Desdemona, merely because he is black, and therefore, "pagan." Yet, Othello does have real magic, in the words he uses and the stories he tells. Magic also reappears when Desdemona's handkerchief cannot be found; Othello has too much trust in the symbolism and charm of the handkerchief, which is why the object is so significant to him.

Order vs. chaos

As Othello begins to abandon reason and language, chaos takes over. His world begins to be ruled by chaotic emotions and very shady allegations, with order pushed to one side. This chaos rushes him into tragedy, and once Othello has sunk into it, he is unable to stop his fate from taking him over.

Self-knowledge

Othello's lack of self-knowledge makes him easy prey for Iago. Once Iago inflames Othello's jealousy and gets the darker aspects of Othello's nature into action, there is nothing Othello can do to stop it, since he cannot even admit that he has these darker traits.

Honesty

Although the word "honest" is usually used in an ironic way throughout the text, most characters in the play go through a crisis of learning who and who not to trust. Most of them, unfortunately, trust in Iago's honesty; this leads to the downfall of many characters, as this trust in Iago's "honesty" became a crucial contributor to their undoing.

Misrepresentation

This also allows Iago to gain trust and manipulate other people; misrepresentation means that Iago is able to appear to be "honest," in order to deceive and misdirect people. Othello also misrepresents himself, as being simple and plain-spoken; this is not for deceptive effect, but also is used to present an image of himself which is not exactly the truth.

Good vs. Evil

Though there is much gray area between these two, Iago's battle against Othello and Cassio certainly counts as an embodiment of this theme. Iago and his evil battle to corrupt and turn the flawed natures of other characters, and he does succeed to some extent. By the end of the play, neither has won, as Desdemona and Emilia are both dead, and Iago revealed and punished.

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