Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Before and above all else, Othello is a soldier. From the earliest moments in the play, his career affects his married life. Asking “fit disposition” for his wife after being ordered to Cyprus (I.iii.
The military also provides Othello with a means to gain acceptance in Venetian society. While the Venetians in the play are generally fearful of the prospect of Othello’s social entrance into white society through his marriage to Desdemona, all Venetians respect and honor him as a soldier. Mercenary Moors were, in fact, commonplace at the time. Othello predicates his success in love on his success as a soldier, wooing Desdemona with tales of his military travels and battles. Once the Turks are drowned—by natural rather than military might—Othello is left without anything to do: the last act of military administration we see him perform is the viewing of fortifications in the extremely short second scene of Act III.
No longer having a means of proving his manhood or honor in a public setting such as the court or the battlefield, Othello begins to feel uneasy with his footing in a private setting, the bedroom. Iago capitalizes on this uneasiness, calling Othello’s epileptic fit in Act IV, scene i, “[a] passion most unsuiting such a man.” In other words, Iago is calling Othello unsoldierly. Iago also takes care to mention that Cassio, whom Othello believes to be his competitor, saw him in his emasculating trance (IV.i.
Farewell the plum’d troops and the big wars
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell,
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!”
One might well say that Othello is saying farewell to the wrong things—he is entirely preoccupied with his identity as a soldier. But his way of thinking is somewhat justified by its seductiveness to the audience as well. Critics and audiences alike find comfort and nobility in Othello’s final speech and the anecdote of the “malignant and . . . turbaned Turk” (V.ii.362), even though in that speech, as in his speech in Act III, scene iii, Othello depends on his identity as a soldier to glorify himself in the public’s memory, and to try to make his audience forget his and Desdemona’s disastrous marital experiment.
The action of Othello moves from the metropolis of Venice to the island of Cyprus. Protected by military fortifications as well as by the forces of nature, Cyprus faces little threat from external forces. Once Othello, Iago, Desdemona, Emilia, and Roderigo have come to Cyprus, they have nothing to do but prey upon one another. Isolation enables many of the play’s most important effects: Iago frequently speaks in soliloquies; Othello stands apart while Iago talks with Cassio in Act IV, scene i, and is left alone onstage with the bodies of Emilia and Desdemona for a few moments in Act V, scene ii; Roderigo seems attached to no one in the play except Iago. And, most prominently, Othello is visibly isolated from the other characters by his physical stature and the color of his skin.
Iago is an expert at manipulating the distance between characters, isolating his victims so that they fall prey to their own obsessions. At the same time, Iago, of necessity always standing apart, falls prey to his own obsession with revenge. The characters cannot be islands, the play seems to say: self-isolation as an act of self-preservation leads ultimately to self-destruction. Such self-isolation leads to the deaths of Roderigo, Iago, Othello, and even Emilia.
Jealousy motivates the central conflicts of Othello: Iago’s resentment of Othello, and Othello’s suspicion of Desdemona. Iago is immediately revealed as a jealous character: in the first scene, he complains that Cassio has been promoted instead of him even though “I am worth no worse a place” (1.1.). He also later implies that his hatred of Othello is rooted in jealousy, since there are rumors of Othello having slept with Emilia. As Iago explains, even the hint of this possibility enrages him: “I know not if’t be true / But I for mere suspicion in that kind / Will do as if for surety” (1.3.). It seems that his jealousy is so intense that he does not need proof of this infidelity before punishing Othello for it. Appropriately, Iago decides to seek revenge by using jealousy as a weapon against Othello, “practicing upon his peace and quiet / Even to madness” (2.1.). Iago knows, perhaps from his own experience, that jealousy is a form of psychological torture which will constantly torment Othello. By making Othello feel the torments of jealousy towards Desdemona and her supposed lover, Iago causes Othello to suffer as much as he does.
In Othello, Othello simultaneously believes he is being deceived by characters who are honest while failing to see the deceit and treachery of characters who are tricking him. Othello refers to Iago as “honest” multiple times, showing that he is totally blind to the way Iago is tricking and manipulating him. Othello is so deceived by Iago, he believes Iago is actually incapable of lying: “I know thou’rt full of love and honesty / And weigh’st thy words before thou giv’st them breath” (3.3.).
While Othello is naively unable to see that Iago is deceiving him every step of the way, he is also stubbornly convinced that Desdemona is deceiving him even when she is being totally honest. Once Othello makes up his mind that Desdemona is guilty, all her claims of innocence only enrage him further because he is convinced that “this is a subtle whore / A closet lock and key of villainous secrets” (4.2.). Everything Desdemona does to prove her innocence comes across to Othello as further proof of her guilt. Othello’s inability to correctly identify who is and is not deceiving him makes him act rashly and ultimately lead to violence and tragedy.
In Othello, characters justify their actions on the basis of deserving justice. The first character we see seeking justice is Brabantio, who is outraged that his daughter has married a man of a different race, and decides that Othello must have bewitched her. Brabantio asserts “I therefore apprehend and do attach thee” (1.2.77), seeking legal restitution for the perceived violation to himself and his honor. However, Brabantio’s apparent demand for justice is rooted in his racial prejudice against Othello, and his sense that he is owed obedience from his daughter. He only feels entitled to justice because social structures have placed him in a position of racial superiority to Othello and gender superiority to Desdemona. What Brabantio envisions as justice is the reassertion of his racial and gendered dominance and power over others.
As Othello becomes increasingly convinced that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him, he also feels entitled to seek a form of bloody, self-administered justice. As he tells Iago, “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” (3.3.). While there would have been legal procedures in place at this time for bringing charges of adultery against a spouse, Othello is not interested in seeking official forms of justice. He wants to punish his wife himself, and feels entitled to do so. When Iago suggests that Othello strangle Desdemona rather than poisoning her, Othello notes “Good, good—the justice of it pleases!”(4.1.). Othello’s violent plan to achieve justice is rooted in his sense that he has complete ownership and control over his wife, and that he can literally decide whether she lives or dies. Othello’s notion of justice depends on a system that is fundamentally unjust toward women, leaving them vulnerable to false accusation and violent actions.