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Main Ideas

Themes

Main Ideas Themes

Deception and Treachery

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 not telling the truth: “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.

Justice

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.