The Variety of Themes in Othello
In the Shakespearean tragedy Othello the number and description of themes is open to discussion. With the help of literary critics, we can analyze this subject in detail.
In the essay “Wit and Witchcraft: an Approach to Othello” Robert B. Heilman discusses the ancient’s instinctive reaction to the love-theme of the play:
Before coming directly to the forming of the love-theme that differentiates Othello from other Shakespeare plays that utilize the same theme, I turn arbitrarily to Iago to inspect a distinguishing mark of his of which the relevance to thematic form in the play will appear a little later. When Iago with unperceived scoffing reminds Roderigo, who is drawn with merciless attraction to the unreachable Desdemona, that love effects an unwonted nobility in men, he states a doctrine which he “knows” is true but in which he may not “believe.” Ennoblement by love is a real possibility in men, but Iago has to view it with bitterness and to try to undermine it. (333-34)
The theme of hate is the theme on which the play opens. Lily B. Campbell in Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes indicates this hate in the opening scene:
It is then on a theme of hate that the play opens. It is a hate of inveterate anger. It is a hate that is bound up with envy. Othello has preferred to be his lieutenant a military theorist, one Michael Cassio, over the experienced soldier Iago, to whom has fallen instead the post of “his Moorship’s ancient”. Roderigo questions Iago:
Thou told’st me thou didst hold him in thy hate.
And the reply is a torrent of proof of the hatred for Othello that has almost exceeded the envy of Cassio because he possesses the prize which Iago has sought to obtain for himself. (153)
Are hatred and loss the only themes in the work? Hardly. Campbell categorizes Othello as a “study in jealousy”:
Othello has suffered less in its modern interpretation than any other of Shakespeare’s tragedies, it would seem. So insistently did Shakespeare keep this tragedy unified about the theme of jealousy and the central victims of the passion, so obviously did he mould his plot about the black Moor and the cunning Iago and the victims of their jealousy that no interpreter has been able to ignore the obvious intention of the author. Yet if we study the contemporary interpretations of the passion here portrayed, we find that Shakespeare was following in detail a broader and more significant analysis of the passion than has in modern days been understood. The play is, however, clearly a study in jealousy and in jealousy as it affects those of different races. (148)
Can we narrow down the concept of jealousy in this play to a specific type? Helen Gardner in “Othello: A Tragedy of Beauty and Fortune” sees this play as a study in sexual jealousy:
Othello is not a study in pride, egoism, or self-deception: its subject is sexual...