Othello: its Themes
In the Shakespearean tragedy Othello how many themes are there? And which ones predominate. This paper seeks to elucidate the reader on this subject.
In her book, Everybody’s Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies, Maynard Mack comments on the seeming predominance of the theme of loss in the drama:
In any event, what comes to us most forcefully from the stage in Othello is not mystery but the agony of loss, loss all the more tragic, in some instances, for not being inevitable. Brabantio loses (in every sense) his much-loved only child and eventually dies of grief. Cassio in a drunken moment loses his soldier’s discipline, then his lieutenancy and his cherished comradeship with Othello. Othello, in turn, losing under Iago’s tuition his ability to distinguish the individual woman he married from the standard cynical stereotype, abandons with it all pride in his profession together with the self-command that made him the man he was. And Desdemona, through no real fault of her own, loses the magical handkerchief. (131)
The theme of loss, however, is not the theme on which the play opens. Lily B. Campbell in Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes indicates that hate is the theme on which this play opens:
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: