How many themes course through the Shakespearean tragedy Othello? Let us in this essay analyze the variety and depth of the themes in this play.
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)
Is hatred the only theme 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 jealousy, loss of faith in a form which involves the whole personality at the profound point where body meets spirit. The solution which Othello cannot accept is Iago’s: ‘Put up with it.’ This is as impossible as that Hamlet should, like Claudius, behave as if the past were done with and only the present mattered. . . . (144)
Of course, jealousy of a different type also torments the antagonist, the ancient, to the point that he ruins those around him and himself. Francis Ferguson in “Two Worldviews Echo Each Other” describes how there is no cure for the jealous passion that rules Iago’s life:
On the contrary, in the “world” of his philosophy and his imagination, where his spirit lives, there is no cure for passion. He is, behind his mask, as restless as a cage of those cruel and lustful monkeys that he mentions so often. It has been pointed out that he has no intelligible plan for destroying Othello,...