Shakespeare’s ingenious tragedy ”Othello” is packed with themes of human emotion including anger, revenge, and deceit, all of which are driven by one overarching theme: jealousy.
Jealousy in Othello
As is typical of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the main character in Othello is besieged and overcome by a weakness that leads him to ruin. Othello is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most troubled and emotionally exploited heroes. Having married a woman of unparalleled beauty and nobility, Othello already feels unworthy. His lack of self-esteem is further exploited by the villain, Iago, who insinuates that Desdemona is unfaithful. Othello’s jealousy is so powerful that he murders his beloved wife, but Othello is not the only character whose actions are motivated by jealousy.
In this lesson, we will examine the theme of jealousy as it relates to the development of the plot, and as motivation for several of the play’s characters.
Who is Jealous?
Othello is driven to madness by the insinuations that his wife is cheating on him with this lieutenant, Cassio. Iago artfully engineers Othello’s descent into madness by gradually feeding Othello lies. Why? Well, Iago is jealous too! There is also one minor character whose jealousy plays a pivotal role in advancing the plot. Bianca is Cassio’s girlfriend, who reveals Cassio’s possession of Desdemona’s handkerchief in front of Othello.
Although he is a successful military commander, Othello is a Moor from Cyprus. His dark skin and enslavement as a youth paint an unpropitious view among the other characters regarding his professional worthiness, as well as a fitting husband, for the beautiful Desdemona.
Othello’s background is a focal point of the plot, abused by Iago to rouse the disdain of the other characters. It stands to reason that Othello would be a bit insecure.I crave fit disposition for my wife.
Due reference of place and exhibitionWith such accommodation and besortAs levels with her breeding (Act1.Scene 3)Othello feels undeserving of his wife, recognizing that the color of his skin and his humble origins make him unfit for the pure and noble Desdemona.Elizabethan England was for all intents and purposes a homogenous culture. Othello’s marriage to Desdemona is viewed by others, especially Iago, as an affront to the natural order of the world.
Othello is aware of how his marriage is viewed by others. It is easy to understand why he is vulnerable to the mere insinuation that his wife is unfaithful. Iago exploits Othello’s insecurity and turns it into crippling jealousy.
Shakespeare crafts the perfect villain in Iago, who’s professional and personal jealousy, as well as his disregard for morality are the ideal makings of a malefactor. Iago confesses to hating ‘the Moor’ (Othello) and seeks his revenge for sport and profit (Act1. Scene 3), meaning that his revenge will be both fun and fruitful.Iago is jealous of both Othello’s success and the fact that Othello made Cassio a lieutenant. Iago claims that Cassio has never set a foot on the battlefield and that in promoting Cassio Othello has chosen by letter and affection and not by old gradation (Act 1. Scene 1).
Iago is also motivated for personal reasons. He desires Desdemona even though he believes her purity has been spoiled by Othello; Iago is also looking to avenge what he believes was an affair between Othello and Iago’s wife:I do love her too;Not out of absolute lust, though peradventureI stand accountant for as great a sin,But partly led to diet my revenge,For that I do suspect the lusty MoorHath leap’d into my seat; the thought whereofDoth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards;And nothing can or shall content my soulTill I am even’d with him, wife for wife,Or failing so, yet that I put the MoorAt least into a jealousy so strongThat judgment cannot cure. (Act 2. Scene 1)Iago is married to Emilia, and he suspects (but cannot prove) that Emilia had an affair with Othello: it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets; He has done my office (Act 1. Scene 3).
Although a minor character who only appears in a few scenes, Bianca’s jealousy could not be more critical to the plot. Bianca is a courtesan. In today’s society she would be considered a prostitute or, at best, a ‘kept woman.’Iago plants Desdemona’s handkerchief in Cassio’s quarters.
Cassio finds the handkerchief, and intrigued by its beauty, asks Bianca to copy it. Bianca suspects that this handkerchief belongs to another woman and that Cassio must be seeing someone else. In Act IV, Bianca, enraged by jealousy, declares:A likely piece of work, that you should findit in your chamber, and not know who left it there!This is some minx’s token, and I must take out thework? There; give it your hobby-horse: wheresoeveryou had it, I’ll take out no work on’t. (Act 4. Scene 1)This speech takes place in front of several characters including Othello, who immediately recognizes the handkerchief as Desdemona’s. This is the event that convinces Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio.
Jealousy is employed throughout Othello as motivation for the characters’ actions, but Shakespeare also uses jealousy to explore the inner-workings of human frailty.
Othello, the mighty warrior risen from the ashes of his past, is brought to his knees by jealousy. Iago, full of spite and anger, turns his jealousy into an ugly plot and carelessly destroys several lives.In Bianca‘s case, jealousy undoes her only hope for moral redemption, as she destroys her chances with Cassio, but more importantly, her jealousy provides the pivotal moment in the play, which sets the tragic end into motion.
Shakespeare takes this common, albeit unhealthy, human emotion and crafts it into a crippling frailty and tool for evil, making Othello one of his most ingenious tragedies.