Universal Themes in Othello

William Shakespeare 1564-1616

William Shakespeare was born outside of London in 1564. He soon became known as an actor, poet, and playwright. He is considered the greatest and most famous of English writers and his 154 sonnets and 37 plays are still enjoyed today.


He is best known for his tragedies. His tragic hero is a notable person who has enjoyed status and prosperity, but possesses a moral weakness or flaw that ultimately leads to his downfall. External such as fate can also play part in the hero's fall, and evil agents can cause him to make wrong decisions (Rubie 99). Othello is one of the four most famous Shakespearean tragedies. The play shows how the forces of racism, insecurity, the power to manipulate or be manipulated, good versus evil, and love and jealousy can turn a noble man into a dishonorable man.




The protagonist, Othello, is called a Moor. Moors are extremely dark skinned. The Elizabethans believed, like people of other times, that all foreigners were not only curious but also inferior. Black has traditionally been associated with ugliness, savagery, death, and sin. (Rubie 73). Shakespeare intentionally uses a black person as the main character for an additional element. Othello is called "thick lips" by Roderigo (1.1.66). Desdemona in contrast is described as "whiter skin of hers than snow, And smooth as monumental alabaster" (5.2.4). After Othello and Desdemona elope, Iago, Othello's ensign, tells Brabantio that "an old black ram/Is your white ewe" (1.1.88-89) and that "your daughter cover'd with a Barbary horse" (1.1.125). The animal imagery further enhances the base image of Othello (Spurgeon 335). Brabantio has always welcomed Othello at his home until his daughter is involved. He says, "She is abused, stole from me and corrupted...Sans witchcraft could not" (1.3.61-65). Iago continues his plot for revenge against Othello for passing him over for a promotion by undermining Othello's confidence in Desdemona's love by saying, "And when she seem'd to shake and fear your looks" (3.3.207) and "Of her own clime, complexion, and degree" (3.3.230).



Although Othello seems to be very self confident, he is really insecure. He spends a great deal of time bragging on his accomplishments. He needs constant approval and reassurance. He uses others as a mirror to see himself (Muir 183). Othello loves Desdemona so much partially because she thinks he is wonderful. Unfortunately, Iago is also his mirror. At first, Iago reflects a wise and decisive person. Later, Iago puts those racial, age, and cultural differences between Desdemona and himself into the spotlight. Othello actually begins to believe that there may be some truth to Iago's words when he says, "Haply, for I am black" (3.3.263). His insecurities enable Iago to convince him that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio, and Othello decides to kill her. Even as Othello is about to die he instructs the bystanders to "Speak of me as I am" (5.2.338).


The Power to Manipulate or be Manipulated

Shakespeare uses Iago to show how much one person can affect another person. Iago sees people as either those stupid enough to be used or those smart enough to do the using. He is good at picking people that may not be stupid but are vulnerable. Iago has a talent for using people's weaknesses against them such as using Othello's racial and identity insecurities to corrupt him. How is Iago able to manipulate each of the characters in the play? The answer lies in his skillful manipulation of rhetorical skills. He uses connotative and metaphoric language, inflammatory imagery, emotional appeals, well-placed silences, dubious hesitations, leading questions, meaningful repetition, and sly hints (NEH 1). But why does he do it?

Good Versus Evil

Iago's malevolence seems too absolute for ordinary motivation (Mowat 289). He is merely passed up for a promotion. Shakespeare, therefore, uses Iago to represent evil. In fact, he is the quintessence of evil (Dash 119). Othello, though black, represents good. He is described by the Duke as "more fair than black" (1.3.331). Iago feels the need to destroy all that appears good such as Othello's and Desdemona's marriage and Cassio. He hates Cassio because "he hath a daily beauty in his life/That makes me ugly" (5.1.2-21). It would appear that evil wins over good because Othello and Desdemona are dead at the end while Iago is alive. However, Iago has lost that which gave him power when he says, "From this time forth I never will speak word" (5.2.356). Therefore, he will no longer be able to manipulate those around with him with his superior rhetorical skills.

Love and Jealousy

Othello is said to be the only successful love tragedy (Charney 5). It is all about the love between Othello and Desdemona. They are able to cross all the barriers imposed by culture, race and age. But not for long! Iago is Shakespeare's supreme enemy of love (Charney 6). He does not have the capacity to love and envies those that do. Iago is able to play on Othello's tragic flaw of social insecurity and obsessive love in order to inflame intense jealousy. That jealousy leads to Othello's downfall. Othello is a true tragedy because there is no fulfillment for the lovers at the end, and they each recognize that their own actions contributed to the destruction of not only their love but their lives (Charney 97). Desdemona states that her sins are "loves I bear to you" (5.2.43). According to the footnotes, this means that "if I sinned it was in loving you more than my father or more than God." Othello realizes his mistakes when he says,

Then you must speak

Of one that loved not wisely but too well;

Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought (worked into a frenzy),

....threw a pearl away (5.2.353-357)


All the elements and themes employed by Shakespeare in Othello over 400 years ago are still relevant today. People are still judged by the color of their skin, manner of dress, or accent of speech. People still exist who feel the need to destroy any beauty or good in the world. There exist those people who are able to control those around them and those that are controlled. Good and evil fight a battle in the world daily. Love is still destroyed on a daily basis by jealousy caused by insecurity. A modern adaptation of Othello released in 2008 shows that time does not the story change.


This modern day Othello takes place in a private high school in South Carolina. Odin is a talented, African American basketball star who is popular with his classmates. His girlfriend is the white daughter of the dean, Desi. Hugo, the coach's son, is jealous of Odin's talent, popularity, and girlfriend. He is able to manipulate Odin into believing that Desi is cheating on him with a team player, Michael Casio. Odin kills Desi and then himself. This adaptation shows how universal the themes of Shakespeare's Othello really are.

Works Cited
Rubie, Peter. The Everything Shakespeare Book - A comprehensive guide to understanding the comedies, tragedies, and sonnets of the Bard. Massachusetts: Adams Media, 2002. Print.

Spurgeon, Caroline. Shakespeare's Imagery and what it tells us. 1935. New York: Cambridge, 1990. Print.

Muir, Kenneth. Interpretations of Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985. Print.

National Endowment for Humanities. EDSITEment-The Best of Humanities on the Web. "Shakespeare's Othello and the Power of Language." NEH, 7 Sep, 2010. Web. 31 March 2011. <www.edsitement.neh.gov>

Dash, Irene G. Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Columbia, 1981. Print.

Charney, Maurice, Shakespeare on Love and Lust. New York: Columbia, 2000. Print.

Kennedy, X.J., and Dana Gioia. Literature - An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. pg 1248-1347. 2005. New York: Longman, 2010. Print.

Images Works Cited





Melissa Carpenter’s review of Crystal Guida’s Wiki Page

Crystal your wiki page is really good and organized. Your section about racism is really good because you give good examples that clearing explain your topic of discussion. Your other sections are good as well but I feel you should add more substance relating to your subtitles. The section titled, “Relevance” needs a little more work. You have a really good start but what if you wrote next to the picture of the “O”, a brief description of the movie and how it relates to “Othello”.

In regards to the design of your wiki page I do have a couple of suggestions. I noticed you mention Lago throughout your text. Who is Lago? Why don’t you do a link to each of the characters you reference in your page? That way when the person reading clicks on the name Lago, it gives a brief description of who the character is. Another suggestion would be to include a widget into your page ie, table of contents or reference.

Lastly, I know this is a draft but I noticed repeatedly you did not capitalize Lago but yet you did all other names. Your page is really good. I look forward to reading your final page.

Alexis Durand's Review of Crystal's wikipage
I really like the layout of your page it seems to flow very well and is easy for the reader to underdstand. Not wuite sure who or what lago is but overall I think you did a great job.