“In the play ‘Othello,’ Shakespeare powerfully portrays a world dominated by jealousy, hatred and revenge.”
To what extent would you agree with this view of the play? Support the points you make with the aid of suitable reference to the play.
Othello is a viscerally powerful play, with a number of distinctive aspects of humanity on display. This is essentially a play that spans the full spectrum of human experience, highlighting Shakespeare as the all-time great chronicler of the human condition; and consequently the ultimate Renaissance writer. As a result, a myriad of themes inevitably rear their heads across all five acts. However I feel that there is little doubt that the driving forces – invisible but terrifyingly powerful – at the heart of the world of the play are certainly those most universal of themes: jealousy, hatred and revenge.
When I find myself in many years to come, reflecting nostalgically on those rose-tinted school years, the classic question of ‘what play did you do for your Leaving Cert’ is bound to raise its head. And when I think of this play, what will emerge from the archives of my mind? What was the lesson that the great bard conveyed to me? Why, beware ‘the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on’ of course. This most human of weaknesses dominates the characters and the plot of this magnificent play. Clearly, the culmination of all Othello’s insecurities is the jealous rage at the end of the temptation scene where he swears to ‘tear her all to pieces’. What struck me is how apt Iago’s description was, how ‘tenderly’ Othello is ‘led by th’ nose’, drastically changed from a man who is ‘true of mind’ to one who has become completely consumed by this ‘monster,’ one that in the end destroys his entire life and everything he holds dear.
I really enjoyed the great irony in Iago’s ‘green-ey’d monster’ warning to Othello, given his own issues around jealousy. My favourite aspect of the play is that infuriating question of Iago’s true motivation. There are many competing theories but I have no doubt that jealousy deserves to be one of the primary ones. Early in the play he reveals, somewhat unconvincingly, that he fears that the ‘the lusty Moor Hath leap’d into my seat’. Although I felt that this revealed more about Iago’s salacious, jaundiced view of the world, it still exposed a level of jealousy. This was built further upon by Iago’s own admission that he does ‘love her too,’ but admits his urge to be with her is partly to ‘diet my revenge.’
Othello is not the only target of Iago’s jealousy: Cassio too has enraged the ensign by winning the role of Othello’s lieutenant, a position Iago feels he is completely unsuitable for, because he is all ‘prattle, without practice.’ Bitterness about a missed employment opportunity is one thing, but I believe that his resentment of Iago has its origins in a simple clash of characters. Iago hates the fact that Cassio ‘hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly’. In other words, Iago is desperately jealous of the plain decency of poor Cassio. There’s no doubt that chief among this master manipulator’s motivations is his crippling jealousy of those around him.
Of course, in the world of the play – and often in our own world – hatred and jealousy are common bedfellows. It seemed to me that Iago could not be clearer, when early in the play he declares that ‘I hate the moor.’ For me it was another remarkable feature of this play: that Iago can harbour this most disturbing of emotions, towards a man who has known him for many years, without raising even the least suspicion in Othello’s increasingly frazzled mind. In fact, the more Iago’s hatred drives him on towards Othello’s destruction, the more faith that Othello places in him. He goes from being ‘honest Iago’ in Act I to ‘brave Iago, honest and just’ in Act V, despite Iago essentially destroying his life through disloyalty and deceit between times. It was actually when watching the Second Age production of the play that I finally came to the conclusion that Iago’s extreme hatred of all that is good – Cassio; Othello, Desdemona or even the love between them – is what drives him to use the ‘cunning cruelty’ that brings the play to its sad and disturbing climax.
I sometimes got the sense too in the play that the world of Venetian society is one where hatred is an emotion that lurks just beneath the surface. Although much of the repulsive racist talk of a ‘black ram’ and a ‘barbary horse’ comes from Iago, the sentiment from Brabantio that Desdemona could not possibly ‘fall in love with what she feared to look on?’ gives weight to the case that racism reached all levels of Venetian society. The angry mob that subsequently threatens Othello for his supposed use of black magic to win Desdemona’s heart is further testament to the level of hatred that Othello as a moor and outsider faced in the world of the play.
If hatred and jealousy are motivations for Iago’s cruelty, then satisfying himself through revenge is the logical outcome of both those feelings. It’s clear to us the audience relatively early in the play that Iago intends to corrupt Othello’s ‘constant, noble and loving nature’ with the stated aim of ‘practising upon his peace and quiet even to madness’. Tragically that’s exactly what Iago achieves. His ‘pestilence’ infects the ‘dull moor’ whose deep insecurities make him vulnerable to the evil machinations of this ‘demi-devil’ Iago. Although I feel strongly that ultimately Iago was primarily motivated by the ‘pleasure and action’ of using his unquestionable skills to destroy the unwitting Moor, there’s no doubt that his thirst for revenge fuelled his campaign against both Othello and Cassio.
Othello is a play of such depth and variety that it is difficult to reduce it to three powerful themes. For me, it is at its heart a love story, one that is sadly destined to end in grief and bloodshed. Deception too, is also central to the world of this extraordinary play. However, I feel that there is no questioning the dominating influence of those most disturbing of emotions – jealousy and hatred – along with the typical outcome of these feelings: a desperate thirst for revenge, throughout this tragic tale. Shakespeare’s powerful portrayal of a world so different, but yet somehow so familiar to my own, is one that has certainly left a deep and lasting impact on me.