Othello Theme of Jealousy
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Othello is the most famous literary work that focuses on the dangers of jealousy. The play is a study of how jealousy can be fueled by mere circumstantial evidence and can destroy lives. (In Othello, the hero succumbs to jealousy when Iago convinces him that Desdemona has been an unfaithful wife – in the end, Othello murders his wife and then kills himself.) It is interesting that Iago uses jealousy against Othello, yet jealousy is likely the source of Iago's hatred in the first place. In Othello, jealousy takes many forms, from sexual suspicion to professional competition, but it is, in all cases, destructive.
Questions About Jealousy
- What language does Shakespeare use to describe jealousy in the play? Do different characters use different metaphors to describe jealousy, or are there common ways of talking about it?
- Do other characters besides Othello demonstrate jealousy? In what ways?
- Is jealousy portrayed as intrinsically unreasonable? Is there a kind of jealousy that is reasonable, or does the play suggest that all jealousy tends to "mock" the person who is jealous?
- Why is sexual jealousy the focus of the play, rather than a different kind of jealousy? What other kinds of jealousy are included in Othello? (If you're thinking of Iago's jealousy of Othello, keep in mind that this, too, could be sexual jealousy.)
Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
The reason Iago chooses to hurt Othello by making him jealous is that Iago is consumed by jealousy himself.
In Othello, Shakespeare proves that jealousy is inherently unreasonable, as it is founded on the psychological issues of the jealous person, not on the behavior of the one who prompts the jealous feelings.
Jealousy takes many forms and sometimes it is harmless while at other times it can be destructive. In William Shakespeare’s play “Othello” a man named Iago hates and is jealous of the protagonist Othello because Othello has not promoted him to position of Lietunant, so he decides to try and kill Othello. However, he first convinces Roderigo to help him because Roderigo is in love with Othello’s wife Desdemona and Iago promises that he can get him together with Desdemona. With Roderigo’s help, Iago is able to plot a series of events which eventually leads to convincing Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio, and this not only causes conflict between husband and wife, but leads to Othello’s desire to kill Cassio. Thus, Shakespeare suggests that when people are conflicted with jealousy, they may hurt others and even cause their own destruction. At the beginning of the play, Iago feels jealous towards Othello and tells Roderigo that “I hate the Moor: And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets He has done my office: I know not if’t be true; But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, Will do as if for surety.”(1.3.12).
Iago first states that he hates Othello for passing him over for a promotion but he hears rumors that his wife Emilia might have had a fling with Othello. Even though Iago is not sure if the rumors are true, he still decides to try and disrupt Othello’s life. This reveals the buildup of jealousy and hate within him, and even without any clear reason to disrupt Othello’s life, he feels the need to do create evil rumors about him in order to ruin his reputation. Moreover, Iago manipulates Roderigo in order to cause confusion and cause jealousy in Othello’s mind. Iago tells Roderigo that “Thou art sure of me. Go make money. I have told thee often, and I re-tell thee again and again, I hate the Moor. My cause is hearted: thine hath no less reason. Let us be conjunctive in our revenge against him.” (1.3.358). Roderigo is jealous of Othello marrying Desdemona, the woman he loves and is now blinded by love so believes whatever Iago tells him. Indeed, Iago sees this opportunity and decides to take advantage and use Roderigo to plot a series of events that will lead Othello into Iago’s trap.
Shakespeare shows that due to Iago’s evil and jealous nature, he does not want happiness for anyone and therefore uses people as tools or toys for his own purpose. Finally, Iago uses Cassio and Desdemona to make Othello think and suspect that Desdemona is cheating on him. Iago thinks to himself “if I can fasten but one cup upon him, with that which he hath drunk to-night already, He’ll be as full of quarrel and offence as my young mistress’ dog.”(2.3.9). Iago gets Cassio drunk so he will get in a fight because he wants Cassio to be in trouble with Othello and while that is happening he knows Desdemona will intervene and try to help Cassio. Iago’s actions show that he is so jealous of Cassio’s position that he is willing to do anything to make Cassio look suspicious. Iago’s capability to portray Cassio as unreliable and untrustworthy reveals the extremes people can go to because of jealousy. Iago is willing to exploit everyone just to get even with Othello proving that jealousy can actually lead humans to abandon their logic.
As Iago’s plans to get Cassio killed continue, he successfully creates the seeds of jealousy in Othello too. Ironically, he even says to Othello that “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on” (3.3.15). Iago pretends to be on the side of Othello and warns him not to be too jealous because it will lead to self-destruction. As a result, Othello naively trusts a person who is trying to lead him into self-destruction yet he does not realize this and continues to step on the traps that Iago sets up. Moreover, Othello falls deeper and deeper into Iago’s master plan and begins to doubt Desdemona even though he at first wants proof of her affair. Othello reminds himself “No…my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company, is free of speech, sings, plays and dances well; where virtue is, these are more virtuous: …No, Iago; ill see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove: and on the proof.
There is no more but this, away at once with love or jealousy!” (3.3.31). Othello refuses to be destroyed by jealousy because he can clearly see that Desdemona chose him out of love and not because of anything else, but he feels like he needs proof from Desdemona that she is not cheating on him to be truly convinced. This passage shows that even though Othello claims that he will not be conflicted by jealousy, step by step he is moving away from his claim and becomes jealous and filled with doubts. Shakespeare warns that jealousy has the capacity to make a person forget the reality and see people and situations clearly because it is such a strong emotion Finally, Emilia warns Desdemona about Othello’s jealousy as she says “but jealous souls will not be answer’d so; / They are not ever jealous for the cause, / But jealous for they are jealous: ‘tis a monster/ Begot upon itself, born on itself.”(3.4.3). Emilia understands that jealousy is like a “monster” that comes out of nowhere and becomes worse and worse over time.
This suggests that Othello’s mind is being controlled and taken over by the “monster” and the jealousy in his mind can keep growing until it is finally out of control. In Othello’s time, men owned women and an affair would damage a man’s reputation and ego more than today. Since Othello is a Moor, the thought of his wife cheating on him is even worse than if he was Venetian since Desdemona is his and she owes him loyalty. Near the end of the play, Desdemona discovers that her handkerchief is missing and asks Emilia where her handkerchief is. Emilia does not know and Desdemona says “Believe me, I had rather have lost my purse / Full of crusadoes: and, but my noble Moor / is true of mind and made of no such baseness / as jealous creatures are, it were enough / /to put him to ill thinking.” (3.4.7). Desdemona knows that the handkerchief is an important gift from Othello and losing it might cause doubts in Othello’s mind about her loyalty.
Unfortunately, Othello is set up by Iago and finds the handkerchief and is now convinced of his wife’s unfaithful character, so he murders Desdemona. After strangling Desdemona he says “Behold, I have a weapon; / a better never did itself sustain / upon a soldier’s thigh: I have seen the day, / that, with this little arm and this good sword, / I have made my way through more impediments / than twenty times you stop: but, O vain boast!” (5.2.55). Othello understands after killing her, that Desdemona’s death was pointless as he is now alone without the love of his life. By the time Othello realizes that he was set up by Iago and Desdemona did not cheat on him, Othello cannot tolerate the guilt of killing her and decides to commit suicide. Before stabbing himself he says “speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate / nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak / of one that loved not wisely but too well; / of one not easily jealous, but being wrought / Perplex’d in the extreme.” (5.2.341-345).
Othello becomes the victim of Iago’s cruelty because he is unable to control jealousy, and he ends up being his own worst enemy as his jealousy becomes so powerful that he kills because of it. Shakespeare shows that jealousy can destroy not only others’ lives but can lead to one’s own self-destruction as people cannot see clearly and think rationally when they let such a strong emotion over-take them. Therefore, Shakespeare warns readers that they must control the jealousy in their lives because if they do not, they will destroy the relationships with those around them and themselves. Jealousy is one of the strongest emotions and it can come easily when a person feels like they deserve better, as Iago does, or when they are too possessive over another person, as Othello is over Desdemona. Either way, jealousy causes people to misread reality and act irrationally.