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Othello | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Professor Bradley Greenburg of Northeastern Illinois University explains the motifs in William Shakespeare's play Othello.

Othello | Motifs


Darkness and Light

Iago often hides in darkness to prevent people from knowing his identity. He stays out of sight in the wee hours of the morning as he and Roderigo goad Brabantio about Desdemona's elopement. He hides in shadows while Cassio and Roderigo confront each other, using the darkness as cover as he deals blows to both sides of the fight. Othello enters Desdemona's bedchamber by the light of a candle, and uses the light as a metaphor for her life, which he plans to snuff out as he would a candle.

Desdemona's and Othello's opposing skin colors are also illustrated through the text: Desdemona is called (rudely) a "white ewe" (Act 1, Scene 1) and "fair Desdemona" (Act 4, Scene 2), while Othello is referred to as a "black ram" (Act 1, Scene 1) and "black Othello" (Act 2, Scene 3). In addition, the contrast of Othello's dark skin and Iago's light skin brings situational irony to their portrayals in the play. Despite conventional associations of dark with evil and light with good, Iago, the light-skinned one—not the Moor Othello—plays the devil, which undercuts racial stereotyping of the day.

Animals and Demons

As the devil figure in the play, Iago frequently uses beast and demon imagery to extend the negative associations with blackness he uses to manipulate the play's racial tensions. In the play's opening, he suggests to Brabantio that Othello and Desdemona are making "the beast with two backs," and calls Othello "an old black ram." These beast references are like a virus, and careful readers can track the moments in which the contagion is passed to others. Cassio, after getting drunk at Iago's encouragement, declares he is "by and by a fool, and presently a beast." And when Iago plants the seed of suspicion in Othello's mind, Othello, too, begins to use animal and hell references. "Goats and Monkeys!" he exclaims to Lodovico after he learns he's been recalled back to Venice. When Emilia finds out Iago has used her, she declares in the final scene that she will "play the swan."

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