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Othello | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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

Othello | Themes



Love is a powerful force in the lives of Desdemona and Othello, whose secret marriage is the spark that ignites the plot. A great deal of time is spent as Othello explains to the Duke of Venice and to Brabantio how Desdemona came to love him by his stories. Desdemona is utterly devoted to Othello, even to the point of wanting to take the blame when he murders her, rather than have him suffer. Yet Othello's love for Desdemona proves to be his undoing, as it causes him to be easily manipulated by Iago, who sees it as a point of weakness in Othello's otherwise strict military demeanor.

The two couples—Othello and Desdemona, Iago and Emilia—have very different relationships. Othello and Desdemona have a romantic relationship that is, perhaps, too good to last. In contrast, Iago and Emilia's relationship is plagued by mistrust and misogyny.


Trust and betrayal are features of nearly every relationship in Othello. Iago is a trusted officer, adviser, and friend, and his position of trust allows him the opportunity to manipulate others. Othello entrusts Iago with important correspondence, and never questions his intent. Roderigo confides to Iago his love for Desdemona and accepts his help. Cassio takes Iago's advice willingly, and even Desdemona seeks out his advice when Othello seems to be acting strangely. Iago betrays all this trust in spectacular fashion.

Trust between Othello and Desdemona is also an important feature of the play. As the play begins, Othello unquestioningly accepts Desdemona's love and fidelity. He is convinced of it, and it gives him confidence and security. She, in turn, trusts him utterly. Yet due to Iago's manipulations, Othello loses trust in Desdemona. And ultimately, Othello betrays Desdemona's trust by murdering her.


Honor is a driving force in the lives of the men of Othello. Iago appeals to Brabantio's sense of being dishonored by his daughter's elopement and sparks outrage in Roderigo by suggesting that it is unfair for Desdemona to have married Othello. Although Iago's own motivation for his villainous actions is murky at best, he does suggest his plot against Othello is motivated in part by Cassio's promotion as well as the rumor Emilia cheated on him with Othello. Cassio, after getting into a drunken brawl, bemoans the loss of his reputation more so than the loss of his rank. This provides Iago with the leverage he needs to manipulate Cassio and make him a key part of the plot to destroy Othello. Othello's honor is wounded by the idea that Desdemona might be unfaithful, leading him to murder.

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