I have been reading and viewing a few of Shakespeare’s tragedies lately. Othello, in contrast to Hamlet, seems to be about very little in terms of overarching themes. Whereas Hamlet makes observations about death, revenge, the place of women in society, the relationships between fathers and their children, Othello is about what? Perhaps trusting too easily? Perhaps trusting not enough? Of course, it is about racism, jealousy, and betrayal, but what does it say about them?
The plot, of course, is that Desdemona elopes to marry the Moor, Othello, having fallen in love with him as he told the tales of all his adventures. Iago sees this marriage as an opportunity to have his revenge on both Othello, who has given the position he expected to Cassio, and on Cassio himself. He does this by making Othello think that Desdemona has betrayed him with Cassio.
To me the play is mostly about trust. Desdemona is a fool, it seems, to entrust her life to a man who would doubt her on so little evidence, actually before there is any evidence. Why is Othello so quick to trust Iago, a man he has overlooked for promotion, who has reason to hate him, and yet so quick to distrust his wife, who has never given him reason to doubt? Of course, this contrast says something about society’s view of women at the time.
Perhaps also Othello is a good excuse to write the part of a truly evil villain, Iago. For certainly Iago’s is the most important part.
Why is this a tragedy? Is Othello a great man brought down? I suppose he is great by virtue of his military adventures, but he is brought down by his own stupidity and gullibility. Desdemona is nothing but a victim, completely helpless to control her fate. This is not my favorite Shakespeare play, filling us with dread as it does from almost the beginning.