William Shakespeare's Othello
The Themes of Marriage and Jealousy in Shakespeare's "Othello"
Shakespeare's works have been a subject for discussion among critics and philosophers for centuries, and despite considerable social changes, they are never out of date since their epoch. In Othello, Shakespeare raises several important issues, some of which are historically bound and others are universally human ones. The themes of marriage and jealousy are among the most significant ones throughout the play that explore human nature, gender, race, ethical values and social impact on a person.
Speaking about the theme of marriage, it should be noted that it is presented as a truly dysfunctional institution where fidelity and rights of women are quite controversial. Moreover, the theme of marriage is treated from the prospect of racial and social differences, which cause the trouble in the end. Desdemona is a daughter of a nobleman who expects her equal to marry her. In this context, "an equal" would mean a number of things such as having the same or higher status in society, decent origin and fortune etc. Instead, Othello is "the Moor", an outsider in Venice, who does not look like the best match for Desdemona. Even the fact that he is a renowned military general and respected for his achievements does not persuade Brabantio to give his permission. Yet, Desdemona is in love with Othello and dares to elope from his father's home and marry her choice of a man without his approval. This situation reveals the break of several stereotypes about marriage such as women's obedience and racial segregation which were typical for Shakespeare's epoch. The author reveals an idea that this non-conformity with social norms is rarely forgiven by people and can result in a tragedy, undermining the marriage from within with the help of external enemies.
Because Othello perfectly realizes his insecurity and a stranger in Desdemona's world, his own fears are projected on her. He increasingly starts believing that she might be unfaithful to him because he is not a perfect match for her. His doubts are magnified when Iago feeds his jealousy and insecurity. It is also remarkable that a woman in marriage has a role of possession, which is obvious when Brabantio accuses Othello of his daughter's stealing "O thou foul thief, where hast thou stow'd my daughter" (Shakespeare, 1.2.2). This passage suggests that women are not treated as individuals who have free will, but rather as attributes of social position. Even though Othello genuinely loves his wife, he also falls under the influence of this stereotype because he does not know her intimately, her real thoughts and true ethics. He prefers to trust a man who is his hidden enemy rather than to trust his own spouse, which means that there must be bias against women. Speaking of bias, the play explains why Brabantio cannot accept Othello as his son-in-law. He cannot believe that Desdemona could sincerely fall in love with him, yet she did because of his outstanding masculine qualities. In his turn, her father believes that their connection is a matter of witchcraft on Othello's part because of his African origin. Thus, interracial marriage is presented as being disapproved by society because of prejudice and fear. Such aspects as superstition, terror of enchantment and mixed-race offspring are revealed when discussing marriage between Desdemona and "the Moor". Therefore, Brabantio addresses Othello with accusation:
- Damn'd as thou art, thou hast enchanted her;
For I'll refer me to all things of sense,
If she in chains of magic were not bound,
Whether a maid so tender, fair and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunned
The wealthy curled darlings of our nation,
Judge me the world, if 'tis not gross in sense
That thou hast practised on her with foul charms,
Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals
That weaken motion. (Shakespeare 1.2.2)
Concerning the issue of gender stereotypes in marriage, it should be noted that Iago skillfully uses them against Othello when hinting at women's overall infidelity. Even the fact that Desdemona left her father to marry Othello is used as an argument not in favor but against the woman. Iago implies that if she could mislead one man, that is her father, then she could easily do the same to her husband. This devil's logics seems convincing to Othello and penetrates his heart, thus proving male sexism against women. As his rage grows, the man starts abusing his wife privately and publicly, which leads to her murder in the end. Yet, it is remarkable that she cannot defend herself and even believes she might be guilty. Female passivity, low self-esteem and dependency on their husbands are the aspects of marriage, which are pictured in Othello. Furthermore, it is important to notice that marriage is the only resort for women who have no other opportunities in life. Consequently, problems in marriage are so painful to women "because marriage is Desdemona's sole adventure in life, its disintegration is disorienting to her" (Vaughan 101).
Another significant theme raised by Shakespeare is jealousy, which, in fact, becomes the main association with the character of Othello. There are actually two types of jealousy which are covered in the play: sexual jealousy and jealousy of someone's status or success. Speaking of the sexual jealousy, the plot focuses on relations between Desdemona and Othello, as well as other people trying to destroy their happiness. Iago skillfully manipulates Othello because he has another type of jealousy: he cannot forgive him that he preferred to promote Cassio, not him. His intention to destroy Othello's family is the result of Iago's jealousy in the first place. In addition, he seems to be jealous of his wife, Emilia, whom he suspects to be in affair with Othello:
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. (Shakespeare, 1.3.12)
Thus, it can be noticed that jealousy is the driving force of action and is fulfilled through deceit and manipulation. The symbolism of jealousy is quite remarkable:
- O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. (Shakespeare 3.3.15)
This illustrative metaphor reveals the dangerous and destructive power of jealousy which exhausts its bearer, not other people. The impact of jealousy is pictured as a continuous process rather than a momentary action. There is a spiritual struggle inside Othello who is quite aware how the feeling captures his soul, like a greedy demon. He cannot trace the turning point where his fantasies and insinuations turned into a nightmare that haunts him and becomes his new reality. Jealously makes Othello blind to the truth with the help of Iago's staged play. Jealousy is like poison, as Iago notes, since it enchants a person into delusion through which he can be easily manipulated:
- Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou owedst yesterday. ( Shakespeare, 3.3.33)
Therefore, the themes of marriage and jealousy are key ones in the play and are closely connected to each other. Because of gender and racial stereotypes, the characters become vulnerable to negative influence and insecurity. Women are treated as property and are not generally trusted, which gives a clue to Iago how to mislead Othello. Jealousy is presented as a demon that lives in the man's soul and which initially appears because of his outsider position. He cannot fully believe that his wife can truly love him as he is disapproved by the rest of society. With the help of Iago, this insecurity is raised to the level of obsession, which leads to a tragedy.