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Tracing Themes of Evil through Othello

People are jealous of others’ success, others’ looks, and even others’ race. Tragic playwright William Shakespeare proves, in immense detail, just how far jealousy can drive a human being. His tragic play Othello, encases this statement made by critical essayist D.R. Godfrey, “Jealousy, once awakened, becomes self-perpetuating, self-intensifying, and where no evidence for it exists, the jealous person under the impulse of an extraordinary perversity will continue to manufacture it”(Godfrey 418). Through characters, plot and racism, Shakespeare proves that jealousy is the root and driving force of all evil.

Jealousy first shows its ugly face when we meet Iago. He is the voice of jealousy in its entirety, giving way to the evil deeds that drive the play. Initially, Iago is jealous of Cassio’s placement over him in the government, however, sexual jealousy enters the plot when Iago suspects his wife has involved in a romantic relationship with Othello or Cassio. Iago succumbs to this newly found jealousy when he proclaims:

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Divinity of hell!
When devils will their blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now. (2.3.345-348)

Iago not only allows his jealousy to control him, but he also allows it to change him. Critic D.R. Godfrey opens our eyes to this control when he suggests that, “He [Iago] becomes jealous, embittered, and vengeful, viciously repudiating the honesty and loyalty that have led him nowhere”(Godfrey 421).

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Othello, as we quickly learn, is like Iago in the sense that he has great sexual jealousy over his new bride Desdemona. The jealousy, placed in Othello’s thoughts by Iago, is easily seen when Othello states, “If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself,/ I’ll not believe it”(3.3.278-279). Othello not only becomes jealous of Desdemona’s sexual affairs but of love and all of its manifestations. And at a rather swift pace, Othello allows the jealousy to overtake him, and fill his mind with thoughts of evil. One witnesses this progressive type of jealousy when Othello cries, “Yet she [Desdemona] must die, else she’ll betray more men”(5.2.6).

Roderigo presents the theme of jealousy as well, however in a much more minor sense. Roderigo’s jealousy arises from love never requited. (Godfrey 421) His love for Desdemona is so great, but Roderigo knows that she is a lost cause, and that makes him insanely jealous of Othello. This jealousy soon grows to include Cassio when Roderigo begins to believe the lies of Iago, allowing rage to overtake him. One observes this when Roderigo says:

Didst thou not see her paddle with the palm of his hand?
Lechery, by this hand: and an index and obscure
Prologue to the history of lust and foul
Thoughts. They met so near with their lips that their
Breaths embrac’d together. (2.1.257, 260-263)

Iago once again corrupts a mind and puts evil in another man’s heart.

Through Iago’s deceit and Othello’s rage, the plot develops into a winding tragic tale. Iago places questions in Othello’s mind of Desdemona’s faithfulness by lying to him, and we witness Othello’s belief when he assures himself, “’ Tis is pitiful, but yet Iago knows/ That she with Cassio hath the act of shame/ A thousand times committed”(5.2.210-212). Othello, allowing this rage to overcome him proceeds to murder Desdemona, an irrational act which only jealousy can be blamed for. (Godfrey 420)

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While Othello may be jealous of the sexual rumours that Iago is instilling upon him, the fact that he is a jealous black man is ever-present. His jealousy and its colour are two inseparable states, which account for the racial tension in the play. Also associated with race is the fact that the men in the play seem to be intimidated more by Othello because he is black. This racism is seen when Iago says, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe”(1.1.88-89). Othello is also intimidating, critic Ruth Cowhig explains, because, “ These [black] characters were valued for the exotic effects they brought to the show and feared because of their stereotypical sexual potency”(Cowhig 423).

Critic Ania Loomba comments that “ By definition, the supremely evil man appears as one in whom hatred of love and goodness is carried to the point of containing within itself the desire to reach out and destroy the loving and the good”(Loomba 164). With the support of Loomba’s definition and the violent acts he commits throughout the story, it is obvious that Iago is the exact definition of an evil man. Othello is an evil man but also brings in the element of race, creating yet another twist to this tragedy. The overall theme of jealousy in Shakespeare’s Othello helps to explain some of the rationales behind the evil of the characters. And as Shakespeare’s unforgettable character Iago warns, “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!/ It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on”(3.3.165-167).

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Tracing Themes of Evil through Othello. (2021, Mar 05). Retrieved February 6, 2023, from