William Shakespeare's classic tragedy, ‘Othello’ written in approximately 1603, continues to be studied and appreciated even now in modern society, more than four hundred years after it was written. Apart from the obviousness of Shakespeare’s ability to use diction to draw in the audience, ‘Othello’ has many qualities which allow it to be interpreted and re-interpreted through time. It can relate to any audience and context because its varied themes, values and ideas, remain relevant to all societies making it possible for anyone to relate to ‘Othello’ on some level.
This, along with Shakespeare’s depiction of common human emotions, and his ability to portray these in such a realistic manner continues to make ‘Othello’ worthy of critical study. The universality of Shakespeare’s themes are evident not only in ‘Othello’ but in almost all of his works. The most apparent theme in the text is that of jealousy. Iago importantly warns, ‘O, beware, my lord, of Jealousy. It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on’ (act 3, scene 3).
This warning is directed at Othello, but is also important for Roderigo and Iago himself. Although Iago could be called one of the most diabolical antagonist/villains in literature, his actions are spurred by such common human emotions; jealousy and greed. Jealousy acts as a great literary device in the text because it is an extremely universal emotion which almost all living creatures are capable of feeling, and this gives the audience an emotional attachment to the characters and plot. It allows the audience to feel sympathy for the characters.
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Othello’ plays with the jealous nature of the characters, such as Iago’s envy of power and position, along with his suspicions about his wife. These things encourage the plot, and initiate the series of events to unfold during the text. Through Iago, Shakespeare conveys the lengths to which a man will go to achieve his objective. Iago’s manipulativeness causes Othello to become a victim of unfounded jealousy, and this drives the entire plot. Furthermore, Iago’s hatred and jealousy is fueled by his racism.
The audience is constantly reminded of Othello’s colouring through the character’s dialogue, motives and actions. Shakespeare creates vulgar visual imagery with the metaphor, "Very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe. " (act 1, scene 1) . Unfortunately, racism and prejudice are common throughout history as minorities and groups are deemed lower than others, and this continues still to this day. Division and stereotyping of groups due to race, sex, sexuality and ability have existed through the ages, and unfortunately will continue to exist.
Another discernible theme in ‘Othello’ is love. This emotion too is universal emotion, and the impulsiveness and compulsion to disobey family that love can generate is shown through Desdemona’s willingness to deliberately disobey her father in order to secretly marry Othello. Romance today is one of the most popular literary genres, and can be enjoyed by all ages, in all societies. Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ has been adapted to suit modern society such as in the film ‘O’, and interpreted in different media, including dramatical performances, opera, ballet, television shows and films.
All of these provide different interpretations of the text and demonstrate the adaptability of ‘Othello’. Shakespeare’s poetic and beautiful language and his use of themes such as love, power, revenge, war and jealousy are timeless. His depiction of human ideas and paths of action are also timeless, as humans basic senses will remain the same. These factors, compounded with Shakespeare’s ability to continually challenge oncoming generations, both in the literature and dramatical sense, make ‘Othello’ timeless and worthy to continue to be studied in modern society and after.
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