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Jealousy in Othello

Updated on November 29, 2011
Othello and Desdomana
Othello and Desdomana
"The green eyed monster"
"The green eyed monster"

At the climax of Shakespeare’s “Othello”, the protagonist of the play has been so consumed by his hamartia, jealousy, that he sees no alternative other than to kill his beloved wife Desdemona. Othello not only believes that Desdemona has been unfaithful, but now wishes to, “tear her all to pieces”; he has spiralled into a jealous, vengeful character due to Iago’s manipulation and control. Jealousy is the primary cause for this dramatic ending as it is the reason for Iago seeking to destroy Othello. Iago is jealous of the Moor in many respects and creates an evil, sinister plan that preys on his vulnerability, Othello possesses a “free and open nature,” which Iago uses to transform his love for his wife into hatred and turns him into a destructive, “green eyed monster”. Iago possesses a very jealous nature himself and this enables him to exploit the same potential feeling in others. However, it is not just Iago and Othello who experience this all consuming feeling, most of the characters experience jealousy in some way; and this causes them to commit acts which do not conform to their normal behaviour and contributes towards the tragic outcome of the play.

Iago’s evident jealousy of Michael Cassio is demonstrated in the opening scene and passage of the play. Iago is envious of Cassio because he has been promoted ahead of him as Othello’s lieutenant: “What was he...a great arithmetician.” Iago is enraged because he feels as though he should have been promoted; he feels as though Cassio is not a proper soldier and is just an intellectual, whereas Iago himself has fought “at Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds,” However Iago’s jealousy of Cassio runs much deeper than this: “Cassio’s a proper man”. Iago may feel as though he is an inadequate as a man, or is not as good-looking as Cassio. Being overlooked also contributes to his hatred of Othello, the General, as he feels he has been unfairly treated.

The conversation that Iago has with Roderigo appears to be the first time that Iago considers plotting against Othello: “I follow him to serve my turn upon him.” On the surface, Iago’s jealousy of Cassio’s new position appears to be the reason for him desiring to destroy Othello. To a Jacobean audience Iago’s lies and trickery perpetrated against his superior other would have been shocking as a higher value was placed on honour and loyalty than is the case in the present. On the other hand, the Jacobean audience may have felt some ambivalence towards Iago’s treachery as Othello, whilst he is Iago’s general, is also black and an outsider in Venice. As such the audience would have been at least suspicious of him, if not overtly prejudiced towards him, “an extravagant and wheeling stranger, of here and everywhere”.

Iago’s jealousy of Othello’s relationship with Desdemona is also an important aspect of his spitefulness. Iago is clearly unhappy in his relationship with Emilia and regularly insults her: "A thing for me? It is a common thing-". Iago is a misogynist and it could be seen that Iago actually wants Othello for himself: “My lord, you know I love you”. It could be interpreted that Iago is homosexual and is jealous of Othello and Desdemona’s relationship because of his attraction to Othello. Iago’s possible homosexuality is emphasised when he is describing the false dream that Cassio had: “he would gripe and wring my hand….and then kiss me hard.” The fantasy that Iago is describing as Cassio’s could actually be his own homosexual fantasy. When Iago is describing sex he uses a lot of graphic, bestial imagery: “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe”. Iago appears to see heterosexual sex as an unpleasant animalistic activity and has married to conform to social expectation. It is possible that he is in love with Othello and cannot control his feelings; therefore the only way for him to stay in control is to destroy the person he loves.

Othello's jealousy of Desdemona is the strongest emotion displayed in the play and is the emotion which is central to the plot. The first event that instils doubt of Desdemona’s fidelity in Othello's mind is Brabantio's warning, "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see/She has deceived her father, and may thee". Brabantio is spiteful, and bitterly warns Othello that Desdemona may betray him as he feels she did him; he expresses a hateful jealousy of his son in law. When Othello and Desdemona are seen together in the play their love appears to be pure and beautiful: “She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d, And I lov’d her that she did pity them.” However Othello’s capacity for passion also implies that he will have the same capacity for jealousy: “the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to the most preposterous conclusions.”

Othello denies throughout that he is jealous, but it is obvious he is tormented almost to insanity by the thought of Desdemona with Cassio. He speaks to Iago saying: “No Iago, I'll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove; /and on the proof, there is no more but this, /Away at once with love or jealousy!” The repetition of “doubt” emphasises his uncertainty; the fact that he believes that his wife is unfaithful with only suggestions put forward by Iago, shows the fact that he is prone to jealousy; it is his hamartia. Soon after, Othello believes he has seen undeniable proof that Desdemona is unfaithful with the loss of the handkerchief and corrosive jealousy suddenly inflames like a cancer; Othello is fearful of being made a cuckold and now has no option but to kill her. As it is an “honour killing”, a Jacobean audience would have empathised more with Othello as honour was more important then. Men who were cuckolds were considered pathetic and weak as it was a sign they could not control or satisfy their wives enough.

When Othello rejects Desdemona’s offer of her handkerchief in Act Three Scene Three, it is an emphatic rejection of Desdemona herself. He has been completely changed, manipulated and is convinced his wife has been unfaithful to him. The tiny seed of jealousy has grown and turned Othello into the, “green eyed monster” that he was warned about earlier. The term, “monster” implies a destructive nature which is exactly what Othello has gained. Iago’s manipulation has been so powerful, Othello has been completely consumed by jealousy and resents the woman that he loves. As Othello’s character gradually deteriorates, as does the eloquence of his speech. Before his peripeteia Othello uses lots of romantic, subtle imagery: “I will wear my heart upon my sleeve/For daws to peck at.” and seems very articulate, however by the end he has become a dishevelled wreck and uses language that is vulgar and similar to Iago: “Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads/To knot and gender in.”

Emilia enables Iago's plan to proceed by stealing the handkerchief and lying about its whereabouts, keeping the truth hidden until the climax of the play, when it is too late. It is possible that Emilia feels jealousy towards Desdemona, whether of her status, her marriage to Othello, or perhaps her innocence. Emilia is generally cynical about men, “They are but stomachs, and we all but food”, and this may contribute to the jealousy she may feel. The possibility of betrayal is reinforced when Desdemona asks,“Where should I lose that handkerchief, Emilia?” and she answers,“I know not, madam”. She may be lying to make Othello jealous and to make Desdemona suffer slightly, although Emilia definitely could not foresee what would actually happen and at the conclusion of the play does show her loyalty to Desdemona by revealing Iago for what he really is, causing Othello to achieve his anagnorisis. All of these aspects may have led to Emilia giving the handkerchief to Iago; on the other hand she could have just been trying her hardest to please her husband, who is usually so unappreciative: “I nothing, but to please his fantasy.”

Emilia sums up the nature of jealousy perfectly: “It is a monster, Begot upon itself, born on itself”. Jealousy does not need an actual cause, just an idea; this is extremely relevant to the situation in which Othello finds himself in as he has no actual proof that Desdemona is a “strumpet”. He readily believes the “honest Iago”, because he knows no better; he has had no experience of people trying to deceive him because he is an unworldly soldier. Any thread of doubt or uncertainty would convince Othello: “Trifles light as air/Are to the jealous confirmations as strong/As proofs of holy writ.” The significance of jealousy is obvious: without proper control or attention it can break two people apart and potentially destroy a strong individual, as it does Othello. Shakespeare’s “Othello” demonstrates the disastrous consequences that may ensue when a person capitalises on the jealous nature of another human being.


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