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What are the prime motifs in Othello?

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Being an iconic piece of art, Othello covers numerous topics. However, there are three key motifs that play a crucial role in the plot development. They are

  • jealousy
  • the desire for power
  • the envy of a rival’s position.

Detailed answer:

One of the most significant themes in Othello is jealousy. Iago’s personal and professional jealousy plays a detrimental role in the other character’s fates.

“Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on” – that’d how Iago describes the nature of jealousy
(Act 3, scene 3)

First and foremost, Iago is professionally unfulfilled. Instead of giving the lieutenant position to Iago, Othello appoints Cassio. So, Iago’s rage at Cassio is the result of professional jealousy. Believing that newly-appointed lieutenant is unskilled amateur, Iago pronounces his rude speech:

“And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
A fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife;
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the toged consuls can propose
As masterly as he: mere prattle, without practise,
Is all his soldiership.”
(Act 1, scene 1).

Iago’s personal jealousy is another driving force of his villainy. Iago secretly desired Desdemona. Moreover, he suspects Bianca, his wife, to commit adultery with Othello. Thus, Iago seeks revenge. He is blinded by his jealousy and commits irrational and evil deeds.

Iago skillfully plants more “proofs” of Desdemona’s adultery, making Othello believe in his rumors. The drama culmination happens in act five, when the Moor strangles his wife in her sleep, accepting these “proofs.” Being blinded by jealousy, Othello starts blaming Desdemona. He does not even listen to her when she defends her position.

Why does Othello act this way? Because jealousy clouded his mind, and he is incapable of thinking rationally. Emilia perfectly explains to Desdemona the reason for Othello’s behavior:

“But jealous souls will not be answer’d so;
They are not ever jealous for the cause,
But jealous for they are jealous: ’tis a monster
Begot upon itself, born on itself.”
(Act 3, scene 4)

Othello kills Desdemona because of envy and lies. However, when the truth reveals, Othello stabs himself from sorrow. The motif of Othello, in this case, was blind jealousy. He did not believe his angelic wife, so he paid the ultimate price for it. As we can observe, Othello was in some trance, which he could not control.

Besides jealousy, the desire to have power in the hands is another motif of Othello. The main reason for Iago’s treachery is his immense thirst for dominance. The villain wishes to claim Othello’s place and live like a king. Iago becomes the master of Othello’s perception of life; by turning him into a savage.

Iago’s desperate thirst for power becomes a reason for numerous deaths. The villain kills Emilia because she dares to expose him. He kills Roderigo due to his greediness. Moreover, Iago almost kills Cassio because he wanted more power. Like a sly serpent or a demon, he causes everyone’s deaths and gets nothing from it. However, the power of greediness blinds people.

The last motif of the play is the envy of a rival’s position. Being different from jealousy, it is still an essential driver of the plot. Roderigo lustfully desires Desdemona and becomes envious of Othello’s position. That is why he betrays his master.

Iago is envious of Cassio because Othello dared to promote a younger soldier above him. Thus, he unreasonably blames Cassio and Desdemona for betrayal.

Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, is envious because his daughter loves her husband more than him. That is why he plants a seed in Iago’s head to revenge the traitor’s honor. By the end of the play, Barbanito dies of grief after losing his daughter to Othello.

Overall, the three motifs of Othello play a crucial role in the storyline progress. Facing numerous obstacles, the characters become vulnerable and weak. Jealousy, desire for power, and greediness are the core driving forces that cause lead to fatal results.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'What are the prime motifs in Othello'. 19 November.

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