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The Theme of Jealousy in Shakespeare's Othello

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1331 words Published: 10th Aug 2021

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Shakespeare’s play of Othello is largely driven by a grand love story, and filled with jealousy. Through the juxtaposition of Othello’s credulous nature and Iago’s pernicious villainy, the image of jealousy is truly personified as an all-consuming “green-eyed monster”. Because of this venomous nature of the beast of jealousy, the events of the play manage to unfold in Iago’s lustful authority, which bring down the eponymous character to his tragic downfall.

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In human psychology today, the modern definition of jealousy remains relatively unchanged from Shakespeare’s time, albeit being expressed in more modern scientific terms. It is defined as “a complex of thoughts, feelings, and actions which follow threats to self-esteem and/or threats to the existence or quality of the relationship … generated by the perception of a real or potential attraction between one’s partner and a (perhaps imaginary) rival.” (White, 1981, p. 24). In scenes of jealousy, there are typically a triad of people involved: a jealous and threatened individual, a partner of the opposite gender, and his/her third party rival. In the case of Othello, there are certainly three important people involved at the beginning: Iago being the jealous individual, Desdemona being the partner, and Othello being the third party rival. Iago definitely feels threatened by Othello’s dominance over him, both in his military rank and his relationship with Desdemona, as portrayed upon Iago’s words, “I hate the Moor!” (I,iii,377). Iago then manages to spread his jealousy to his impending victims, such as Othello; as the subject of his jealousy is partly the sheer beauty of Desdemona.

In the plot of Othello, the most devious and perfect example of a human incarnation of the “green-eyed monster” is Iago. Iago originally becomes jealous when Othello succeeds in convincing Desdemona to marry him. Iago’s searing hate of Othello deep within him also contributes to his extreme jealousy. He is also very envious of Othello’s military rank of the General of the Venetian Army – in military terms, Iago is ranked two levels below him. The jealous Iago crafts his plans with the intention to bring down Othello exactly in these two areas: to eventually force Othello to lose his position as General (I,iii,395), and to create distrust within him and Desdemona, such that the two will eventually split (I,iii,339). Iago’s inner personality is ideal for a villain; he is innately a very sly, manipulative and venomous man, who is willing to take every risk to ensure that his plans are carried out successfully. However, despite his intense jealousy, Iago astutely manages to control his feelings and hide his jealousy, such to the degree he earns the informal title “honest Iago” among the characters of the play. Because of Iago’s pernicious and duplicitous character, his kind of jealousy can be perfectly portrayed as the pernicious “green eyed monster” – it strikes slowly, stealthily and deceptively, but once it hits, it is lethal and very contagious.

A direct example of how Iago’s jealousy is key in giving his schemes their devious characteristics is shown in a crucial scene in Act 3, when Cassio spontaneously finds an anonymous handkerchief on his bed. That scene, in short, is a perfect testament to Iago’s manipulative genius and sly deceptiveness. From the pure coincidence of Emilia placing the handkerchief onto Cassio’s bed, to Iago’s luck of Bianca scolding Cassio and assuming him of leaving her to another woman, we can see how intricately weaved and devious, yet perfectly planned Iago’s scheme is; he is ALWAYS thinking. Yet, Iago is very patient in his scheme – the whole episode evolves not in seconds or in minutes, but in a matter of hours or even days. In addition, Iago manages to see this part of his scheme unroll successfully, without even being noticed or brought into the picture at all! As such, from the flawless manner in which Iago’s scheme unrolls in this episode, we can perfectly see how and why Iago seems like the ideal, pernicious villain, whose intense jealousy strikes not unlike Shakespeare’s “green eyed monster” – slowly, stealthily, but lethally.

Another character who exhibits signs of monstrous jealousy in the later parts of the play is the eponymous character himself. Othello originally becomes very jealous of both his wife Desdemona and Michael Cassio, after Iago manages to take advantage of his credulity and brainwash him gradually into thinking that Desdemona has had recent affairs with Cassio. Eventually, his jealousy brews into a fiery rage. The jealous Othello constructs his plans (with suggestions from Iago), with the intention to punish his immediate “offenders”, for the greater good of justice – to show Desdemona through brute force that what he suspects her of doing is a mortal sin, and that he will not tolerate being cuckolded. Othello’s inner personality, on the other hand, is not suit to be an ideal villain that a “green-eyed monster” might portray. He is a very determined, courageous, and strong character physically – a good stereotype of the medieval war hero. Yet, he possesses a crucial harmatia: credulity. As such, his monstrosity caused by jealousy appears when he is made angry through hearing undesirable rumors; he turns into a hateful and destructive monster. In his rage, however, Othello is unable to hide his true feelings, and rampages not unlike a brutal dragon, spilling out his true emotions and showing his anger to everyone whom he comes in contact with. His rampaging later takes such an emotional toll on him, that at one point in the play, he goes into an involuntary trance (IV,i,45) , and his wife even tells him, “I understand a fury in your words.” (IV,ii, 32). Because of Othello’s powerful, yet credulous nature, his kind of jealousy does not exactly fit into the definition of the “green-eyed monster” – however, his kind of jealousy better resembles a raging, dragon-like monster: destructive, hateful, and brutal.

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A direct example of how Othello’s jealousy is key in giving his schemes their destructive characteristics is shown in a crucial scene in Act 4, Scene 1, when Othello is told by Iago and is already convinced that Cassio has had recent affairs with his wife, Desdemona. Othello is thus enraged by hearing this rumor, and he already decides to “chop her into messes” (IV,i,202). However, Iago already decides to modify his “plan”, telling him to “strangle her in bed” (IV, i, 209) instead. The audience can already notice a distinct tone of anger in Othello’s tone of voice – not only does he want to chop his wife, which is an outrageous thing for any husband to do already; but he wants to chop her up into messes! In addition, Othello has become mentally unstable in this angry state of mind, and has lost his ability to plan logically and think, like Iago. What is even more amazing to note is that Othello loses his temper in a matter of seconds – he does not have much patience to wait for his plan to be carried out. From his sheer physical power as the war general, his outbursts of rage are quickly noticed by many. As such, from Othello’s bad temper in this scene, we can perfectly see how and why Othello fits best into the definition of a “tragic hero” whose intense jealousy strikes quite unlike Shakespeare’s “green eyed monster”, but like a brutal dragon – angrily, violently, and hatefully.

In summary, it is apparent that ultimately, Shakespeare has included the demon-like, pernicious nature of Iago, and the destructive, powerful nature of Othello to demonstrate a “theme and variations” on the classic image of jealousy: the “green eyed monster/ which doth mock the meat it feeds on”. Because of the prevailing venomous nature of this beast of jealousy, the feelings of jealousy are able to be spread contagiously in ensuing events in the play, from character to character, in Shakespeare’s play, Othello.


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