The Theme of Jealousy in Shakespeare's Othello

An annotated list of relevant passages.

At the end of his tale to Roderigo about how he was passed over for promotion to lieutenant, Iago displays his jealousy of Cassio. He says that Cassio, a "counter-caster"(1.1.31) (our phrase is "bean counter"), has the job Iago wanted, while Iago has to keep on being "his Moorship's ancient [ensign] " (1.1.33). A little later, Roderigo, who is desperately in love with Desdemona, expresses his jealousy of Othello's marriage to Desdemona by exclaiming, "What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe [own] / If he can carry't thus!" (1.1.66-67). Where Roderigo says "carry't thus" we would say "carry it off." [Scene Summary]

After Desdemona makes it clear that she loves and honors her husband, Brabantio remains vindictive, and bitterly warns Othello that Desdemona may turn out to be a slut: "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: / She has deceived her father, and may thee" (1.3.292-293). No father has ever expressed a more hateful jealousy of his son-in-law. [Scene Summary]

In a soliloquy at the end of the first scene in Cyprus, Iago speaks of his own motivations. He says of Desdemona, "Now, I do love her too; / Not out of absolute lust, though peradventure / I stand accountant for as great a sin, / But partly led to diet [feed] my revenge" (2.1.291-294). He wants revenge for his own suspicion that Othello has gone to bed with Emilia. It's eating at his gut and he won't be satisfied "Till I am even'd with him, wife for wife, / Or failing so, yet that I put the Moor / At least into a jealousy so strong / That judgment [reason] cannot cure" (2.1.299-302). The phrase "even'd with him, wife for wife," seems to mean that he has some notion that he might have sex with Desdemona, but it's not the sex that's important. Othello must feel that same poisonous jealousy that Iago feels, and Iago's jealousy is so strong that he also suspects Cassio of wearing his "night-cap too" (2.1.306)." [Scene Summary]

After having delivered a series of innuendoes about Desdemona, Iago encourages Othello to think about them by saying that they may not be worth thinking about. He says, "I confess, it is my nature's plague / To spy into abuses, and oft my jealousy / Shapes faults that are not" (3.3.146-148). Here Iago uses the word "jealousy" in its general sense of "suspicion," but -- whether he knows it or not -- he has also told the truth about himself. We have already seen that his jealousy has made him "shape faults that are not" in Emilia; he suspects that she is sleeping with both Othello and Cassio.

Continuing his campaign to make Othello jealous, Iago warns Othello against jealousy:
   O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But, O, what damned minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!  (3.3.165-170)
This speech is justly famous, not only for its description of jealousy, but also for the cunning of its psychological destructiveness. The meat that the monster feeds on is a person's heart, which it eats away. At the same time, the monster mocks that person's heart, so that he or she feels shame. And the monster is insatiable, always gnawing away, so that the jealous person is never at peace. In comparison to all of this pain of suspicion and doubt, it's "bliss" to just be angry. Thus Iago tempts Othello to make the jump from suspicion to anger, without pausing to determine if the suspicion has any basis in fact.

Iago's warnings against jealousy have the effect that he was probably looking for: Othello denies that he is jealous. From Iago's point of view, this is a good sign, just as was Cassio's denial that he was drunk. Othello doesn't believe that he is the sort of person who can be jealous, because for him "to be once in doubt / Is once to be resolved" (3.3.179-180). Othello here uses the word "once" in both the sense of "as soon as" and in the sense of "finally." He means that as soon as he is in doubt he will resolve that doubt once and for all.

The problem is -- and Othello will wrestle with this problem until he kills Desdemona -- he has no way to resolve his doubt. He says to Iago that he will not concern himself with "such exsufflicate and blown surmises, / Matching thy inference" (3.3.182-183). "Exsufflicate" means "overblown," and "blown" probably means "flyblown"; meat gets flyblown when it's so rotten that the blowfly lays eggs all over it. In short, Iago's inferences are disgusting exaggerations. However, Iago has not actually made any inferences; he's implied much, but he's been very careful not to make any accusations, not to say anything that could be refuted or disproved. Instead, it's Othello who is making jealous inferences even as he's denying that he can be jealous. He says, "'Tis not to make me jealous / To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company, / Is free of speech, sings, plays and dances well; / Where virtue is, these are more virtuous"(3.3.183-186). He's right. An outgoing personality doesn't make a woman loose. But he wouldn't have to remind himself of that if he weren't jealous. Similarly, he says, "Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw / The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt; / For she had eyes, and chose me" (3.3.187-189). Again, Othello is right. Before her father and the world Desdemona proclaimed her choice, but if he weren't jealous he wouldn't have to remind himself that she chose him.

Othello ends his speech about his freedom from jealousy by declaring, "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!" (3.3.189-192). To "doubt" means to suspect, and despite what he says, Othello already has strong suspicions, not from seeing anything, but just from listening to Iago. Still worse, Othello is prepared to hear and believe whatever Iago says next. Othello believes that he's not the jealous type and he believes that Iago is his honest friend, so he believes that Iago couldn't be lying and he believes that he himself can't be mistaken.

Iago then uses more reverse psychology, telling Othello to "Look to your wife; observe her well with Cassio; / Wear your eye thus, not jealous nor secure" (3.3.197-198). Then Iago adds, "I would not have your free and noble nature, / Out of self-bounty [natural generosity], be abused; look to't." (3.3.199-200). In other words, Othello shouldn't be jealous, but if he's not, Desdemona is likely to take advantage of him.

Later in the scene, alone on the stage after Emilia has given him Desdemona's handkerchief, Iago reveals his plan for using the handkerchief to deepen Othello's jealousy. He will put the handkerchief in Cassio's room, where Cassio will find it. This will serve Iago's purpose because "Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ: this may do something" (3.3.322-324). As it turns out, Iago is right; when Othello sees Cassio with the handkerchief he thinks that he has seen the proof that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. [Scene Summary]

When Desdemona can't find her special handkerchief she feels guilty, and she's glad that "my noble Moor / Is true of mind and made of no such baseness / As jealous creatures are," because otherwise the loss of the handkerchief might be "enough / To put him to ill thinking" (3.2.26-29). Emilia seems to have a doubt about Othello not being jealous, but Desdemona says confidently, "I think the sun where he was born / Drew all such humours from him" (3.4.30-31). "Humours" (bodily fluids) were thought to control a person's temperament; for instance, a person who was full of phlegm would be phlegmatic. Desdemona is sure that the sun of Africa baked out any humours that could have made Othello a jealous man.

However, when Othello arrives, berates Desdemona about the handkerchief, and then storms out, Emilia asks, "Is not this man jealous?" (3.4.99). Desdemona tries to convince herself that Othello is only upset by something that happened at work, but Emilia, unconvinced by Desdemona's reasoning, says diplomatically, "Pray heaven it be state-matters, as you think, / And no conception nor no jealous toy / Concerning you." (3.4.155-157). A "toy" is a silly or stupid idea, and Emilia clearly thinks that Othello could be toying with the stupid idea that Desdemona is unfaithful to him. (Later we will learn that Emilia knows that Iago has a "jealous toy" of his own -- the idea that she's having an affair with Othello. Therefore Emilia thinks she knows jealousy when she sees it.) Desdemona replies, "Alas the day! I never gave him cause" (3.4.158), which gives Emilia the chance to remind her that jealousy doesn't need a cause; "It is a monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself" (3.4.161-162). Desdemona exclaims, "Heaven keep that monster from Othello's mind!" (3.4.163), and Emilia -- who probably thinks that she's said all she can -- simply answers, "Lady, amen" (3.4.164).

A little later in the scene Cassio asks his prostitute girlfriend Bianca to copy Desdemona's handkerchief for him. Bianca is already unhappy with Cassio because he hasn't been to see her in a week, and the sight of a woman's handkerchief gives her an attack of jealousy. She teases Cassio that the handkerchief "is some token from a newer friend: / To the felt absence now I feel a cause: / Is't come to this? Well, well" (3.4.181-183). Cassio replies, "Go to, woman! / Throw your vile guesses in the devil's teeth, / From whence you have them. You are jealous now / That this is from some mistress, some remembrance" (3.4.183-186). Cassio goes on to explain that he found the handkerchief in his chambers. Although that's true, it sounds like a lame excuse, but Bianca copes with her jealousy. She takes the handkerchief and wants to talk about when she'll see Cassio again. [Scene Summary]

In the first scene of Act Four there is an interesting contrast between Othello and Bianca, both of whom are jealous. Othello is overwhelmed by his jealousy, but not Bianca. Iago makes insinuations about what Cassio and Desdemona might be doing in bed until Othello is so overcome by imagined "Noses, ears, and lips" (4.1.42) that he "Falls in a trance." Later in the scene Bianca deals with her jealousy by confronting Cassio. She has decided that she was a fool to agree to copy the handkerchief, and a fool to accept Cassio's story that he found it in his room. She now throws it back at him, tells him that he should give it to the whore he got it from, and declares that no matter where he got it, she's not about to copy it. She says, "There; give it your hobby-horse: wheresoever you had it, I'll take out no work on't" (4.1.153-154). Then Bianca storms out, though not before telling Cassio that he can come to supper at her place if he wants. Cassio, not wanting to lose his girlfriend or his supper, follows her. [Scene Summary]

After Othello calls Desdemona a whore, Emilia believes she knows the reason. She declares, "I will be hang'd, if some eternal villain, / Some busy and insinuating rogue, / Some cogging [cheating], cozening [deceiving] slave, to get some office, / Have not devised this slander; I will be hang'd else" (4.2.130-133). This describes Iago exactly, and it makes him uncomfortable. He says, "Fie, there is no such man; it is impossible" (4.2.134). However, Emilia is unconvinced. She continues to denounce the unknown villain until Iago tells her to quiet down, which only inspires Emilia to say, "Some such squire he was / That turn'd your wit the seamy side without, / And made you to suspect me with the Moor" (4.2.145-147). He finally shuts her up by saying, "You are a fool; go to" (4.2.148). "Go to" is an all-purpose phrase which can mean "go to hell," "no way," or "get out of my face." Emilia's mention of Iago's paranoid sexual jealousy has made him quite angry. [Scene Summary]

Waiting in the dark for Roderigo to kill Cassio, Iago says, "Now, whether he kill Cassio, / Or Cassio him, or each do kill the other, / Every way makes my gain" (5.1.12-14). If Roderigo lives, Iago says, he'll want those jewels that were supposed to be given to Desdemona, and if Cassio lives, "He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly; and, besides, the Moor / May unfold me to him" (5.1.19-21). At this point, Iago has a practical reason for wanting Cassio dead, but he's also just plain jealous of Cassio. The phrase "daily beauty" suggests that Iago feels that Cassio is much more charming and attractive than he is. [Scene Summary]

Just before he commits suicide, Othello makes a speech about how he wants to be remembered. He says he should be spoken of as "one not easily jealous, but being wrought / Perplex'd in the extreme" (5.2.345-346). Is Othello right about himself? The first half of the statement, that he was "one not easily jealous," was supported by Desdemona when she said, "I think the sun where he was born / Drew all such humours from him" (3.4.30-31). On the other hand, many people would say that he was too easily made jealous, probably because they are confident that they would never do what he did. The second half of the statement seems beyond doubt. He was indeed "perplex'd" (which meant both "confused" and "tormented") "in the extreme," and he views his perplexity not as an excuse, but as a fault -- for which he kills himself. [Scene Summary]