The Theme of Romantic Love in Shakespeare's Othello

An annotated list of relevant passages.

When Iago tells Othello that Brabantio will try to annul his marriage to Desdemona, Othello replies that he is worthy of her, and that for her he has given up some precious freedom. He says, "But that I love the gentle Desdemona, / I would not my unhoused free condition / Put into circumscription and confine / For the sea's worth" (1.2.25-28).

Later in the scene, when Brabantio and his posse catch up with Othello, Brabantio accuses Othello of using magic and drugs on Desdemona. To Brabantio's way of thinking, that's the only thing that makes sense. She was innocent, happy, and so opposed to marriage that she "shunned / The wealthy curled darlings of our nation" (1.2.68). Brabantio is a little scornful of the "darlings," but to him it seems natural that Desdemona would be attracted to them. (After all, this is an age in which men wore lace and used curling irons on their long hair, so everyone thought an attractive man had the sort of juvenile sweetness that inspires American 13-year old girls to say "really, really, cute!") But it's unnatural, says Brabantio to Othello, for Desdemona to run from her home "to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou -- to fear, not to delight" (1.2.70-71). [Scene Summary]

In the Senate chamber, after Brabantio has charged Othello with using drugs and magic on Desdemona, First Senator has a crucial question for Othello: "Did you by indirect and forced courses / Subdue and poison this young maid's affections? / Or came it by request and such fair question / As soul to soul affordeth?" (1.3.111-114). There are two possibilities presented here. The first is what Brabantio has been saying, that Othello poisoned Desdemona's heart by trickery. The second possibility is that Othello and Desdemona have a true love, and First Senator's question defines true love. Love is obtained by asking nicely ("request") for everything from a moment alone to a hand in marriage. And love is mutual; it grows by conversation ("fair question") which is honest and respectful, "as soul to soul affordeth." In response to this question, Othello delivers a long speech which makes it clear that their relationship is respectful and mutual. He ends by saying, "She loved me for the dangers I had pass'd, / And I loved her that she did pity them" (1.3.167-168).

Shortly after this Desdemona requests permission to accompany Othello to Cyprus. She begins by saying, "That I did love the Moor to live with him, / My downright violence and storm of fortunes / May trumpet to the world" (1.3.248-250). What she has done in eloping with Othello is "downright violence" in the sense that it has violated social norms; she has not let her father arrange her marriage or even asked his permission to marry. And the phrase "storm of fortunes" portrays her as fiercely independent. She has taken her fortune by storm, as a warrior would take a castle by storm. Desdemona continues, saying,
My heart's subdued
Even to the very quality of my lord:
I saw Othello's visage in his mind,
And to his honour and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.   (1.3.250-254)
"Subdued" means "in harmony with" and Othello's "quality" is both his character and his profession as a warrior. Desdemona is asserting that she is very much like her husband and belongs with him, even in war. Also, by saying "I saw Othello's visage in his mind," Desdemona shows that she understands and rejects the bigotry that is directed at him. A person's "visage" is his face, and she understands that most Europeans consider black to be ugly, but she saw past his face to his honor and courage, which she adores. If she is left behind, she will be desolate. She wants to go with him.

At the end of the scene, when Roderigo and Iago are alone, we get a very different view of love. Roderigo is feeling rather sad. The woman he loves has married another, and there is no hope that the marriage can be broken up. He says to Iago, "I will incontinently drown myself" (1.3.305). Roderigo imagines himself to be a heroic lover, one who cannot live without love, one who is capable of committing suicide when he loses his love. Of course he's not such a lover, and Iago quickly talks him out of his mood. One of the things that Iago tells Roderigo is that "we have reason to cool our raging motions [appetites], our carnal stings, our unbitted [uncontrolled] lusts, whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect or scion" (1.3.329-332). A "sect" is a cutting, such as a gardener takes in order to grow a new plant, and a "scion" is an offshoot of a main branch. Iago's point about love is that it's only lust in high heels. This bit of cynical philosophy shocks Roderigo, who exclaims "It cannot be!" (1.3.333), but Iago insists that love is "merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will" (1.3.334-335). Iago not only insists, he keeps on talking until he wins Roderigo over to his way of thinking. [Scene Summary]

In Cyprus, when he receives news that a Venetian ship is coming, Cassio launches into a kind of melodramatic prayer, in which he calls upon Jove to fill the sails of Othello's ship, "That he may bless this bay with his tall ship, / Make love's quick pants in Desdemona's arms, / Give renew'd fire to our extincted spirits / And bring all Cyprus comfort!" (2.1.79-82).

Later, before the trumpets announcing the arrival of Othello have died away, Othello is holding Desdemona in his arms and saying, "O my fair warrior!" (2.1.182). His joy is so great that he feels their reunion is a kind of miracle. He says, "It gives me wonder great as my content / To see you here before me. O my soul's joy!" (2.1.183-184). He declares that if such happiness can come after every storm he'd be willing to see the winds blow until that had awakened death and the waves rise to heaven and fall to hell. If he were to die now, he says, he would be happy because he doubts that he could feel more happiness from anything to come in life. Desdemona responds that there is ever more and more happiness to come. She says, "The heavens forbid / But that our loves and comforts should increase, / Even as our days do grow!" (2.1.193-195). To this, Othello says "amen" and then says that he is so choked up with joy that he can't say enough of it. Then they kiss, and he says of the kisses, "And this, and this, the greatest discords be / That e'er our hearts shall make!" (2.1.198-199). Observing the perfect harmony between the two lovers, Iago comments in an aside, "O, you are well tuned now! / But I'll set down the pegs that make this music, / As honest as I am." (2.1.199-201). The "pegs" to which he refers are the tuning pegs on a stringed instrument. Their love is the instrument on which Iago is planning to loosen ("set down") the pegs until the harmony is turned into discord.

Afterwards, alone with Roderigo, Iago says that "Desdemona is directly in love with" (2.1.219) Cassio. Roderigo doesn't believe it's possible, but Iago overwhelms him with his arguments. Desdemona, he says, fell in love with Othello because of his "bragging and telling her fantastical lies" (2.1.223), but "Her eye must be fed; and what delight shall she have to look on the devil?" (2.1.225-227). (In Shakespeare's time, devils were depicted as black, not red, as they are now.) When Desdemona has had her fill of sex with Othello, she will find that he is too old, too black, too barbaric to renew her desire. Then she'll start looking around for someone else. When she starts looking, says Iago, she will see Cassio, who can talk the pants off a woman. Roderigo seems shocked, and says, "I cannot believe that in her; she's full of most blessed condition" (2.1.249-250). Iago scornfully replies, "Blessed fig's-end! the wine she drinks is made of grapes: if she had been blessed, she would never have loved the Moor" (2.1.251-253). In Iago's view, Desdemona's love for Othello is simply unnatural sexual desire, and her courtesy to Cassio is "Lechery, by this hand; an index and obscure prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts" (2.1.257-258).

At the end of the scene, in a soliloquy, Iago comments on 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). This is a rapist's kind of love, one part lust and nine parts power-hunger. [Scene Summary]

The first night in Cyprus, Othello leaves Cassio in charge of making sure the festivities don't get out of hand. Meanwhile, he and Desdemona are going to have their own private celebration of their wedding night. As he leaves the scene, Othello says to Desdemona, "Come, my dear love, / The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue; / That profit's yet to come 'tween me and you" (2.3.8-10). It's apparent that they're going to do some love-making, and as soon as they are gone. Iago comments to Cassio, "Our general cast us [left us] thus early for the love of his Desdemona; who let us not therefore blame: he hath not yet made wanton the night with her; and she is sport for Jove" (2.3.14-17). Iago then probes Cassio for evidence that he is in love with Desdemona, asking, "when she speaks, is it not an alarum to love?" (2.3.26). As usual with him, Iago assumes that love and sex are the same thing.

Later in the scene, as Iago is reviewing his plans, he refers to "my sick fool Roderigo, / Whom love hath turn'd almost the wrong side out" (2.3.51-52). Iago believes -- rightly -- that he can control Roderigo by playing on his passion for Desdemona. Still later in the scene Iago tells Cassio that Othello is also a slave to love. He says, "Our general's wife is now the general -- I may say so in this respect, for that he hath devoted and given up himself to the contemplation, mark, and denotement of her parts and graces" (2.3.314-318). After Cassio has left, Iago repeats this idea to himself, saying of Othello, "His soul is so enfetter'd to her love, / That she may make, unmake, do what she list, / Even as her appetite shall play the god / With his weak function" (2.3.345-348). A man's "function" is his ability to think, and Iago doesn't believe that Othello's ability to think has a chance against Desdemona's desires, particularly her sexual appetite. [Scene Summary]

When Desdemona asks Othello to restore Cassio to his position and Othello doesn't immediately agree to do it, she appeals to him in the name of their love, saying, "Good love, call him back" (3.3.54). Othello tries to put her off, but she keeps talking and eventually says, "Tell me, Othello. I wonder in my soul, / What you would ask me, that I should deny, / Or stand so mammering on" (3.3.68-70). To "mammer" is to hesitate or waver, and that is what Othello has been doing. He has denied her request, but at the same time has said that he will grant it, yet has repeatedly avoided saying just when he will grant it. Desdemona says that she wouldn't treat him this way, no matter what he asked of her, and she wants the same respect from him as she gives to him. She then goes on to exclaim, "What! Michael Cassio, / That came a-wooing with you, and so many a time, / When I have spoke of you dispraisingly, / Hath ta'en your part" (3.3.70-73). To Desdemona, then, Othello's "mammering" is a betrayal of their love.

At this, Othello gives in. He says, "Prithee, no more; let him come when he will; / I will deny thee nothing" (3.3.75-76). The phrase "let him come when he will" means that Cassio can come talk to him at any time, and it's implied that Cassio will then get his job back. It looks like Desdemona has gotten all she has asked for, but she is still not quite satisfied with Othello's attitude. She doesn't want him to think that he's just indulging a whim of hers. She says, "Why, this is not a boon [favor]; / 'Tis as I should entreat you wear your gloves, / Or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you warm" (3.3.76-78). Cassio is Othello's good friend, and friends belong together, so it's Desdemona who is doing Othello a favor, not the other way around. Besides, what she's asking is easy to do, and she adds that "when I have a suit [request] / Wherein I mean to touch your love indeed, / It shall be full of poise and difficult weight / And fearful to be granted" (3.3.80-83).

Eventually Desdemona will request that Othello let her live, but he won't grant that suit. However, at the moment, Othello is happy with his wife and makes a small joke: "I will deny thee nothing: / Whereon, I do beseech thee, grant me this, / To leave me but a little to myself" (3.3.83-85). Having granted her request, his request is that she stop talking and leave him alone for a while. She immediately grants his request and says goodbye, taking Emilia with her. As she leaves, she has one last thing for him to consider: "Be as your fancies teach you; / Whate'er you be, I am obedient" (3.3.88-89). In other words, he can do whatever he wants, and whatever he is, she will be obedient to him. A wife was supposed to be obedient to her husband, but Desdemona seems to be of the opinion that obedience is a two-way street. She will be as obedient as a wife should be, and he should remember that she's doing her part in this relationship, so that he can also remember that he should do his part.

Watching his wife leave, Othello exclaims, "Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul, / But I do love thee! and when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again" (3.3.90-92). A "wretch" is a miserable, low-down person, but in calling Desdemona "excellent wretch" Othello means what the British mean when they smile and call someone a "cheeky beggar." In speaking up on behalf of Cassio, Desdemona has been spunky and assertive, and Othello loves her for it. He loves her so much that if he ever stops loving her, the world won't make sense, so that "chaos is come again."

Later in the scene, after Iago has worked him into a state of jealousy, Othello begins to think that Desdemona has found him unworthy of love. Iago told him that Desdemona might start comparing him to white Venetians, and now Othello says, "Haply [perhaps], for I am black / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have, or for I am declined / Into the vale of years,--yet that's not much-- / She's gone" (3.3.263-267). "Soft parts of conversation" are the abilities of men who are used to being in chambers (e.g. parlors, ballrooms and such); such men would know how to make small talk and how to flatter a lady. Othello is used to the field of battle, not chambers. Besides that, he's black and approaching the age of thirty-five. Earlier in the play, when he spoke before the Senate, Othello knew that Desdemona loved him because he was not a chamberer, because he was different, because he had had adventures. But now, under Iago's influence, Othello thinks that those very qualities that made her love him have made her leave him.

Near the end of the scene, after Iago has persuaded him that Desdemona is betraying him, Othello declares that his love is now all gone, and demonstrates what he means with a gesture, saying, "Look here, Iago; / All my fond [foolish] love thus do I blow to heaven. / 'Tis gone" (3.3.444-446). Shakespeare doesn't have a stage direction telling us just what gesture Othello makes; perhaps he opens his hand and blows on it, as though blowing away dust. Othello then goes on to vow that his hate will take the place of his love and cries out, "Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne / To tyrannous hate! " (3.3.448-449). At this point it appears that Othello considers love a kind of weakness, because when Iago suggests that he might change his mind, Othello swears that his "bloody thoughts, with violent pace, / Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love, / Till that a capable and wide revenge / Swallow them up" (3.3.457-460). Then, to prove that he will never change his mind, Othello kneels and makes his vow of revenge to heaven. [Scene Summary]

Hoping that Desdemona might be able to bring Othello back with a decision about his job, Cassio waits on the street, but then his girlfriend, Bianca -- a prostitute -- shows up. Cassio is surprised to see her, and he doesn't want to be seen with her if Othello should come back to speak with him, but he remembers that he probably should be nice to her, and tells a sweet lie: "How is it with you, my most fair Bianca? / I' faith, sweet love, I was coming to your house" (3.4.169-171).

Bianca replies that she was looking for him, and complains that he hasn't been to see her in a week: "What, keep a week away? seven days and nights? / Eight score eight hours? and lovers' absent hours, / More tedious than the dial eight score times? / O weary reckoning!" (3.4.173-176). Her point is that if he really loved her, he wouldn't be able to stay away from her for a week, and that every hour that he was away from her would be weary. It appears that she's hoping that he will say that he really does love her, after all, but he makes an excuse and asks her to copy Desdemona's handkerchief.

The sight of a woman's handkerchief in Cassio's hand makes Bianca jealous, but she takes the handkerchief. Then Cassio asks her to leave because he's waiting for Othello and it wouldn't be helpful "To have him see me woman'd" (3.4.195). She asks why that is, and he replies, "Not that I love you not, to which she answers, "But that you do not love me" (3.4.196). She's right. He doesn't love her, at least not enough to be proud to be in her company. Nevertheless, she still wants to see him, and she persuades him to walk a little way with her to talk about when they can meet again. [Scene Summary]

Having arranged it so that Othello can listen in and think that Desdemona is being talked about, Iago talks with Cassio about Bianca. He says, "I never knew woman love man so" (4.1.110), and Cassio laughingly replies, "Alas, poor rogue! I think, i' faith, she loves me" (4.1.111). Iago then teases Cassio by saying that he has heard that Cassio will marry Bianca, and Cassio answers, "This is the monkey's own giving out. She is persuaded I will marry her, out of her own love and flattery, not out of my promise" (4.1.127-129). In other words, he hasn't promised her anything and she's flattering herself to think he would marry her. Earlier in the play, Cassio felt inspired by the idea of Othello arriving in Cyprus to "Make love's quick pants in Desdemona's arms" (2.1.80), but Bianca's desperate love is only amusing.

A little later in the same scene, when Othello is thinking of killing Desdemona, he is tortured by thoughts of what he loves about her. He says that she is "A fine woman! a fair woman! a sweet woman!" (4.1.179), that "the world hath not a sweeter creature!" (4.1.184), that "she might lie by an emperor's side and command him tasks" (4.1.184-185), and that she is "so delicate with her needle: an admirable musician" (4.1.187-188). He goes on to say, "O! she will sing the savageness out of a bear: of so high and plenteous wit and invention!" (4.1.188-190), and that she is "of so gentle a condition!" (4.1.192-193). Nevertheless, under Iago's influence, Othello decides to kill her that night. [Scene Summary]

In the rage of jealousy, Othello calls Desdemona a whore, then begins to weep. Desdemona asks why he is weeping, and Othello -- talking more to himself than to her -- speaks of what the loss of her love means to him. He says that he could endure disease, poverty, captivity, even public shame, "But there, where I have garner'd up my heart, / Where either I must live, or bear no life; / The fountain from the which my current runs, / Or else dries up; to be discarded thence!" (4.2.57-60). Desdemona is that life-giving fountain; feeling that he has been discarded from her love makes Othello feel dead, but he can't keep her with him. If he keeps her, she would no longer be a fountain, but a tank where ugly toads have ugly sex, "a cistern for foul toads / To knot and gender in!" (4.2.61-62).

Later in the same scene, Desdemona implores Iago to intervene on her behalf with Othello, and -- on her knees -- she swears that she has never loved another, that she has always loved Othello, and that she always will love him, even if he forsakes her. She goes on to say that, "Unkindness may do much; / And his unkindness may defeat my life, / But never taint my love" (4.2.159-161). Seeing that Othello has struck and humiliated his wife in public, then treated her as a whore, what Desdemona calls "unkindness," we would call "cruelty." This cruelty has reduced Desdemona to stunned silence, then tears, and she believes that it could kill her, but it won't make her stop loving Othello. If a woman said such a thing today, we might scorn her as an enabler of her husband's abuse, but it's likely that Shakespeare intends to show her strength, not her weakness. [Scene Summary]

As Desdemona is preparing to go to bed to wait for Othello, Emilia speaks her heart: "I would you had never seen him!" (4.3.18). Desdemona understands what Emilia has against Othello, and answers, "So would not I. My love doth so approve him, / That even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns-- / Prithee, unpin me,--have grace and favour in them." (4.3.19-21). In other words, her love for Othello has the power to transform his fierce bitterness ("stubbornness"), his verbal abuse ("checks"), and his frowns into things beautiful and attractive. Desdemona emphasizes her message by asking Emilia to help "unpin" (her hair, probably), so that she can go to bed, where Othello commanded her to wait for him. [Scene Summary]

In the last scene of the play Othello looks upon the sleeping Desdemona and tries to prepare himself to kill her. He tells himself that he will kill her because it is the just thing to do, but then he kisses her and says,
Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after. One more, and this the last:
So sweet was ne'er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears: this sorrow's heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love.   (5.2.16-22)

One kiss leads to another, and then another, so he has to remind himself that she must die. He tries to resolve his inner struggle by saying that if she looks as beautiful when she's dead as she does now, he'll love her after he kills her. We might say that he's only fooling himself, that he doesn't love her, only his image of her. However, he tries again to reconcile love with killing by saying that "this sorrow's heavenly; / It strikes where it doth love." He means that he feels the agony of the Christian God, who punishes those He loves, because He loves them.

Othello isn't allowed to feel god-like for very long. Desdemona awakes and Othello demands that she "Think on thy sins", but she answers, "They are loves I bear to you" (5.2.40). She means that loving him like a god is as close as she has come to sin. He responds, "Ay, and for that thou diest" (5.2.41). He means that her betrayal of that love is the crime for which she must die, but she is innocent of any betrayal and protests, "That death's unnatural that kills for loving" (5.2.42). She's right, but being right doesn't help her. In the end, Othello doesn't kill her in a loving mood. As he wrestles her down and smothers her he calls her a "strumpet."

At the end of the same scene, just before he commits suicide, Othello makes a statement about how he wants to be remembered. He says, "Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, / Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak / Of one that loved not wisely but too well" (5.2.342-344). Othello's assertion that he "loved not wisely but too well" can be the starting point for a long discussion. Was it unwise to love Desdemona at all? How is it possible to love "too well"? Can a passion which leads to murder be called "love"? [Scene Summary]