The Theme of Self Esteem in Othello

An annotated list of relevant passages.


In order to prove to Roderigo that he hates Othello, Iago tells the story of how he got passed over for promotion to lieutenant. He comments, "I know my price, I am worth no worse a place" (1.1.11). Later in the same scene, still explaining his hatred of Othello, Iago praises those who serve their masters only for their own purposes. He says that "when they have lin'd their coats," they "Do themselves homage" (1.1.53-54). We would call such persons embezzlers, but Iago sees them in another light: "These fellows have some soul; / And such a one do I profess myself" (1.1.54-55). [Scene Summary]


When Iago tells Othello that Brabantio will try to annul his marriage to Desdemona, Othello replies that what he has done (as general of the Venetian army) for Venice will outweigh anything that Brabantio can say: "Let him do his spite: / My services which I have done the signiory / Shall out-tongue his complaints" (1.2.17-19). Othello is not only confident in his worth as a military man, he is also sure that he deserves Desdemona in every way. He says that though he hasn't bragged about it, "I fetch my life and being / From men of royal siege" (1.2.21-22). "Siege" means "seat," and Othello means that members of his family have sat on thrones. His family is just as good as Brabantio's and his own merits can speak on equal terms "to as proud a fortune / As this that I have reach'd" (1.2.23-24). And he loves Desdemona. 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). [Scene Summary]


When the Duke tells Othello that he must leave for Cyprus immediately, even though he is newly married, Othello replies that he is so used to the hardships of war that "the flinty and steel couch of war" is his "thrice-driven bed of down" (1.3.230-231). Flint is the hardest stone, and steel the hardest metal; a "thrice-driven bed of down" is the softest feather bed. He goes on, saying, "I do agnize [recognize] / A natural and prompt alacrity [readiness] / I find in hardness [hardship] " (1.3.231-233). In other words, not only is he used to hardship, but the prospect of hardship makes him eager to go.

Later in the same scene, when Roderigo tells Iago that he will drown himself because he can't have Desdemona, Iago tells him to have some self-respect, and says of himself, "Ere I would say, I would drown myself for the love of a guinea-hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon" (1.3.314-316). A "guinea-hen" is a kind of large, spotted, noisy chicken, and Iago uses the word the way we use "dumb cluck." However, after Roderigo has left, Iago tells us that Roderigo is not entitled to any self-respect, "For I mine own gain'd knowledge should profane, / If I would time expend with such a snipe. / But for my sport and profit" (1.3.384-386). A snipe is a bird notorious for its flightiness and its tendency to run right into traps. Clearly, Iago considers himself vastly superior to Roderigo. [Scene Summary]


On Cyprus, when Iago makes some witty and derogatory comments about women, Desdemona is inspired to ask him, "What wouldst thou write of me, if thou shouldst praise me?" (2.1.117). Iago doesn't exactly answer her, but goes on in the same vein about women, and Desdemona asks, "But what praise couldst thou bestow on a deserving woman indeed,--one that, in the authority of her merit, did justly put on the vouch of very malice itself?" (2.1.144-147). To put someone "on the vouch" is to make that person give favorable testimony. Desdemona is asking Iago if the merits of a really good woman couldn't make even malice say how good she is, and it looks very much like Desdemona thinks that she herself is that really good woman. [Scene Summary]


Drunk, Cassio talks some drunk-talk about God being above all, and says, "For mine own part,--no offense to the general, nor any man of quality,--I hope to be saved" (2.3.106-107). Cassio doesn't want anyone to think that he's more worthy of God's grace than they are, but he doesn't think he's any less worthy, either. However, after his drunkenness has gotten him fired, Cassio is thoroughly disgusted with himself. When Iago asks him it is that he has sobered up, Cassio replies, "It hath pleased the devil drunkenness to give place to the devil wrath; one unperfectness shows me another, to make me frankly despise myself" (2.3.296-298). Nevertheless, when Iago tells him that he's being too hard on himself and that he can get his job back by appealing to Desdemona, Cassio takes his advice and thanks him for it.

In the same scene, when he can't get a straight answer about who is responsible for the fight between Cassio and Montano, Othello begins to lose patience and says, "'Zounds, if I stir, / Or do but lift this arm, the best of you / Shall sink in my rebuke" (2.3.207-209). Part of Othello's threat is a reminder that he is a better soldier than any of them. [Scene Summary]


When Desdemona is promising Cassio that she will talk Othello into restoring Cassio to his position, she says of herself, "If I do vow a friendship, I'll perform it / To the last article" (3.3.21-22). A little later, when Othello shows up, Desdemona makes good on her promise. She uses every argument she can think of to get Othello to restore Cassio to his position.

When Othello won't give her a definite answer about just when Cassio can have his job back, Desdemona 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

Moments later, when it looks like Desdemona has gotten all she has asked for, 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). In her opinion, she's the one who is doing her husband a favor. Later in the scene, shortly after Iago starts to make Othello jealous, he cunningly warns him against jealousy. Othello answers by denying that he can be jealous, saying, "Think'st thou I'ld make a life of jealousy, / To follow still the changes of the moon / With fresh suspicions? No! to be once in doubt / Is once to be resolved" (3.3.177-180). Othello here uses the word "once" in both the sense of "as soon of" 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.

A little later, Othello has become so troubled that he feels the need to be alone, and sends Iago away. In his soliloquy, 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.

Then, a few minutes later, Othello has a speech which is so famous that it's often referred to simply as "Othello's farewell to his occupation." He says that even if Desdemona went to bed with the dirtiest, sweatiest soldiers in camp (the "pioners"), he would have been happy so long as he hadn't known, but now he can't be a soldier anymore:

I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O, now, for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars,
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!
And, O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove's dead clamours counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone!   (3.3.345-357)
This isn't a rational statement. There's no rule of war that says that a man can't lead an army if his wife is unfaithful . And Othello isn't about to resign his position. He means what he feels, which is that if Desdemona doesn't love him, he's nothing. [Scene Summary]


Her success in making Cassio's case to Othello fills Desdemona with so much confidence that the next time she sees Othello she says to Emilia, "I will not leave him now till Cassio / Be call'd to him" (3.4.32-33). However, things don't turn out the way Desdemona expects. Othello berates Desdemona about the handkerchief and storms away in a fit of anger. Desdemona's self-esteem is wounded, and -- as women sometimes do -- she starts to blame herself for what her husband has done to her. She says that when there's a serious problem, "Men's natures wrangle with inferior things, / Though great ones are their object" (3.4.144-145). In other words, something has gone wrong at work, and Othello was just taking it out on her, the "inferior thing." She reasons that if we have a finger that aches, our whole body is filled with a sense of pain, and she concludes that she has been expecting too much of Othello. She says, "Nay, we must think men are not gods, / Nor of them look for such observances / As fit the bridal" (3.4.148-150). If men are not gods, and if they can't be expected to always act as if they are on their honeymoon, then she's the one who is in the wrong. She says,

                 Beshrew me much, Emilia,
I was, unhandsome warrior as I am,
Arraigning his unkindness with my soul;
But now I find I had suborn'd the witness,
And he's indicted falsely.     (3.4.150-154)
An "unhandsome warrior" is one who can't carry out his duties; Desdemona feels she has failed in her duty to stand by her man. In her soul she was bringing Othello up on charges of treating her badly, but now she feels that the witness (she herself) has lied. [Scene Summary]


After Iago has made Othello's jealousy so hot that he falls into a swoon, Iago urges him to be a man" (4.1.65). He then illustrates what this manliness is by saying how he would react if he were in Othello's situation: "let me know [that I am a cuckold]; / And knowing what I am, I know what she shall be" (4.1.72-73). What shall she be? A whore? Dead? Iago leaves that up to Othello's imagination, but Othello is so impressed with Iago's manliness that he says, "O, thou art wise; 'tis certain" (4.1.74). Then, a little later, when Othello is struggling with the idea of killing his wife, he seems to adopt Iago's notion of manliness, saying, "my heart is turned to stone; I strike it, and it hurts my hand" (4.1.182-183). [Scene Summary]


After Othello has repeatedly called her whore, Desdemona asks Iago, "Am I that name, Iago?" (4.2.118). She uses the phrase "that name" because she does not want to say the word "whore." Emilia then denounces the very idea that anyone could think such a thing, and Desdemona seems to regain her confidence. She 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 him, 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.

Finally, Desdemona says that she can't say the word "whore" and that nothing in the world could make her be one: "I cannot say 'whore': / It does abhor me now I speak the word; / To do the act that might the addition earn / Not the world's mass of vanity could make me" (4.2.161-164) [Scene Summary]


In the scene in which Desdemona sings the "willow" song, Emilia expresses her opinion that women are entitled to take revenge for the bad things that their husbands do, but Desdemona ends the scene by saying, "Good night, good night. God me such uses send, / Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend." (4.3.104-105). "Uses" are habits; Desdemona wants God to give her good moral habits. If she has such habits she will never "pick" an excuse for bad from the bad of others. Instead, she will observe the bad of others in order to mend her own ways and become better. [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.

At the end of the same scene, after Roderigo is dead and Cassio is wounded, Iago tries to make Bianca look guilty, but she stands up for herself and says to Iago and Emilia, "I am no strumpet; but of life as honest / As you that thus abuse me" (5.1.122-123). She is a strumpet, but her belief in herself protects her from being scared of Iago and his accusations. [Scene Summary]


In the last scene of the play, after Iago's treachery has been proved, Othello says to Lodovico , "Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil / Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?" (5.2.300-302). Iago's reply is famous. He says, "Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: / From this time forth I never will speak word" (5.2.303-304). It seems that Iago holds himself above everyone else to the bitter end. [Scene Summary]


As the last scene of the play opens, Desdemona is asleep and Othello is saying, "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,-- / Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!-- / It is the cause (5.2.1-3). He means that he is going to kill Desdemona because of "the cause," the crime that she has committed, a crime so horrible that he can't say its name even to the stars. Thus he denies to himself that he is killing her for himself, because he is jealous, because his sense of honor has been wounded. However, later in the scene, when Othello demands that she confess, Desdemona denies everything. To him, her denial is an attack on his honor. He says, "O perjured woman! thou dost stone my heart, / And makest me call what I intend to do / A murder, which I thought a sacrifice: / I saw the handkerchief!" (5.2.66). He wants to believe that he is about to kill his love as a sacrifice to the cause of justice, but she won't confess that she deserves to be sacrificed. If she's innocent, he's a murderer, and that thought makes him angry.

Desdemona uses her last words to clear her husband of guilt. Emilia asks her who has done this to her, and Desdemona answers, "Nobody; I myself. Farewell / Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell!" (5.2.125). Othello pretends surprise that she has been murdered, then says to Emilia, "You heard her say herself, it was not I" (5.2.127). Emilia confirms it, saying, "She said so; I must needs report the truth" (5.2.128). Othello now has a witness to his innocence; with Emilia's testimony, he could get away with murder. But he doesn't want to get away with it, he wants to justify it. He says, "She's, like a liar, gone to burning hell: / 'Twas I that kill'd her" (5.2.129-130).

After Othello learns the truth about Iago, unsuccessfully attacks Iago, and has his sword from him, he says, "I am not valiant neither, / But every puny whipster gets my sword: / But why should honour outlive honesty? / Let it go all" (5.2.244-246). A "whipster" is a contemptible person, one who can make a show of whipping out his sword, but is no good in a real battle. Othello's phrase "puny whipster" expresses contempt for those who took his sword, but much more for himself. He has just let the sword go, and with good reason. His reputation as a valiant man, his "honour," is hollow without true integrity, "honesty." He not only lost the sword, he deserved to lose it.

A little later Lodovico asks Othello to explain himself, to say what he should be called. Othello responds, "Why, any thing: / An honourable murderer, if you will; / For nought I did in hate, but all in honour" (5.2.295). This short speech is extremely important to the interpretation of Othello's character. If he's justifying himself, we're going to think less of him. We are unlikely to think that there's any such thing as an honorable murderer, and earlier in the scene he didn't seem to think so, either. Now, however, it sounds as if he's justifying himself by saying that he is an "honourable murderer" and that he did nothing "in hate." This is hard to swallow because we have heard him express fierce hatred of Desdemona and we have seen his rage when he murdered her. On the other hand, the phrase "honourable murderer" may be ironic. His first response to Lodovico is "Why, any thing," as if there was nothing that could be said about him that could express the truth. Then, after he uses the phrase "honourable murderer," he adds, "if you will," as though it doesn't really matter what others think of him. He may still be grappling with himself about what he is, and in using the phrase "honourable murderer" he may be making a bitterly ironic comment on his own mistake about what it means to be honorable.

As he is about to be led away as a prisoner, Othello says, "Soft you, a word or two before you go" (5.2.338). "Soft" means "wait a minute," and the rest of the men do wait to listen to what Othello has to say. He starts, "I have done the state some service, and they know't," as though he thinks that his service should be weighed against his crime, but then he changes his mind, saying, "No more of that" (5.2.340). He now wants to speak not of what is to become of him, but of what he is:

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
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;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.    (5.2.341-356)
Having evaluated himself, Othello punishes himself as he punished the "malignant . . . Turk." He pulls out his dagger and gives himself a deadly wound. [Scene Summary]