- Self-Esteem. The importance of self-esteem is a modern cliché, but Shakespeare, who would have known self-esteem by the name of "pride," has some insights about the subject, too. This page indexes characters' direct statements about themselves. (The entries for Othello, Desdemona, and Iago are repeated on separate pages, which you can find via the Major Characters page.)
- Jealousy. In Othello, we see the kind of jealousy which is envy of what others have, and the kind which is fear of losing what we have.
- Romantic Love. To Iago, love is only lust; to others in the play it is much more.
- Brotherly Love.
In Shakespeare, characters say they "love" one another in situations where modern (C.E. 2011) people usually say they are one another's "best friends." It is the kind of love which we feel for our parents or our children. This kind of love is an ideal which is honored by Othello, Cassio, Desdemona, and Emilia. Iago, on the other hand, uses the ideal of brotherly love for his own vile ends.
- Reputation and Honor. Iago is a clear example of the idea that the difference between reputation and honor is the difference between appearance and reality. He has a good reputation, but no true honor. However, Iago is a monster who doesn't care about his honor. For other characters in the play, especially Othello, it's not so easy to distinguish between honor and reputation.
- Waters. Storms, rushing waters, a fountain, a stream, and tears signify passions from love to hatred.
- Black and White. Not only is Othello a black man in a white world, but the contrast between black and white is used as a metaphor, even by Othello himself.
- Proof and Judgment. In courts of law various kinds of proof are offered, including physical evidence, circumstantial evidence, evidence of motivation, testimony of witnesses, and statements by the accused. Othello comes to believe that he has all of these kinds of proofs of Desdemona's unfaithfulness, and passes judgment on her, then discovers that the proofs proved nothing.
- The Handkerchief.
The handkerchief is a visual reminder of the blindness caused by passion. It first appears when Othello is already in the throes of jealousy, and then is used as Iago's main "proof" in his case against Desdemona. Finally, at the end of the play, Emilia's knowledge that her husband took the handkerchief leads to Othello's discovery of the truth of the situation.
- The Devil. Characters in the play speak of the devil as a liar and a hypocrite, as one who both tempts people to sin and punishes their sins. Cassio thinks that the devil is in drink, Othello comes to think that the devil is in Desdemona, and Iago thinks that Othello is the devil simply because he's black. At the end, Iago is shown to be the true devil of the story.
- Slaves. The play contains quite a few occurrences of the word "slave," but we need to avoid unwarranted assumptions about their significance. American students may assume that all slaves were black, but that wasn't true in Shakespeare's time. Slaves came in all colors. When Christians fought Moors, the Christians considered it their right to make slaves of all prisoners of war; the Moors had the same idea about the Christians. The Moors also conducted raids in which they enslaved non-Islamic Africans; Venetians made their slave raids in the Greek islands and bought blonde slaves on the coast of the Black Sea. Also, the word "slave" was a general term of contempt, used without any reference to actual slaves, as "clown" may now be used without any reference to circus performers.
- Music. Desdemona's "Willow Song" is famous, but the play also contains two other songs, and some references to music.
- Men and Women. There's an interesting contrast between Iago's diatribe about women and Emilia's long speech claiming that if there's anything wrong with women, it's the fault of their husbands.