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Relationships in Othello

It can happen that an exam question on the Single Text might ask you to discuss the relationship between two specific characters rather than just focusing on one alone. Here's a run down of the key relationships in Othello: Othello and Iago, Othello and Desdamona and Iago and Emilia.

Othello and Iago - 'Frenemies'

'Keep your friends close but your enemies closer!'

Iago is Othello's ensign, which is essentially his third in command. This means that they have a close military relationship. However, the personal relationship between Othello and Iago is much more complex. Othello trusts Iago totally as Iago has a reputation in Venice for being very honest: "my ancient; / A man he is of honest and trust.' He believes Iago to be one of his best friends and believes Iago to be entirely loyal to him. However, Iago despises Othello and makes it his personal mission to destroy him: "I follow him to serve my turn upon him."

Iago is annoyed that he didn't receive promotion from general Othello, who instead bestowed the position of lieutenant on Michael Cassio, a relatively inexperienced Florentine: "I know my price, I am worth no worse a place." This doesn't completely explain Iago's motivation to completely destroy Othello's life - jealousy of Othello's status and happiness in love are factors also. Several strokes of good fortune (the handkerchief etc) help Iago keep Othello on side until the murder of Desdamona but ultimately it is his genius for manipulation and trickery that ensures his success.

Desdemona and Othello - True Love?

In marrying a 'Moor', Desdemona flies in the face of convention and faces familial and societal criticism for her bold choice. Her father is shocked and dismayed: "Whether a maid so tender, fair and happy…would ever have…run from her guardage to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou."

As Othello explains, it is Desdemona who pursued him. She fell in love with his stories of valour; "These things to hear would Desdemona seriously incline". This also shows that she is not a passive, submissive character in that she decided she wanted him and she pursued him. On the subject of her relationship with Othello, Desdemona says:

That I did love the Moor to live with him,

My downright violence and storm of fortunes

May trumpet to the world: 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.

While Othello appears confident of her love for him in Act 1 deep down he is insecure in the relationship. He can't quite believe how happy he is that she loves him:

If it were now to die,

'Twere now to be most happy; for I fear,

My soul hath her content so absolute

That not another comfort like to this

Succeeds in unknown fate.

When Iago starts making vague suggestions of Cassio's untrustworthy nature Othello's confidence is knocked sideways very rapidly: "O curse of marriage/ That we can call these delicate creatures ours,/ And not their appetities!" He doesn't confront Desdamona openly to find out the truth but trusts Iago to give him 'ocular proof'. This would point to him being more worried about his hurt pride than about the fact that she might not love him.

Desdemona, unlike her husband, is not insecure, even when called a 'whore' she remains loyal to him and resolves to love him despite his misunderstanding of her; she is resolute and tenacious in the face of adversity. Her love for Othello is unwaning:

My love doth so approve him

That even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns -

Prithee unpin me - have grace and favour in them.

She bids Othello to do the sensible thing and ask Cassio how he obtained the handkerchief but this is too rational for Othello who has already ordered his murder. Even as Desdemona faces her death, she asks Emilia to commend her to her 'kind lord'. She remains in love with him knowing that he is responsible for her death.

In his final speech Othello claims that he was "one that loved not wisely but too well" and it is clear that his feelings regarding Desdamona were extremely passionate and overwhelming. Whether one lays all the blame for the tragedy at Iago's door, however, or holds Othello responsible is a matter for each individual audience member as they watch the play.

Iago and Emilia - An Unhappy Marriage

The relationship between Iago and Emilia is not that of a strong and equal tie of love which we expect to find existing between man and wife. lago uses Emilia as a tool; he cares for her only in so far as she is of use to him. lago has neither the desire nor the capability of loving another person. When she exposes his scheme he kills her without a moment's hesitation and shocks the people who witness it: "The woman falls; sure he hath killed his wife."

Emilia seems to love lago and wants to make a success of their marriage. She steals the handkerchief in order to make him happy and perhaps strengthen their relationship:

I'll have the work ta'en out,

And give't lago: what he will do with it

Heaven knows, not I;

I nothing but to please his fantasy.

Her character is somewhat tarnished by her association with Iago but she seems self-aware enough to realise that this is the case: "The ills we do, their ills (husbands') instruct us so". Her remarkable courage in standing up to him to defend Desdamona in the final Act redeems her character in the eyes of the audience:

'Twill out, 'twill out: I hold my peace, sir? No!

No I will speak as liberal as the north:

Let heaven and men and devils, let them all,

All, all, cry shame against me, yet I'll speak.

Iago's murder of Emilia exposes his true nature to the world and proves conclusively that he had driven Othello to kill Desdamona. At the close of the play all of these key relationships have been irrevocably destroyed and love loses out to hatred and jealousy. We get no answers from Iago and are left to wonder if love is possible in a world where such malicious characters can exist.


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