Built on a broad base of multiple themes, Othello is one of William Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies. Let’s sift through the themes and try to rank them in significance.
In the Introduction to The Folger Library General Reader’s Shakespeare, Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar consider the arch-villainy of the ancient to be the most potent theme:
Othello avoids all irrelevancies and the action moves swiftly from the first scene to the denouement. We never get lost in a multiplicity of incidents or a multitude of characters. Our attention remains centered on the arch villainy of Iago and his plot to plant in Othello’s mind a corroding belief in his wife’s faithlessness. (viii)
A. C. Bradley, in his book of literary criticism, Shakespearean Tragedy, describes the theme of sexual jealousy in Othello:
But jealousy, and especially sexual jealousy, brings with it a sense of shame and humiliation. For this reason it is generally hidden; if we perceive it we ourselves are ashamed and turn our eyes away; and when it is not hidden it commonly stirs contempt as well as pity. Nor is this all. Such jealousy as Othello’s converts human nature into chaos, and liberates the beast in man; and it does this in relation to one of the most intense and also the most ideal of human feelings. (169)
Helen Gardner in “Othello: A Tragedy of Beauty and Fortune” agrees with Bradley, saying that “its subject is sexual jealousy, loss of faith in a form which involves the whole personality at the profound point where body meets spirit” (144). Of course, jealousy of a non-sexual nature torments the antagonist, the ancient, to the point that he ruins those around him and himself. Francis Ferguson in “Two Worldviews Echo Each Other” describes:
On the contrary, in the “world” of his philosophy and his imagination, where his spirit lives, there is no cure for passion. He is, behind his mask, as restless as a cage of those cruel and lustful monkeys that he mentions so often. It has been pointed out that he has no intelligible plan for destroying Othello, and he never asks himself what good it will do him to ruin so many people. It is enough for him that he “hates” the Moor. . . .(133)
Act 1 Scene 1 opens with an expression of jealousy and hatred: Roderigo is upbraiding Iago because of the elopement of the object of his affections –Desdemona -- with the Moor: “Thou told’st me thou didst hold him in thy hate.