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Appearance vs. Reality Theme Analysis

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Prejudice Theme Icon
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
Jealousy Theme Icon
Manhood and Honor Theme Icon
Womanhood and Sexuality Theme Icon
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Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon

The tragic plot of Othello hinges on the ability of the villain, Iago, to mislead other characters, particularly Roderigo and Othello, by encouraging them to misinterpret what they see. Othello is susceptible to Iago's ploys because he himself is so honest and straightforward. As Iago puts it: "the Moor is of a free and open nature/ That thinks men honest that but seem to be so; and will as tenderly be led by th' nose/ As asses are" (2.1.391-4)

In Othello, Shakespeare plays with the idea of unreliable reality in a number of ways. The language of the play, which time and again refers to dreams, trances, and vision, constantly highlights the way in which what seems to be real may actually be fake. In addition, Shakespeare extends the theme of appearance vs. reality to include the art of playwriting and acting. As he develops his plot against Othello, Iago creates scenes within scenes. He sets up encounters between two characters and putting a third in the position of a spectator. For instance, he has Othello watch Cassio and Desdemona speak, and he has Othello watch him speak with Cassio about Bianca. In each case, Iago manipulates Othello so that Othello sees the appearance that Iago wants him to see, rather than the reality of what is actually happening. In this way, Iago becomes a kind of "director"—he even directly addresses the audience through his many soliloquies—and Shakespeare draws attention to the way that a playwright and actors create an appearance onstage that tricks the audience into seeing something other than reality.

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Appearance vs. Reality ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Appearance vs. Reality appears in each scene of Othello. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Appearance vs. Reality Quotes in Othello

Below you will find the important quotes in Othello related to the theme of Appearance vs. Reality.
Act 1, scene 1 Quotes
"When my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In complement extern, tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am."
Related Characters: Iago (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.67-71
Explanation and Analysis:

Iago and Roderigo have been arguing over the fact that Roderigo paid Iago to help win the hand of Desdemona, only for Desdemona to elope and marry Othello, a Moorish Venetian general. Iago has assured Roderigo that, although he appears to be devoted to Othello, in reality he hates Othello. In this passage, he explains that his outward behavior does not reflect his inner feelings, saying that this would leave his heart vulnerable "for daws (birds) to peck at." Throughout the play, Iago expresses the view that honesty is a sign and cause of weakness. Although Iago's deception is presented as morally wrong and and dangerous, his statement in this passage comes to be proven correct by Othello and Desdemona, whose earnest, trusting personalities leave them vulnerable to manipulation.

The famous, ambiguous last phrase in this passage, "I am not what I am," proves just how deep Iago's duplicity really goes. His choice of words suggests his dishonesty is so extreme that he does not even have a stable personality beneath his strategic manipulation of others.


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Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
"Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her!
For I'll refer me to all things of sense,
If she in chains of magic were not bound,
Whether a maid, so tender, fair, and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunned
The wealthy curled darlings of our nation,
Would ever have, t'incur a general mock,
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom
Of such a thing as thou—to fear, not to delight."
Related Characters: Brabantio (speaker), Othello, Desdemona
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 1.2.82-90
Explanation and Analysis:

Brabantio and his men have arrived at the inn where Othello is staying. Iago has advised Othello to go inside in order to avoid a confrontation with Brabantio, but Othello has decided to stay, declaring that he is a loyal soldier and husband to Desdemona and thus he has nothing to be ashamed of. Brabantio, having learned about his daughter's marriage, accuses Othello of enchanting Desdemona and binding her in "chains of magic"; he claims there is no other explanation for why she would choose to marry Othello. He uses racist language to describe Othello, calling him a "thing" with a "sooty bosom," and saying that it would make more sense to fear him as opposed to love him.

This speech is a pertinent example of the racial prejudice directed at Othello by the other characters. Brabantio's words reflect the widespread idea that Othello is not a normal human, but is either an animal-like "thing" or a fantastical being with supernatural powers. Note that Brabantio's horror emerges in particular from the thought of his daughter, whom he describes in terms that evoke pure white womanhood ("a maid, so tender, fair, and happy"), being intimate with Othello ("run... to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou"). Desdemona is presented as de-sexualized, an innocent child, whereas Othello is suggested to have sinister sexual powers akin to magical enchantment. As well as indicting Othello, this idea robs Desdemona of agency; Brabantio considers it impossible that she has chosen to marry Othello of her own free will.

Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
"Rude am I in my speech,
And little bless'd with the soft phrase of peace:
For since these arms of mine had seven years' pith,
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field,
And little of this great world can I speak,
More than pertains to feats of broil and battle,
And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver
Of my whole course of love."
Related Characters: Othello (speaker)
Page Number: 1.3.96-107
Explanation and Analysis:

Othello and Brabantio have arrived at a meeting between the Duke of Venice and his men, and Brabantio has brought up the issue of Desdemona's marriage. Othello has promised that if they summon Desdemona, she will confirm that she married him willingly, and in the meantime the Duke allows Othello to explain how the marriage came about. In this passage, Othello confesses that he does not consider himself a refined speaker, but that he will nonetheless endeavor to describe how he and Desdemona fell in love.

There are multiple levels of irony to Othello's claim to be a bad speaker. In this speech and in others, he uses evocative, lyrical, and persuasive language in order to elicit sympathy from the other characters––the very definition of rhetorical skill. Furthermore, after this statement he goes on to describe the fact that Desdemona fell in love with him while listening to the stories he told while visiting Brabantio's house as a guest. Thus if there is any truth to Brabantio's accusation that Othello "enchanted" his daughter, this enchantment was achieved through the decidedly civil art of rhetoric as opposed to sinister magic.

It is possible that Othello misrepresents his own rhetorical skill because he has internalized the racist idea that being a Moor makes him "rude in speech" in comparison to the supposedly more refined white Venetians. On the other hand, his humility is itself a useful rhetorical tactic, as it allows him to suggest that his true talents lie in the noble, masculine domain of battle.

"The Moor is of a free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so;
And will as tenderly be led by th' nose
As asses are."
Related Characters: Iago (speaker), Othello
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 1.3.442-445
Explanation and Analysis:

Roderigo has confessed to Iago that he is miserable at the thought that he has lost Desdemona to Othello; Iago has told him not to indulge these sentimental emotions, and has promised to help Roderigo win Desdemona if Roderigo pays him. Alone onstage, Iago reflects on his own hatred of Othello and details his plan to bring about Othello's downfall. In this passage, Iago notes that Othello is an open, trusting person, and that because of this, manipulating him will be easy, like leading a donkey by the nose.

This is one of the many instances in the play in which Othello is compared to an animal. Iago's reference to an ass (donkey) in particular highlights that the racist view of Moors as animalistic is closely entwined with the idea that Moors are naturally subservient and unintelligent. Iago's view that Othello is feebleminded is clearly false; Othello has already demonstrated that he is not only a highly skilled soldier, but also talented in rhetoric. On the other hand, Iago's observation that Othello is overly trusting is correct. Indeed, Othello's readiness to believe in appearances is the fatal flaw that––as Iago predicts––ultimately leads to his downfall.

However, the extent to which this trusting nature is actually a flaw remains ambiguous. Othello's "free and open nature" is contrasted with Iago's duplicitous cunning, and although Shakespeare shows that gullibility is dangerous, it is still presented as morally preferable to selfish scheming and deceitful appearances.

Act 2, scene 1 Quotes
"Oh heavy ignorance! Thou praisest the worst best."
Related Characters: Desdemona (speaker), Iago
Page Number: 2.1.158-159
Explanation and Analysis:

Desdemona and Iago have arrived in Cyprus, and while they wait for Othello's ship to join them they engage in flirtatious conversation. Iago has entertained Desdemona by telling riddles about "foul and foolish" women; Desdemona laughingly accuses him of "heavy ignorance" for praising such qualities. To some extent, their exchange confirms Desdemona's sweet and earnest nature, as she rebukes Iago for praising negative characteristics. On the other hand, the decidedly flirtatious element of their conversations suggests that Desdemona is perhaps not entirely morally innocent. At the same time, she might also simply be fulfilling the expectation that women should always behave in a pleasant, agreeable manner, rather than expressing strong opinions. Such ambiguity highlights the difficulty of adhering to the strict, complex, and in some ways contradictory code of behavior demanded of women.

In any case, the fact that Desdemona is at least mildly flirting with Iago lends a hint of plausibility to Othello's paranoia about her possible infidelity. A further layer of tension emerges from Desdemona's accusation that Iago "praisest the worst best." Although Desdemona is referring to Iago's humorous banter, she has unwittingly made an accurate judgment of Iago's fundamental personality. After all, Iago is a Machiavellian villain who does indeed value the worst qualities––selfishness, duplicity, and ruthlessness––over moral attributes such as fairness and honesty. The fact that Iago can jokingly present himself this way without Desdemona catching on to his true nature demonstrates both Desdemona's trusting innocence and Iago's deceptive charisma.

"If I 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."
Related Characters: Othello (speaker)
Page Number: 2.1.205-209
Explanation and Analysis:

While they wait for Othello to arrive, Cassio has a brief private conversation with Desdemona, inspiring Iago to trick Othello into thinking that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Othello arrives, and declares that he could not be any happier and thus wouldn't mind if he died then and there. Othello's innocent joy in this scene could be said to tempt fate. Indeed, without realizing it, in this speech Othello accurately foreshadows that he will never be this happy again--and that he will soon die as well. The added tragedy underlying this statement is that Othello's wish to die happy will go unfulfilled; both his marital bliss and good reputation will be ruined before he dies.

"Her eye must be fed."
Related Characters: Iago (speaker), Desdemona
Page Number: 2.1.246
Explanation and Analysis:

Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio have exited to start celebrating the victory over the Turks, leaving Roderigo and Iago alone onstage. Iago assures Roderigo that Desdemona's feelings for Othello will not last, proclaiming confidently that "her eye must be fed"––meaning she'll want a more handsome lover soon. This assertion conveys the stereotype that women are fickle and shallow, and emphasizes the idea that Desdemona and Othello's union isn't viable. It also reiterates the racist view that Othello is unattractive because he is a Moor. This comment therefore demonstrates the way in which strong racist and sexist prejudices affect Othello and Desdemona as individuals and as a couple, threatening the stability of their marriage.

Act 3, scene 3 Quotes
"Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul
But I do love thee! And when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again."
Related Characters: Othello (speaker), Iago
Page Number: 3.3.100-102
Explanation and Analysis:

Othello has promised Desdemona he will reinstate Cassio, though he has also seen Cassio sneak away in a seemingly guilty manner, and remains confused and suspicious about what he is really going on. He has asked Desdemona for some time alone, and after she leaves he reflects on his love for her in mixed terms, on the one hand saying that not loving her would mean "chaos," while at the same time calling her "excellent wretch." Note that Othello is speaking to himself in this passage, seemingly unaware that Iago can hear him. This moment thus pertinently represents the way that Iago has successfully manipulated and weakened Othello without Othello realizing it.

"O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on."
Related Characters: Iago (speaker), Othello
Page Number: 3.3.195-197
Explanation and Analysis:

Othello, having been cautioned by Iago about the importance of reputation, demands to know what Iago is really thinking. Iago evades the question, and instead warns Othello to beware of jealousy, famously likening it to a "green-eyed monster" that mocks the jealous person. As in the rest of this exchange, Iago's words are technically correct, and in a different context would constitute good advice. Indeed, his warning directly prefigures the chaotic impact that jealousy will have on Othello's life, and foreshadows the way in which Othello's irrational jealousy will make a fool out of and destroy him. At the same time, Iago knows that telling Othello not to be jealous will only increase his suspicions. The "green-eyed monster" he describes in fact reflects Iago's own role as an envious, parasitic influence who mocks Othello even as he ruins him.

"This honest creature doubtless
Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds."
Related Characters: Othello (speaker), Iago
Page Number: 3.3.283-284
Explanation and Analysis:

Othello has requested that Iago ask Emilia to keep an eye on Desdemona, and has urged Iago to report anything he sees back to him. As Iago leaves, Othello says to himself that Iago is honest and probably knows more than he is letting on. Once again, Othello has made an accurate observation without realizing its true meaning. Iago does know more than what he says, though of course he deliberately conceals and misrepresents information in order to undermine Othello––a far cry from the behavior of an "honest creature." Note that, although Othello thinks he is alone when he makes this statement, immediately afterward Iago briefly returns. Depending on the production, Iago is likely to be shown overhearing Othello, a fact that adds further dramatic irony to Othello's words.

"This fellow's of exceeding honesty,
And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit
Of human dealings."
Related Characters: Othello (speaker), Iago
Page Number: 3.3.299-301
Explanation and Analysis:

Iago, returning briefly, has urged Othello not to think about the matter anymore for the moment, and entrust Iago himself to assess what is going on. Othello has agreed, and with Iago gone again he repeats that Iago is exceedingly honest, with strong insight into how people behave. Once more, Othello's impression of Iago contains elements of truth, yet is nonetheless fundamentally mistaken. It is correct that Iago has "a learned spirit of human dealings"; his keen understanding of human psychology is what allows him to manipulate others so easily. Yet while Othello appears to think that Iago's intelligent nature makes him honest and moral, in reality the opposite is true.

The question of whether knowledge and ability make a person morally trustworthy is a central question in the play, and relates to a debate about the ethics and power that continues to this day. Both Othello and Iago are highly intelligent and skilled, and yet Iago understands a sphere of human behavior that Othello seemingly does not; namely, people's capacity to be act deceitfully and in the pursuit of their own interests. Although in many ways the audience is encouraged to admire Othello's moral goodness and faith in other people, his misestimation of Iago is notably naïve, and proves fatal. This dilemma provokes the question of who makes the better leader––Othello, who is righteous but gullible, or Iago, whose evil and cynical view of humanity is arguably more accurate.

"Haply, 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."
Related Characters: Othello (speaker), Desdemona
Page Number: 3.3.304-3.3.308
Explanation and Analysis:

Still alone, Othello reflects on his conversation with Iago and frets that perhaps it is unrealistic to expect Desdemona to truly love him, considering he is black, uncivilized in speech, and older than she is. Here we see the result of Iago's tactic of reverse psychology; while Iago encouraged Othello not to think too much about the situation before there was more evidence, Othello is left in a fretful, paranoid state, trying to evaluate if he is good enough for Desdemona. It is also clear from Othello's words that his fears are far more emotional than rational, and are rooted in the incoherent logic of racism.

This is the second time that Othello has referred to himself as a crude and unskilled speaker, and yet all evidence points to the falseness of this statement. Meanwhile, the fact that he is older than Desdemona is hardly significant, considering it was common for young women to marry older men at the time. The only objective fact that in this speech is that Othello is black; however, at no point in the play does Desdemona express even the slightest concern over this fact. On the other had, Othello's experience of racism at the hands of the other characters is frequent and severe. Thus, regardless of what Desdemona thinks, he cannot escape the internalized racist idea that their racial difference makes their marriage unviable.

"Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof."
Related Characters: Othello (speaker), Iago
Related Symbols: The Handkerchief
Page Number: 3.3.412
Explanation and Analysis:

Emilia has picked up Desdemona's handkerchief, which Iago had requested she bring to him, and dutifully presented it to her husband. Iago takes the handkerchief with the plan of leaving it in Cassio's room, when Othello suddenly enters in a frantic, enraged state, and demands that Iago show him "ocular proof" of Desdemona's infidelity. The fact that Othello behaves aggressively and threateningly to Iago––whom he has multiple times praised as honest and righteous––shows that Othello has already been driven wild by jealousy and is no longer capable of making rational assessments of the situation. Perhaps because he is aware of this, he insists that Iago show him visual evidence of Desdemona's supposed crime, implying Othello believes "ocular proof" is beyond doubt.

The fact that Iago is carrying the handkerchief during this interaction, however, reminds the audience that appearances can be just as misleading as rumors. Now that Iago has reduced Othello to a state of paranoid jealousy, it is easy for Iago to manipulate visual evidence to support his false claim that Desdemona is unfaithful. Othello's trust in visual appearances reflects his mistaken trust of Iago––and both will soon bring about his downfall.

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
"Her honor is an essence that's not seen;
They have it very oft that have it not."
Related Characters: Iago (speaker), Desdemona
Related Symbols: The Handkerchief
Page Number: 4.1.20-21
Explanation and Analysis:

Iago has told Othello that he knows Cassio and Desdemona slept "naked in bed" together, but pretends to still want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Iago has repeatedly referenced the handkerchief, saying that it belongs to Desdemona and that she could therefore give it to whomever she wants; Othello asks if she could likewise give away her honor, and Iago replies that her honor is intangible, and that many seem honorable when they are actually not. Following Othello's obsession with "ocular proof," Iago now fixates on the distinction between visible and invisible evidence, and stresses the unreliability of evaluating Desdemona's "honor" because honor is not visible.

Note that Iago's statement "they have it very oft that have it not"––meaning many people appear to be honorable but aren't––does not actually apply to Desdemona, but does accurately describe Iago himself. Indeed, the phrasing is reminiscent of Iago's statement earlier in the play, "I am not what I am." Once again, Iago is making wise and astute observations about the nature of human behavior, yet uses these observations to further his deceptive and evil plan.

"A horned man's a monster and a beast."
Related Characters: Othello (speaker)
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 4.1.77
Explanation and Analysis:

Overcome with anguish about Desdemona, Othello has had an epileptic fit, during which time Cassio briefly enters and advises Iago on how to revive Othello. With Cassio offstage gain, Othello has regained consciousness and immediately accuses Iago of mocking him. Iago, bewildered, says that he hasn't, to which Othello responds "a horned man's a monster and a beast." At the time, folklore held that a cuckold––a man whose wife was unfaithful––would grow horns, making his humiliated status visible to the rest of society. Although irrational, this clearly represents a significant fear for Othello. Not only would Desdemona's infidelity ruin his reputation as a noble and manly husband, it would confirm the racist beliefs that, as a Moor, Othello is more like an animal or supernatural creature than a human.

Act 5, scene 2 Quotes
"I told him what I thought, and told no more
Than what he found himself was apt and true."
Related Characters: Iago (speaker), Othello
Page Number: 5.2.212-213
Explanation and Analysis:

Emilia has discovered that Othello has murdered Desdemona; Othello has told her that it was her husband, "honest, honest Iago," who made him aware that Desdemona was supposedly having an affair with Cassio. Emilia has begun to understand Iago's plan, when Iago, Montano, and Grazio arrive. Emilia informs them of Desdemona's murder and demands that Iago assure her he did not tell Othello that Desdemona was unfaithful; Iago responds by insisting he only told Othello what he thought, which was also what Othello believed to be true. Although Iago is clearly presenting a veneer of false innocence here, his sly choice of words mean that what he is saying is arguably accurate.

Note that Iago claims to have told Othello only what he "thought" and not what he knew, and mentions that this cohered with Othello's own suspicions. Of course, what Iago doesn't mention is that he skilfully manipulated Othello into these delusional suspicions in the first place. Once again, Iago's cunning influence over the other characters' thoughts and actions blurs the distinction between appearance and reality, and obscures the evidence of what really happened.