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.
Appearance vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Appearance vs. Reality Quotes in Othello
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."
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."
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."
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so;
And will as tenderly be led by th' nose
As asses are."
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."
But I do love thee! And when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again."
It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on."
Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds."
And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit
Of human dealings."
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 –
They have it very oft that have it not."
Than what he found himself was apt and true."