More than any of Shakespeare’s tragedies, “Othello” is driven primarily by the theme of loyalty, and its counterpart, betrayal. Throughout the play each character is displayed as either loyal or disloyal in his or her relationship to Othello as well as others in the play they may have relationship with. The theme of loyalty is best displayed through the characters of Iago, Desdemona and Othello who are the primary characters in the principal conflicts.
Iago is the primary character who underscores the idea of loyalty in the play. It is precisely his betrayal-loyalty’s opposite-that brings out the question of who is and who is not loyal to the Moor. But Iago does not confine his disloyalty to Othello, he directs it also at Desdemona, his wife and others as we weaves his web of deception until all who encounter him doubt their understanding of loyalty. He admits early in the play, “I hate the Moor” and proceeds to confide to the audience through his soliloquy how he intends to bring Othello down. He knows that he must target that place where Othello most expresses his loyalty-to his new-found wife, Desdemona. He also uses Othello to exact revenge against Cassio who Iago believes took his place in Othello’s guard. It is, then, through each of these betrayals that the playwright demonstrates how loyalty is central to the play.
Next, it is Desdemona’s loyalty to Othello that is the most tragic display of this central concept in the play. From the outset, she demonstrates how she is not only willing to give her entire life and fortune to her husband, but she is willing to face the threat of her father’s prejudice against Othello’s race. She proclaims her strong loyalty when she says “My heart’s subdued/even to the very quality of my lord.” And further to this, she is explicit in that she is loyal not just to the man as leader but that she sees his inner qualities which is shown when she says “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind.” This shows that she is loyal not just to his outer appearance but to the very core of his personhood, represented by his visage. And in the play’s tragic climax as Desdemona dies at the hand of her husband, she remains loyal to him, sacrificing herself to his misdirected rage.
Finally it is Othello himself who is the epitome of loyalty in the play. He exemplifies his loyalty in the beginning when in the senate he is honoured for his successful exploits and his strength in battle. He confesses his loyalty to Desdemona, though he does not fully understand why she loves him to such an extent. He confesses that she could not love him other than “…for the dangers I had pass’d.” He demonstrates his loyalty to the men around him and rewards Cassio with raising him to the position of lieutenant and even his good friend Iago by keeping a close confidence with him. It is, in many ways, Othello’s unquestioning loyalty that leads to the tragedy when he falls for Iago’s self-serving machinations.
William Shakespeare’s “Othello” is a play that has loyalty as its central theme and motivating force. This central idea is demonstrated in the characters, their conflicts and relationships and in the internal dilemmas that the characters face.