Symbolic structure – order and rebellion

Order overthrown

The main thrust of the symbolism of Othello can be summarised by the word - rebellion. 

A well-defended society

Othello, under the authority of the Duke and council of Venice, is commanding the defense of the colony of Cyprus from attack by Turkey. He liaises with Montano, the governor of Cyprus, to defend the island as well as maintain good civil order in the meantime. His new wife must also be defended and protected by all under Othello’s authority.
The whole order of society depends on its citizens upholding its values and laws, and obeying those put in authority over them. Any action or speech which does not support those aims and the leaders charged with fulfilling those aims, must be seen as working in rebellion against them. 

Iago’s revolt

Iago is rebelling in the following ways:
  • He engineers the dismissal of Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant, which undermines Othello’s authority, and in the process subverts civil order on Cyprus as well as endangering the life of its governor, Montano
  • He ruins the marital happiness of his commander and works to have Desdemona rejected by Othello, thereby destroying their marriage
  • He subverts Othello’s mental well-being and security, turning him from a model of calm authority to an emotional wreck, incapable of rational behaviour or action
  • He encourages the foolish Roderigo to harbour false hopes of obtaining Desdemona as his mistress, while simultaneously robbing him of all his wealth
  • He plots the murder of Cassio, even though he knows Cassio has been made the new governor of Cyprus
  • He abuses and denigrates his wife, Emilia, and Bianca, Cassio’s paramour, damaging relationships which he should be protecting.
In all these ways, Iago is the rebel against all of society, seeking to undermine and destroy the good order and harmony of the world he inhabits. He begins his subversive scheming because he believes he has been maltreated by Othello, but all his actions are the result of his rebellious attitude towards the one whom society placed in authority over him. Shakespeare’s audience would understand that, by claiming to serve no other power or person than himself, ultimately, Iago is rejecting God whom all Christians should obey. Like Edmund in King Lear, Iago’s heart ‘attends only on himself’.

The consequences of rebellion

Iago’s rebellion destroys Othello, Desdemona and Roderigo, both physically and symbolically, while society survives by the skin of its teeth. Honesty, loyalty and the state of marriage survive only because the alternatives are shown to be pernicious and evil. The surviving characters must try to rebuild the virtues of civilisation which were so nearly annihilated by the personal tragedy and public disaster they have all witnessed.
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