Monday, August 29, 2011

Biblical Allusions in Shakespeare's Othello

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Iagos Role in Biblical Allusion in Shakespeares Othello

In the play Othello by William Shakespeare, the playwright connects with his Elizabethan audience by use of various devices, but effectively uses constant biblical allusions, both hidden and overt, to add a framework for the exploration of good versus evil, the descent of Man, and modes of deceit. By examining a few of the Holy Bibles vignettes via three main character archetypes of the hero, the innocent, and Satan, Shakespeare spans the alpha (Adam and Eve in Eden) and omega (the crucifixion of Jesus Christ), in telling the story of the destruction of Othello at the hands of the evil Iago.

It takes Shakespeare little time to thrust Iagos character into the first allusion as a character with demonic traits, in his perversion of the Old Testaments Exodus 14 And God answered Moses, I am that I am. Says Iago, in only the 65th line of the play

I am not what I am. . . .

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With this statement at the outset of the plot, and Iagos concurrent contention to Roderigo that he despises Othello, the observant member of the audience can discern the guise of Iago as someone much more sinister than a mere man. Masked as Satan, Iago sets about the destruction of Othello by a policy of embrace and smother. A constant confidant of Othello in the imagined affair between Desdemona and Cassio, Iago is the serpent in the garden of Eden, or the tempter of Christ, as he seductively fills the Moors head with whisperings of their treachery, feeding Othellos jealousy; or as he provides fruit from the tree of knowledge (possibly alluding to Desdemonas new carnal knowledge at the hands of Cassio). Iago also perversely mirrors the betrayal of Jesus by his disciples, specifically in John 115, in which Simon Peter avows to Christ Yea Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. In his evil deception, Iago is almost word-for-word in mockery of this same promise to Othello

Oth ...if thou dost love me,

Show me thy thought.

Iago My Lord, you know I love you. . . .


In these allusions, Iago plays his dual role of friend and tormenter, tempter and benevolent disciple, and fulfills allusion to both ends of the Holy Bible the descent of Man in the Garden of Eden, with the fabricated infidelity by Desdemona being a metaphor for the forbidden fruit; and the betrayal and torment of Christ, with Iago setting up a betrayal of Othello, just as the disciples turned their backs on Jesus at Gethsemane.

In another allusion in scenes leading to the crucifixion of Christ, audiences are presented with a military capture and detention of Othello much like that of Christ at Gethsemane by Roman soldiers, as they arrive in darkness with swords and torches in hand. Iago can be seen as Judas, as hes given his Lord away. A large difference in the differences between Othello and Christ is that Jesus was executed, and Othello commits suicide. Othellos suicide could be an allusion to Judass own suicide-by-hanging after betraying Jesus and seeing Him crucified.

Besides these allusions, the play Othello is ripe with dozens of other biblical allusions, almost to the point of every scene having at least one allusion pointing to a biblical reference. The constant references to the Devil, Othellos Job-like descent into misery, and the demonization of dark-skinned people with the same skin as Satan are a few of the allusions. Elizabethan audiences likely had a firmer grasp of scripture than contemporary audiences, so these allusions were likely to have been more obvious and of greater interest, adding to the richness of the storytelling.

By using these allusions in this body of literature, Shakespeare has added a wicked complexity to probably his most heinous villain, Iago. Biblical allusions serve in this play to add drama and suspense to upcoming events, as the audience realizes the deceit scenarios it alludes to from the Bible, and as these stories of the Bible add a depth to the characters of Iago and Othello through allusion, rather than sacrificing economy of the plays pace through lengthy character development.


Evans, G. Blakemore, ed. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston Houghton Mifflin Co, 174.

The Holy Bible (King James Version). Cleveland/New York The World Publishing Company, 17.

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