Whatever William Shakespeare intended to be the point of Othello, to modern audiences, it is a cautionary tale wrapped up in a trainwreck. On the one hand, one can watch both the situation and the title character tragically spiral out of control, but on the other hand, one can focus on the villain and his evil machinations. For in that regard, Othello is as much a horror story as it is anything else.
The main difference between this play and modern horror is that the villain, Iago, is portrayed as a legitimate character rather than a mere demonic presence. In fact, there initially seems nothing evil about him. He even convinces the audience that he has perfectly legitimate (if not necessarily founded) grievances against Othello: he was passed over for promotion; he suspects him of having an affair with his wife; and Othello himself is a foreigner. What is troubling is that all and none of these motives are what drives Iago. In the end, he does not seem to care what his motivation is once he sees how easily his scheming and sweet-talking get the plot rolling.
Basically, the plot of Othello is that General Othello – an all-around good military man but a Moor in the service of Venice – marries the younger and whiter Desdemona in what is for the time a love match. His heroism and tragic backstory attract her to him, while her beauty and naivete attract him to her. Had the events of the play not unfolded, I shudder to think of how their marriage might have continued. Even by Shakespeare’s standards, Othello and Desdemona’s relationship is odd. While completely innocent, Desdemona is a naive little doormat. It would not have been long before she would have been taken advantage of by others.
So naturally, Iago (with the unwitting help of his wife, Emilia) manipulates events to make it appear to Othello that Desdemona has been/is being unfaithful with Othello’s chief lieutenant, Cassio – who, incidentally, is the one who earned the promotion that Iago did not. Iago exploits Othello’s jealousy and plants seeds of doubt, letting Othello’s imagination do the rest. (This leads to the obvious conclusion that their marriage was eventually doomed, since Othello was naturally surrounded by younger, whiter, and fitter men who would be better matches for Desdemona than himself.) Othello kills Desdemona and then himself, destroying his soul and certainly all that he accomplished to integrate into Venetian society. Iago also kills Emilia and another of his pawns, Roderigo, and Cassio is put through the wringer by being first disgraced and fired and then subsequently nearly killed, leaving him maimed and possibly permanently unfit for battle, although he does get Othello’s command posting. Putting it thusly, if Othello were a horror movie, Cassio would be the gender-switched “final girl” character.
All of this is hinged on Iago sweet-talking and convincing every character that they should do what he suggests. He gives them conflicting reasons and keeps everyone suspicious of everyone else except him, who is always referred to as “honest Iago”.
That is the true cautionary tale of this play. It does not matter what ethnicity the title character is (or the background characters, for that matter). It does not matter how strong or weak Desdemona and Emilia are, or how faithful they are to their husbands. It is not even about envy. At its core, Othello is about the nature of evil within human society. Iago is consumed by evil – he is only serving himself and acknowledges that he does not care at all about anyone as long as they serve his plot. (Even Emilia is disposable when she exposes his plot – and this is at a time when a woman’s testimony in court was worth virtually nothing and a woman was considered to be an extension of her husband and so thus could not testify against him.)
Everyone trusts Iago – his wife, his commander, his commander’s wife, his comrades…No one questions him because he plays his cards very well. They have little reason to suspect him and he portrays himself as trustworthy and acting in their best interest. Emilia is the most suspicious, but even she is convinced that her husband cares for her and wants what is best for the both of them. But Iago, consumed with evil, divides them apart. That is what the Evil One does – divides. Iago divides himself from Emilia, divides Cassio from the army, and divides Othello from Desdemona. He gains the confidence of Roderigo, Cassio, Emilia, Desdemona, and Othello individually, turning them on each other. In fact, the only relationship he overlooks is that of Emilia and Desdemona, likely because he considers women’s relationships to be less important. To be sure, he uses Emilia’s position has Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting to his full advantage, but he does not interfere with their actual friendship and trust in each other. Because of this, when Emilia does realise what her husband has been up to, she wants to bring him to justice at her own expense, since she would likely be utterly ruined.
Of course, trust is key. Iago, as does anyone acting with evil intent, wants to be trusted. The solution is not distrust, or the old adage that “trust needs to be earned”. The solution is awareness. Beware of those acting with evil intentions. Are they attempting to divide something – friendship, family, couple, business relationship, person from their money, etc.? Do they make a big deal about how it does not benefit them? Do they force or attempt to force you to do something that you do not want to do? Do they make you keep it a secret? Do they place themselves as the person most worthy of trust? Do they have any underlying motives, even ones from the past that you thought were long done with? Do they have a history of lying or cheating?
Evil is highly manipulative. Iago, undoubtedly, saw himself as the hero of the play, even as it is named after the tragic Othello. But ultimately, evil did not prevail: Iago is defeated, Cassio is vindicated, and Desdemona’s cousin ends up with her and Othello’s wealth. The world goes on, and it is left open as to what Iago’s ultimate fate will be. He refuses to speak, depriving him of his main power, but will he be executed? One does not know. Like all good horror villains, there is just enough wiggle-room for a sequel.