Shakespeare’s Othello is a difficult text to understand for many reasons. The play contains frequent allusions, or references, that modern readers are not familiar with. This lesson will examine some of these common allusions.

Othello and Allusion

Shakespeare’s play Othello was written and first performed around 1603. It is the story of Othello, a Moor (or North African) who becomes an army general in the Italian city of Venice and marries Desdemona, the daughter of a senator. Othello’s downfall comes when his evil underling Iago, angry after being passed over for promotion, tells Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant, who received the promotion over Iago. The jealousy of this perceived affair causes Othello to murder Desdemona.

Like all of Shakespeare’s plays, Othello can be difficult for modern readers to understand. Much of this, of course, is due to the now outdated language that Shakespeare uses, since the play was written over 400 years ago. But another common cause of confusion for modern readers is Shakespeare’s use of allusion.

Allusion Explained

An allusion simply means a reference to another work of literature or art. It is still used today in TV shows like The Simpsons, which frequently quotes lines or whole scenes from popular movies or other TV shows. When The Simpsons makes a reference to The Godfather, for example, the writers assume their audience, or at least most of them, will be familiar with The Godfather and understand the allusion.

Shakespeare did the same thing, making allusions that he assumed his audience would get. But he often referenced texts that are not as familiar to people today. Two of Shakespeare’s favorite sources for allusions were the Bible and classical mythology.

Allusions to the Bible

While many people still read the Bible today and there are some who know it very well, in Shakespeare’s time it would have been expected that most of his audience had a strong familiarity with it. Church attendance and religion were a part of everyday life in England during Shakespeare’s time. Even though much of Shakespeare’s audience couldn’t read, they would be familiar with the stories and characters in the Bible from attending church services.

One important biblical allusion comes in the first scene of the play, as Iago tells Roderigo that he plans to destroy Othello after being passed over for promotion in favor of Cassio. At the end of a long speech in which he lays out his plan to follow Othello ‘to serve my turn upon him’ (I.i.45), Iago ends with the line ‘I am not what I am’ (I.i.71).

One could read this line as Iago expressing his two-faced nature, pretending to befriend Othello in order to betray him. However, a reader familiar with the Bible would recognize this as an inversion of a famous line. When Moses encounters God in the form of a burning bush in the Book of Exodus, he asks God for his name, and the reply is ‘I am that I am,’ a confounding statement that speaks to the essential unknowability of God.

By parodying and reversing this statement, Iago seems to be positioning himself as the opposite of God, or, to put it another way, the Devil. Shakespeare seems to be saying that Iago’s scheming is not just revenge from a slighted soldier, but the work of evil itself.

This invocation of biblical evil comes up again at the end of the play. Having realized he has been duped into murdering Desdemona, Othello gives one final speech before committing suicide. In the speech, he declares how he wants to be remembered, stating that he wants to be remembered ‘Like the base Judean, threw away a pearl richer than all his tribe’ (V.ii.406-407). This reference to a ‘base Judean’ (meaning someone of the Jewish faith) is often interpreted as a reference to Judas, the disciple of Jesus who betrayed him, or ‘threw away a pearl richer than all his tribe.’ By comparing himself to one of the great villains of the Bible, Othello takes blame for what he did, even though Iago had been the cause.

Allusions to Classical Mythology

Classical mythology refers to the stories of the gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome. Modern readers might be familiar with the stories of Zeus, Hercules, and the other mythological characters, but as with the Bible, the familiarity would have been much greater for the audiences in Shakespeare’s time. In grammar schools like the one Shakespeare attended, Greek and Latin were taught by reading the mythological stories in books like Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The two mythological figures who hang over Othello are Venus, the goddess of love, and Mars, the god of war. However, Shakespeare’s allusions to these two figures and their famous story is very subtle, showing the degree to which he expected his audience to be familiar with the story.

It is from Venus that the city of Venice, which is Desdemona’s home, takes its name. Furthermore, the island of Cyprus (where most of the action of the play happens) also comes from one of Venus’ names, Kypris. In the play, Othello is never explicitly linked with Mars (the Roman god of war), but as a military general he carries a natural association with that god of war.

Venus and Mars had a forbidden love affair not unlike that between Desdemona and Othello, who are married in secret before receiving her father’s blessing. They are eventually discovered by Venus’ husband Vulcan and captured in his golden net. Iago plays the Vulcan role in this story, capturing them in his ‘net’ with his lies. But because Venus and Mars’ relationship was adulterous, it is also on Othello’s mind as he envisions Desdemona and Cassio together, with himself in the role of Vulcan.

Shakespeare would have expected his audience to know this story and see the parallels as the action of the play unfolds. By doing this, he both connects Desdemona and Othello to a famous and romantic story of forbidden love and highlights the dark side of that same story.

Lesson Summary

Understanding Shakespeare’s allusions are a way to help readers understand his plays, including Othello. Shakespeare’s two main sources of allusions were the Bible and classical mythology. In Othello he alludes to the Bible to associate Iago’s actions with evil, while he uses the story of Venus and Mars to add a mythological dimension to Othello and Desdemona’s doomed romance.