The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, known popularly as just Othello, is one of the most famous plays by great English playwright William Shakespeare. The central plot of the play is how Iago, an ensign of the Moorish general Othello, poisons him against his beloved wife Desdemona by sowing seeds of suspicion in Othello’s mind of Desdemona having an affair with Othello’s lieutenant, Cassio, whom Othello had promoted at the expense of Iago. An intriguing play touching various themes, most prominently jealousy, betrayal and revenge, Othello is laden with numerous lines which still remain popular and are often quoted by people. Here are the 10 most famous quotations from Othello with their explanation.

 

#10    “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving”

– Iago (Act II, Scene III)

Edwin Booth as Iago in Othello
Famous American theater actor Edwin Booth as Iago in Othello

In this famous line Iago ironically tells Cassio that reputation is not important and is often earned and lost without justification though it is Iago himself who has caused the decline in Cassio’s reputation. He says that reputation is an idle or fanciful attribute falsely imposed on one, often when one doesn’t deserve it and similarly it is usually lost when one doesn’t deserve to lose it.

 

#9   “To mourn a mischief that is past and gone is the next way to draw new mischief on.”

– The Duke (Act I, Scene III)

This quotation is part of the advice given by the Duke to Desdemona’s father Brabantio after his daughter has openly defied him and proclaimed that she ran away with Othello because she loves him. It says that to worry about a mischief that has already been done would only lead to more mischief. In other words if you hold on to a grudge over behavior you consider improper then it would only lead you to commit an act that will cause more trouble.

 

#8   “Who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a Monarch?”

– Emilia (Act IV, Scene III)

This quotation is part of an important passage in the play in which Desdemona has a discussion with Iago’s wife Emilia on marriage and fidelity. While Desdemona is absolutely devoted to love and marriage, Emilia looks at it with practical intelligence. A cuckold is the husband of an adulterous wife. This line says that why wouldn’t you cheat on your husband if it made him the King. Emilia is thus implying that infidelity is justified if there is something substantial to gain from it.

Anna Patrick as Emilia
Anna Patrick as Emilia in the 1995 film adaptation of Othello

 

#7   “I kiss’d thee ere I kill’d thee: no way but this; killing myself, to die upon a kiss”

– Othello (Act V, Scene II)

These are the last words said by Othello before he kisses Desdemona whom he has just murdered. He then stabs himself and dies on top of his wife. He says he kissed her before he killed her and now it is appropriate that he kisses her while he kills himself. Othello perhaps means that it if he hadn’t loved her she would have never died and now for the repentance for the injustice he has done to her love, he must kiss her before he kills himself to prove Desdemona’s love was true and faithful.

Othello weeping over Desdemona's body
Painting by William Salter of Othello weeping over Desdemona’s body

 

#6   “The robb’d that smiles steals something from the thief; he robs himself that spends a bootless grief.”

– The Duke (Act I, Scene III)

This famous quotation is part of the advice given by the Duke to Desdemona’s father Brabantio after Brabantio feels that he has been shamed by his daughter. It says that a person who has been robbed takes something away from the thief who has robbed him if he is able to smile at his loss but if he grieves he is only further robbing himself. In other words if you are able to smile at your loss, you stand above the person who has inflicted you that hardship. However if you keep mourning your loss it would do nothing more but lead to more hardship.

Act I, Scene III of Othello
Illustration of Act I, Scene III of Othello

 

#5   “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. She has deceived her father, and may thee.”

– Brabantio (Act I, Scene III)

Othello (1622) - Title Page
Title page of 1st quarto of Othello (1622)

This line is said to Othello by Desdemona’s father who feels he has been shamed by his daughter who has run away with Othello and thus has also become involved in an interracial relationship. His words can be taken as a curse and a forewarning. They tell Othello to beware if he is wise enough to see as his daughter who has deceived him may someday do the same to Othello. The words are important to the play as they ring in Othello’s ears later, adding to the poison they are being fed against Desdemona by Iago.

 

#4   “T’is neither here nor there”

– Emilia (Act IV, Scene III)

The origin of this famous expression is older than Shakespeare but it did gain in popularity after the play and remains to be widely used. Neither here nor there means it doesn’t matter; its synonyms include irrelevant and insignificant. The phrase is often used to express that the matter in concern is not important enough to take a side to either support or refute it.

 

#3   “Trifles light as air are to the jealous confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ.”

– Iago (Act III, Scene III)

The most important and famous object in the play is Othello’s handkerchief which he gives to Desdemona as a first gift telling her that it holds tremendous importance to him and that it was given to his mother by an Egyptian charmer to keep his father under her spell. Desdemona accidentally drop it and it is picked by Iago’s wife Emilia. This famous line is said by Iago in a monologue after he gets possession of the handkerchief from his wife and is buoyant that he may use it to further poison Othello. It means that trifles or things of little value become as valid a proof as holy writing to the one who is jealous. The handkerchief and its symbolism have been much analyzed. That it is symbolic of Desdemona’s fidelity is perhaps Shakespeare’s way of conveying how fragile a jealous mind is.

Othello by Orson Welles - Poster
Poster of the 1952 Film on Othello by Orson Welles

 

#2   “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

– Iago (Act III, Scene III)

Othello and Iago in Act III, Scene III
Illustration of Othello and Iago in Act III, Scene III

In this famous line, Iago ironically warns Othello of the dangers of being jealous, comparing jealousy to a green eyed monster which makes fun of the victims it devours. Shakespeare refers to how jealousy toys with its victim before destroying him perhaps comparing it to the nature of cats playing with their prey. The notion of jealousy being green eyed is probably older than Shakespeare but he does give it the form of a monster. The phrase green eyed monster has since become a popular expression to denote jealousy.

 

#1   “For when my outward action doth demonstrate the native act and figure of my heart in compliment extern, ’tis not long after but I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at; I am not what I am.”

– Iago (Act I, Scene I)

This quotation is part of the famous “I am not what I am” speech in the play where Iago reveals his deceitful character to Roderigo, who is unable to read through his words and ultimately suffers due to his naivety. Iago says that if his outward actions would reveal the true nature of the feelings in his heart it wouldn’t be long before he would be wearing his heart on his sleeve for daws (old name for jackdaws, member of the crow family) to peck at it. He surmises his speech by declaring he is not what he appears to be. The famous quotation contains two popular phrases, ‘wear my heart on my sleeve’ which has become a popular expression to denote that one makes one’s feelings apparent; and “I am not what I am” which is in contrast to what God declares in the Bible, “I am what I am”.

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