Othello (Vol. 35)
See also Othello Criticism (Volume 53), and Volumes 68, 89.
The themes of jealousy, pride, and revenge have consistently interested scholars throughout Othello's critical history. With the development of psychoanalysis and its application to literary characters, twentieth-century critics have expanded on earlier interpretations of the play's three primary characters and suggested new explanations and motivations for their actions.
Interpretations of Othello's character are often negative, focusing on his pride and jealousy as fatal flaws. Robert Hapgood (1966) has described Othello as excessively self-righteous and judgemental and argued that the play should make viewers wary of their own tendencies to judge. Focusing his analysis on the play's structure, Larry S. Champion (1973) has written that Shakespeare's "economy of design" centers attention on the "destruction of character resulting from a lack of self-knowledge, … which is the consequence of the vanity of one's insistence on viewing everything through the distorting medium of his [Othello's] own self-importance." Othello's egocentricity, Champion argued, rendered him exceedingly susceptible to jealousy and fabrications concerning his wife. Other scholars have employed psychoanalytic theories in their interpretations of Othello's character. Stephen Reid (1968), for example, has suggested an unresolved Oedipus complex as the source of Othello's delusional jealousy. Reid argued that Othello's mother rejected him for his father and this "treachery" on her part led him to reject women. Similarly, Robert Rogers (1969) has viewed Othello as a composite character composed of conflicting tendencies and has identified the Oedipus complex as a primary factor in explaining Othello's behavior.
Opinion on the character of Desdemona has been sharply divided. While some critics have depicted her as an innocent, passive victim, others have described her as wanton, domineering, and at least partially responsible for her fate. Robert Dickes (1970) has contended that Desdemona is a domineering character who actively strives to achieve her ends and harbors an unconscious death-wish. As evidence of this nature, Dickes observes her wooing of Othello and her efforts to have Cassio reinstated and attributes the motivation for her actions—which ultimately lead to her death—to the Oedipus complex. Desdemona, he argued, "chose as a love object a man representative of her father. Forced by the prompting of her superego, she then atoned for this incestuous choice by behaving in such a way as to make Othello even more certain in his jealousy." W. D. Adamson (1980), however, has interpreted Desdemona's "ambiguous-looking behavior" as a sign of her innocence and positive moral standing. He maintained that Othello is the "tragedy of an unworldly woman calumniated and murdered by … a sex-obsessed tyrant who insists on thinking the worst as she insists on the best." Other scholars who have centered their attention on Desdemona have sought to shift interpretation of the play away from the tragedy of an individual. Julian C. Rice (1974) has suggested that Desdemona resembles Othello more than she transcends him and that the play is primarily a tragedy of human nature, while Irene G. Dash (1981) has asserted that Othello is a study of the complexities of marriage.
One of the play's most perplexing characters, Iago's actions appear to lack a clear sense of motive. A dominant theme in Othello criticism, therefore, has been an effort to explain Iago's motivations. Some scholars, such as Daniel Stempel (1969), have conceded that Shakespeare's text does not offer a solution to the question of Iago's motives and was never intended to do so. Stempel has maintained that "Iago embodies the mystery of the evil will, an enigma which Shakespeare strove to realize, not to analyze." Many commentators, however, have contended that simply labeling Iago as the personification of evil does not do justice to Shakespeare's skills of character development. Fred West (1978), for instance, has suggested that Shakespeare created a profound and accurate portrait of a psychopath in Iago. As such, West continued, "Iago's only motivation is an immature urge toward instant pleasure." Gordon Ross Smith (1959) has maintained that Iago's" actions and his hatred of Desdemona—whose marriage usurped his place in Othello's affections—are attributable to his repressed homosexual feelings toward Othello and Cassio. Other critics, such as Leslie Y. Rabkin and Jeffrey Brown (1973), have argued that Iago is a sadist who suffers from a sense of hopelessness and self-contempt and that he attempts to deal with these emotions by projecting his feelings onto others and working to destroy their sense of peace and joy. "Tragedy resides in the heart of character," Smith concluded. "Its inescapable quality is justified by what responsibility each person ultimately carries for what he has become, but its tragic qualities derive from the helplessness of people to escape from what they essentially are."
Robert Hapgood (essay date 1966)
SOURCE: "The Trials of Othello," in Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare, edited by Waldo F. McNeir and Thelma N. Greenfield, 1966, pp. 134-47.
[In the essay below, Hapgood analyzes themes of judgment and justice in Othello, characterizing the play as a tragedy of self-righteousness that "warrants little confidence in human attempts at judiciousness. "]
Leonard F. Dean's collection of essays, A Casebook on Othello, has all too apt a title. For so much has been written about the play's justice theme and so many judgments have been passed upon its hero that recent criticism does read like a legal casebook, in which Othello is tried and judged—in this world and the next.1 In a way, Othello "asks for" such treatment by presuming to judge himself and others; and certainly a judgment of the hero is part of our response to his tragedy. Yet not, I submit, the dominant part. Overre-acting against the Bradleyan Othello, so idealized that his vulnerability to Iago could only be accounted for by colossal simplemindedness2 or by Stoll's convention of the "calumniator credited,"3 recent commentators have presented an Othello so culpably self-deceived that Iago becomes virtually superfluous—"merely ancillary," as Leavis puts it.4 Excessive identification with the hero has been replaced by excessive...
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A. André Glaz (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: "Iago or Moral Sadism," in American Imago, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter, 1962, pp. 323-48.
[In the essay below, Glaz remarks on the play's organization and major psychological themes, including guilt, jealousy, and sadism.]
Wilst du der getreue Eckart sein
Und jedermann vor Schaden warnen
Es ist auch eine Rolle, Sie trägt nichts ein:
Sie laufen dennoch nach den Garnen
In psychoanalytic literature, as well as in belles-lettres, we find a wealth of details and descriptions of masochism. Sadism, on the other hand, is very rarely described in the literature in general, or psychoanalytic literature in particular. What is the reason for this paucity? The masochist speaks; the sadist is silent.
As is well known, the word 'sadism' was coined from the name of the writer who has described sexual sadism; i.e. when sadism is fused with sexual components. But sadism fused with sexuality is mainly attenuated cruelty. Not all sadism is mingled with sexuality.
Pure sadism is described more widely than is realized. As a matter of fact all criminology is nothing but...
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Stephen Reid (essay date 1968)
SOURCE: "Othello's Journey," in American Imago, Vol. 25, No. 3, Fall, 1968, pp. 274-93.
[In the following essay, Reid contends that Othello suffers from a delusional jealousy that springs from "castration anxiety aroused by his marriage to Desdemona."]
Freud's conjectures on the origin and meaning of sexual jealousy1 have been the basis for psychoanalytic explanations of all manifestations of jealousy—real or fictional. His distinctions among three "layers or grades of jealousy" are well known: competitive or normal, projected, and delusional.2 It is the third of these that has attracted the most attention, and it is this "layer" or "grade" of jealousy which has been seen as the source of Othello's unfounded belief in Desdemona's infidelity. Freud's explanation of delusional jealousy is as follows:
It too [like "projected" jealousy] has its origin in repressed impulses towards unfaithfulness; but the object in these cases is of the same sex as the subject. Delusional jealousy is what is left of a homosexuality that has run its course, and it rightly takes its position among the classical forms of paranoia. As an attempt at defence against an unduly strong homosexual impulse it may, in a man, be described in the formula: "I do not love him, she loves him!" In a...
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Stephen A. Shapiro (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: "Othello's Desdemona," in The Design Within: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Shakespeare, edited by M. D. Faber, 1970, pp. 183-92.
[In this essay which first appeared in Literature and Psychology in 1964, Shapiro concentrates on the relationship between Othello and Desdemona in his exploration of Othello's character.]
The last scene of Othello poses a difficult but crucial interpretive problem. Does Othello achieve self-awareness before he dies or does he remain the victim of his tendency to dramatize and deceive himself? This question cannot be answered in such a way as to remove the possibility of the alternate solution, but a psycho-analytic exploration of the conflicts within Othello will tend to strengthen the argument that Othello remains blind, that he is the object of irony at the end.
The critics who have considered Othello from a psychoanalytic view-point have, in general, followed two lines of reasoning. The first, exemplified by Dr. Martin Wangh1 or Professor Gordon R. Smith,2 explores Iago's homosexual attraction to Othello. The second, represented by Dr. A. Bronson Feldman,3 Professor John V. Hagopian,4 or W. H. Auden,5 traces Othello's doubts about his virility, or his insecurity as a black man in a white world, and shows why Othello is...
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Daniel Stempel (essay date 1969)
SOURCE: "The Silence of Iago," in PMLA, Vol. 84, No. 2, March, 1969, pp. 252-63.
[In the essay below, Stempel examines Iago's motives and the irrationality of evil which, the critic argues, Shakespeare dramatized through Iago.]
In the final scene of Othello, Iago has been unmasked as the villain responsible for Othello's desperate act; there is no escape for him. Yet he spurns Othello's demand of an explanation, and, despite the threat of torture, maintains an obdurate silence. That silence, however, is not the mere bravado of a "Sparton Dogge"; it is the logical and ultimate fulfillment of Iago's boast to Roderigo in the opening scene:
For when my outward Action doth
The natiue act, and figure of my heart
In Complement externe, 'tis not long after
But I will weare my heart vpon my sleeue
For Dawes to pecke at; I am not what I am.
Thus Iago takes refuge in silence, cloaking the native act and figure of his heart in darkness for all time. The critics, left (like Lodovico) with no satisfactory explanation of Iago's arrogant malignity, have...
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Julian C. Rice (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "Desdemona Unpinned: Universal Guilt in Othello," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. VII, 1974, pp. 209-26.
[In the following essay, Rice centers on the character of Desdemona in his discussion of guilt and human nature in Othello.]
The linking and parallelism between individual characters in Shakespearean drama is nowhere more prevalent than it is in Othello. As Barbara Everett has expressed it, the characters are all "forced by the 'elements that clip us round about' into a perpetual sense of, or straining toward, community. The 'net shall enmesh them all' is made at the instant the play begins, and is a condition of common need and common imperfection, so that a characters."1 The linking may have serious thematics implications. Is Othello responsible for his actions, or does he perhaps represent a common human vulnerability to Iago's destructive powers? The idea that all men share the responsibility for the acts of any individual human being is suggested when Desdemona paradoxically accuses herself of her own murder: "Emilia. O, who hath done this deed? / Desdemona. Nobody—I myself."
Although the abstract idea of universal guilt, stemming from the Fall, has been connected with the play, the criticism almost unanimously excludes...
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Bartels, Emily C. "Strategies of Submission: Desdemona, the Duchess, and the Assertion of Desire." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 36, No. 2 (Spring 1996): 417-33.
Compares the main female characters from Othello and John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, focusing on their "gestures of submission" that "paradoxically enable" self-expression.
Cook, Ann Jennalie. "The Design of Desdemona: Doubt Raised and Resolved." Shakespeare Studies 13 (1980): 187-96.
Centers on the structure of Othello as it relates to the revelation of Desdemona's character. Cook contends that Shakespeare raises numerous doubts about Desdemona's true nature in the same manner that the playwright clouds the issue of Iago's and Othello's characters.
Dickes, Robert. "Desdemona: An Innocent Victim?" American Imago 27, No. 3 (Fall 1970): 279-97.
Argues that Desdemona is an active participant who shapes her own destiny rather than a passive victim of other character's machinations.
Dollarhide, Louis E. "Othello's Descent from Reason." The University of Mississippi Studies in English 9 (1968): 37-45.
Discusses Othello's "loss of reason" and argues that it leads him to condemn his wife and lieutenant to death on the basis of flimsy, circumstantial evidence.
Faber, M. D. "Two Studies in...
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