Othello (Vol. 68)

Introduction

Othello

Often described as a tragedy of character, much of the critical commentary of Othello focuses on the main characters of the play—Othello, Iago, and Desdemona—and their relationships to one another. Other areas of scholarly interest include the role of race and racism in the play, as well as gender roles and relationships. One of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed plays, modern film and stage adaptations of Othello also reflect these critical concerns.

Scholars have not reached a consensus on Desdemona's character. S. N. Garner (1976) finds that just as the other characters in the play see Desdemona as either pure and perfect or as Venice's “cunning whore,” so do many modern critics. Garner finds, however, that Desdemona is much more complex than either of these views, and that an interpretation of the play's meaning depends as much on an accurate understanding of her character as it does on understanding the characters of Iago and Othello. Shakespeare depicted Desdemona as neither pure nor corrupt, Garner maintains, but as a women possessing a full range of human emotions. Other critics focus on Othello's character and on his relationship with Iago. Arthur M. Eastman (1972), for example, identifies a marked similarity between Othello and Iago in that they both approach the world as ironists. Eastman explains that as ironists, they assert their authority by addressing situations from a position of concealed power. It is this affinity between Othello and Iago, Eastman contends, that allows Iago to manipulate Othello successfully. Derek Cohen (see Further Reading) centers his study of Othello on the character's suicide, tracing the political and psychological factors contributing to Othello's mental state. The critic views Othello as a pawn of white domination and demonstrates the way in which he is used by the Venetian state to sustain its dominion over its black foes, and used by Shakespeare to portray the dangers of miscegenation.

Like Cohen, G. K. Hunter (1967) also investigates the role of race and racism in Othello. Hunter reviews the notions Elizabethans held about foreigners in general and blacks in particular, finding that there existed a widespread association of blacks with sin, wickedness, and the devil. According to the critic, Shakespeare did not present Othello as a stereotypical black character, and contends that it is the darkness of Iago's soul that ruins Othello. James R. Aubrey (1993) also examines Elizabethan views regarding blacks, noting that blacks were often associated with monsters. Aubrey demonstrates that Othello's character is fashioned in such a way as to exploit this association, and thereby heighten the response of early audiences to Othello's character. Arthur L. Little, Jr. (1993) studies the way in which the play emphasizes a connection between Othello's “otherness” and sexual subversiveness. The critic also examines the way in which the audience and the other characters in Othello react to Othello's blackness in a metaphorical rather than a literal sense.

Othello's treatment of Desdemona is at the center of many critical studies exploring gender roles and relationships in Othello. Carol Thomas Neely (1985) demonstrates the centrality of the marriage bed and the consummation of the marriage in the play. Neely finds that such a focus on the couple's sexual relationship reveals that marital love is the play's main theme and that the primary conflict is between men and women. Furthermore, Neely associates the fueling of this conflict with the fact that the men's sense of identity and self-worth is dependent not only on their relationships with women, but on the bonds developed with other men, who honor one another's reputation. By contrast, the critic contends, the women in the play are relatively indifferent to reputation, and in part free from the jealousy and competitiveness that impair the men. An analysis of the bonds between males also figures prominently in Ruth Vanita's 1994 essay. Vanita examines the complicity of male society in the murders of Desdemona and Emilia. The men fail to intervene on behalf of the women, according to Vanita, because they believe that the husband/wife relationship is distinct from other types of human relationships. Valerie Wayne (1991) takes another approach to the topic of gender roles, maintaining that the play presents a range of ideologies concerning women and marriage, and that this reflects English Renaissance culture, where multiple discourses on women and marriage were also available. Wayne argues that the misogyny in Othello, for which Iago serves as the primary mouthpiece, represents just one of the prevailing views of the Renaissance.

Gender and race relations also play a significant role in modern stage and film productions of Othello. Sharon Friedman (1999) compares Othello with Desdemona, Paula Vogel's revision of Shakespeare's play, examining in particular the way in which Vogel dramatized the threat posed by female desire and questioned conventional categories associated with virginity and faithfulness. Judith Buchanan (2000) reviews a 1995 film version of Othello, directed by Oliver Parker, starring Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago. Buchanan investigates the ways in which the film constructs “otherness,” showing that Fishburne's Othello is a man willing to announce his resistance to Venetian society, and hence, his otherness. Buchanan also studies the way the film manipulates the subjective gaze, and contends that the film encourages the voyeuristic viewing of Othello's own self-observations. Another recent film adaptation of Othello, O (2001), is reviewed by Peter Travers (2001), who finds the film a flawed interpretation of Shakespeare's play, but one worth seeing nevertheless. Specifically, Travers criticizes the film's reliance on plot mechanics borrowed from Shakespeare that do not make sense given the film's modern context.

Criticism: Character Studies

Arthur M. Eastman (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Eastman, Arthur M. “Othello as Ironist.” In In Honor of Austin Wright, edited by Joseph Baim, Ann L. Hayes, and Robert J. Gangewere, pp. 18-29. Carnegie Series in English, no. 12. Pittsburgh: Carnegie-Mellon University, 1972.

[In the following essay, Eastman investigates the similarities between the characters of Othello and Iago, maintaining that since both approach the world as ironists, Iago's efforts to corrupt Othello are successful.]

When we think about it, it is scarcely less extraordinary that Othello should submit himself to Iago's tutelage, turn his love into hate, and destroy Desdemona, then himself, than that he and Desdemona should have...

(The entire section is 4976 words.)

S. N. Garner (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Garner, S. N. “Shakespeare's Desdemona.” Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 233-52.

[In the following essay, Garner stresses the importance and complexity of Desdemona's role in Othello, and asserts that Shakespeare endowed her with a full range of human emotions.]

I

As Desdemona prepares to go to bed with Othello in Act IV, scene iii of Shakespeare's Othello, the following conversation occurs between her and Emilia:

EMILIA.
Shall I go fetch your nightgown?
DESDEMONA.
No, unpin me here.
This Lodovico is a proper man.
EMILIA....

(The entire section is 8232 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

Sharon Friedman (review date 1999)

SOURCE: Friedman, Sharon. “Revisioning the Woman's Part: Paula Vogel's Desdemona.New Theatre Quarterly 15, no. 58 (May 1999): 131-41.

[In the following essay, Friedman compares Othello with Desdemona, Paula Vogel's revision of Shakespeare's play, examining in particular the way in which Vogel dramatized the threat posed by female desire and questioned conventional categories associated with virginity and faithfulness.]

In his introduction to Othello, Alvin Kernan asserts that Shakespeare's vision of human nature dramatizes ‘ancient terrors and primal drives—fear of the unknown, pride, greed, lust, underlying smooth, civilized...

(The entire section is 6455 words.)

Russell Jackson (review date 2000)

SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. “Shakespeare Performed: Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon: Summer and Winter, 1999-2000.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 2 (summer 2000): 217-29.

[In the following excerpt, Jackson assesses the production of Othello staged during the 1999-2000 season at Stratford-upon-Avon. Jackson finds that Ray Fearon's and Zoë Waites's performances as Othello and Desdemona were “subtle and convincing” but reserves his highest praise for Richard McCabe's Iago.]

Othello, like A Midsummer Night's Dream, gave a satisfying sense of having visited many—if not all—of the play's possibilities within the framework of a production...

(The entire section is 894 words.)

Judith Buchanan (review date 2000)

SOURCE: Buchanan, Judith. “Virgin and Ape, Venetian and Infidel: Labellings of Otherness in Oliver Parker's Othello.” In Shakespeare, Film, Fin de Siècle, edited by Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray, pp. 179-202. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 2000.

[In the following review, Buchanan considers Othello's cultural placement and the depictions of otherness in Oliver Parker's 1995 film version of Othello, starring Laurence Fishburne in the title role. Buchanan studies the way the film manipulates the subjective gaze and contends that the film encourages the voyeuristic viewing of Othello's own self-observations.]

In February...

(The entire section is 10058 words.)

Peter Travers (review date 2001)

SOURCE: Travers, Peter. Review of O. Rolling Stone, no. 877 (13 September 2001): 116.

[In the following review, Travers offers a mixed assessment of the film O, a modern version of Othello directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Although Travers praises the performances of Mekhi Phifer as O (Othello) and Julia Stiles as Desi (Desdemona), the critic finds that the film relies too heavily on plot mechanics from the original play that do not make sense in Nelson's contemporary context.]

Sometimes these updates of Shakespeare's plays work well, whether they junk the text (10 Things I Hate About You) or stick with the iambic pentameter (Michael Almereyda's...

(The entire section is 367 words.)

Criticism: Themes

G. K. Hunter (lecture date 1967)

SOURCE: Hunter, G. K. “Othello and Colour Prejudice.” In Proceedings of the British Academy, LIII (1968): 139-63.

[In the following lecture, originally delivered in 1967, Hunter attempts to ascertain Shakespeare's theatrical purpose behind Othello's blackness and contends that Shakespeare did not present Othello as a stereotypical black character.]

It is generally admitted today that Shakespeare was a practical man of the theatre: however careless he may have been about maintaining consistency for the exact reader of his plays, he was not likely to introduce a theatrical novelty which would only puzzle his audience; it does not seem wise, therefore, to...

(The entire section is 9978 words.)

Carol Thomas Neely (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Neely, Carol Thomas. “Women and Men in Othello.” In William Shakespeare's Othello, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 79-104. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1985, Neely contends that the central theme of Othello is marital love and that its primary conflict is between men and women.]

What should such a fool
Do with so good a woman?

Othello, 5.2.234-35

Relations between love, sexuality, and marriage are under scrutiny in Othello, as in the comedies, problem plays, and Hamlet. In more extreme form than in the problem plays, we see here the...

(The entire section is 10529 words.)

Valerie Wayne (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Wayne, Valerie. “Historical Differences: Misogyny and Othello.” In The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Valerie Wayne, pp. 153-79. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.

[In the following essay, Wayne contends that Othello depicts an array of ideologies concerning women and marriage, and argues that the misogyny in Othello, for which Iago serves as the primary mouthpiece, represents just one of the prevailing views of the Renaissance.]

I

Among all the critiques of the new historicism that are currently available, Carolyn Porter's remarkable essay, ‘Are we being...

(The entire section is 12754 words.)

Arthur L. Little, Jr. (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Little, Arthur L., Jr. “‘An essence that's not seen’: The Primal Scene of Racism in Othello.Shakespeare Quarterly 44 (fall 1993): 304-24.

[In the following essay, Little studies the way in which the audience and the other characters in Othello react to Othello's blackness in a metaphorical rather than a literal sense.]

Shortly after Iago convinces Othello that evidence of Desdemona's guilt needs only ocular proof, Iago tells Othello that a woman's honor is “an essence that's not seen” (4.1.16).1 From this point on, Othello attempts to see this unseen essence, zealously searching for the origins of Desdemona's honor, i.e.,...

(The entire section is 11941 words.)

Ruth Vanita (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Vanita, Ruth. “‘Proper’ Men and ‘Fallen’ Women: The Unprotectedness of Wives in Othello.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 34, no. 2 (spring 1994): 341-56.

[In the following essay, Vanita identifies the similarities between the deaths of Desdemona and Emilia and explores the complicity of male society in the two murders.]

A surprisingly large number of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays represent or culminate in the murder of a wife, the reason cited almost always being her infidelity.1 The plays construct these murders, often led up to by beating and torture of the wife, as tragedy, yet endorse them as a form of justice....

(The entire section is 6650 words.)

Further Reading

CRITICISM

Bonnard, G. “Are Othello and Desdemona Innocent or Guilty?” English Studies 30, no. 5 (October 1949): 175-84.

Attempts to determine how Shakespeare's original audiences would have viewed the actions of Desdemona and Othello, suggesting Shakespeare hinted that Desdemona, at least in part, deserved her fate and that Othello's love for Desdemona was unwise.

Cohen, Derek. “Othello's Suicide.” University of Toronto Quarterly 62, no. 3 (spring 1993): 323-33.

Explores the implications of Othello's suicide, suggesting that it is a result of the culmination of political and psychological stresses that...

(The entire section is 450 words.)