Othello (Vol. 68)
See also Othello Criticism (Volume 35), and Volumes 53, 89.
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
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 transcended the barriers of race and age and culture in the first place and boldly entered into their ecstatically intuitive union. Iago is diabolically skillful, of course, and the marriage was quick, denying in its brevity of courtship the richness of familiarity that might have withstood the Devil himself. We recognize, too, Othello's role as alien, his radical ignorance of Venetian society, his military simplicity, and his proven faith in “honest” and bluff Iago. All these things bear on Othello's transformation, but they do not get to the center of the mystery. The center of it—the psychological center, at least, if not the archetypal, religious, or dramaturgic—may be this: that just as beneath all their multitudinous...
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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.]
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:
Shall I go fetch your nightgown?
No, unpin me here.
This Lodovico is a proper man.
A very handsome man.
He speaks well.
I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip.
Surely this is startling dialogue coming as it does between the brothel scene and the moment when Desdemona will go to her wedding with death. An actress or director would certainly have to think a great deal about how these lines are to be spoken and what they are to reveal of Desdemona's character. But a reader or critic is not so hard pressed, and he may, if it suits him, simply skip over them. This is precisely what most critics do.
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Criticism: Production Reviews
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 surfaces’, and that there is a marked ‘contrast between surface manner and inner nature. … In Desdemona alone do the heart and the hand go together: she is what she seems to be.’1
This characterization is reversed in Paula Vogel's revision of Othello as Desdemona.2 In this play, we have a Desdemona who is not what she seems, ‘of spirit so still and quiet’. Rather, she is Othello's worst nightmare, the transformation of Iago's pretence into reality. Though still naive, Desdemona is no longer the innocent—unselfish in her love, forgiving of all transgressions against her. She is sexually adventurous as she works for Cassio's harlot Bianca in her brothel, seemingly voracious in her...
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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 seeking to find coherence in the text. In this case the setting was late-nineteenth century. Many local effects worked very well, as they have proved to do in other productions with a similar choice of period. The midnight council of the Venetian senate became a lamp-lit cabinet room, with a globe representing the world at stake in an imperialist struggle; the discomfiture of Cassio took place in a mess-hall drinking ritual, away from the more decorous festivities of the island (fireworks visible and audible in the distance). In this kind of transposition one loses the specific identity of the Turks as an alternative, threatening, and non-Christian power—the decaying Ottoman Empire was by the late 1800s a pretext for imperial aggression in...
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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 1998, Kofi Anan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, arrived in Iraq to confront the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Of all the things that were crucially relevant to Anan's high-profile embassy, colour was certainly not one of them. And yet, in the context of a world order which, in other respects, is anything but consistently equitable in its view of black and white, the symbolism of his ‘ride to the rescue’ of ‘the civilized world’ (as characterized in the Wall Street Journal) can carry a Shakespearean resonance: a black African was the commissioned representative of an organization, the majority of whose central power has traditionally lain in white communities, upholding its values against the dangerous...
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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 Hamlet). This is not one of those times. O, a modern spin on Othello, is a bumpy ride that is nonetheless worth taking. Set in a Southern prep school, the film shows the tragic consequences that occur when basketball champ Odin James (Mekhi Phifer)—no, they don't call him O. J.—falls hard for Desi (Julia Stiles), the dean's daughter. It's not their interracial romance that makes waves in this all-white school, it's the jealousy awakened in Odin by his court “bro” Hugo (Josh Hartnett). Hugo thinks his dad, Coach Duke (a hammy Martin Sheen), likes Odin better then he does his own son.
Phifer and Stiles put real heat into their performances. Hartnett, who survived the debacle of Pearl...
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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 dismiss his theatrical innovations as if they were unintentional. The blackness of Othello is a case in point. Shakespeare largely modified the story he took over from Cinthio: he made a tragic hero out of Cinthio's passionate and bloody lover; he gave him a royal origin, a Christian baptism, a romantic bravura of manner and, most important of all, an orotund magnificence of diction. Yet, changing all this, he did not change his colour, and so produced a daring theatrical novelty—a black hero for a white community—a novelty which remains too daring for many recent theatrical audiences. Shakespeare cannot merely have carried over the colour of Othello by being too lazy or too uninterested to meddled with it; for no actor, spending the...
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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?
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 idealization and degradation of sexuality, the disintegration of male authority and the loss of female power, the isolation of men and women, and the association of sexual consummation with death. The festive comedies conclude with the anticipation of fertile marriage beds. The problem comedies achieve their resolutions with the help of midpoint bedtricks. The marriage bed is at the very heart of the tragedy of Othello; offstage but dramatically the center of attention in the first scene and again in the first scene of the second act, it is literally and symbolically at the center of the last scene and is explicitly hidden from sight at the conclusion. Whether the marriage is consummated, when it is consummated, and what the...
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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.]
Among all the critiques of the new historicism that are currently available, Carolyn Porter's remarkable essay, ‘Are we being historical yet?’, seems to me to explain most fully the process by which subversive elements are contained and marginal elements subordinated, dominated and othered in some new historicist practices. ‘The problem lies … in being limited to one set of discourses—those which form the site of a dominant ideology—and then reifying that limit as if it were coterminous with the limits of discourse in general. It is this issue of framing the discursive field which new historicists most urgently need to address.’1 I would like to approach this problem by examining the text of Othello as presenting a range of ideologies on women and marriage that interact with one another, on the assumption, which I have illustrated...
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SOURCE: Aubrey, James R. “Race and the Spectacle of the Monstrous in Othello.” CLIO 22, no. 3 (spring 1993): 221-38.
[In the following essay, Aubrey examines the characterization of Othello within the context of contemporary English Renaissance associations of blacks with monsters, and demonstrates the ways in which such associations would have heightened the response of early audiences to Othello's character.]
Whoever believed in the Ethiopians before actually seeing them?
Near the end of The Tempest, Antonio jests that the monster Caliban “is a plain fish, and no doubt marketable.” As an earlier remark in the play makes clear, however, Caliban would be valuable not only in a fishmarket but also as an exotic creature for display at court, “a present for any emperor that ever trod on neat's leather.”1 When Shakespeare was writing Othello, his attraction to Cinthio's narrative about a black Moor in Venice may likewise have been a playwright's recognition that Othello's skin color would give him a “marketable,” spectacular charge on the stage, as a character whose appearance marked him as Other, as having originated somewhere beyond the boundaries of the familiar. Although blacks had appeared on stage in earlier English plays, such roles were still extraordinary in 1604, when...
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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 original symbolic intactness of her hymeneal or undivided body. His psychological and discursive examination of this unseen body simulates the play's interrogations of Othello's own metaphorical black body, unseen and missing despite his literal black presence. The Duke offers the official reading of Othello's body when he proclaims to Desdemona's father, “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (1.3.284-85).2 In other words, Othello's literal blackness should not be read as ocular proof of Othello's metaphorical blackness. But, as Othello's countrymen will finally have it, no amount of rhyming or coupling (or punning) will leave unseen the black Other whom the audience suspects...
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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.
These tragedies have come to be known as “domestic tragedies,” suggesting that the events are private, springing from a familial relationship, unlike tragedies which involve political murders and take place in the public sphere. An unresolved contradiction is evident in the titles of these plays which signal the intention to preach a public sermon to women, for example, Women Beware Women, A Woman Killed with Kindness, and A Warning to Fair Women. In Othello, this contradiction is forced to the surface, as the private is insistently made public.
One of the questions that has most vexed critical commentary on Othello is that of the responsibility for Desdemona's death, some...
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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 assault Othello throughout the play.
Cook, Ann Jennalie. “The Design of Desdemona: Doubt Raised and Resolved.” Shakespeare Studies 13 (1980): 187-96.
Traces the linear development of Desdemona's character throughout the play, demonstrating the symmetry of the framework through which the audience receives information about her.
Gardner, Helen. “The Noble Moor.” In Shakespeare Criticism 1935-1960, edited by Anne Ridler, pp. 348-70. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Defends Othello against charges that it lacks meaning, arguing that the play is characterized by poetic, intellectual, and moral beauty.
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