Othello (Vol. 89)
See also Othello Criticism (Volume 35), and Volumes 53, 68, 89.
Othello (c. 1604) is one of Shakespeare's most revered and frequently performed tragedies. Its enduring appeal stems partly from its timeless subject matter—the possessive and jealous love of a husband for his wife. Set in Venice and Cyprus, the play recounts how the respected Venetian general Othello falls victim to the treachery of his ensign Iago. Recently wed, Othello's seemingly happy relationship with his wife Desdemona disintegrates due to the deceitful machinations of Iago, who convinces his commander that Desdemona has been having a sexual affair with his lieutenant Cassio. Othello quickly descends into a jealous rage and murders his innocent wife. After discovering that Iago's accusations were lies, Othello takes his own life. Scholars have identified the principal source of the story as Cinthio's Italian novella Hecatommithi (1565), which features in broad outline the characters and incidents that Shakespeare adapted into his tragic drama. Throughout the centuries, commentators have been drawn to the play's fascinating figures: Iago, the quintessential Shakespearean villain whose murky motivations for evil have remained elusive; Desdemona, a complex combination of feminine submissiveness and willful determination; and Othello, a tragic hero who transforms from a loving husband into a jealous killer.
Critics have frequently debated Othello's character and the degree to which he is responsible for his actions. In the opinion of some scholars, Othello possesses an essentially noble character, and his simple and trusting nature is exploited by Iago's ruthless actions. Others, including Leo Kirschbaum (1944), contend that Othello follows the traditional pattern of the tragic hero who comes to grief because of flaws within his character. According to Kirschbaum, Othello is “understandably human—but he is not greatly noble.” R. N. Hallstead (1968) also attributes the murder to Othello's flawed disposition. The critic emphasizes the Moor's “idolatrous love,” arguing that Othello's descent into uncontrollable rage results from the fact that he cannot reconcile his idealized image of Desdemona with her sexuality. Piotr Sadowski (2003) applies psychological theory to the actions of Othello and finds him to be a “static personality” who requires accepted rules to guide his life. According to Sadowski, when the accepted rules are thrown into doubt, such as when he perceives that Desdemona has been unfaithful, Othello experiences extreme turmoil. Sadowski notes that Othello, like most static figures, demands that his sense of justice be satisfied, and realizes this through Desdemona's murder. Critics are also interested in the ambiguous and despicable character of Iago. Hugh Macrae Richmond (see Further Reading) maintains that Iago is the central character of Othello and that his self-awareness is the key dramatic device in the play. Estelle W. Taylor (1977) examines Iago as the initiator of the play's central irony: that illusion is mistaken for reality. The critic notes that Iago himself becomes victimized by this misconception, as do most of the other characters in Othello.
Despite the popularity of the Othello, commentators have been frequently disappointed with the play in performance. The play's stage history documents that few Othellos have emerged critically unscathed, and many prominent actors have been frustrated in their attempts to interpret the Moor's transition from noble commander to misled murderer. Geoffrey Bent (1998) analyzes the impact that different actors have had upon the play's meaning through their portrayals of Othello. Bent focuses on two motion-picture adaptations of Othello, from 1952 and 1995, and a filmed version of the 1964 National Theatre of Great Britain production. In his analysis of the three famed actors—Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, and Laurence Fishburne—Bent finds that Welles presented Othello as a sympathetic figure, Olivier played up the character's flaws and his race, and Fishburne oversimplified the general's complex emotions. Ray Fearon's portrayal of Othello in the 1999/2000 Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by Michael Attenborough received mixed reviews. Alastair Macaulay (2000) argues that although Fearon's performance as Othello was good, there was “no greatness about this Moor.” Macaulay reserves his highest praise for Aidan McArdle's Roderigo, who “listens better than most actors speak, and he speaks with absolutely characterful naturalness.” Similarly, Paul Taylor (see Further Reading) praises the production's energy but contends that Fearon was too young to be convincing in the role of Othello. Katherine Duncan-Jones (1999) also admires the liveliness and clarity of the staging, but finds the “assured and charismatic” performance of Fearon as Othello to be one of the highlights of the production.
Critics of Othello are particularly interested in the play's treatment of race. Martin Orkin (1987) considers attitudes toward race in England in the late 1500s and early 1600s and focuses on the way that Shakespeare treated the subject of race in Othello. Orkin concludes that the playwright opposed racism and argues that Shakespeare was “working consciously against the color prejudice” that is voiced by some characters in the play. A similar point is made by R. V. Young (2004), who claims that Othello “highlights the danger of racial categorization” by presenting a nonwhite protagonist who embodies both noble qualities and human vulnerability. In his 1987 essay, Anthony Gerard Barthelemy traces the transformation of Othello within the course of the play. The critic notes that although Othello begins as the antithesis of the stereotypical black characters presented on stage in the late 1500s and early 1600s, by the play's end Othello has tragically relapsed into “the stereotypical Moor.” Michael C. Andrews (1973) examines the significance of the handkerchief in the play. Andrews is particularly interested in the different accounts that Othello gives of the handkerchief's origins, maintaining that the first account is true and that the second account is false. The critic contends that Othello changes his story in order to downplay his superstitious beliefs, which would have been viewed negatively by the Venetians. In her feminist interpretation of Othello, Lynda E. Boose (see Further Reading) focuses on the bedroom murder scene. According to Boose, Othello shares elements with pornographic literature, particularly in its emphasis on voyeuristic watching and the way in which Desdemona is silenced by erotic violence.
Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Kirschbaum, Leo. “The Modern Othello.” ELH 11, no. 4 (December 1944): 283-96.
[In the following essay, Kirschbaum argues that many modern critics have misread Othello's character by viewing him as an essentially noble figure who is misled by others. Instead, Kirschbaum contends that Shakespeare intended Othello to be a tragically noble figure whose fate is attributable to his own character flaws.]
Is the Othello of modern critics Shakespeare's Othello?
Here are three representative opinions. To Sir Edmund Chambers, Othello is “the simple open-hearted soldier,” “a gracious and doomed creature” who is an “easy victim.”1 For Kittredge, he is “an heroic and simple nature, putting full trust in two friends, both of whom betray him, the one in angry malice, the other by weakness and self-seeking.”2 Stoll sees him as a very noble dramatic puppet who evinces no psychological consistency in his passage from love to sudden jealousy and who must fall because of the dramatic device that every one trusts the villain: Iago is Othello's nemesis.3
I do not think that this Othello is Shakespeare's Othello. I do not think that this is the Othello whom the judicious reader or spectator or actor sees. I do not think that this is the Othello whom an Elizabethan audience saw. Theodore Spencer is more cautious: “It is solely because...
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SOURCE: Hallstead, R. N. “Idolatrous Love: A New Approach to Othello.” Shakespeare Quarterly 19, no. 2 (spring 1968): 107-24.
[In the following essay, Hallstead examines Othello's “idolatrous love” for Desdemona and contends that Othello's descent into uncontrollable rage results from the fact that he cannot reconcile his idealized image of Desdemona with her sexuality.]
A critical appreciation of Othello should above all make clear that Othello is himself the tragic hero of the play. Critics since late in the seventeenth century have, however, found it difficult to achieve any such end. Either Iago, as anti-hero, emerges as the main character in the play, or Othello, as hero, is considered to be a ranting, murderous barbarian of limited intelligence. Any such errors, or variants of them, destroy the artistic integrity of the play and reduce one of Shakespeare's greatest accomplishments to a failure. Yet such errors almost inevitably result when the critic fails to see, however dimly, what the play is about.
Othello is the story of an idolatrous love which comes to an inevitable tragic end; the hero is a man of tragic stature who loved “not wisely but too well”. After the consummation of his marriage, Othello, as Iago points out and as he himself confesses, makes Desdemona the source of purpose, meaning, and value in his life. This is...
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SOURCE: Taylor, Estelle W. “The Ironic Equation in Shakespeare's Othello: Appearances Equal Reality.” CLA Journal 21, no. 2 (December 1977): 202-11.
[In the following essay, Taylor examines Iago as the initiator of the play's central irony: that illusion is mistaken for reality. The critic notes that Iago himself becomes victimized by this misconception, as do most of the other characters in Othello.]
Shakespeare rivals the Greek playwrights in the extent to which he is able to show man grappling with, trying to understand or capitalize on, conquer or evade the ironies of life. He was endowed with the genius to use with the greatest effectiveness, especially in the tragedies of Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, combinations of ironic devices: dramatic irony, irony of expression, irony of situation. What is so striking, however, what makes each of these tragedies “work” century after century, for a variety of actors and audiences, is the forceful manner in which he succeeds in revealing the very souls of his characters pitted against the greatest irony of all: man's tendency, almost child-like helplessness, willingness and need to accept shadow for substance, illusion for reality. Through his genius Shakespeare convinces us that often man destroys himself and others by accepting for a fact or a reality that which is only an imitation, that which insinuates itself for the...
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SOURCE: Barthelemy, Anthony Gerard, ed. “Ethiops Washed White: Moors of the Nonvillainous Type.” In Critical Essays on Shakespeare's Othello, pp. 91-103. New York: G.K. Hall, 1994.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1987, Barthelemy traces the transformation of Othello within the course of the play. The critic notes that although Othello begins as the antithesis of the stereotypical black characters presented on stage in the late 1500s and early 1600s, by the play's end Othello has tragically relapsed into “the stereotypical Moor.”]
I kiss the instrument of their pleasures.
—William Shakespeare, Othello
During the seventeenth century, a few black characters appeared on the stage who, against their nature and kind, demonstrated that virtue stood not completely out of their reach. However, like their female counterparts, these virtuous few are clearly derived from the more commonly represented stereotype of the villainous Moor and are, more accurately, versions of that type rather than absolute departures from it. By demonstrating virtue, these few honest Moors offer further validation of the more common, harmful, and denigrating representations of black Moors because they prove that it is possible to resist the call of evil, though most unusual.
The earliest nonvillainous Moors to appear on the stage were Morocco in...
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SOURCE: Sadowski, Piotr. “Othello.” In Dynamism of Character in Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies, pp. 164-82. Newark, N.J.: University of Delaware Press, 2003.
[In the following excerpt, Sadowski applies psychological theory to the actions of Othello and finds him to be a “static personality” who requires accepted rules to guide his life. Sadowski notes that Othello, like most static figures, demands that his sense of justice be satisfied, and realizes this through Desdemona's murder.]
The main tragic protagonists in Othello and King Lear are static characters of heroic proportions who experience a profound mental crisis caused by a disintegration of values and norms, which before the crisis ensure the stability and balance of their characters and behavior. As I noted earlier in relation to other static if less heroic characters such as Laertes, Horatio, or Ophelia, static people are generally well adapted to particular circumstances of life, as long as they can follow the rules that they have accepted as guidelines for their behavior. These rules are of course subject to cultural and historical change, but what is unchangeable in the behavior of static people is their usually uncritical, unquestioning, and often rigid adherence to whatever rules and norms are laid down for them in a particular sociocultural context. Thus for old Hamlet the moral guidelines are provided by the...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Bent, Geoffrey. “Three Green-eyed Monsters: Acting as Applied Criticism in Shakespeare's Othello.” Antioch Review 56, no. 3 (summer 1998): 358-73.
[In the following essay, Bent focuses on two motion-picture adaptations of Othello, from 1952 and 1995, and a filmed version of the 1964 National Theatre of Great Britain production. The critic analyzes the impact that different actors have had on the play's meaning through their portrayals of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona.]
“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey'd monster which doth mock The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger; But, O, what damned minutes tells he o'er Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!”
Although the end result of an actor's labor is called an “interpretation,” the scholarly dimensions of that word are rarely intended. If someone wants to know what a Shakespearean play is “about,” they turn to heavily footnoted dissertations in university journals. Scholars seem sage, while actors are compromised by their greasepaint and fright wigs.
But, as a hermeneutic, acting shares many of the virtues of scholarship and even adds a few to the pile. While the academic critic can occasionally bolster an outlandish interpretation with a few quotes taken out of context, an actor is forced to make his...
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SOURCE: Duncan-Jones, Katherine. “Circling the Square.” Times Literary Supplement (14 May 1999): 13.
[In the following excerpted review of the 1999 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Othello directed by Michael Attenborough, Duncan-Jones praises the liveliness and clarity of the production, particularly the “assured and charismatic” performance of Ray Fearon as Othello.]
The play [Othello] opens as a lively Jonsonian comedy, with the fascinatingly manipulative Iago running rings round the idiotic Roderigo (Aidan McArdle, something of a Roberto Benigni lookalike). As in a Jonson comedy, the audience are given no emotional option but to respond to the trickster's juicy cleverness. Then the play rapidly becomes a different kind of comedy: the kind in which, in the face of fierce parental opposition, a young couple in love are allowed to marry. This Othello is by no means “descended / into the vale of years”, and a few lines have had to be cut to accommodate his youthfulness. But the thirty-one-year-old Ray Fearon's performance is so assured and charismatic, and his verse-speaking so consistently excellent, that in practice little seems to be lost. A surprising consequence of his assurance is that race seems scarcely an issue. This Othello has poise, control, natural authority, and an instinctive ability to impress the middle-aged men in grey suits here known as the Venetian...
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SOURCE: Macaulay, Alastair. “Much to Love about Othello as It Comes to London.” Financial Times (10 January 2000): 16.
[In the following review of the 2000 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Othello directed by Michael Attenborough, Macaulay praises the production, noting that although Ray Fearon's performance as Othello was good, there was “no greatness about this Moor.”]
I love the way that Shakespeare's plays are never just “about” one thing. Even when there is not a double plot, each single plot contains its own several strands. Othello is about race; about jealousy; about malice; about motive … so that, while we watch all these things coming together in the great scenes between Othello and Iago, we see a single situation from multiple angles.
And Shakespeare keeps turning his focus on every other character: on Desdemona sighing “O, these men, these men!”, on Cassio's affair with the temperamental Bianca, on the duped and fretful Roderigo, on the mettlesome Emilia, gossiping to her mistress about the handsome Lodovico (“I know a lady in Venice would have walk'd bare-foot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip.”)
In the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Othello—which has just arrived in London—it is easy to love all this about the play and more. The production (set about 100 years ago in Robert...
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SOURCE: Gleiberman, Owen. “O.” Entertainment Weekly, nos. 612-13 (7 September 2001): 132-33.
[In the following review of the 2001 film adaptation O, set in a contemporary prep school, Gleiberman contends that the movie captures the mood and emotions of Shakespeare's play but that it fails to reach the level of true tragedy.]
Doing a Shakespeare play without the pesky inconvenience of Shakespeare's language sounds a bit like trying to drive a car without gasoline. Add to that the prospect of Othello set within the confines of an elite Southern prep school, complete with up-and-coming Hollywood stars making the Bard “relevant” for a new multiculti millennium, and the whole thing, at a glance, may look as if it reeks of opportunism, of the ultimate in cynically chic teen-niche pandering. The first thing to say about O, therefore, is that the movie doesn't just appropriate characters and situations from Othello, updating them to the gossipy hothouse atmosphere of a contemporary high school. To an astonishing degree, O gets the tragic Shakespeare mood, that somber stentorian passion born of hidden slivers of ambition and betrayal.
Some of the movie, admittedly, is labored. Minus the treacherous eloquence of Shakespeare's words, the business of the stolen handkerchief now plays like the hoariest of hoary devices. Yet the central triangle...
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SOURCE: Andrews, Michael C. “Honest Othello: The Handkerchief Once More.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 13, no. 2 (spring 1973): 273-84.
[In the following essay, Andrews examines the different accounts that Othello gives of the handkerchief's origins in Othello, maintaining that the first account is true and that the second account is false. The critic contends that Othello changes his story in order to downplay his superstitious beliefs, which would have been viewed negatively by the Venetians.]
The fact that Othello gives two different versions of the history of the fatal handkerchief has, predictably, not passed unnoticed.1 In his first and more elaborate account (III.iv.53ff.), Othello tells Desdemona that the handkerchief is a love-controling talisman his mother received from an Egyptian “charmer”:
she told her, while she kept it 'Twould make her amiable, and subdue my father Entirely to her love: but if she lost it, Or made a present of it, my father's eye Should hold her loathly, and his spirits should hunt After new fancies: she dying, gave it me, And bid me, when my fate would have me wive To give it her; I did so, and take heed on't, Make it a darling, like your precious eye, To lose, or give't away, were such perdition As nothing else could match.
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SOURCE: Orkin, Martin. “Othello and the ‘Plain Face’ of Racism.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38, no. 2 (summer 1987): 166-88.
[In the following essay, Orkin considers attitudes toward race in England at the time Othello was written, focusing on the way that Shakespeare treated the subject and concluding that the playwright opposed racism. Orkin also offers a survey of other critics' opinions of the play's treatment of race and pays particular attention to the way Othello has been received in South Africa.]
Solomon T. Plaatje did not come to Shakespeare's plays with the same perspective as those held, no doubt, by most of his contemporary counterparts within the white ruling group of South Africa. But he responded to significant aspects of Shakespeare more reliably than they. Plaatje, who translated several of the works, including Othello, into Tswana, observed that “Shakespeare's dramas … show that nobility and valour, like depravity and cowardice, are not the monopoly of any colour.”1
Before Plaatje's time, Othello had been, during the nineteenth century, one of the most popular plays at the Cape. But a personal advertisement taken out before an 1836 performance suggests the gulf that lay between Plaatje's sentiment and what is likely to have been the opinion of inhabitants in 1836:
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SOURCE: Young, R. V. “The Bard, the Black, the Jew.” First Things, no. 141 (March 2004): 22-8.
[In the following essay, Young argues that Othello “highlights the danger of racial categorization” by presenting a nonwhite protagonist who embodies both noble qualities and human vulnerability.]
More than any other writer, Shakespeare embodies the distinctive principles of Western Civilization. Men and women of the West are drawn to Shakespeare because his plays and poems continue to express their aspirations, to articulate their concerns, and to confront the tensions and contradictions in the Western vision itself. He is admired not as an uncritical encomiast of his own culture and society, but rather as an exemplum of the spirit—both critical and conservative—that is among the West's most enduring legacies to the world. It is, therefore, no surprise that academic literary critics, who owe their very existence to Shakespeare and other great writers, have cast doubt upon Shakespeare's exalted position at exactly the moment in history when the societies of the West have become most anxious about their own integrity and probity.
No issue has proven more vexatious than race in the assessment of the moral stature of Western Civilization. The drive toward multiculturalism, which is especially vigorous in the academic world, rests on the proposition that the culture of the West,...
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Boose, Lynda E. “‘Let it be Hid’: The Pornographic Aesthetic of Shakespeare's Othello.” In New Casebooks: Othello, edited by Lena Cowen Orlin, pp. 22-48. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Argues that Othello shares elements with pornographic literature, noting the play's emphasis on voyeuristic watching and the way in which Desdemona is silenced by erotic violence.
Hays, Michael L. “Othello: Courtly Love and Chivalric Justice.” In Shakespearean Tragedy as Chivalric Romance: Rethinking Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, pp. 155-90. Cambridge, U.K.: D.S. Brewer, 2003.
Maintains that Othello belongs to the genre of romance and that its protagonist's actions can best be understood by viewing him as a chivalric knight—“a fighter for state and church, for justice and faith, and a lover.”
Nordlund, Marcus. “Theorising Early Modern Jealousy: A Biocultural Perspective on Shakespeare's Othello.” Studia Neophilologica 74, no. 2 (2002): 146-60.
Discusses the representation of jealousy in Othello.
Richmond, Hugh Macrae. “The Audience's Role in Othello.” In Othello: New Critical Essays, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 89-101. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Emphasizes the manner in...
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