One of Shakespeare’s best known tragedies, Othello is perhaps his most intense. With virtually no subplot and very little in the way of comic relief, Othello moves rapidly from its opening lines to its tragic conclusion.
At its simplest, it is a story of love and betrayal. The esteemed Moorish general serving in the army of Venice, Othello has eloped with fair Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator. Iago, Othello’s ensign and confidant who has been passed over for promotion, harbors a deep and insidious hatred for Othello; clever and manipulative, he brings about Othello’s downfall by deceiving him in regard to Desdemona’s virtue. While appearing trustworthy and loyal, the envious Iago carefully crafts a web of lies and false evidence to convince Othello that Desdemona is carrying on an adulterous affair with Michael Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant.
The seeds of jealousy planted by Iago take root quickly and flourish, fed by Othello’s own deep-seated insecurities. His faith in Desdemona—and in himself—cannot stand under the weight of Iago’s malevolent machinations; he soon accepts Iago’s lies as truth. Eventually overcome by grief and the rage of betrayal, Othello smothers Desdemona with a pillow, despite her desperate declarations of innocence. It is a chilling scene, evoking pity and leading to even more tragedy: Othello’s devastation when he realizes that Desdemona had never wavered in her love and her loyalty to him. Discovering Iago’s monstrous villainy, Othello commits suicide, and his destruction is complete.
As in other Shakespearean plays, the setting, the language, and the cultural conventions in Othello may seem foreign or remote, but the themes remain as true and as relevant to a modern audience as they were to Shakespeare’s in the early 1600s. The drama raises questions about human nature that transcend time and place. The naïve and vulnerable often suffer at the hands of the unscrupulous, and jealousy remains as potent an emotional force today as it was in Shakespeare’s time. Moreover, in the dark-skinned Othello’s love for the fair-skinned Desdemona and in her love for him, the nature and the effects of racial prejudice and stereotyping develop a subtext in the tragedy that also speaks to a universal audience.
The relevance and enduring appeal of Othello is demonstrated by its great many artistic adaptations—in film, opera, television productions, and ballet. Audiences continue to be fascinated by Shakespeare’s Moor, watching in dismay as the courageous, noble general and loving husband is transformed into a raving murderer, consumed beyond reason by jealousy. The drama continues to evoke a variety of interpretations, as well. Those familiar with the work, especially literary critics, often disagree about the extent to which Othello is a victim and about the depth of his honor and naïveté. The character of Iago also elicits much literary analysis. The driving force behind his hatred is implied—the desire for revenge fueled by envy—but it is not treated explicitly. Most critics agree that Iago’s essential motivation
remains something of a mystery. He appears to be a pitiless embodiment of evil for its own sake, one whose wickedness cannot be assigned a rational explanation. A playwright who plumbed the depths and complexities of human nature, Shakespeare created in Othello characters that continue to defy definitive interpretation. At the conclusion of the tragedy, much remains for the audience to ponder.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify Othello’s fatal flaw, and explain how Iago exploited it.
2. Identify the primary themes in Othello.
3. Determine what makes Othello such a timeless and popular work.
4. Explain Othello’s status as an outsider and an insider in Venetian society and how that status is central to the plot.
5. Identify examples of deception in the text, and explain their significance.
6. Discuss elements of ambiguity in the play and Shakespeare’s possible intentions regarding them.