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.