Othello (ca. 1604) is generally considered to be one of Shakespeare's finest dramatic works. The play, a character-driven domestic tragedy of jealousy and deception, is set in Venice and Cyprus and recounts how the Venetian general Othello falls victim to the treachery of his ensign Iago. 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. In Shakespeare's version, Othello, after blindly succumbing to the diabolic machinations of his trusted standard-bearer Iago, quickly descends into enraged jealousy, falsely believing that his lieutenant Cassio has had a sexual affair with Desdemona, his innocent wife. Othello later smothers Desdemona, and then falls on his own sword when Iago's nefarious scheming comes to light. Commentators, actors, and directors have generally been drawn to the fascinating figures of Iago, the quintessential Shakespearean villain whose murky motivations for evil have remained elusive; Desdemona, a complex amalgam of feminine submissiveness and willful determination; and Othello, possessed of intriguing qualities ranging from his status as an exotic “Other” to his tragic propensity for self-deception. These figures have largely shaped modern critical assessments of the drama.
Character-centered study of Othello has long been the centerpiece of scholarly interest, with each of the drama's three principal figures—Othello, Iago, and Desdemona—eliciting some share of critical examination. Twentieth-century criticism of Othello's character has commonly emphasized the Moor's status as an exotic “Other” within the contexts of the racially heterogeneous Venetian society depicted in Shakespeare's drama. Albert Gerard (1957) opts for a moral understanding of Othello that highlights his anti-intellectual or “barbarian” nature. According to Gerard, the Moorish general, although a noble figure, lacks the full capacity for self-knowledge and moral wisdom necessary to avert tragedy; thus he is the perfect victim of Iago's cynical intrigues. Gerard insists that even at the play's conclusion Othello fails to attain an adequate intellectual awareness of his moral deficiencies. Millicent Bell (2002) concentrates on Othello's self-doubt as conditioned by the racialistic social world in which he exists. In Bell's view, Othello, as a black converted Christian recently married to a white woman, ultimately suffers from his inability to completely assimilate into a community that deems him a racial outsider. Turning to Iago, Leah Scragg (1968) maintains that the stage ancestry of this generally despicable character derives from dramatic representations of the Devil, rather than from the allegorical figure of Vice, a staple player in the medieval morality play tradition. Scragg argues that far from being an ambiguously motivated, amoral role, Shakespeare's consummate villain bears affinities to the Christian dark angel, a merciless seducer of souls driven by a cosmological desire for revenge. Addressing the last of the central triad of characters in Othello, Emily C. Bartels (1996) offers a feminist assessment of Desdemona's assertive qualities, explicating her impulse to question and destabilize the repressive hierarchy of patriarchal social order in the drama. According to Bartels, this defining aspect of Desdemona's character is one that traditional, male-oriented criticism of the play has tended to circumvent, obscure, or ignore.
Othello has had a sustained appeal among audiences, perhaps due to its decidedly human themes and potent, domestic intimacy, and remains one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays. The problem of successfully realizing its multifaceted characters and balancing the diverse issues raised in the play, however, has made the task of staging an entirely satisfying production an elusive one. Doug Hughes's 2001 production at New York City's Public Theater received mixed reviews. Ben Brantley (2001) finds the dramatic power of Liev Schreiber's near-psychopathic Iago to be the central element of this production and contends that no one else in the cast “comes close to matching Mr. Schreiber's playful interpretive intelligence.” Barbara D. Phillips (2001) likewise praises Schreiber, and observes that his star performance as Iago tended to highlight the deficiencies of the remaining members of the cast, including those of Keith David, whose representation of Othello she deems less compelling. In another review of Hughes's production, Charles Isherwood (2001) offers a complementary estimation. Acknowledging the “confident grasp of Schreiber's bewitching Iago,” Isherwood describes how the actor was able to draw audiences into a circle of complicity with his evil acts. The critic additionally stresses the manner in which stage and lighting effects served to illuminate Schreiber's mesmerizing power. Other commentators, however, found the emphasis on Othello's spiteful ensign less appealing. Michael Feingold (2001) records flashes of brilliance from Schreiber, but nevertheless finds that his impassive rendition of Iago “lacks credibility.” Feingold deems Keith David's Othello the better of the two character interpretations, although he does contend that David could not sustain his stately, moving, and dignified performance evenly throughout the evening. John Simon (2001) offers the most negative review of the staging, suggesting that the responsibility for its limitations rests solidly with director Doug Hughes, whose casting and interpretive decisions, he claims, obscured the tragic grandeur of Shakespeare's drama, burying its loftier, philosophical qualities among the sordidness of domestic drama.
Contemporary assessments of the thematic issues raised in Othello have included the play's representation of race symbolized by Othello's dark skin, the elements of wonder and spectacle embodied in Desdemona's lost handkerchief, and the linguistic subversion found in Iago's masterful manipulation of language. Race and colonialism figure prominently in Thorell Porter Tsomondo's (1999) new historicist estimation of the drama, which underscores a narrative dislocation of Othello as “Other,” an outsider displaced from Venetian norms by language, skin color, geography, and ideology. While exploring the racial dynamics at work in Othello, Edward Washington (1997) nevertheless focuses on the drama as a tragedy of misinterpreted signs, locating Othello's culpability for his own downfall in his reliance on a coded system of gestures and images, rather than on the underlying truths they represent. Paul Yachnin (1996) and Andrew Sofer (1997) concentrate on the symbolic and thematic resonance of Desdemona's handkerchief in Othello. Stolen by Iago and later produced as proof of her infidelity, the handkerchief is a fetishized commodity in Yachnin's reading, capable of eliciting wonder and ultimately violence. For Sofer, the handkerchief embodies a broad spectrum of thematic functions in the play, designating an interlocking chain of signification that includes witchcraft, sexuality, jealousy, revenge, murder, inconstancy, and falsified evidence. A prop as metaphor, the handkerchief ties together the drama's leading motifs as well as drawing attention to its own theatricality, Sofer concludes. Linguistic signification is the subject of Lucille P. Fultz's (1997) essay, which considers Iago's skillful manipulation of language to orchestrate the deaths of Othello and Desdemona. For Fultz, verbal seduction—a desire for power achieved through language—is a basic thematic component of the drama, one embodied by Iago in each of his relationships with fellow characters. Lastly, Thomas Moisan (2002) considers the role of the Venetian state in shaping the characters and tragic outcome of the play.