(Shakespearean Criticism)


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.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Tsomondo, Thorell Porter. “Stage-Managing ‘Otherness’: The Function of Narrative in Othello.Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 32, no. 2 (June 1999): 1-25.

[In the following essay, Tsomondo analyzes the narrative and dramatic strategies of Othello, concentrating on the construction of Othello as “Other” in terms of its implications within the play and for Shakespeare's canonical status in the postcolonial epoch.]

New historicist and postcolonial research has lent to narratology's concern with voice and location of voice a heightened awareness of the sociopolitical as well as ideological functions of narrative discourse and the ways that literary texts inscribe and exploit these functions. In Hayden White's view, narrative is “not merely a neutral discursive form that may or may not be used to represent real events … but rather entails ontological and epistemic choices with distinct ideological and even specifically political implications” (ix). More concretely, Foucault's Discipline and Punish, and Said's Culture and Imperialism, draw critical attention not only to the sociopolitical and psychic dimensions of narrative discourse but to questions of power relations that inform narrative structures and practices.

Although Shakespeare's Othello is a dramatic rather than a narrative work—or perhaps because it is drama in which racially-turned narrative performance is conspicuously, structurally staged—the play offers a fascinating, if unusual, site for examining narrative production and use. The plot in itself is simple enough: Othello, a General in the Venetian army and a Moor, secretly weds Desdemona, the young daughter of a Venetian senator. Iago, Othello's ensign, beguiles him into believing that Desdemona has been adulterous with the lieutenant, Cassio, and in a jealous rage, Othello murders Desdemona. The period in which the play was written—the Elizabethan age of exploration and colonial expansion, a time of shifting geographic boundaries and of unprecedented cross-cultural transaction—has already attracted considerable attention on the part of theorists concerned with the constitution of institutionalized sociopolitical structures and the textualization of these structures, as well as those concerned with modes and processes of literary representation and the ideological and rhetorical tensions that it necessarily inscribes. What needs more attention, however, is how these features are concretely conjoined in a work like Othello and how this play makes a unique contribution to our understanding of the politics and poetics of the Elizabethan period.

Thus in the following essay, I want to focus on the significance of the narrative/dramatic strategies that Shakespeare employs in Othello, arguing that these strategies subtly distinguish and operate along the geographic, political, and cultural boundaries that the play's Renaissance world stage draws. With a view to showing how the contrastive interplay of these generic techniques enacts the ideological accountability of narrative functions in general as well as of Shakespeare's manipulation of these functions, I will first analyze Shakespeare's use of these formal literary devices in the play to create a thematics of absence/presence that comments tellingly on Othello's dubious identity in Renaissance society. Then, I will elaborate on Shakespeare's procedure by linking it to the dynamics of fiction-making in general, going on to explore what his particular construction of Othello reveals about his poetic agenda. Finally, I will expand my argument to explore relations of power in imperialist culture and the signs of this power in Shakespeare's art and canonic status. In this way, I wish to demonstrate not only how Shakespeare's schizoid casting of the Moor as, at once, central subject and marginalized object reflects colonial power relations but also how the play's colonializing instrumentality extends beyond the literary text and pertains to Shakespeare scholarship and criticism of the play as well.

In the last scene of Othello, the protagonist, aware of how he has been duped by Iago, is confined with the corpse of his wife whom he has just murdered; the time seems to have come finally for what Othello has not yet done: self-examination in the heroic tradition of Shakespearean tragedy. Though Othello's predicament is markedly different from that of Richard II, one might expect that like Richard he would study how to “compare this prison … unto the world,” and engage in setting “the word itself against the word” (5.5.1-14). Given his knowledge of Desdemona's innocence—the sight of “the tragic loading of this bed”—and the realization that he has been nothing more than a comic actor in Iago's deadly play, one might have expected Othello to be teased into thoughts of the kind that Macbeth utters upon hearing of the death of his wife:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
… Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


Macbeth's aside, indeed, captures the meaning that Iago has imposed on Othello's life and what must have seemed to Othello to be the significance of his life as he gazes on its deadly outcome.

Othello, however, has no capacity for reflection of this kind, either in personal or general humanistic terms. Faced with the tragic results of his poor judgment, he musters an audience and, predictably, tells another story: “I have seen the day / That with this little arm, and this good sword, / I have made my way …” (5.2.261-63). Earlier, goaded into believing that Desdemona is guilty of adultery, he disintegrated into apoplectic incoherence: “Lie with her? lie on her? We say lie on her, when they belie her … Handkerchief—confessions—handkerchief—… Pish! Noses, ears, and lips…’ (4.1.36-42). When faced with similarly disillusioning circumstance, Hamlet (though it is highly unlikely that he could be tricked by Iago) protested:

… O God, God,
How [weary], stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't, Ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come [to this]!
But [two days married], nay, not so much, not two.
Let me not think on't! Frailty, thy name is woman!


Though one cannot applaud Macbeth's oblique assessment of his dilemma nor endorse Hamlet's misogyny, one is aware that their commentaries represent stages in their moral and intellectual delineation. The closest Othello comes to soliloquizing in the vein characteristic of Shakespeare's tragic heroes is in his paranoiac(ally) telescoped aside:

Haply for I am black,
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberes have, or for I am declin'd
Into the vale of years (yet that's not much),
She's gone. I am abus'd and my relief
Must be to loathe her.


In these lines, Othello's insuppressible urge to tell his story points not inward to a heightened consciousness but outward to the narrative signs of his insecurity.

Othello (1604) was written four years after Hamlet, one year before King Lear and two years before Macbeth, the three plays with which it is usually ranked. Yet Othello is not invested with any of the self-searching, self-revelatory monologues that endow Shakespeare's tragic heroes with their special poignancy. Othello does not experience those ennobling moments when with lyric intensity the protagonist faces a personal crisis and gains and imparts insight into self and the vicissitudes of human life. In Shakespeare, the soliloquy is one means of bringing the hero closer to the audience; it magnifies and at the same time humanizes him. Lear's self-excoriating “unaccommodated man,” Hamlet's benumbing “heartache and the thousand natural shocks / that flesh is heir to,” Macbeth's sobering “brief candle,” all involve their audiences in moments of intense moral reckoning and philosophic contemplation.

Notably, in Othello, instead of the Moor, it is Iago, his white ensign, who is given to self-communing and his primary role is to diminish, through calculated psychic violence, Othello's humanity. As part of this function, Iago's privileged soliloquizing installs him between the protagonist and the audience even as it signalizes his own impressive intellectual capabilities and psychological astuteness. With this edge, Iago interprets, manipulates, even forecasts the hero's thought and actions for the audience, flattening the character, rendering increasingly evanescent verbal profundities like those allowed to Hamlet and Lear. Othello himself, in contrast, is limited to retailing his history, telling stories about his past exploits.

The predominance of narrative in Othello, that is “the presence of a story and a storyteller” (Scholes & Kellog 4), distinguishes the play and, in turn, has prompted much critical dispute, which inevitably turns on Othello's verbal proclivities and therefore his character. In a well-documented critical dialogue, when A. C. Bradley defined Othello as a poetic romantic victimized by Iago's “absolute egoism” (179), T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis respectively responded by describing Othello as someone given to “dramatizing himself” (111) and as doomed by his own “noble,” “brutal egoism” (146). More recently, Stephen Greenblatt has described Othello as self-fashioner of an “identity” that is dependent upon “constant performance … of his story” (81); Martin Elliott, in turn, has noted what he sees as a “habit of self-publication” (108), and Valerie Traub has argued that Othello essentially becomes a “signifier only of another signifier” (36). James Calderwood goes even so far as to suggest that Othello's preoccupation with storytelling comes close to jeopardizing the drama: “For a moment we seem on the edge of an Arabian Nights infinite regression of stories: Shakespeare's dramatic story yields to Othello's senatorial story, which disappears into stories of cannibals and Anthropophagy which might disappear into. … But fortunately they do not” (294). While these assessments accord with the play's own depiction of Othello's “bumbast circumstance / Horribly stuff'd with epithites of war” (1.1.13-14), in doing so they also point to a number of questions that need to be asked of Othello and its author. Why this yielding to the narrative impulse in this drama? Why in this play more than in any other is Shakespeare's dramatic art in danger of being upstaged by the characters' storytelling? What necessary dramatic function does narrative serve in Othello?

Drama and narrative are not, of course, mutually exclusive generic provinces, and Derrida's observation that a text may participate in more than one genre—thereby not belonging to any one specifically (61)—seems particularly applicable to Shakespeare. Harold Bloom, indeed, rates Shakespeare as one of the “great originals among the world's strongest authors” on the grounds that he “violates known forms”: “Shakespeare wrote five-act dramas for stage presentation, yet Shakespeare wrote no genre. What … is Troilus and Cressida? It is comedy, history, tragedy, satire, yet none of these singly and more than all of them together” (18). While one could similarly ask whether Othello is drama or narrative singly or more than both combined, and while it is true that Shakespeare resists generic prescriptives, one also needs to bear in mind that “violation of forms” does not erase form, and that there can be no infringement where there are no boundaries. Todorov's solution is to regard theory of genre as “hypothesis” or proposition merely; he maintains that study of literary works from a generic viewpoint will “discover a principle operative in a number of texts rather than what is specific about each of them” and that the best procedure is to begin by “presenting our own point of departure” (1,19-20).

For my purposes, then, a helpful starting point is Robert Scholes's contrastive definition of the two genres: “drama is presence in time and space; narrative is past, always past” (206; emphasis mine). Because narrating can take place only in the “once upon a time” of the story that it relates, in the dramatic here and now of the play, the staged present of the tale that Othello tells about himself is not the events he recounts or the “self” he re-creates but the act of narration. This act or role directs attention to past events and to a protagonist (the hero of his narrative) whose experiences are framed in an earlier time than stage time, the time of the narrating, and in unfamiliar, distant locations. Interpreted in this context, Scholes's definition may be reworded thus: narrative is a sign of absence, whereas drama is a sign of presence. To some extent, then, drama and narrative could work at cross-purposes. And when, as in Othello, narrative is woven extensively into the dramatic work, the significance of Scholes's “time” and “space” translates into stage-time and stage-space and thereby into commentary on the play's dramatic representation.

In Othello, the “pastness” which narrative re-presents, functions as a “distancing” device which enables Shakespeare to locate the Moor or alien on the Elizabethan stage and by extension in the European community. Through juggling of narrative and dramatic devices, Shakespeare is able to manipulate stage time and space so that much of the action that defines the protagonist is located offstage, outside the cultural and geographical purviews of the Elizabethan audience, in revealing contradistinction to his central, heroic stage position. Thereby the playwright renders largely innocuous the threatening or “undramatizable” elements of his material he displaces them into the storied realms of distant lands and times. Just as within the play the Turks' diversionary military tactics are described as “a pageant / to keep us in false gaze” (1.3.18-19), so there may be something deceptively seductive about Shakespeare's recourse to narrative strategies.

In the terms used by critics to define Othello's self-expression—“self-fashioner,” “self-publication,” “signifier … of another signifier,” “disappearing” stories, “bumbast”—one can detect a tacit articulation of a sense of lack or absence, and at the heart of this absence and lending it validity is Othello's blackness. It is this otherness that necessitates and gives impetus to his narrative “I am” and correspondingly to his individuated expansive rhetoric, just as conversely it is Shylock's otherness that induces his startlingly callous economy of speech. According to Greenblatt, “the telling of the story of one's life—the conception of one's life as a story—is a response to public inquiry: to the demands of the Senate sitting in judgment, or at least to the presence of an inquiring community” (42; emphasis mine). Othello's self-declarative stories, however, register less his presence than they do a palpable absence. This dilemma is due in part to the nature and utility of narrative itself. It is Othello's awareness of his cultural disconnectedness that makes his narrative performance necessary. At the same time, it is this awareness that further cultivates and intensifies the very sense of discontinuity that his story attempts to dispel—the story can be told from the beginning, his childhood, but only up to the point at which he is required to tell it. So, Othello must repeat his history later for Desdemona and later still for the Senate in a seemingly endless effort to establish an identity. In this light he is, for the most part, a potential presence only, his dramatic contextualization, his presence, being seriously undermined by his narrative (dis)position.

In an attempt to fix this problematic characterization, Leslie Fiedler makes a telling remark: “mythologically speaking, Othello is really black only before we see him; after his first appearance [on the stage], he is archetypally white, though a stranger still, as long as he remains in Venice: a stranger in blackface” (185). Since the dramatic tension throughout the work rests upon Othello's blackness, Fiedler's comment also raises questions about representation. Is the “lascivious Moor”—“the old black ram” with “thick lips”—of Scene 1 indeed transformed into and replaced by a disguised European in Scene 2? Does the audience, or rather can the audience, dispel the scathing image of blackness so pointedly drawn in the first scene when the disguised “white” Othello later enters the stage? Or does the audience, cognizant of the essential discrepancy, merely sit back and enjoy the power of dramatic irony?

What Fiedler reads as the substitution of identities—familiar for strange—is a strategic stage dislocation: a shift in the Moor's figurenposition, as Robert Weiman terms “the actor's position on the stage and the speech, action, and degree of stylization associated with that position” (224). The shift in Othello's figurenposition is from a narrativised presentation in Scene 1 to a dramatic representation in Scene 2, in other words, from a figural absence to a symbolic presence. The play between these two modes of enactment creates the ironic illusion of the color-coded color blindness that Fiedler's statement describes: black and white being interchangeable, racial difference is neutralized; Shakespeare is vindicated. In the debate about Othello's color, Fiedler takes his place among those critics who abstract the sign of Othello's presence and name it “white.” The early scenes of the drama invite this interpretation by splitting the character into competing fragments: a narrativised (alien) half and a dramatized (familiar) counterpart. Besides, this interpretation is necessary if the tragedy of a noble-mind-in-a-black-body corrupted by a black-mind-in-a-noble-body is to work.

The question of race continues to be a vexed one in Othello criticism. In her study, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama, Ania Loomba points out that whereas there has been controversy about Othello's ethnicity, there has been no debate concerning the racial identity of Aaron the Moor of Titus Andronicus; Aaron, “unlike Othello,” corresponds easily to “the stereotype of black wickedness, lust and malignity”—he, as well as other characters repeatedly link his intractably evil nature to his “physical features” (46). In an essay titled “Race,” Kwame Appiah cautions against attributing such bias to Shakespeare's works since, he argues, in Elizabethan England Jews and Moors were hardly an “empirical reality”; stereotypes were based largely on the non-Christian standing of these ethnic groups, not on experience of them (277).

Some critics, however, see things differently, arguing that Elizabethans had access to much more than inherited theological beliefs. Eldred Jones, for example, marshals a wealth of research data to support his contention that factual information concerning peoples of Africa was available: classical historical documents, popular digests, and eyewitness “accounts of actual sea voyages and land travels” (1). Noting as well that black slaves were introduced into England as early as 1554, several years before John Hawkins's first voyage (15-16), Jones concludes that Othello derives from “conflicting material” from various sources (14). Similarly, Jack D'Amico traces a “Moroccan connection” of extensive trade and diplomacy between England and Morocco from circa 1550-1603; as he sees it, Othello represents the sum of Elizabethan images of the Moor as “everything” from the noble to the monstrous, and that in creating him Shakespeare explores the inherent contradictions (177-96).

In addition to “conflicting material” and complexity of issue, it is likely that, given his subject matter, Shakespeare had to deal also with his own divided impulses regarding Africans. His extended deployment of narrative in a dramatic work and the tension created by the dynamics of the two generic modes may be evidence of this division. Of course, shifting perspectives is nothing new in his art. John Keats lauds as “Negative Capability” this quality in Shakespeare. John Bayley sees as a mark of genius the irresolution and reserve that characterize the dramatist's works (15). Herman Melville identifies Shakespeare as a master “of the great Art of Telling the Truth” “not so much for what” the playwright “did do as for what he did not do, or refrained from doing” (65-66). However, unsettledness and reticence do not signify neutrality, and in the case of Othello, moreover, we have the kind of social and political baggage that has a charged ideological resonance in whatever context the subject appears and by whomever it is addressed.

Through the narrative/dramatic strategies that Shakespeare employs, Othello reveals, among divided impulses and motives, some instructive exclusions, emphases, and suppressions. Othello's initial introduction to the audience takes place in his absence and in the form of gossip between Iago and Roderigo. This gossip may be likened to the third person narrative point of view which voyeuristically creates the character it describes. Shakespeare's use of this means of introducing Othello is felicitous. The familiarity that is apparent in Iago and Roderigo's conversation, in the coarse language they use and in their interrelationship, is soon seconded by the concordant sentiments that their “concern” about Desdemona's elopement awakens in the socially and politically privileged senator and parent, Brabantio, who endorses Roderigo: “O would you had had her” (1.1.175). This breakdown of reserve between social classes and individuals signifies the existence of common cause with the Elizabethan audience; it articulates the society's deepest fears: sexual deviation and miscegenation. Already, before the audience sees him, Othello is guilty of a cultural transgression; he has seduced the senator's daughter, married her without parental consent. Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio react within the bounds of a shared cultural understanding that makes Othello a threatening otherness. Aptly, therefore, their conversation locates him offstage, out of sight.

By contrast, in Macbeth, the absence of the protagonist and the use of a third person, formal narrative to introduce him, locates him centerstage. The sergeant's story of Macbeth's battlefield prowess and the king's response establishes the protagonist as defender, kinsman, hero whose past as well as destiny is also the community's. In this case, the distance that narrative signals is temporary only; the past, because it is shared, is retrievable. In a similar vein, Prospero's story of his past provides Miranda with a history, bridges the reserve between father and daughter and preludes their return home. In these instances, narrative creates a sense of distance the better to dramatize presence and continuity.

This is not to say that narrative always works in the same way in Shakespeare or generally. The distance inherent in and implied by narrative performance varies in its schema and function. The form it takes will depend upon the relation between teller, story, and audience and what is at stake. For example, Caliban and Prospero tell similar stories of loss and dispossession but from different standpoints. Prospero's story subjects Caliban: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” (5.1.275). And even if, as is commonly believed, Caliban is Prospero's psychological double, it takes a degree of...

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Albert Gerard (essay date 1957)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Gerard, Albert. “‘Egregiously an Ass’: The Dark Side of the Moor. A View of Othello's Mind.” In Aspects of Othello: Articles Reprinted from Shakespeare Survey, edited by Kenneth Muir and Philip Edwards, pp. 12-20. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1957, Gerard evaluates Othello as a “barbarian” figure by considering the Moor's failure to intellectually assess his own flaws, which ultimately leads to his “tragedy of groundless jealousy.”]

It is through the malice of this earthly air, that only by being guilty of Folly does mortal man in many cases arrive at the...

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Leah Scragg (essay date 1968)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Scragg, Leah. “Iago—Vice or Devil?” Shakespeare Survey 21 (1968): 53-65.

[In the following essay, Scragg contends that Iago, who exhibits distinct affinities with the allegorical figure of Vice found in medieval mystery and morality plays, should more properly be said to derive from stage representations of the Devil.]

For a considerable time critics have traced the characteristics displayed by Iago back to the Vice, the artful seducer of the Morality plays. Alois Brandl in 1898 included Iago among the descendants of the Vice, although apparently associating that figure with the Devil:

If we follow the role of Vice in...

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Emily C. Bartels (essay date spring 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Bartels, Emily C. “Strategies of Submission: Desdemona, the Duchess, and the Assertion of Desire.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 36 (spring 1996): 417-33.

[In the following essay, Bartels offers a feminist assessment of Desdemona's assertive qualities, explicating her impulse to question and destabilize the repressive hierarchy of patriarchal social order in Othello.]

Chaste, silent, shamefast, and obedient—these have become the buzz words in feminist discussions of early modern women: the dictates of an anxious patriarchal network, intent on regulating inevitably unruly female voices and bodies; the signs that women, continually accosted by...

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Millicent Bell (essay date spring 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Bell, Millicent. “Shakespeare's Moor.” Raritan 21, no. 4 (spring 2002): 1-14.

[In the following essay, Bell explores the racial dynamics of Othello's character and contends that he ultimately suffers from his inability to completely assimilate into a community that deems him a racial outsider.]

Othello's whole life seems to be shaped by a society—like Shakespeare's England—in which self-transformation as well as the transformations effected by the forces of social change, or even by mere accident, operate to alter what one is, shift one's very selfhood from one template to another. Before he became the hero who won the regard of the Venetian state and...

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Ben Brantley (essay date 10 December 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. “A Revolt against God with No Apology.” New York Times (10 December 2001): E1, E4.

[In the following review of Othello directed by Doug Hughes at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, Brantley observes the dominance of Liev Schreiber's Iago in the production.]

The psychopath is running the asylum again. And isn't it wonderful to know that you're in such—shall we say—capable hands?

Playing the ultimate disgruntled employee in the fast-paced production of Othello that opened last night at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, the amazing Liev Schreiber presents a tic-ridden, sexually crippled Iago who is clearly as mad...

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Barbara D. Phillips (essay date 12 December 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Phillips, Barbara D. “Review of Othello.Wall Street Journal (12 December 2001): A15.

[In the following review of the 2001 Public Theater staging of Othello, Phillips notes the “austere power” of director Doug Hughes's production, but laments the lack of a more compelling Othello to match Liev Schreiber's masterful Iago.]

Othello is Shakespeare's most intimate tragedy, one in which the audience is made privy from the start to Iago's corrosive envy and hatred, his malign manipulations unrestrained by moral bounds. And it is the playwright's most concentrated drama, one in which the villain makes quick work of love, loyalty and honor...

(The entire section is 815 words.)

Charles Isherwood (essay date 17-23 December 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. “Review of Othello.Variety 385, no. 5 (17-23 December 2001): 42-3.

[In the following review of the Public Theater's 2001 Othello, Isherwood remarks on the weakening of the drama's tragic anguish caused by its focus on Iago as enacted by Liev Schreiber—a performance unmatched by Keith David's “respectable” Othello or those of the remainder of the cast.]

Destruction is raised to the level of art in Othello, and audiences couldn't ask for a more captivating creator of chaos than the Iago of Liev Schreiber, the latest and finest in this exemplary young actor's growing gallery of Shakespeare performances for the...

(The entire section is 1045 words.)

Michael Feingold (essay date 18 December 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Feingold, Michael. “Less Is Moor.” Village Voice 46, no. 50 (18 December 2001): 71.

[In the following review of Doug Hughes's 2001 Othello staged at New York City's Public Theater, Feingold acknowledges the overall merit of this production, but finds its passion “distressingly contained.”]

Greed is the drama critic's prevailing sin. Not greed for power or money—though none of us would complain if the artists all did exactly what we told them, and offered us bushels of cash to praise them for doing it—but greed for greatness. Offer me passable, I want good; give me good, I demand excellent; grant me excellent, and I say, “What ever happened...

(The entire section is 1635 words.)

John Simon (essay date 24 December 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Simon, John. “Moor is Less.” New York Magazine 34, no. 49 (24 December 2001): 109.

[In the following review of the 2001 Public Theater staging of Othello directed by Doug Hughes, Simon faults Hughes's casting and interpretive decisions, claiming that they obscured the tragic grandeur of Shakespeare's play, burying its loftier, philosophical qualities among the sordidness of domestic drama.]

What a chance for timeliness was missed by Doug Hughes's staging of Othello! By reducing the play to domestic drama (which on one level it is), the Public Theater has deprived it of its political and metaphysical half: the war between civilized goodness...

(The entire section is 435 words.)

Caryn James (essay date 21 January 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: James, Caryn. “Review of Othello.New York Times 151, no. 52005 (21 January 2002): E1, E5.

[In the following excerpted review of a BBC television adaptation of Othello directed by Geoffrey Saxe in 2002, James emphasizes the film's contemporary, racially charged setting and overall merit, despite its flawed depiction of a simplified dramatic villain.]

[I]nstitutional racism is the backdrop for [a televised] Othello, which entirely abandons Shakespeare's language. It cuts from a passionate scene of Othello in bed with Dessie (the cloyingly contrived name for Desdemona) to an episode in which the police beat a black suspect to death....

(The entire section is 448 words.)

Paul Yachnin (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Yachnin, Paul. “Magical Properties: Vision, Possession, and Wonder in Othello.Theatre Journal 48, no. 2 (1996): 197-208.

[In the following essay, Yachnin interprets Othello as a theatrical evocation of the violent potentiality of wonder, embodied in Desdemona's fetishized handkerchief.]

A specter is haunting new historicism—the specter of the aesthetic: the attributes of beauty and sublimity, the realm of wonderful objects and feelings of awe. From Louis Montrose's evocation of the uncanny connections between Simon Forman's dream of Queen Elizabeth and William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream to Stephen Greenblatt's book,...

(The entire section is 5967 words.)

Andrew Sofer (essay date fall 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Sofer, Andrew. “Felt Absences: The Stage Properties of Othello's Handkerchief.” Comparative Drama 31, no. 3 (fall 1997): 367-93.

[In the following essay, Sofer examines the symbolic and thematic significance of the handkerchief in Othello, listing the varying qualities it represents, such as Desdemona's misused honor, Othello's “ocular proof,” the powers of magic, the poetic notion of “felt absences,” and the inescapable “charm of objects.”]

Desdemona's handkerchief makes its first appearance in Shakespeare's source, Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi. According to Cinthio, it is “a handkerchief embroidered most delicately in...

(The entire section is 11365 words.)

Edward Washington (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Washington, Edward. “‘At the Door of Truth’: The Hollowness of Signs in Othello.” In Othello: New Essays by Black Writers, edited by Mythili Kaul, pp. 167-87. Washington D.C.: Howard University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Washington locates Othello's personal flaw in his tragic “dependence on image at the expense of truth, reality, and hope” and details the process of his downfall within the context of race.]

Even in this time of diverse, sophisticated, and politically progressive critical methodologies, Kenneth Burke's formalist statements (144, 149) remain a valuable guide for critics of Othello who wish to avoid the...

(The entire section is 8843 words.)

Lucille P. Fultz (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Fultz, Lucille P. “Devouring Discourses: Desire and Seduction in Othello.” In Othello: New Essays by Black Writers, edited by Mythili Kaul, pp. 189-204. Washington D.C.: Howard University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Fultz interprets Othello as a drama of linguistic subversion represented by Iago's desire to discursively seduce and manipulate Othello, Desdemona, and the other principal figures in the drama.]

In her “Introduction” to Othello: New Perspectives, Virginia Mason Vaughan delineates the genealogy of Othello criticism, which according to her, “remained … a bastion of formalism and psychological...

(The entire section is 5867 words.)

Thomas Moisan (essay date 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Moisan, Thomas. “Relating Things to the State: ‘The State’ and the Subject of Othello.” In Othello: New Critical Essays, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 189-202. New York: Routledge, 2002.

[In the following essay, Moisan considers the role of the Venetian state in shaping the characters and tragic outcome of Othello.]

Yea and some forrain men and strangers haue beene adopted into this number of citizens, eyther in regard of their great nobility, or that they had beene dutifull towardes the state, or els had done unto them some notable seruice.

(Contareni, 18)


(The entire section is 6443 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Bartels, Emily C. “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41, no. 4 (winter 1990): 433-54.

Probes the Renaissance racial discourse that informs Shakespeare's characters Othello and Aaron, the Moor in his drama Titus Andronicus, as exotic threats to the social order.

Caro, Robert V. “Ignatian Discernment and the World of Othello.Cross Currents 44, no. 3 (fall 1994): 332-44.

Applies the concept of spiritual discernment and analysis of spiritual disintegration proposed by St. Ignatius to an understanding of Othello's murder...

(The entire section is 323 words.)