Othello (Vol. 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
Leo Kirschbaum (essay date December 1944)
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...
(The entire section is 5565 words.)
R. N. Hallstead (essay date spring 1968)
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 entire section is 9684 words.)
Estelle W. Taylor (essay date December 1977)
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...
(The entire section is 3676 words.)
Anthony Gerard Barthelemy (essay date 1987)
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
(The entire section is 5976 words.)
Piotr Sadowski (essay date 2003)
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...
(The entire section is 8832 words.)
Criticism: Production Reviews
Geoffrey Bent (review date summer 1998)
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;...
(The entire section is 6965 words.)
Katherine Duncan-Jones (review date 14 May 1999)
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 entire section is 540 words.)
Alastair Macaulay (review date 10 January 2000)
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...
(The entire section is 618 words.)
Owen Gleiberman (review date 7 September 2001)
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...
(The entire section is 953 words.)
Michael C. Andrews (essay date spring 1973)
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...
(The entire section is 4545 words.)
Martin Orkin (essay date summer 1987)
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...
(The entire section is 12460 words.)
R. V. Young (essay date March 2004)
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...
(The entire section is 5496 words.)
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.
(The entire section is 376 words.)