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.