Of the nine items in this year’s curriculum, this is perhaps the only one that would be classed among the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays. It is raw, intense, and emotionally exhausting, and a good performance of it shows dimensions that won’t easily emerge during a reading. If you can find and see one, you will almost certainly find it to your advantage.
Othello has of course been a kind of lightning rod for issues of race relations, especially in the twentieth century: while Othello is not ultimately undone by anything to do with his race, but rather by a subtly provoked jealousy by Iago, his race is always a present issue in view.
Somewhat more problematic (especially for those who prefer to see in a tragedy some evidence of a tragic flaw) — what actually is Othello’s failing here? At the end, it is said that he “loved not wisely but too well” — but does that really cover it? Is there a failure here on his part, or is the main point of the play to enable us to look unflinchingly as the suffering mounts up without letup?
Things to consider while reading Othello
Othello and what has come before
- Compare Iago’s inclination to evil (more or less for its own sake) with that of Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus. Is there something here that depends on race? Is Shakespeare pursuing or presuming a racial moral equivalence? There is an interesting article on the subject linked here.
- How does the plot structure of Othello compare with that of other tragedies you have read (e.g., Macbeth, Hamlet, or King Lear)? What is the tragic motivation, and how is it resolved? Is there a “tragic flaw” or (somewhat different) some kind of particular moral failure that is the crisis point of the play?
- Are Othello’s final motivations actually noble or are they base? Is he fully a victim of his own faults? How reasonable is his jealousy? You might find interesting the discussion of A. C. Bradley linked here.
- The Merchant of Venice (set in the same city) takes a character from a marginal or marginalized group — the Jews — and makes him one of the focal points of the play. How does Shylock’s characterization and depiction with respect to his race and culture compare to that of Othello? Is there anything about his racial background that makes Othello stand out other than his appearance?
The sources for this play are not terribly well known to the wider world, but they have been reasonably well established. They include:
- Hecatommithi (“A hundred stories”) by Geraldi Cinthio is the main source; it tells the main story of “The Moor of Venice” in about five or six pages. You can find it linked here.
- The account of Leo Africanus (linked here) is less about the story than the general characterization of the Moors in the sixteenth century, but some of its generalizations seem to have found their way into the play.
- Not a source, but an interesting piece of afterlife — this play was the source in its turn for one of Giuseppe Verdi’s most highly regarded operas, Otello.
Themes that emerge in the play (and perhaps a few thematically significant facts)
- Race is an overt theme in the play, for obvious reasons, though it is not simple. Clearly there is some racial bias and slander on the part of various characters; at the same time, Othello seems to carry himself as a noble human being.
- Violence is basic to the character of Othello. What does the story do with the dichotomy of brains vs. brawn, and the violent nature of Othello as something that a conniving schemer like Iago can play upon? Is he wholly a victim of Iago’s machinations?
- Suspicion and trust are fundamental thematic elements — Desdemona’s father’s trust of her and of Othello seems to have been betrayed at the beginning; Othello becomes in turn fatally suspicious of his wife; the trust between Iago and Othello has apparently been breached sometime before the beginning of the play; Iago plays upon his own wife’s credulity to secure the handkerchief.
- It’s not really a theme in the play, it’s an element of how a theme is presented: the image of the strawberry is often associated (perhaps because of its profligacy of seeds and their external appearance) with infidelity in Renaissance art and iconography. What does this do in the play, and how does it reflect (if it does at all) back on Desdemona herself?
- The name "Desdemona" is probably ultimately derived from the Greek word δεισιδαιμονία (deisidaimonia) which can ambiguously refer (positively) to fear of God or the gods, or (negatively) to superstition and suspicion in general. How does her character capture that ambiguity?
Symmetries in the play
- Black vs. white. What does the color imagery (embodied in people) do for the play overall?
- Iago’s relationship with his wife vs. Othello’s relationship with his.
- The dichotomy of what the Romans called domi et militiae — at home and abroad (esp. in the military) as setting for story.
Problems in the play
- How race affects the thematics of the play. Would the whole have worked had Othello merely been a foreign prince of a Caucasian race? (One interesting recent production cast Patrick Stewart — without any particular makeup — as Othello in the midst of an otherwise all-black cast.)
- Iago’s murky motivation. What are his reasons for destroying Othello even at his own considerable cost?
- Desdemona’s character. She seems oddly compliant at various points in the play when she might well have offered a better defense of herself.
Contents of this page © Copyright 2008, 2011, 2014 by Bruce A. McMenomy.