- It has the strongest, most focused plot of all the tragedies.
- It has the fewest characters.
- Like Romeo and Juliet, its action is rapid.
- It is a domestic tragedy, but unlike Romeo and Juliet, it is a tragedy of a great leader.
The story of an older man cuckolded by his young wife was a popular story and source of drama from classical Greece and Rome on. [To be cuckolded is to have one's wife be unfaithful without one's knowledge. One then becomes the butt of jokes behind one's back. The sign of the cuckold is horns like the horns on a deer. People would put horns up behind your head and laugh at you.] As Harold Bloom points out, a man's fear of being cuckolded and being sexually inadequate is the fear of his mortality.
Shakespeare's general source for the outline of Othello is an Italian story by a man named Giraldi Cinthio from 1565 (about 40 years before Shakespeare wrote this play). Here are the major parallels and differences between the two (summarized from Harley Granville-Barker):
- In Cinthio, Desdemona, a young white woman, is married to Othello, an older black Moor (Muslim) for some time. Shakespeare changes this longer relationship to Desdemona and Othello eloping.
- In Cinthio, Desdemona fails to requite the Moors love and so he tries to take revenge on her, whereas in Shakespeare, Desdemona clearly loves Othello.
- In Cinthio, Othello plots with the ensign (lieutenant) to kill Desdemona whereas in Shakespeare, the lieutenant Iago plants the seed but Othello does the deed.
- In Cinthio, the ensign beats Desdemona to death with a stocking filled with sand, while Othello watches, whereas in Shakespeare, Othello smothers Desdemona.
- In Cinthio, characters are uncomplicated, the moral is clear, punishment is correct. Desdemonas relatives kill the moor. In Shakespeare all is ambiguous and Othello punishes himself.
- In Cinthio, Desdemona is an open and sexual woman, whereas in Shakespeare, while Desdemona is vivacious, her youthful modesty is prominent.
- In Cinthio, Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona is sexually experienced, and Iagos arguments are plausible, whereas in Shakespeare, Iago's allegations are less believable except to Othello. In Shakespeare, Desdemona does not seem to be sexually experienced, and, in fact, the question of whether Desdemona and Othello consummate the marriage is significant.
- Shakespeare never left England, and England hardly had any blacks or Jews for Shakespeare to meet. Venice, on the other hand, was cosmopolitan and a principal capital of the world at the time. Venice, located on the eastern coast of Italy, received visitors from the orient and from Africa constantly and had a diverse population. This Venetian city-state captured Shakespeare's imagination. He situated not just this play there but also the Merchant of Venice, with its memorable Jew, Shylock.
- Venice: While Shakespeare never went there, it fascinated him and other English people. It is a place for him both recognizable and similar to his own England in its Christianity, its place as a sea power, and its economic strength. Yet it was exotic to Shakespeare in its location as a path to the eastern Mediterranean and Byzantine Empire, and to Africa. Although thoroughly western and European in outlook, Venice's location on the east coast of Italy puts it as an outpost facing the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. As a sea power, Venice was always patrolling the eastern Mediterranean. While Shakespeare was growing up, Venice was at war against the Turks and, in fact, lost Cyprus to the Turks in 1572.
- Venice a republic, not a monarchy: Despite never having left Tudor England with its strong monarchy, Shakespeare was able to imagine an entirely different, more progressive republican form of government in Venice. In contrast to his experience in England's more homogenous society, Shakespeare could plumb the challenges of the heterogeneous society of Venice in which an outsider must negotiate his way among insiders. What more challenging plot than for a black African to assume the command of a nation's military and marry into the closed Venetian society.
- The Turks: The Turks were despicable creatures to the Venetians and to Europeans in general. The "Holy" Crusades were fought against them. In Othello, Shakespeare has the Turks defeated by the Venetians.
- Moors: Moors are Africans. The play is ambiguous about how black Othello is. At times, his blackness is emphasized; at other times he seems more northern African. Either way, he is exotic, strange, and "the other." It is significant that the white Venetians hire him to be their general. If you think of the Venetians as the Wall Street bankers of their day, they are hiring Othello to do their dirty work of fighting.
- Iago's name is pronounced ee-a-go, with the vowels pronounced as in "we want go" and the accent on the second syllable. Iago is an ensign, or third in command.
- Shakespeare has created great villains. We'll be reading some of his best: Iago, Richard III, and Edmund. Iago has baffled many because of the difficulty of determining motivation. One critic talked of Iago's "motiveless malignity," a "diabolism so intense as to defy rational explanation." Another sees him as a particularly virulent form of a type called a trickster.
- The first motivation Iago states is that he has been passed over for promotion, but we don't know if Iago could have become an officer in the first place. If he couldn't, then the reason he gives to Rodrigo is specious.
- Iago's revenge is beautiful in its artistry. Iago conducts himself with such gusto and self-delight. Othello, great military commander that he is, is outclassed by Iago's strategic planning.
- The critic Harold Bloom sees Iago as an artist, an improviser. Iago is a great creator or destroyer. Is the destruction of Othello a masterwork, as you experience the play?
- As you enter into the experience of the play (not as you reflect on his morality outside the theater of your imagination), how do you regard Iago?
- Although the play Othello is one of Shakespeare's most direct and uncomplicated in plot, the character of Othello is hard to assess.
- He is painted as a character of great stature and command. A total outsider, yet he wins the command of the richest state in the word, but does he become an insider? Although working in the republic of Venice, he strikes one more as a princely figure and seems to regard his position not as a job but as a vocation.
- Othello has long trusted Iago in military matters and seems to know him well. His wife, from our perspective, is most innocent, yet since Othello knows Iago so much better than he knows Desdemona, it is plausible that he trusts Iago. How do we regard this trusting as we experience the play?
- It is important to examine carefully why he killed Desdemona from his own perspective. Once we accept that he was duped by Iago and totally mistaken, we need to go back and examine carefully his reasons for killing her in 4.2 and 5.2. "It is the cause." What is the cause he speaks of? (5.2.1)
- Once his perspective is understood, then we are better able to understand his final actions and words, once he finds out how wrong he was. Does he see his execution of Desdemona as heroic? (5.2.345 to the end) How do we regard this execution of her as we experience the play?
The radical women of the play. [Discussion Topic: women in Othello]
- In previous plays, we have seen how Shakespeare portrayed the subservient and traditional relationships of Lady Capulet and the nurse to Capulet. We also observed how Juliet subverted her father's control through subterfuge.
- While Venice may be a liberal republic and not a monarchy, observe how possessively Brabantio speaks of and treats his daughter, Desdemona, and how dictatorially Iago treats his wife, Emilia. Are you surprised then by how these two women negotiate their dealings with their husbands?
- How would you describe Desdemona's attitudes in 1.3, how she addresses her father and the council?
- How do your interpret Emilia's conversations with Desdemona in 4.2, 4.3, and 5.1?
- How would you describe Desdemona's actions within her marriage?
- How does Emilia break from her restraints in 5.2?
- We clearly have portrayed here complex and nuanced gender politics. Try to put into words some of the complexity you observe.
The Fishburne/Branagh Film
To what degree does race matter in Othello? [Discussion Topic 1: Does race matter in OthelloOthFilm1]
- Surprisingly, perhaps, the role of Othello has usually been played by white actors, sometimes just as whites, but frequently by whites in blackface. For example, Anthony Hopkins played Othello on television in blackface as did Lawrence Olivier and Orson Welles in film. So the Lawrence Fishburne version is unusual in that it presents Othello truly as an African.
- Leila Christenbury states the question this way: "Does Othello largely turn on the issue of race? Does it, on the other hand, deal only with the subject of the difficulty of love and trust and with the arenas of war and society and their incompatibility?" Does the play present the relationship of Othello and Desdemona as failing because both had character flaws him credulity and her naivete an an incompatibility of age and youth, military and civil society? Or does the incompatibility stem from racism in the society and in Iago?
- Kenneth Branagh as Iago [Discussion Topic 2: What does Branagh stress in his concept of Iago?OthFilm2]
- The character of Iago dominates this play to an unprecedented degree. You may have explored the complexity of Iago's motivation in a discussion topic for the play. Even if you didn't, it is impossible not to be fascinated by speculation about what motivates Iago.
- An actor playing the role has to select what he will emphasize in the part. He must achieve at once credibility as Othello's long-trusted military assistant. He must seem selfless as a comrade and friend of both Roderigo and Othello yet also convince the audience that he is acting out of singular self-interest. He must be at once the embodiment of evila devilyet seem convincingly humannot supernatural. This is not a play of witches and spells but of modern smiling ruthlessness.
- How an actor achieves these and other challenges requires much reflection on the part and selection. How much should the actor playing Iago stress the sexual jealousy that Iago suggests? Is the sexual jealousy true or merely a motivation casually tossed out mostly for Roderigo's benefit? Is there a sub-text of homosexual desire and masculine impotence present in the part? Is Iago's evil truly malignant or is he the type of character who enjoys bringing others down out of shear amusement?