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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2007
Document Type: Critical essay; Work overview; Plot summary
Pages: 39
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Othello (1604) has often been considered the most painful of Shakespeare's tragedies. The fall of a proud, dignified man, the murder of a graceful, loving woman, and the unreasoning hatred of a villain, have all evoked fear and pity in audiences throughout the centuries. If it lacks the cosmic grandeur of some of Shakespeare's other well-respected dramas, Othello nevertheless possesses a power that is perhaps more immediate and more strongly felt than that of his other plays.

Othello is also unique among Shakespeare's great tragedies in that it is set in a private world. The drama focuses on the passions and personal lives of its major figures. Othello has often been described as a tragedy of character, as the play's protagonist swiftly descends into a rage of jealousy that completely destroys his life.

With his dazzling display of villainy, the character Iago, the play's antagonist, has long fascinated students and critics of the drama. The relationship between Othello and Iago is another unusual feature of this work. With two such prominent characters so closely associated, audiences have trouble determining which of the two characters is the central figure in the play and, therefore, which one bears the greater responsibility for the tragedy.

Othello is believed to have first been performed in 1604 or perhaps in 1605. It is one of Shakespeare's most highly concentrated and Page 650  |  Top of Articletightly constructed tragedies. The play was written with no subplots and little humor to relieve the tension. Although Shakespeare adapted the plot of his play from the sixteenth-century Italian dramatist and novelist Giraldi Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi, the English playwright focused his attention only on certain parts of Cinthio's story. The Italian's creation includes a series of ten interconnected short stories. Shakespeare's Othello is taken from just one of them, the one concerned with marital infidelity and a husband's revenge on his wife. Because of this tightly constructed structure, the play's ominous mood is heightened, and the threat to both Desdemona's innocence and to the love she and Othello share is made more terrifying

Although narrow in scope, Othello is widely regarded as the most moving of all of Shakespeare's great tragedies. As a matter of fact, rumors abound that during some of the earliest productions of this play, audiences shouted out warnings to the actor playing Othello and threatened to bring harm to Iago.

Although Othello is described as a Moor, a citizen of northern Africa, the play is not overtly about race. In Shakespeare's time, black actors were not used in the role. However, critics continue to debate if race is crucial to the play or if it is merely incidental. Some have stated that the color of the skin makes no difference when it comes to human psychology. What is important in this play is that Othello is a man of high esteem, a victorious hero, who succumbs to the manipulations of a shrewd and devious man. The results are devastating, horrifying, and, of course, very dramatic.


Act 1, Scene 1

Othello opens in Venice, with Iago (a low ranking officer in the Venetian army) and Roderigo (a weak man who is in love with Desdemona) discussing their bitterness toward Othello. Roderigo is angry because of Othello's marriage to Desdemona. Iago is distraught because Othello has promoted Cassio to the rank of lieutenant instead of promoting Iago. In the first few lines of this scene, Iago is already scheming a plan of revenge.

Iago encourages Roderigo to rouse Brabantio, a senator and the father of Desdemona, to tell him that Desdemona has eloped with Othello. Upon hearing this, the outraged Brabantio has his house searched, and when it is confirmed that Desdemona is gone, Brabantio is at his wits' end.

Several of the play's themes are introduced in this first scene. First, there is the theme of jealously. Iago has been passed over for a promotion and is jealous of Cassio, the man who has won Othello's favor. Roderigo is jealous because another man has won the hand of Desdemona. A second theme that is introduced is that of the so-called Other—the foreigner, the outsider, or the one who lives on the edges of society. Othello's character is most involved in this theme. To emphasize Othello's "otherness," just in the first scene alone, he is called the "lascivious Moor," "thicklips," "an old black ram," and "an extravagant and wheeling stranger."

The theme of deception is also brought out in this opening scene. First, Roderigo feels deceived by Iago because Roderigo has been paying Iago to put him in good favor with Desdemona. It is obvious that Iago has failed to do this. Desdemona's father feels his daughter, who has run away with Othello without asking his consent, has deceived him. Another act of deceit occurs when Iago confesses that he only pretends to love Othello.

Act 1, Scene 2

Othello makes his first appearance in act 1, scene 2. Iago is telling Othello that he has heard people talking badly about him. He warns Othello of possible trouble; all the while he is conning Othello, trying to convince Othello of his devotion and thus winning his way into Othello's trust.

Cassio appears and tells Othello that the duke is looking for him. There is a military threat against Cyprus. When Brabantio appears, Iago warns Othello to beware. Othello faces everyone without fear, demonstrating his confidence, his willingness to stand up to the enemy or the accuser, whichever must be met.

Brabantio curses Othello, claiming that Othello has cast a spell on his daughter. Othello asks Brabantio what he wants him to do. Brabantio says he wants Othello put in prison. Othello suggests that if he did so, the duke would be upset. Brabantio realizes that the affairs of state are quite serious and must be attended to. So he concludes that the duke can decide what to do with Othello.

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Othello preparing to kill Desdemona, Act V, scene ii Othello preparing to kill Desdemona, Act V, scene ii (© Shakespeare Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan)

By now, the audience is quite aware of Iago's character. He is a manipulator and out for no one's benefit but his own. Othello has demonstrated, on the other hand, that he fits none of the negative descriptions that have been used to portray him.

Act 1, Scene 3

The next scene is at the duke's council chamber. The council members are discussing reports of a Turkish fleet heading for Cyprus, which is a Venetian colony. Messengers are bringing word of how many Turkish ships approach. When the duke acknowledges Othello as "Valiant Othello," it is obvious that Othello is seen quite differently by these people than he was seen previously through the eyes of Iago, Roderigo, or Brabantio.

Brabantio wastes no time in explaining that his daughter has been stolen from him. The duke is shocked and promises to punish the thief. The duke says Brabantio can "read in the bitter letter / After your own sense," meaning that Brabantio can set the punishment. The duke is, of course, surprised to discover that the so-called thief is Othello.

Very graciously and humbly, Othello pleads his case. He provides a brief background of his life and how he fell in love with Desdemona and she with him. The duke, wanting Othello vindicated because the country needs him to fight the Turks, determines that the council needs more proof that Desdemona has indeed been stolen. Desdemona is called to stand before the council.

Desdemona arrives and acknowledges that she is divided between her devotion to her father and her love of her husband, Othello. She tells her father, "And so much duty as my mother showed / To you, preferring you before her father, / So much I challenge that I may profess / Due to the Moor, my lord." The duke needs to hear no more. Desdemona has settled the case.

The duke appoints Othello as governor of Cyprus and tells him to prepare to leave. Page 652  |  Top of ArticleDesdemona asks to go to Cyprus with Othello, which the duke allows. Before the scene ends, Brabantio scoffs at Othello one more time, telling him, "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. / She has deceived her father, and may thee." This is a warning that will later haunt Othello.

The scene ends with Iago manipulating Roderigo. Roderigo is ready to drown himself for he sees no hope in winning the hand of Desdemona. Iago, however, needs Roderigo for his scheme, so he challenges Roderigo to be a man and hang in there. Desdemona and Othello will tire of one another, Iago predicts and asks Roderigo to stay with him so they can both enjoy their revenge on Othello.

After Roderigo leaves, Iago talks to himself (in aside to the audience), relating how he thinks Roderigo a fool. He also reiterates how he hates Othello. Iago has heard rumors that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia. This gives Iago all the more reason to hurt Othello. He will make Othello believe that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Iago believes this will be easy to do because "The Moor is of a free and open nature, That thinks men honest that but seem to be so, / And will as tenderly be led by th' nose / As asses are."

Act 2, Scene 1

Act 2 begins in Cyprus where a violent storm is raging out at sea. Montano, the former governor of Cyprus, is concerned that all of Othello's ships might have capsized. Shortly afterward, Montano is informed that the storm has scattered the Turkish forces, thus ending the war.

Cassio enters and demonstrates, through his conversation with Montano, that he is truly devoted to Othello. The audience learns that Cassio is very approving of Othello's marriage to Desdemona. This makes it clear that Cassio is not in any way involved in Iago's plan.

Desdemona, Emilia, Iago, and Roderigo arrive in Cyprus. Desdemona is worried about Othello, who has not yet made an appearance on the island. Whereas Cassio has been displayed as a gentlemen, with his concern for Othello's safety and his compliments toward Desdemona, Iago appears crude. Iago belittles his wife and then criticizes all of womanhood, stating that women "are pictures out of doors, / Bells in your parlors, wildcats in your kitchens, / Saints in your injuries, devils being offended, / Players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds." In other words, women are deceitful, noisy, and undomesticated and are good only for sex.

Othello finally arrives and makes a public display of his love for Desdemona. "I cannot speak enough of this content. / It stops me here; it is too much of joy," Othello says. This spurs Iago to mention in an aside to the audience, "O, you are well tuned now! / But I'll set down the pegs that make this music." Iago is determined to ruin this love. He reaffirms his desire to arouse Othello's jealousy and enlists Roderigo in the plot to discredit Cassio. He furthers his plan, telling Roderigo that he believes Desdemona has fallen for Cassio. Roderigo cannot believe this, but Iago changes Roderigo's mind. He churns Roderigo's anger so that Roderigo wants to challenge Cassio in a fight. If Roderigo can do this, Iago tells him, "So shall you have a shorter journey to your desires by the means I shall then have to prefer them."

Act 2, Scene 2

Othello decrees a night of revelry to celebrate his marriage and Cyprus's escape from the Turkish attack. This is a very brief scene.

Act 2, Scene 3

Othello sends Cassio out to guard his house, and Othello and Desdemona go to bed. Cassio says that Iago will keep watch with him. Othello replies: "Iago is most honest." Of course, the audience is fully aware that this is far from the truth and this statement makes Othello look very vulnerable.

When Cassio goes out and meets with Iago, Iago describes how enticing Desdemona is. Whereas Iago describes Desdemona in terms of sexuality, Cassio talks of her as being modest, exquisite, and delicate. When Iago invites Cassio to drink with him, Cassio says he becomes easily intoxicated. Iago uses this to get Cassio drunk and to involve him in a public brawl.

When Othello arrives, he turns to Iago to find who is responsible for the brawl. Iago, feigning reluctance, nonetheless insinuates Cassio. Othello punishes the lieutenant by taking away his recently won promotion. The audience knows, once again, that Othello has made a serious mistake.

Act 3, Scene 1

Standing in front of Othello's castle is sad Cassio, who is trying to beg Emilia to plead his Page 653  |  Top of Articlecase to Desdemona. Iago tells Cassio that he will make sure Othello is not in the castle so Cassio can meet with Desdemona alone.

Act 3, Scene 2

Another brief scene in which Othello gives papers to Iago to post, then the audience sees Othello leave the castle, setting up the scene to follow, in which Desdemona is left in the castle without Othello.

Act 3, Scene 3

In the garden of the castle, Desdemona greets Cassio. Cassio wins Desdemona's attention. Desdemona agrees to plead his case with Othello. As Cassio leaves, Iago and Othello approach. Iago takes advantage of Cassio's being seen slipping out of the garden where Desdemona stands. Iago says, pretending to be talking mostly to himself: "Ha! I like not that." When Othello asks what Iago is referring to, Iago pretends to dismiss his own words. But when Othello asks if that was Cassio, Iago launches full-heartedly into his scheme.

Othello greets his wife, and she asks Othello to forgive Cassio. Othello does not commit to it but also does not deny he will.

Desdemona leaves, and Iago digs deeper, planting more suspicions in Othello's mind, asking him questions about Cassio, such as: "Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady, / Know of your love?" When Othello asks why Iago wants to know, Iago downplays the question, "But for a satisfaction of my thought; / No further harm." Of course, harm is exactly what Iago is after. And so the conversation continues.

Iago's villainy begins to work on Othello in two ways. First, Iago feeds Othello insinuations that Desdemona has been unfaithful, creating emotional havoc for Othello. And second, Iago feeds Othello lies concerning his own faithful service as a friend to Othello, when in fact Iago hates Othello. On both accounts, Othello believes Iago. Iago is very good in what he does. He even warns Othello not to be jealous. "It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on." Iago then tells Othello to not succumb to his thoughts but rather to seek proof of Desdemona's unfaithfulness before Othello believes it. Iago also reminds Othello that Desdemona did once deceive her father. By the time Iago and Othello part, Othello believes he is indebted to Iago for being so honest with him.

Briefly, Desdemona appears with Othello. She wipes his brow with her handkerchief when he complains of a headache. The handkerchief drops when the couple leaves for dinner. Emilia picks the handkerchief up and mentions that her husband has asked her to steal it. After Emilia leaves, Iago tells the audience that he will plant the handkerchief in Cassio's house.

Othello talks with Iago, telling him that he has lost all tranquility. He says: "Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore!" Othello tells Iago that if he has done this just to slander Desdemona, Iago had better beware.

Iago pretends to be offended. "O monstrous world! Take note, take note, O world, / To be direct and honest is not safe." In other words, he is attempting to make Othello feel that he has hurt Iago by insinuating Iago might be lying. Othello is tortured by the uncertainty of his own thoughts, not knowing if he should trust his wife or trust Iago's insinuations.

Iago tells Othello that he overheard Cassio talking in his sleep. Iago says Cassio called out, "Let us be wary, let us hide our love." Iago continues to embellish his story, stating that Cassio then began kissing Iago, thinking he was a woman. Iago reports that Cassio said: "Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor!"

This is the undoing of Othello. He cannot stand the thought of Desdemona and Cassio kissing. He wants Cassio to be dead. When Iago says that he will see to this, Othello makes Iago his new lieutenant.

Act 3, Scene 4

Although Desdemona does not know what is going on, she and Emilia discuss the jealousy that can sometimes be aroused. Desdemona tells Emilia that she cannot imagine Othello ever being jealous. This is Shakespeare's use of irony, as the audience knows full well that Othello is in a jealous rage. Othello enters and says he is not feeling well. He asks for the handkerchief that he once gave to Desdemona. Desdemona says she has misplaced it. Othello tells her the handkerchief is imbued with magical powers. The loss of it could mean bad luck. Tempers flair, as Desdemona and Othello clash. Othello storms out of the room.

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Shortly after, Cassio is with Bianca, a woman he has slept with but does not love. She asks where Cassio has been. Cassio shows Bianca Desdemona's handkerchief. Bianca becomes jealous at the sight of it, thinking Cassio has slept with another woman. Cassio says he merely found it and asks Bianca to replicate it.

Act 4, Scene 1

Iago continues to provoke Othello, who falls into an epileptic fit. Iago revels in his handiwork. When Othello revives, Iago suggests that Othello hide and watch while Iago engages Cassio in a discussion about Desdemona. What Othello does not know is that Iago is actually discussing Bianca with Cassio. Othello cannot hear what the two men are saying and believes the object of Cassio's laughter is Desdemona. When Bianca appears and returns the handkerchief to Cassio, Othello is shocked by the sight of it.

When Cassio leaves, Othello asks: "How shall I murder him, Iago?" Iago places emphasis on the handkerchief, continuing his torture of Othello. Now Othello wants to kill Desdemona. He talks about chopping her into pieces. Iago tells Othello to strangle her.

Lodovico, Desdemona's uncle, arrives from Venice with letters for Othello, commanding him to return to Venice and to leave Cassio as his deputy in Cyprus. When Othello is with Desdemona, she expresses her hopes that Othello and Cassio can be reconciled. This infuriates Othello, and he strikes her and calls her "devil." Lodovico witnesses this and wonders what is wrong with Othello. When Lodovico confronts Othello, Othello calls Desdemona a whore. Later Iago talks to Lodovico and implies there is something wrong with Othello. Iago adds: "It is not honesty in me to speak / What I have seen and known." In other words, Iago makes Othello look weak and possibly mad. But of course, Iago claims no part in Othello's misery and psychological collapse.

Act 4, Scene 2

Othello questions Emilia about Desdemona's faithfulness. Emilia stands up for Desdemona. If Desdemona is not chaste, Emilia says: "There's no man happy; the purest of their wives / Is foul as slander."

Roderigo enters and accuses Iago of doing nothing to help him. Iago placates Roderigo by saying Othello will soon be leaving Cyprus without his wife and that, if Roderigo kills Cassio, no one will stand between him and Desdemona.

Act 4, Scene 3

This is another short scene, with Emilia helping Desdemona prepare for bed. Desdemona asks Emilia if there are women who "abuse" their husbands. Emilia says there are. Desdemona asks Emilia if she could do so to her husband. Emilia responds by asking if Desdemona could. Desdemona answers: "No, by this heavenly light!" Shakespeare shows, through this dialogue between Desdemona and Emilia, that no matter what Othello has done to Desdemona, she remains faithful to him.

Act 5, Scene 1

Roderigo tries to murder Cassio, but is himself wounded. Iago then wounds Cassio from behind and flees. Returning a short while later, Iago kills Roderigo to prevent his plan from being exposed.

Act 5, Scene 2

Othello finds Desdemona asleep. He awakens her with a kiss and tells her to prepare to die. Desdemona pleads for mercy. Othello mentions the handkerchief. Desdemona denies everything. She tells Othello to ask Cassio about it. Othello believes that Cassio is dead, so he tells her it is too late. Othello smothers her.

Hearing Emilia's calls at the door, Othello lets her in. Emilia tells Othello that it is Roderigo who is dead, not Cassio. Emilia hears Desdemona cry out: "O, falsely, falsely murdered!" Emilia asks Desdemona who has done this to her. Desdemona says it was only herself. Then she dies. Othello denies murdering her when Emilia asks. But then Othello confesses and tells Emilia that he learned of Desdemona's unfaithfulness through Iago. Emilia cries out for help. When Iago, Cassio, Montano, and others appear in response, she confronts her husband and exposes his treachery. Othello lunges at Iago, who has fatally wounded Emilia, and Iago flees. He is soon captured, however, and Othello stabs him. Cassio explains how he found the handkerchief. Papers discovered on Roderigo further reveal the extent of Iago's villainy. Lodovico tells Othello that his power as governor of Cyprus is over. Cassio has been assigned in his place.

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Othello stabs himself and dies kissing Desdemona. Iago is remanded into Cassio's custody.



Bianca is a courtesan, or prostitute, in Cyprus. She flirts with Cassio, who falls for her affections, at least physically. Bianca finds the handkerchief that Othello gave to Desdemona in Cassio's bed and believes that Cassio has been cheating on her. Iago has planted the handkerchief, as his false proof that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. Bianca exhibits jealousy though Cassio dismisses her as not a serious part of his life. Bianca represents the Other, living outside the accepted society. She satisfies Cassio's physicals needs, but he appears to have no further attachment to her. It is Bianca, however, whom Cassio is talking about with Iago, when Othello believes Cassio is talking about Desdemona.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • Othello was adapted as a silent film in 1922. It starred Emil Jannings, Lya de Putti, and Werner Krauss. It is distributed by Video Yesteryear and Discount Video Tapes.
  • In 1952, Othello was produced by United Artists and directed by Orson Welles. The cast featured Welles as Othello, Michael Mac Liammoir as Iago, and Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona. It is available on DVD from MCVI.
  • BHE Films of the United Kingdom produced a film version of Othello in 1965. This version starred Laurence Olivier as Othello, Maggie Smith as Desdemona, and Frank Finlay as Iago. This version is available on DVD (at http://www.amazon.com) from the studio Ruscico.
  • In 1982, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in London produced a television adaptation of Othello. In this version, Anthony Hopkins starred as Othello, Bob Hoskins played Iago, and Penelope Wilton was Desdemona.
  • A more recent version, filmed in 1995, starred Laurence Fishburne as Othello, with the great Shakespearian actor Kenneth Branagh playing Iago, and Irene Jacob acting in Desdemona's role. It is available on DVD from Turner Home Entertainment.
  • In 1997, the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., decided to put a different twist on this play, choosing Patrick Stewart (a white actor) to play Othello and Patrice Johnson (a black actress) to play Desdemona, with Ron Canada (a black actor) playing Iago. Most of the actors in this play were black except for a few servants, guards, and the prostitute Bianca.
  • Besides stage and movie productions, Othello has also been adapted into an opera by Giuseppe Verdi (first produced in 1887) and called Otello. A 1982 production featured Kiri Te Kanawa, Vladimir Atlantov, and Piero Cappuccilli. This production is available through HBO Home Video. Another version of the same opera features Placido Domingo, Katia Ricciarelli, and Justino Diaz. It was originally performed in 1976 and can be purchased from Music and Arts Programs online (at http://musicandarts.com).


Brabantio is a Venetian senator and Desdemona's father. He charges Othello with bewitching his daughter. He wants Othello to go to jail, as if Othello has committed a crime. He reluctantly Page 656  |  Top of Articlebacks down in front of the duke, when the duke makes it clear that he thinks highly of Othello and needs Othello to defend Cyprus. Brabantio dies after Desdemona leaves for Cyprus with Othello. Brabantio is a somewhat blustering and self-important Venetian senator. At first he believes Othello is a friend, but when Othello marries Desdemona, Brabantio feels betrayed. He warns Othello that Desdemona has betrayed her father and could just as well betray her husband, foreshadowing further development in the play.

Michael Cassio

Cassio is Othello's lieutenant, who is promoted to that rank over Iago. Cassio is a young and inexperienced soldier, whose high position is much resented by Iago. This resentment sets off Iago's plan of deception and revenge. Truly devoted to Othello, Cassio is extremely ashamed after being implicated in a drunken brawl during Othello's wedding celebration on Cyprus. This causes Othello to dismiss him, stripping him of his newly won promotion. Iago tells Cassio to go to Desdemona to plead his case to Othello. Iago uses Cassio to set up a fictitious love affair between Cassio and Desdemona, which only really occurs in Iago's mind. However, Iago is able to trick Othello, making him believe that Cassio is going to bed with Desdemona. In comparison to Iago, who is very sinister and rather crude, Cassio is a gentleman who truly loves Othello and is devoted to Othello's wife. Cassio is also very honest. Cassio is caught in Iago's deceptive web and is almost killed by Roderigo and Iago. In the end, Cassio is the victor, winning the governor's position in Cyprus when Othello's murder of Desdemona is discovered.


The clown is one of Othello's servants. Although the clown appears only in two short scenes, his appearances reflect and distort the action and words of the main plots: his puns on the word "lie" in act 3, scene 4, for example, anticipate Othello's confusion of two meanings of that word in the next act


Desdemona is the daughter of Brabantio. She elopes with Othello and accompanies him to Cyprus. After Cassio is discredited, she pleads for his reinstatement, an act that her husband interprets as proof of Iago's insinuations that she is unfaithful and is having an illicit affair with Cassio. Desdemona has traditionally been seen as the fair and gentle maiden full of innocence, commitment, and love. She stands in contrast with Iago's villainy.

Desdemona's role is rather straightforward and uncomplicated. She does stand up to her father, but she is more passive with her husband. She cannot imagine ever having an illicit affair, though her maid Emilia tells Desdemona that many women do. Desdemona is fascinated with Othello, maybe to the point of blindness, as she does not understand his jealousy nor does she fight very hard for her own life. Rather, she almost completely gives in to Othello's decree that she must die. She merely begs for one more day.

Duke of Venice

The duke represents the head of the Venetian Council, the official authority in Venice. He has great respect for Othello as a public and military servant. His primary role within the play is to reconcile Othello and Brabantio. In doing this, the audience gains a glimpse of Othello, the noble and valiant general. The duke's opinion of Othello counters Brabantio's description of Othello as well as Iago's. It is through the confrontation with the duke in front of his court that Othello delivers his finest speech in the play.


Emilia is Iago's wife and Desdemona's attendant. She gives Iago Desdemona's handkerchief, which he had asked her to steal. After Othello murders his wife, Emilia reveals Desdemona's fidelity and is mortally wounded by Iago for exposing the truth. A cynical, worldly woman, she is deeply attached to her mistress and distrustful of her husband. It is through Emilia that Desdemona receives another view of the world. Emilia's and Iago's marriage is used as a contrast to Desdemona's and Othello's. Iago berates Emilia in the play, never showing any positive emotions; whereas Desdemona and Othello reflect a sincere and deeply felt love, at least until Iago destroys that.


Graziano is Brabantio's kinsman who accompanies Lodovico (Desdemona's uncle)to Cyprus to deliver a letter to Othello. Amidst the chaos of the final scene, Graziano mentions that Desdemona's father has died.

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Iago is a soldier under Othello's rule. When Othello promotes Cassio to lieutenant, overlooking Iago, Iago feels slighted and plots revenge against both men. Iago is a master manipulator, feeding ideas to people who eagerly follow them as if they were their own. He enlists Cassio in a drunken melee, even though Cassio knows that he should not be drinking on duty. Iago strings Roderigo along, having the man pay him for services never rendered. These minor characters are the playthings of Iago. Iago's biggest feat, however, is when he brings the great warrior, Othello, down.

Iago is one of Shakespeare's most villainous creations. He is the closest character to a devil in Shakespeare's repertoire. Much of this is due to Iago's intelligence, his craftiness, and his confidence. He is quick-witted, unafraid of putting his ideas into motion, and unconcerned with the consequences. He has no morals. Iago lets it be known that he is doing everything he does for no one's benefit but his own. He belittles his wife and still manages to get her to steal for him. He lies so much throughout the play, it is a wonder he remembers what story he has told to which character.

Critics often debate Iago's motives. What drives him to act as he does? Is it merely to attain the rank of lieutenant? Is he jealous of Othello? Does he lust for Desdemona? Or is he just hungry for power. Does he admire his own ability to manipulate, and then enjoy watching the consequences? Some people believe Iago is simply, but purely, evil, doing immoral things merely to be bad. There was a time when actors wanted to play Othello more than they did Iago. But over time, the character of Iago has been looked at in more depth, and actors crave both roles, some taking turns, switching from Othello to Iago. Some critics have even said that Iago is more complex than Othello.


Lodovico is Desdemona's uncle. He acts as a messenger from Venice to Cyprus. He arrives in Cyprus in act 4 with letters announcing that Othello has been replaced by Cassio as governor. He is shocked when he sees Othello slap Desdemona and questions Iago about Othello's mental state.

Laurence Fishburne as Othello in a scene from the 1995 film Othello Laurence Fishburne as Othello in a scene from the 1995 film Othello (Reproduced by permission of The Picture Desk, Inc.)


Montano is the governor of Cyprus before Othello arrives. He appears in the beginning of act 3 and is fearful for Othello's life as a storm rages off the shores of Cyprus. He is also fearful that Othello's boats might have sunk, thus leaving the island vulnerable to the Turks' attack.


Othello is the protagonist of the play. He is referred to as the Moor, the commander of Venice's armed forces. His victories at war give him hero status, making him a favorite of many of the Venetians, including Brabantio and Desdemona. He secretly weds Desdemona, provoking Brabantio's anger. He also inflames Iago's anger by promoting Cassio to the rank of lieutenant, a position that Iago covets.

Both Iago and Roderigo despise Othello, though Othello is not aware of this. Othello believes that Iago is an honest man and easily becomes entrapped in Iago's treacherous schemes. Page 658  |  Top of ArticleOthello is awarded the governorship of Cyprus when he (and a big storm) squelch the Turkish navy's attempts to land in Cyprus and take over. It is while in Cyprus that Iago infects Othello with suspicions that Desdemona is unfaithful. Jealousy overtakes Othello's logic. He almost goes mad with the thought of Desdemona going to bed with Cassio. The only way out of his jealous fits, Othello believes, is murder. He orders Cassio's murder and then takes Desdemona's life. Upon hearing that Desdemona was actually innocent, Othello kills himself.

Critics have argued for many years about whether Othello is truly a heroic figure with a tragic flaw or simply an egotistical, self-serving man. Is Othello blinded by his emotional fury or by his myopic vision of the people around him because he is so engrossed in images of himself. How did he fall so far, so quickly? This play is filled with contrasts, especially between the various characters. Othello, however, presents a drastic contrast in and of himself. He is a hero on the battlefield—that is apparent. He has also proven himself a great leader. His love for Desdemona has been defined as one of the best ever dramatized. And yet he is so easily manipulated by Iago. His love gave him strength but it also made him vulnerable.


Roderigo is the rejected suitor of Desdemona. He becomes Iago's pawn, wounds and is wounded by Cassio in an unsuccessful attempt to murder the lieutenant, and then is finally killed by Iago to stop Roderigo from revealing Iago's deceptions. Roderigo is paying Iago to help him win Desdemona. He appears unable to think for himself and is easily controlled by Iago. Roderigo is either frustrated or inspired by Iago, and a few times he is so desperate he wants to kill himself. In the end he agrees to help Iago kill Cassio after Iago points out that Cassio is another potential rival for Desdemona.


Jealousy and Mistrust

Perhaps the predominant impression created by Shakespeare's play Othello is that of the terrible destructiveness of jealousy. Although the main focus of the play is on the protagonist, Othello, many characters are infected with this destructive emotion, making jealousy the major theme that runs through this drama. Through watching this play, audiences also come to realize the relationship between jealousy and a lack of trust.

Jealousy destroys Othello, a once proud and honored military and political leader. Suspicions that his wife, Desdemona, is having an affair racks Othello's brain to the point of epileptic fits, to a complete distortion of reality, and, ultimately, to murder and suicide. Shakespeare demonstrates how powerless a person can become when a series of distorted thoughts is allowed to infect the mind. Although tremendously misguided into his jealous fit through the efforts of the villainous Iago, Othello is unable to trust in his love for Desdemona and to defy the insinuations of Iago. There is a weakness in Othello, Shakespeare contends, that allows the jealousy to first show its ugly head and then to take over Othello's mind. It is that weakness that makes Othello so easy for Iago to manipulate. Othello does not trust Desdemona, maybe does not trust any woman who makes him feel so vulnerable because of his love. Or maybe Othello does not trust himself. Foolishly, Othello trusts Iago more than any one, despite the fact that Iago is the least trustworthy character in this play.

Jealousy makes a person blind to the truth, this play announces. Othello questions Emilia and Desdemona but refuses to listen to their words—he refuses to trust them. He does not think to confront Cassio, who could tell Othello how he came upon Desdemona's handkerchief, the only so-called proof that Iago presents to confirm Desdemona and Cassio are having an illicit affair. It is not until Desdemona tells Othello to ask Cassio for his side of the story that the thought enters Othello's mind. By then it is too late because Othello believes that Cassio has been killed. All of this demonstrates that Othello has forgotten how to think rationally. His emotions have created a mental storm that tosses him about from one wild thought to another, none of which are logical. The green-eyed monster, as Shakespeare has portrayed jealousy, has invaded Othello's mind just as assuredly as an alien might invade a human body in some modern science fiction tale. Similarly, jealousy has turned Othello into a murderous beast. Othello berates Desdemona, slaps her in front of dignitaries visiting from Page 659  |  Top of ArticleVenice, and then after a last kiss, Othello watches Desdemona take her final breath.

It is jealousy and nothing else that topples Othello from the high pedestal upon which he once stood and strips him of his ultimate pleasure in life, his dignity, his reputation, and, finally, his life.

The antagonist, Iago, is also infected with jealousy. However, Iago seems to use the green-eyed monster to his benefit. Jealousy spurs Iago to think more clearly, and to scheme more clever—though devilish—plots. Jealousy inspires Iago's ambition. Iago is jealous of Cassio, not so much for Cassio himself but for Cassio's position. Iago wants to be the right-hand man to Othello, though he has little respect or fondness for the general. Shakespeare demonstrates, however, that jealousy is not to be trusted. By the end of the play, Iago begins to realize this. He has forgotten that jealousy can make a person blind. In Iago's case, he forgets that people who are aware of his scheme can talk and can expose him. Iago's jealousy also leads him to murder. He tries to kill Cassio, first, but fails. Then he kills Roderigo to silence him. Finally, Iago kills Emilia, his wife, for confessing that she was the one who gave Desdemona's handkerchief to him, implicating Iago in the plot to smear both Desdemona's and Cassio's reputations. Iago is also blinded by jealousy in that he forgets to calculate the consequences of his actions, including his own imprisonment.

In many ways Iago trusts no one. He is smart enough to manipulate everyone, turning their minds to thoughts he wants them to have. The only person he comes close to trusting is Roderigo, one of the biggest fools in this play. Iago tells Roderigo parts of his scheme. This makes Iago vulnerable to Roderigo. The only person that Iago appears to fully trust is himself, which turns out to be his downfall.

Roderigo is also driven by jealousy. He follows along with Iago's plan because he wants to satisfy his jealousy through revenge. He wants Desdemona and will have her one way or the other as if she were a fruit he could pick from a tree. He will put her within his grasp by any means. But Roderigo's only means available is money, which he gives to Iago, trusting Iago is smart enough to buy the tasty Desdemona. Roderigo has no trust in himself and would rather kill himself than not have Desdemona. Roderigo both trusts and mistrusts Iago. But he has no choice but to do whatever Iago tells him; at least until the end of the play.


Iago's manipulation of Othello, if it were not so evil, could be seen as a magnificent accomplishment. Iago is so clever, quick, and thorough in his scheme one cannot help but admit his intelligence. He is the only one who recognizes Othello's weakness and single-handedly brings the great Othello down.

Othello is not the only one who comes under Iago's manipulative spell. Emilia, Iago's wife, obeys him because he taunts her with promised favors. Until the end, Emilia never suspects the harm her husband is brewing. Iago also manipulates Brabantio, twisting Desdemona's father's emotions until Brabantio is ready to kill Othello, or at least send Othello to jail. In addition, Iago manipulates Roderigo, who plays a very needy simpleton that almost anyone could persuade.

Through Iago's manipulation, Shakespeare points out how vulnerable people can be. By stirring their emotions, a wickedly smart person can manipulate other people to do almost anything he or she wants them to do. The play might be said to serve as a warning to guard one's heart and head against the manipulations of a person like Iago, a man with a brilliant mind gone bad.

The Other and Racism

The term referred to as the Other is often used in sociological studies to indicate people in a particular society who do not belong to the predominant majority. An example of the Other in the United States would be women, as well as all people of color, since Caucasian men with European roots make up the dominant ruling group.

In Shakespeare's drama Othello, the protagonist, is considered the Other. Othello is neither a Venetian nor a member of the dominant group living in Cyprus. In both cultures, Othello is an outsider. Othello is a Moor, originally from North Africa. He is possibly (though Shakespeare does not make this completely clear) a black man, a Muslim, or maybe an Arab. What is known is that Othello comes from somewhere other than where he is currently living and is, therefore, a foreigner, a member of a very small minority.

Attitudes of local citizens toward people who might be classified as the Other often fall Page 660  |  Top of Articleinto a range of emotions. Some people, such as Iago in Shakespeare's play, do not like outsiders. This could be due to fear of the unknown traits that a stranger might possess. The dominant class of a society might also be jealous of an outsider because that person might exhibit strengths that come across as unusual and unattainable by the local majority group. The dominant class might also feel threatened by people who belong in a minority group because they do not understand them. On the other end of emotions, people in the dominant class might be in awe of someone whom they consider the Other. They may venerate someone who is not like them, believing this so-called Other to be exotic and maybe even godlike. This has happened in Native American and Polynesian cultures when they first encountered white people arriving in ships, brandishing guns, bringing modes of transportation and weapons that the local culture had never before imagined.

In Othello, the duke looks upon Othello as the great warrior, the valiant man who will protect Venice and Cyprus. The duke is impressed with Othello's battle victories. It is possible that because the duke is so taken by Othello (and his qualities of Otherness), that he appoints Othello to govern Cyprus. The duke might have seen Othello as a symbol of strength and been blind to Othello's weaknesses because the duke was not looking at Othello as a man or a contemporary but rather as an exotic entity who lived in a realm somewhat elevated above the common Venetian. Because Othello was later so overcome by jealousy, he must have had a serious character flaw—one that the duke might have noticed in someone of his own kind but either overlooked or failed to see in Othello because the duke only noticed Othello's differences.

Desdemona also seems to be taken by Othello; she might not have been so influenced by another man of her own culture. She is impressed with Othello's stories about his victories, which help her to create an image of the man, rather than seeing the man himself. Had she probed deeper into Othello's personality, she might have gotten to know him better and been forewarned of his insecurities. Because she was so enthralled by Othello's Otherness, Desdemona could not imagine, for example, that Othello could ever be so weak as to become jealous. She might have saved her marriage, or at least her life, if she had seen Othello more realistically.

Iago and Roderigo, however, are not so blinded. Their impressions take another route. They curse Othello and call him names. Their opinions of the Other lead them to embrace racism, a negative reaction to people who do not belong to the dominant culture. Iago, in particular, demeans Othello, referring to him as an animal, a "black ram." He also calls Othello a devil. Brabantio also stoops to racist reactions. There was a time when Brabantio was in awe of Othello, like the duke was. But this was before Brabantio discovers that his daughter, Desdemona, is involved with Othello. Brabantio goes from being impressed with Othello to believing that Othello has drugged and bewitched Desdemona. Brabantio cannot think of another reason why Desdemona would fall for someone who belongs outside the class of people to which they belong. Once Othello touches Desdemona, Brabantio looks upon Othello as a wild, bewitching Other and no longer as a great warrior.

Othello is not the only one who is cast as the Other. Women are also placed in this realm. Iago makes insulting comments to Desdemona and Emilia, describing, first his wife and then women in general, as being noisy and worthless except in bed. There is no way that Iago can look upon women as equals. Even Othello, in the throes of his jealous rage, curses women as if they did not belong to the same human race as he does. And often gentle Cassio relegates Bianca to a position not only beneath him but below other women, using her to satisfy his needs then casting her aside when he tires of her, treating her as a servant more than as a lover. One could read into Bianca's role the summation of Shakespeare's theme of the Other. Bianca will never be accepted into the society because she does not play by the accepted society's rules. She will remain forever on the fringes, the outsider. She is used to benefit that society and is quickly forgotten or ignored at the first sign of weakness or exposure, and then told that she is no longer needed because she does not fit in.


Honesty is mentioned several times in this play. One character states that another character is honest, thus establishing a high standard for that character and creating trust in the relationships that are developed. Othello believes that Iago is an honest man, for instance, and Page 661  |  Top of Articletherefore listens to everything that Iago tells him without making much effort to evaluate what he hears. Iago states that Cassio is honest, but he does so for an entirely different reason. By mentioning honesty, Iago is really trying to plant a doubt in Othello's mind, hinting that maybe this evaluation of Cassio might not be quite true. Desdemona's uncle, Lodovico, claims that Desdemona is an honest woman, thus throwing suspicion on Othello's state of mind.

Despite the many allusions to honesty, deception runs rampant in Othello. It is the contrast between the higher principle of honesty and the lower practice of deception that furthers the drama in this play. The clash between the two concepts drives the plot and adds tension.

It is interesting to note that if the audience was not aware of the deception going on in the play, if the audience were kept in the dark as are Desdemona and Othello (and most of the other characters), the play would not be quite as interesting or exciting. Shakespeare allows the audience to hear Iago's thoughts, so they can see how deceptive Iago is. When Iago tells Othello that he loves him, for example, the audience knows, without a doubt, that Iago is lying. This makes Iago appear more treacherous and makes the audience become involved in the play to the point of wanting to warn Othello to beware. In contrast, by the time most of the characters become aware of all the deception in this play, it is too late. They have all become pawns and have fallen victim to the most deceptive man, Iago. Although Iago is a master of deception, he does not get away with it in the end. Shakespeare's play demonstrates that, although deception might further a person's plan to a certain point, lying to gain what a person wants is evil and carries with it serious punishment.

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  • Research the history of the relationship between the Turkish Empire and the Republic of Venice. Create a timeline of their clashes and prepare a presentation for your class of the wars, the territory fought over, and the results. Also provide a background, from both points of view (Turkish and Venetian), of the two cultures and the motivations behind those conflicts.
  • Venice was once the richest city in Europe. How did Venice gather its wealth? How did the city spend it? Who were the wealthiest families? And where did this wealth come from? Look into the economy of Venice in the fourteenth and fifteen centuries. Write out a report, supported by statistics, about Venice at the height of its prosperity.
  • Write a poem to Desdemona from Othello. The setting is after Desdemona's death and after Othello has discovered Iago's scheme. Pretend that Othello is in jail, awaiting his own death sentence. What would Othello want to tell Desdemona before he dies?
  • Critics have argued that, although Iago had some reasons for his dastardly deeds, there is nothing to explain why he was so evil. Pretend you are Iago's defense lawyer. Come up with reasons why he should not be hanged, even if you can find no proof from the lines in the play and have to manufacture your reasons. Pretend your class is the jury and present your case.



Shakespeare often uses imagery in Othello to explain a character's emotion without describing that emotion in detail. In this play, the author uses animal imagery, in particular, as well as other elements occurring in the natural world. For example, in act 1, Iago describes Othello as a black ram, providing the audience not only with a color but the notion of Othello being the odd man out, such as the black sheep in the midst of a white woolly flock. The word ram also carries sexual overtones; and this is very apparent in the complete statement of Iago's when he says: "an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe." Here Iago is insinuating that Othello is having sex with Desdemona. In other words, if Othello is the black ram, then Desdemona must be the white ewe (a female sheep). The use of animal imagery in this instance also brings out the banality of the sex act, as if the two (Othello Page 662  |  Top of Articleand Desdemona) were merely having sex without any feelings of love attached to it. They, and especially Othello, are like animals, given over to the base instincts of the body.

Also in act 1, Iago refers to a "knee-crooking knave," who "Wears out his time, much like his master's ass." Everyone knows (at least in Shakespeare's time they did) that an ass (a donkey) is a work animal without much esteem or intelligence. Iago uses this image to explain that he does not want to be at the beck and call of Othello, merely because Othello is his superior. If Iago were to give in to all of Othello's orders, then Iago would be no better than an "ass," a dumb animal that does what it is told with little or no reward. Without having to put this all into words, Shakespeare allows the imagery to speak for him.

Later in the same act, Iago compares Othello to a horse. Iago is trying to impress on Brabantio that someone unworthy of his daughter is trying to impregnate her. Iago demeans Othello through several lines of imagery, referring not only to Othello as a "Barbary horse," but taking the imagery even further: "you'll have your nephews neigh to you, you'll / have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans." Shakespeare's audiences would have recognized all these images. A Barbary horse is a horse that comes from the Barbary Coast, which is the north coast of Africa, thus the audience would have known this was an allusion to Othello. A courser is a race horse; and gennets are Spanish horses, with the word "germans" standing for "family." In other words, if Brabantio allows Othello to get Desdemona pregnant, Brabantio will end up with a family of offspring that are less than human. This image would certainly make a deep impression on Brabantio. The image of Brabantio's daughter giving birth to horses would turn any father's stomach.

It is through images such as these that Shakespeare excites his audiences. To have Iago merely state that Othello is a bad man or an unfit husband is too vague a statement. These words are too abstract. Shakespeare does not want his audience to be free to create their own impressions. Instead he gives them very specific pictures, imbued with emotions, with which to fill their minds.

Lack of Subplot

Othello is unique among Shakespeare's plays because it lacks a subplot. A subplot is a series of actions that occur in a play (or novel) that are interlinked with the main plot but are not as important. For example, in the movie Superman, the relationship that develops between Superman and Lois Lane would be considered a subplot. Many of Shakespeare's plays have subplots. But Shakespeare did not include one in Othello. This makes the scheming of Iago and the emotional turmoil of Othello incredibly focused. The audience has little more to think about except how evil is Iago and how vulnerable is Othello. Subplots are often used to add complexity to a drama. Shakespeare must have realized that the emotional turmoil in Othello added as much complexity as this drama could stand.


Shakespeare uses asides in his plays to allow the audience a glimpse into the mind or thoughts of his characters. By using an aside, it is as if a character is talking to him- or herself out loud. Sometimes actors reciting asides look at the audience, as if the actor is aware that the audience is watching and wants to share some information with them. Asides are usually said when only one character is on the stage, or when a character has moved to the side of the stage away from the other characters, thus keeping whatever is said a secret. Less often, asides are shared between two characters, with the audience, of course, listening in.

In Othello, Iago uses asides a lot, almost as if he cannot keep his own mischief secretly locked up inside of him. He must tell someone and let someone know how clever he is. For example, in act 1, scene 3, right after Roderigo leaves, Iago calls Roderigo a fool in an aside. Iago says: "Thus do I ever make my fool my purse." It is during this aside that Iago confesses his hatred for Othello.

In some ways, asides can be used as a narrator is used in a novel. Asides can fill in information that the author wants the audience to know, details that are not included in dialog. Asides are also very important in drawing the audience into the drama. If the audience shares a secret, they feel a part of the scheme that is being hatched on stage.


The handkerchief used in Othello is a symbol, standing for different things at various times in Page 663  |  Top of Articlethis play. For Othello, the handkerchief is a symbol of his love. When he was given it, he was told it was charged with magic. In some ways, the handkerchief is something like a wedding ring, given to Othello's bride as a sign of his commitment. When Desdemona misplaces the handkerchief, it becomes a prop that Iago will use to cement his insinuations that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. When Cassio discovers it, the handkerchief becomes a special trinket that he wants duplicated. He uses the handkerchief to belittle Bianca. However, when Othello sees Cassio with the handkerchief, the small piece of cloth becomes the proof that Desdemona has been unfaithful. The handkerchief then becomes the symbol of the mortal seal of Desdemona's fate. The handkerchief also seals Iago's fate when Emilia sees it and exposes her husband's scheme.

The power of this symbol is that it raises the audience's attention as well as the tension in the play. The audience does not want Emilia to give the handkerchief to Iago. They do not want Cassio to find it. They do not want Othello to see it in Cassio's hands. When the audience watches Othello react to the presence of the handkerchief after it has been lost, they know that Othello will not stop until he has done harm to Desdemona. The symbol, in this case, almost takes on a role of another character. It grabs the audience's imagination and keeps their eyes glued to the stage. When will the handkerchief next appear, the audience wonders.

Symbols, such as the blue feather in the cartoon story of Dumbo, which gives the baby circus elephant the extra confidence it needs to fly, is a tool that authors use to emphasize the emotional content of the play (movie, novel, etc.). A symbol stands for something else. In the case of the handkerchief, it stands for several things, things that cannot be seen. Love, fidelity, and commitment are abstractions. They are concepts that can only be expressed in words. Shakespeare uses the handkerchief because it is visible, something tangible. The audience can watch as the handkerchief changes hands, changes meaning, and finally changes the directions of the characters' lives.


Every good writer knows that conflict is what makes the story interesting. Readers become bored with a story if there is no conflict. It is through conflict that characters either are bolstered in their confidence, or they completely fall apart. Shakespeare is a master at creating conflict in his plays.

Conflict requires a character to struggle with something. If it is an external conflict, than the protagonist might struggle with another character or some other external element such as nature. If the conflict is internal, than the protagonist is challenged by something inside of him- or herself. In this play, although there are brief bouts of external conflict—the unseen battle between Turkish and Venetian ships; the sword fights or brawls in the streets among Othello's men—most of the conflict is internal, or psychological. The major conflict is the battle that goes on inside Othello's head. Othello must come to terms with his jealousy, which pulls him away from another strong emotion, his love for Desdemona. The plot and the action of the play revolve around how Iago is going to create that conflict and then how Othello is going to deal with it.

When Othello confronts Desdemona, the conflict is said to be interpersonal. Othello must struggle with Desdemona as he tries to understand what has happened and then decide whom he is going to believe, Desdemona or Iago. Othello's brief conflict with Brabantio in the beginning of the play is also interpersonal. That conflict is used to define Othello's character for the good, demonstrating how eloquent Othello is and how well he is accepted and honored in the Venetian council. Othello faces this conflict quite eloquently. His conflict with Desdemona, however, points out Othello's weaknesses. At the end of the play, Othello has a different kind of conflict, this time a conflict with his own actions. He has murdered the woman he loves and learns that he did so through a haze of misinformation and hate. It is too late to change his actions. Just as he succumbs in the conflict with his jealousy, Othello also loses this final conflict.

Prose versus Poetry

Shakespeare's plays are written both in prose and in poetry. He uses both forms to express different feelings in his plays. For example, when Othello stands before the Venetian council to explain his love for Desdemona and rebut Brabantio's claims that he has stolen Desdemona, Shakespeare writes Othello's monologue Page 664  |  Top of Articlein a poetic form. That form is blank verse—unrhymed lines of ten syllables set in the pattern of iambic pentameter, a series of unstressed and stressed syllables. However, as Othello's jealousy takes over his mind, he does not always speak through poetic language and patterns. He begins talking in prose. It is as if Shakespeare is signaling through the use of prose, in these instances, that Othello is losing his composure, his elegance, as well as his rational state of mind. For example, in act 4, scene 1, Othello is desperately trying to grasp the facts. He is talking with Iago, who is implying that Desdemona has been unfaithful. The news hits Othello hard, and just before he falls into an epileptic fit, Othello speaks lines that have no poetry. He almost babbles.

Shakespeare also uses prose when Cassio speaks to Bianca, probably pointing out the ignoble nature of their relationship. Roderigo often talks in prose. This might be used to suggest his lack of intelligence. Whereas Desdemona almost always speaks lines written like poems.


The Moors

Historians have trouble pinpointing exactly who the Moors were. What is suspected is that the Moors were a people, possibly of Berber and Arab descent, living in northern Africa. What is known is that in the eight century, people called Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula, which today contains both Spain and Portugal. The Moors brought the Islamic religion to the Iberian Peninsula, which until then had been a Christianized area. The Moors ruled most, and later only parts, of the peninsula for seven centuries. They were eventually driven out of their last stronghold in southern Spain in the year 1492, a date that corresponds to Columbus's sailing to the New World.

The origin of the word Moor has been traced to Greek as well as Latin words that translate as "black" or "very dark." Some sources refer to Moors as being Berbers, who, for the most part, were light skinned and blue-eyed. Other sources state that the term Moor was used to designate people of the Muslim faith. The names Morocco and Mauritania are said to be derivatives of the word Moor.


Venice sits in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon, surrounded by water and marshes in northeast Italy at the head of the Adriatic Sea. This was an ancient, strategic naval position; by the twelfth century, Venice had a strong navy and enjoyed its status as a major trade center between Europe, the Byzantine Empire and Muslim countries to the east. By the thirteenth century, Venice was the richest city in Europe. The most prosperous Venetian families ruled the Great Council, which was the political body that governed the city, with a duke as its head. Although the republics that flanked Venice were vehemently Christian, often persecuting those who did not practice this religion, Venice was known for its religious tolerance.

By the fourteenth century, Venice dominated the trade of the Adriatic Sea and had many colonies in the Middle East. During the fifteenth century, the Venetians went to battle with the Ottoman Turks several times, as well as with several republics that today make up modern-day Italy, such as Milan and Florence. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, Venice lost a great battle to the Turks and had to concede much of its previously conquered territories. In 1489, Venice received the island of Cyprus from Caterina Cornaro, who was born in Venice and was the queen of Cyprus due to the untimely death of her husband and son. She was forced by the Republic of Venice to abdicate her throne; that was how Venice came to rule Cyprus.


Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and lies off the southern coast of Turkey. The history of the island is very bloody, with battles fought for centuries to determine who would rule this island country. The island had long been occupied by Greeks, but through the centuries was conquered by other countries, including the Venetian Republic and, in the sixteenth century, Turkey. Today Cyprus is divided into a Turkish portion and a Greek portion. In between these two parts is a sort of no-man's-land, administered by the United Nations to keep the peace.

Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, and Romans took their turns governing this island in the first thousands years B.C.E. In the first centuries C.E., Cyprus was controlled by the Byzantine Page 665  |  Top of Article
Aidan McArdle as Roderigo and Richard McCabe as Iago in Act I, scene i at the Barbican Theatre, London, 2000 Aidan McArdle as Roderigo and Richard McCabe as Iago in Act I, scene i at the Barbican Theatre, London, 2000 (© Donald Cooper/Photostage. Reproduced by permission) Empire, the Islamic Empire, British, and German conquerors, until Venetian officials took over for almost one hundred years beginning in 1489. The Venetian rule ended when the Ottoman Empire, after several attempts, defeated Venice's armies in 1571. The Turks maintained control for several hundred years until they were forced to sign over the island to the British.

Cyprus won its independence in 1960. However, since that time until the present day, the Greek communities on the island have not gotten along with their neighbors, the Cyprus citizens of Turkish descent. That is why, today, the island is still divided.

Aspects of the Elizabethan Theatre

The development of theatres in England captured the imagination of the country's citizens and grew rapidly during Shakespeare's life. Companies of actors were often sponsored by noblemen and sometimes played out of their estates. Smaller troupes traveled throughout the countryside, sometimes performing on a wheeled platform that was pulled from one small township to another. Other groups of actors performed in inns, as the innkeepers were well aware of the money they could make from the audience's needs for drink and food. Other troupes acted out their dramas at local festivals.

There was often great dispute concerning the presence of actors and their audiences. Officials complained that the gathering of these people to perform or to watch plays was a good way to spread disease, as many actors were called vagabonds (or tramps) who went from town to town begging for money and were considered likely to carry communicable diseases. Many of the plays that were performed contained what the upper classes of people defined as lewd material, such as dramas that alluded to sexual intercourse. Plays written by Shakespeare also included this material; critics believe these scenes were written for the common folk, to keep them entertained. Drunken brawls were also a Page 666  |  Top of Articlefrequent occurrence among the audience members, and merchants often complained that their workers too often played hooky so they could watch the plays, thus costing the merchants money. Such complaints were the basis for having playhouses banned from being built inside the city limits of London. So acting troupes displayed their art along the boundaries of the town, across the River Thames, away from the reach of the Corporation of London (the municipal government of the city) but within easy reach of the audiences.

In 1572, strolling acting groups were banned completely. Queen Elizabeth I, however, eventually permitted four noblemen to establish and support their own theater companies. For the most part, the noblemen financed plays that were held on permanent stages that were built in inns. The first proper theater in the area of London was built in Shoreditch in 1576, called simply, The Theatre. Other theaters followed. The best known of these early theaters were: The Curtain, built in 1577; The Rose, built in 1587; the theater that Shakespeare made so popular, The Globe, built in 1599; and The Hope, built in 1613. Many of these theaters were built in the rougher parts of town. For example, The Rose Theatre was built next to a prison, with brothels and bear-baiting arenas all around. Some of these theaters were big enough to hold as many as three thousand people.

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  • 1400s: The Republic of Venice takes control of Cyprus, the third largest of the islands in the Mediterranean Sea.
    1600s: The Ottoman Empire (also called the Empire of Turkey) governs the island of Cyprus.
    Today: After years under British control, Cyprus demands independence. However, Cyprus is made up of Greek and Turkish residents, who continue to fight for control. Today, the island is divided into four main sections: in the south, the Republic of Cyprus; the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus; the United Nations controlled Green Line Section dividing the north from the south; and the British Base Areas.
  • 1400s: After 700 years of ruling the Iberian Peninsula, the Moors are forced to leave.
    1600s: As Spanish ships claim lands farther to the east, they come upon Muslim people in the Philippines and refer to them as Moors.
    Today: Some scientists classify people as Moors based on language. They claim that people who speak the Hassaniya dialect of Arabic and live mainly in the western Sahara Desert and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania are Moors. In the Spanish language, the term Moors corresponds to any one of the Muslim faith. Derivatives of the word Moor in Latin mean "black."
  • 1400s: Venice maintains a naval prominence in the Mediterranean waters, capturing Corfu, the Dalmatian Coast, Zante, and finally Cyprus. Then Venice begins to acquire more land on the mainland of the Adriatic Sea.
    1600s: Its political and maritime powers decline, but Venice retains its reputation as a haven for and promoter of the arts.
    Today: Despite the corrosion of the ancient buildings by the polluted waters that stream through the city, Venice has become one of Italy's most popular tourist destinations.

Most of these early theaters did not have roofs, except for over small portions of the stage and a tiered group of expensive seats. People who could not afford a seat stood in an open-air amphitheater called a pit, which was found at the front of the stage. The Globe, which housed Shakespeare's company of actors, Page 667  |  Top of Articlecalled The Lord Chamberlain's Men, or later, The King's Men, was built to these typical specifications. An example of a completely roofed theater, popular with the gentry and more expensive to attend, was the Blackfriars Theatre. The land on which the Blackfriars Theatre was built was once owned by a group of Catholic, Dominican monks (hence the name), thus the land was considered exempt from city governance. Shakespeare's plays were often played on this stage; Othello was one of the plays that was performed here.

Although no effort or money was typically put into scenery during Shakespeare's time, a lot of attention and investment did go into the costumes and became an acting group's most important possessions. Through costume and makeup, young boys were able to conceal their masculinity and play the roles of women, such as Desdemona.

Elizabethan Women

Why is the character of Desdemona so passive about losing her life? Why is Emilia so compliant with her husband? Part of the reason for this might have had something to do with the role of women in Elizabethan England.

Elizabethan women were not allowed to go to school, for one thing, although they were allowed to study under a private tutor. Neither did Elizabethan women have the right to vote. For the most part, these sixteenth-century women stayed home, had children, and helped to raise them. The only professions open to women were domestic ones, such as cooks, housekeepers, and maids. A few women worked in the arts, but they were not allowed on stage.

The husband was seen as the head of the family, but this did not give him the right to abuse his wife. A husband could rebuke his wife, but hitting her was considered socially improper, with extensive abuse being illegal. But the general overall consensus of the time was that women were to obey their husbands at all times because men knew more than women. This, of course, caused a bit of a controversy with the strong Queen Elizabeth I at the helm. Still, members of the royal families were allowed more leeway in their behavior than ordinary women.


Othello was first produced in 1604. Throughout the next twenty years or so, the play was staged on an almost continual basis. By some historic accounts, it was in the 1630s, that one of the first roles played by a female on England's professional stage was that of Othello's Desdemona. The first real African-American person to play the title role of Othello was Ira Aldridge. Prior to this, white actors used "blackface," a type of makeup, when playing African-American roles. For almost forty years, from 1826 until 1865, Aldridge continued to act out this role all over Europe but not in the United States, the country of his birth. In 1865, while playing Othello and in the midst of the fourth act of the play, Aldridge died on stage. It would not be until 1943 that an African-American man, Paul Robeson, played Othello in the United States. Although the play was a Broadway success, it displeased segregationists. However, according to Michael Neill, in his essay "Othello and Race," one critic was so moved by the power of Robeson's performance that after seeing Robeson play the role of Othello, he stated "that 'no white man should ever dare play the part again.'"

Although Othello has been a major hit with audiences, mostly due to the dramatic plot, some critics have not responded well to the play. For example, George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), himself a dramatist, wrote in 1907 that he thought Othello was "pure melodrama." As recorded in A Casebook on Othello, Shaw's essay, "Othello: Pure Melodrama," goes on to state that "There is not a touch of character in it that goes below the skin; and the fitful attempts to make Iago something better than a melodramatic villain only make a hopeless mess of him and his motives." However, even Shaw could not help but praise Shakespeare's gift of words. Shaw continued by stating that despite these flaws, the play "remains magnificent by the volume of its passion and the splendor of its word-music, which sweep the scenes up to a plane on which sense is drowned in sound. The words do not convey ideas: they are streaming ensigns and tossing branches to make the tempest of passion visible."

Over the production history of this play, critics have argued which role, Othello's or Iago's, was the most dramatic. Actors have switched from one role to the other, trying the Page 668  |  Top of Articlecharacter's voice on, trying to decide the same thing. Probably in no other play of Shakespeare's is it so difficult to decide which role dominates the other. In his essay, "The Noble Othello," A. C. Bradley chose to focus on Othello, whom he calls the "greatest poet of them all," referring to the strong lines that Shakespeare wrote for this character. Despite Othello's linguistic abilities and his confidence in his speech, Othello has many dangers to face. He is noble but vulnerable. Bradley wrote. "Othello's mind, for all its poetry, is very simple. He is not observant. His nature tends outward. He is quite free from introspection, and is not given to reflection. Emotion excites his imagination, but it confuses and dulls his intellect." Other reasons for Othello's vulnerability, according to Bradley, are that "his trust, where he trusts, is absolute. Hesitation is almost impossible in him. He is extremely self-reliant, and decides and acts instantaneously."

Elmer Edgar Stoll, writing in his essay "Othello: Tragedy of Effect," praises Shakespeare for his creation of the protagonist Othello. Stoll states that Othello is made the grandest and noblest of Shakespeare's lovers; and it is only through Iago's overwhelming reputation for honesty and sagacity, the impenetrableness of his mask together with the potency of his seductive acts, that he [Othello] is led astray and succumbs. "For the highest tragic effect it is the great and good man that succumbs." T. S. Eliot in his essay, "The Hero Cheering Himself Up," also praises Shakespeare by examining Othello's last speech of the play. The speech, Eliot states, exposes Othello's lack of humility, through Shakespeare's great ability to understand human nature. "What Othello seems to me to be doing in making this speech is cheering himself up. He is endeavouring to escape reality, he has ceased to think about Desdemona, and is thinking about himself. Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself." Eliot then concludes: "I do not believe that any writer has ever exposed this bovarysme, the human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare."

G. K. Hunter found the character of Othello very interesting and Shakespeare's creation very dramatic and true to life. In his essay "Shakespeare and the Traditions of Tragedy," Hunter described Othello in this way:

Othello is an underling not because he fails to be a 'master of his fate' but because he is human. Faced by the intensity of total commitment, absolute love, men must be underlings because they are not gods, because they are vulnerable, they mistake, rage, fall down, become comic grotesques, as Othello does when he tries to listen in on Cassio and Iago talking about Bianca. Under such circumstances love for the best of men can be no more than a commitment to the fallible. However heroic the commitment, however true the perception of an ineffaceable goodness, the rot cannot be stopped nor the wrong step redirected. For the quality of faith in another, which is the highest expression of love, is necessarily tragic when the faith is fastened to a frail and changeable object, alias a human being. Othello is simultaneously the most glamorous of Shakespeare's heroes and the most vulnerable; and the simultaneous presence of these two opposed qualities is not used to mark a division in Othello's nature … but rather a necessary condition of the heroic presence.

Anthony Davies, writing a historic background of the play for the book The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, wrote that "Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt alike praised the rich contrasts between its [the play's] characters and the skill of its design." Davies continued: "Although some 19th-century Americans … found the play's depiction of interracial marriage objectionable … most 19th-century critics found Othello convincingly noble."

David Bevington, writing in his essay "Shakespeare the Man," used the play to reflect on Shakespeare himself. Bevington wrote,

We are safe in saying only that a play like Othello must reveal his [Shakespeare's] own intense feelings about jealousy and his humane view of it: the emotional devastation, the self-blindness, the sorrow experienced for failing in this way, the self-accusation, the willingness finally to acknowledge with generosity of spirit that the fault was the man's alone, the need for remorse, and the unwillingness to forgive oneself.

And finally, Bernard Spivack, as quoted in Arthur M. Eastman's A Short History of Shakespearean Criticism, wrote: "The feeling between [Othello and Desdemona] scales love's loftiest romance and expresses more acutely than anywhere else in the English drama, the refinement of sexual love in the sentiment and literature of Renaissance Europe, the evolution of l'amour curtois to its richest spiritual possibilities." Shakespeare was able to do this, Spivack Page 669  |  Top of Articlewrote, because of the contrasts that the poet set up in his play.

In a sense their [Desdemona's and Othello's] union is a proposition and the play their battlefield, testing whether love so conceived and dedicated can long endure. But poetry is at work upon the proposition to transform it into sensation, and commentary at its best can only hint at the immediate experience the play gives us of gentle Desdemona and the noble Moor.


Ruth Cowhig

Cowhig provides background on blacks in England during Shakespeare's time, stressing the use of racial stereotypes in the dramas of the period. Observing that black people were typically depicted as stock villains, she suggests that Shakespeare's presentation of the noble, dignified Othello as the hero of a tragedy must have been startling to Elizabethan audiences. Cowhig also examines how several characters in the play, especially Iago, are racially prejudiced. Iago's racism is the source of his hatred of Othello, she claims, and he plays on the prejudices of other characters to turn them against the Moor. Importantly, Cowhig emphasizes that, although Shakespeare consistently challenges stereotypes with his depiction of Othello, he also demonstrates that, in a white society, the Moor's color isolates him and makes him vulnerable.

It is difficult to assess the reactions and attitudes of people in sixteenth-century Britain to the relatively few blacks living amongst them. Their feelings would certainly be very mixed: strangeness and mystery producing a certain fascination and fostering a taste for the exotic: on the other hand prejudice and fear, always easily aroused by people different from ourselves, causing distrust and hostility. This hostility would be encouraged by the widespread belief in the legend that blacks were descendants of Ham in the Genesis story, punished for sexual excess by their blackness. Sexual potency was therefore one of the attributes of the prototype black. Other qualities associated with black people were courage, pride, guilelessness, credulity and easily aroused passions—the list found in John Leo's The Geographical History of Africa, a book written in Arabic early in the sixteenth century and translated into English in 1600. Contemporary attitudes may have been more influenced by literary works such as this than by direct experience; but recently the part played by such direct contacts has been rediscovered. The scholarly and original study [Othello's Countrymen] by Eldred Jones of these contacts and their effects on Renaissance drama has transformed contemporary attitudes.

Black people were introduced into plays and folk dancing in mediaeval England and later, during the sixteenth century, they often appeared in the more sophisticated court masques. In these, the blackness was at first suggested by a very fine lawn [linen fabric] covering the faces, necks, arms and hands of the actors. Then black stockings, masks and wigs were used; such items are mentioned in surviving lists of properties [theater "props"]. These characters were mainly valued for the exotic aesthetic effects which their contrasting colour provided. The culmination of this tradition can be seen in Ben Jonson's Masque of Blackness in 1605, which he produced in answer to Queen Anne's request that the masquers should be 'black-mores at first'. The theme is based upon the longing of the black daughters of Niger to gain whiteness and beauty. This surely contradicts the idea that Elizabethans and Jacobeans were not conscious of colour and had no prejudice: the desirability of whiteness is taken for granted!

Elizabethan drama also used Moorish characters for visual effects and for their association with strange and remote countries. In [Christopher] Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, for instance, the three Moorish kings play little part in the plot, and have no individual character. Their main contribution to the play is in adding to the impression of power and conquest Page 670  |  Top of Article
Julia Stiles and Mekhi Phifer in a scene from the movie O Julia Stiles and Mekhi Phifer in a scene from the movie O (Reproduced by permission of The Picture Desk, Inc.) by emphasising the extent of Tamburlaine's victories. Their blackness also provides a variety of visual effects in the masques. Marlowe's plays reflect the curiosity of his contemporaries about distant countries, and must have whetted the appetites of his audiences for war and conquest; but the black characters are seen from the outside and have no human complexity …

Only as we recognise the familiarity of the figure of the black man as villain in Elizabethan drama can we appreciate what must have been the startling impact on Shakespeare's audience of a black hero of outstanding qualities in his play Othello. Inevitably we are forced to ask questions which we cannot satisfactorily answer. Why did Shakespeare choose a black man as the hero of one of his great tragedies? What experience led the dramatist who had portrayed the conventional stereotype in Aaron [in Titus Andronicus] in 1590 to break completely with tradition ten years later? Had Shakespeare any direct contact with black people? Why did he select the tale of Othello from the large number of Italian stories available to him?

We cannot answer such questions with certainty, but we may speculate. Until the publication of Eldred Jones' study, Othello's Countrymen, in 1965, it was generally assumed that Shakespeare depended only on literary sources for his black characters. Although the presence of black people in England is well documented, it went unrecognised. There are two main sources of information. One is [Richard] Hakluyt's Principal Navigations, the huge collection of narratives of Elizabethan sailors and traders which Hakluyt collected and published in twelve volumes. Volumes VI and XI describe voyages during which black men from West Africa were taken aboard, brought back to England, and afterwards used as interpreters on subsequent voyages. Later, between 1562 and 1568, [John] Hawkins had the unhappy distinction of being the first of the English gentleman slave-traders; as well as bringing 'blackamoores' to England, he sold hundreds of black slaves to Spain.

The other evidence is in the series of royal proclamations and state papers which call attention to the 'great number of Negroes and blackamoors' in the realm, 'of which kinde of people there are all-ready here too manye'. They were Page 671  |  Top of Articleregarded by Queen Elizabeth as a threat to her own subjects 'in these hard times of dearth'. Negotiations were carried on between the Queen and Casper van Senden, merchant of Lubeck, to cancel her debt to him for transporting between two and three hundred English prisoners from Spain and Portugal back to England by allowing him to take up a similar number of unwanted black aliens—presumably to sell them as slaves. Although the correspondence shows that the deal never materialised, since the 'owners' of these 'blackamoors' refused to give them up, it is clear that there were several hundreds of black people living in the households of the aristocracy and landed gentry, or working in London taverns …

Thus the sight of black people must have been familiar to Londoners. London was a very busy port, but still a relatively small and overcrowded city, so Shakespeare could hardly have avoided seeing them. What thoughts did he have as he watched their faces, men uprooted from their country, their homes and families? I cannot help thinking of Rembrandt's moving study of The Two Negroes painted some sixty years later, which expresses their situation poignantly. The encounter with real blacks on the streets of London would have yielded a sense of their common humanity, which would have conflicted with the myths about their cultural, sexual and religious 'otherness' found in the travel books. The play between reality and myth informs Titus Andronicus: Shakespeare presents Aaron as a demon, but at the end of the play suddenly shatters the illusion of myth by showing Aaron to be a black person with common feelings of compassion and fatherly care for his child. In Othello too there is conscious manipulation of reality and myth: Othello is presented initially (through the eyes of Iago and Roderigo) as a dangerous beast, before he reveals himself to be of noble, human status, only to degenerate later to the condition of bloodthirsty and irrational animalism. It is surely not surprising that Shakespeare, the dramatist whose sympathy for the despised alien upsets the balance of the otherwise 'unrealistic' The Merchant of Venice should want to create a play about a kind of black man not yet seen on the English stage; a black man whose humanity is eroded by the cunning and racism of whites.

Shakespeare's choice of a black hero for his tragedy must have been deliberate. His direct source was an Italian tale from [Geraldi] Cinthio's Hecatommithi (1565); he followed this tale in using the love between a Moor and a young Venetian girl of high birth as the basis of his plot, but in little else. The original story is crude and lacking in subtlety. Cinthio, in accordance with the demands of the time, expresses concern that his tale should have a moral purpose. He gives it as recommending that young people should not marry against the family's wishes, and especially not with someone separated from them by nature, heaven and mode of life. Such a moral has nothing to do with Shakespeare's play, except in so far as he uses it ironically, so his choice of the tale remains obscure. Perhaps he regretted his creation of the cruel and malevolent Aaron, and found himself imagining the feelings of proud men, possibly of royal descent in their own countries, humiliated and degraded as slaves. Whatever his intentions may have been, we have to take seriously the significance of Othello's race in our interpretation of the play. This is all the more important because teachers will find it largely ignored by critical commentaries.

The first effect of Othello's blackness is immediately grasped by the audience, but not always by the reader. It is that he is placed in isolation from the other characters from the very beginning of the play. This isolation is an integral part of Othello's experience constantly operative even if not necessarily at a conscious level; anyone black will readily appreciate that Othello's colour is important for our understanding of his character. Even before his first entry we are forced to focus our attention on his race: the speeches of Iago and Roderigo in the first scene are full of racial antipathy. Othello is 'the thick lips' [I. i. 66], 'an old black ram' [I. i. 88], 'a lascivious Moor' [I. i. 126] and 'a Barbary horse' [I. i. 111-12], and 'he is making the beast with two backs' [cf. I. i. 116-17] with Desdemona. The language is purposely offensive and sexually coarse, and the animal images convey, as they always do, the idea of someone less than human. Iago calculates on arousing in Brabantio all the latent prejudice of Venetian society, and he succeeds. To Brabantio the union is 'a treason of the blood' [I. i. 169], and he feels that its acceptance will reduce Venetian statesmen to 'bondslaves and pagans' [I. ii. 99].

Page 672  |  Top of Article

Brabantio occupies a strong position in society. He

    is much beloved
    And hath in his effect a voice potential
    As double as the Duke's
    [I. ii. 12-14]

according to Iago. Although he represents a more liberal attitude than Iago's, at least on the surface, his attitude is equally prejudiced. He makes Othello's meetings with Desdemona possible by entertaining him in his own home, but his reaction to the news of the elopement is predictable. He is outraged that this black man should presume so far, and concludes that he must have used charms and witchcraft since otherwise his daughter could never 'fall in love with what she feared to look on' [I. iii. 98]. To him the match is 'against all rules of nature' [I. iii. 101], and when he confronts Othello his abuse is as bitter as Iago's.

But before this confrontation, the audience has seen Othello and we have been impressed by two characteristics. First his pride:

    I fetch my life and being
    From men of royal
    siege. [I. ii. 21-2]

and secondly, his confidence in his own achievements and position:

    My services which I have done the Signiory
    Shall out-tongue his complaints.
    [I. ii. 18-19]

It is hard to overestimate the reactions of a Renaissance audience to this unfamiliar black man, so noble in bearing and so obviously master of the situation. But however great Othello's confidence, his colour makes his vulnerability plain. If the state had not been in danger, and Othello essential to its defence, Brabantio's expectation of support from the Duke and senate would surely have been realised. He is disappointed; the Duke treats Othello as befits his position as commander-in-chief, addressing him as 'valiant Othello'. The only support Brabantio receives is from the first senator, whose parting words, 'Adieu, brave Moor, Use Desdemona well' [I. iii. 291], while not unfriendly, reveal a superior attitude. Would a senator have so advised a newly married general if he had been white and equal?

Desdemona's stature in the play springs directly from Othello's colour. Beneath a quiet exterior lay the spirited independence which comes out in her defence of her marriage before the Senate. She has resisted the pressures of society to make an approved marriage, shunning 'The wealthy, curled darlings of our nation' [I. ii. 68]. Clearly, Brabantio had exerted no force: he was no Capulet [in Romeo and Juliet]. But Desdemona was well aware of the seriousness of her decision to marry Othello: 'my downright violence and storm of fortune' [I. iii. 249] she calls it. Finally she says that she 'saw Othello's visage in his mind' [I. iii. 252]: obviously the audience, conditioned by prejudice, had to make the effort to overcome, with her, the tendency to associate Othello's black face with evil, or at least with inferiority.

It is made clear that the marriage between Othello and Desdemona is fully consummated. Desdemona is as explicit as decorum allows:

    If I be left behind
    A moth of peace, and he go to the war,
    The rites for why I love him are bereft me.
    [I. iii. 255-57]

Othello, on the other hand, disclaims the heat of physical desire when asking that she should go with him to Cyprus:

    I therefore beg it not
    To please the palate of my appetite,
    Nor to comply with heat—the young affects
    In me defunct.
    [I. iii. 261-64]

These speeches relate directly to Othello's colour. Desdemona has to make it clear that his 'sooty bosom' (her father's phrase) is no obstacle to desire; while Othello must defend himself against the unspoken accusations, of the audience as well as of the senators, because of the association of sexual lust with blackness.

In Act III Scene iii, often referred to as the temptation scene, Othello's faith in Desdemona is gradually undermined by Iago's insinuations, and he is eventually reduced by jealousy to an irrational madness. Iago's cynical cunning plays upon Othello's trustfulness:

    The Moor is of a free and open nature
    That thinks men honest that but seem to be so.
    [I. iii. 399-400]

The spectacle of Othello's disintegration is perhaps the most painful in the whole Shakespeare canon: and Iago's destructive cruelty has seemed to many critics to be inadequately Page 673  |  Top of Articlemotivated. They have spoken of 'motiveless malignity' and 'diabolic intellect', sometimes considering Iago's to be the most interesting character in the play. I think this is an unbalanced view, resulting from the failure to recognise racial issues. Iago's contempt for Othello, despite his grudging recognition of his qualities, his jealousy over Cassio's 'preferment', and the gnawing hatred which drives him on are based upon an arrogant racism. He harps mercilessly upon the unnaturalness of the marriage between Othello and Desdemona:

    Not to affect many proposed matches,
    Of her own clime, complexion and degree,
    Whereto we see in all things nature tends—
    Foh! one may smell in such a will most rank,
    Foul disproportions, thoughts unnatural.
    [III. iii. 229-33]

The exclamation of disgust and the words 'smell' and 'foul' reveal a phobia so obvious that it is strange that it is often passed over. The attack demolishes Othello's defences because this kind of racial contempt exposes his basic insecurity as an alien in a white society. His confidence in Desdemona expressed in 'For she had eyes, and chose me' [I. iii. 189], changes to the misery of

    Haply for I am black
    And have not those soft parts of conversation
    That chamberers have …
    [III. iii. 263-65]

This is one of the most moving moments in the play. Given Iago's hatred and astuteness in exploiting other people's weaknesses, which we see in the plot he sets for Cassio, the black Othello is easy game. We are watching the baiting of an alien who cannot fight back on equal terms.

Othello's jealous madness is the more terrifying because of the noble figure he presented in the early scenes, when he is addressed as 'brave Othello' and 'our noble and valiant general' [II. ii. 1], and when proud self-control is his essential quality; he refuses to be roused to anger by Brabantio and Roderigo: 'Keep up your bright swords for the dew will rust them' [I. ii. 58]. After his breakdown we are reminded by Ludovico of his previous moral strengths and self-control: 'Is this the nature / Whom passion could not shake?' [IV. ii. 265-66]. Thus the portrait is of a man who totally contradicts the contemporary conception of the black man as one easily swayed by passion. He is the most attractive of all Shakespeare's soldier heroes: one who has achieved high rank entirely on merit. His early history given in Desdemona's account of his wooing is typical of the bitter experience of an African of his times 'Taken by the insolent foe / And sold to slavery' [I. iii. 137-38]. Othello's military career is everything to him, and the famous 'farewell' speech of Act IV, with its aura of romatic nostalgia, expresses the despair of a man whose achievements have been reduced to nothing: 'Othello's occupation gone' [III. iii. 357]. Spoken by a black Othello, the words 'The big wars / That make ambition virtue' [III. iii. 349-350], have a meaning beyond more rhetoric. Ambition was still reckoned as a sin in Shakespeare's time; but in Othello's case it has been purified by his courage and endurance and by the fact that only ambition could enable him to escape the humiliations of his early life. When he realises that his career is irrevocably over, he looks back at the trappings of war—the 'pride, pomp and circumstance' [III. iii. 354], the 'spirit-stirring drum' [III. iii. 352] and the rest—as a dying man looks back on life.

The sympathies of the audience for Othello are never completely destroyed. The Russian actor, Ostuzhev who set himself to study the character of Othello throughout his career, saw the problem of the final scene as 'acting the part so as to make people love Othello and forget he is a murderer'. When Othello answers Ludovico's rhetorical question 'What shall be said of thee?' [V. ii. 293] with the words, 'An honourable murderer, if you will' [V. ii. 294], we are not outraged by such a statement: instead we see in it a terrible pathos. What we are waiting for is the unmasking of Iago. When this comes, Othello looks down at Iago's feet for the mythical cloven hoofs and demands an explanation from that 'demi-devil', reminding us that blackness of soul in this play belongs to the white villain rather than to his black victim.

The fact that Othello was a baptised Christian had considerable importance for Shakespeare's audience. This is made explicit from the beginning when he quells the drunken broil with the words: 'For Christian shame, put by this barbarous brawl' [II. iii. 172]. In the war he was seen to be leading the forces of Christendom against the Turks. But once Othello becomes subservient to Iago and vows his terrible revenge he seems to revert to superstitious beliefs. How else can we interpret his behaviour Page 674  |  Top of Articleover the handkerchief? He seems under the spell of its long history—woven by an old sibyl out of silkworms strangely 'hallowed', given to his mother by an Egyptian with thought-reading powers, and linked with the dire prophecy of loss of love should it be lost. Yet in the final scene it becomes merely, 'An antique token / My father gave my mother' [V. ii. 216-17]. This irrational inconsistency is dramatically credible and suggests that when reason is overthrown, Othello's Christian beliefs give way to the superstitions he has rejected. The Christian veneer is thin …

Shakespeare raises these and other questions about blackness and whiteness without fully resolving them. It rested upon the Elizabethan audience to consider them, this very act of deliberation involving a disturbance of racial complacency. If his purpose was to unsettle or perplex his audience, then he succeeded beyond expectation, for the question of Othello's blackness, and his relation with the white Desdemona, is one that provoked contradictory and heated responses in subsequent centuries.

Source: Ruth Cowhig, "Blacks in English Renaissance Drama and the Role of Shakespeare's Othello," in The Black Presence in English Literature, Manchester University Press, 1985, pp. 1-25.

Wolfgang Clemen

In the essay below, Clemen analyzes the relationship between character and imagery in Othello. He focuses on the characters of Othello and Iago, contrasting the way in which Shakespeare uses language to illustrate their actions and motivations. Othello's language is characterized by self-obsession and an extensive use of imagery; Iago's by a focus on others and a deficit of imagery. Furthermore, argues Clemen, Othello's imagery is dynamic, containing a "swelling opulence and poetic force, while Iago's is static and dry.

In this chapter we shall try to show Shakespeare's art of adapting imagery to the character using it, so that imagery becomes a means of characterizing the dramatis personae. Othello furnishes a particularly good example for a study of this kind, in that it turns upon the relation between two opposite and contrasted characters, Iago and Othello.

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  • Romeo and Juliet, written by Shakespeare in 1595, is another form of a tragic love story. Two young people fall in love but are prohibited by their families from marrying. Their distraught emotions lead them to suicide.
  • Othello: A Novel, published in 1995, is Julius Lester's fictional form of the story told by Shakespeare. In Lester's work, the plot is similar, as are most of the characters. The story takes place in England and revolves around the theme of jealousy.
  • Dr. Kenneth C. Ruge and Barry Lenson have written a book to help explain the syndrome they call the Othello Response, a jealous rage such as the one that Othello succumbs to. The Othello Response: Dealing with Jealousy, Suspicion, and Rage in Your Relationship was published in 2003 and through this book, the authors help readers recognize the signs of jealousy. Through case studies, they show how jealousy can ruin relationships and how readers can get a grip on this pervasive and destructive emotional reaction.
  • In the same year that Shakespeare wrote Othello, he looked at love in another way, writing Measure for Measure (1604). This play has been classified as one of his problem plays, meaning it is hard to tell if this is a romance or a tragedy. In a storyline that twists and turns with disguises and deceptions used to spice the drama, Shakespeare examines sexuality outside of marriage and its repercussions.

The growing connection between imagery and character is a particularly important aspect of the process by which the images become more closely related to the drama. It is part of the more comprehensive development, traceable throughout Shakespeare, whereby each character is eventually given his own language. In the early comedies, as we have seen, the language used by the characters is suited to the atmosphere of the play, but does not grow directly out of their own Page 675  |  Top of Articleindividual nature. We only find, here and there, an adaptation of the language to the various groups of characters: servants speak a language different from that of courtiers, etc. In Shakespeare's "middle period" we discover the beginning of a more subtle differentiation. But this differentiation is as yet restricted to certain outstanding types such as Falstaff and Parolles, the Nurse and Shylock, Mrs. Quickly and Doll Tearsheet. Furthermore it is modified, as in Romeo and Juliet or in the Merchant of Venice, by Shakespeare's tendency to give to whole scenes a certain stylistic pattern which often overrides the consistent individualization of single characters through language. The individu-alization of characters through language in the above-mentioned cases, moreover, mostly consists in the regular and recurrent use of certain obvious features of style and syntax, easy to comprehend and usually few in number. Compared to later plays, Shakespeare uses in general rather simple devices and does not avail himself of all the resources offered by language and style for differentiation. A more subtle and complex characterization through language and imagery could be seen in Richard II. Here, however, it was only the dominant figure of the king who was thus individualized. In the great tragedies we find Shakespeare's technique of characterizing his persons through imagery fully developed. In Hamlet, each character was given his own mode of speech, and from Hamlet to Antony and Cleopatra this discrimination of language applies to all tragedies until, in the romances, we find a notable modification of this technique—indeed, to a certain extent, a decline.

There are several ways of studying imagery as a revelation of character. One is to consider the subject matter of the images, and to ask whether the objects and themes occurring in the imagery stand in a significant relation to the character of the person using the image. Another method of approach is to inquire into the form in which the images appear, and to ask whether the syntax, the context and similar factors might give us a hint of the nature of that relationship. It may also be illuminating to examine the frequency or recurrence of images in the speech of the several persons and the occasions on which they use imagery. The investigation of whether a character adjusts his imagery to his partner in the dialogue may also yield revealing results. Finally, the question whether the imagery of a character runs on the same lines up to the end of the play or undergoes a noticeable change in the course of the drama, may throw some light upon the function of the imagery in indicating a spiritual change in the character.

Othello and Iago have entirely different attitudes towards their images. Iago is consciously looking for those which best suit his purpose. With Othello, however, the images rise naturally out of his emotions. They come to him easily and unconsciously whenever he is talking. He is a character endowed with a rich imagination; it is part of his very nature to use imagery. Iago, on the contrary, is not a person with an imaginative mind; his attitude towards the world is rational and speculative. We find fewer images in his language than in Othello's. When he is alone, he uses scarcely any imagery, a fact which proves that the use of imagery is not natural to him, but rather a conscious and studied device by which he wishes to influence those to whom he is speaking. Iago selects his images with deliberate intent, he "constructs" them in the very same manner as he constructs his whole language. It is not without significance that Iago introduces many of his images with as and like, which we rarely find in Othello's language. The particles as and like show that the speaker is fully conscious of the act of comparing; the comparison is added to the object to be compared as something special. In metaphorical language, however, both elements melt into one; the object itself appears as an image, as a metaphor. This differentiation should not be carried too far, but in this case the preference for comparisons is suited to Iago's conscious and studied manner of speech. Furthermore, Iago's images scarcely ever refer to himself, whereas Othello in his images continually has himself in mind. Iago likes the form of general statement; he places a distance between Page 676  |  Top of Article
Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago from the 1995 film Othello Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago from the 1995 film Othello (Everett Collection) himself and his images. He does not care to identify himself with what he says; he would rather have his utterances understood as being as objective, neutral and general as possible. In Othello's language, however, the personal pronoun I is predominant; he is almost always talking of himself, his life and his feelings. And thus his imagery serves also to express his own emotions and his own nature. This becomes increasingly clear from the very beginning: for instance, in the third scene of the first act, when Othello relates his life to the Duke; in II. i., deeply moved at seeing Desdemona again when he cries out, "O my soul's joy!" and finds that magnificent image; (quoted on p. 123); when he compares his own thoughts to the "Pontic sea" (III. iii. 453); when, finally, he speaks of his love for Desdemona and of his disillusionment in terms of immeasurable passion (v. ii.). In these cases, as in others, with the innocence and frankness characteristic of strong natures who live within themselves, he always takes himself as the point of departure.

In contrast to this, Iago seeks to achieve an effect upon the other characters with his similes and images. He measures his words with calculating guile, attuning them to the person he has to deal with. Consider, for instance, the images which he employs with Roderigo and Cassio in I. iii. or II. i. from this point of view; we find that they are devised to kindle in the brain of the other man a notion that will further his own plans; they are a means of influencing, or they may also be a means of dissimulation. The whole diction then appears attuned to the mood and sphere of the other character. Iago seeks to poison the others with his images; he aims to implant in the minds of his victims a conceit which will gradually assume gigantic proportions.

The fact that Iago speaks so much in prose is likewise characteristic of him. Let us look at his imagery in the following passages:

If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions: but we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts, whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect or scion. (I. iii. 330)

the food that to him now is as luscious as locusts, shall be to him shortly as bitter as coloquintida. (I. iii. 354)

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you are bud now cast in his mood, a punishment more in policy than in malice; even so as one would beat his offenceless dog to affright an imperious lion: (II. iii. 274)

Shakespeare lets Iago clothe his comparisons here in euphuistic style. This shows how conventional stylistic patterns are employed in the tragedies as a means of individual characterization. For precisely this euphuistic style, with its combination of antithesis, consonance and parallelism, corresponds to the cool, and at the same time hypocritical nature of Iago. It would be wholly foreign to the spontaneous and unconscious Othello to force imagery into such an artificial mould of parallelisms and symmetrically constructed periods. The euphuistic pattern of style presupposes that the sentences are carefully prepared, and that they are balanced one against the other, before their utterance. The euphuistic style is an intellectual, hyperconscious child of the brain, combining skilful ingenuity with calculation. All these elements are typical of Iago himself.

The difference between Othello's and Iago's imagery—like everything else in Shakespeare—cannot be reduced to a simple formula. But of all the contradistinctions which might at least give us a hint of this difference, that existing between the concept of the static and of the dynamic comes closest to the real heart of the matter. Iago's images are static, because they are incapable of further inner growth, because the objects appear in a dry and lifeless manner, because—as in those euphuistic passages we have spoken of—a narrow pattern of stylistic construction hinders the further development of the image. The prosaic brevity of Iago's images stands in contrast with the swelling opulence and poetic force of Othello's imagery. This is Iago's way of speaking:

    IAGO. but indeed my invention
    Comes from my pate as birdlime does from frize;
    (II. i. 126)
    He'll be as full of quarrel and offence
    As my young mistress' dog.
    (II. iii. 52)
    Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our
    wills are gardeners;
    (I. iii. 323)

And this is Othello's language:

    OTHELLO. O my soul's joy!
    If after every tempest come such calms,
    May the winds blow till they have waken'd death!
    And let the labouring bark climb hills of seas
    Olympus-high and duck again as low
    As hell's from heaven!
    (II. i. 187)
    Like to the Pontic sea,
    Whose icy current and compulsive course
    Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
    To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
    Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
    Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love,
    Till that a capable and wide revenge
    Swallow them up.
    (III. iii. 453)

Iago would be wholly incapable of the moving poetic language uttered by Othello; and, likewise, Othello could never be the author of Iago's cold and cynical utterances. In Othello's imagery everything is in movement, because everything springs from his own emotion. His images always appear at crucial points of his inner experience; the forcefulness and agitation of his images are an expression of his own passionate nature. Iago, on the other hand, stands not in an emotional, but in a rational relationship to his images.

Through the imagery Othello's emotional nature is revealed to us as highly sensuous, easily kindled and interpreting everything through the senses. Othello's metaphors show us this peculiar activity of all his senses, his tendency to sense all abstract matters as palpable, tastable, audible and visible things. He can only think, even of his retaliation, in terms of extraordinary physical pain:

    Blow me about in winds! roast me in sulphur!
    Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!
    (V. ii. 279)

This last passage may also once again reveal the heightened poetical nature of Othello's imagery, his preference for bright, colourful, intense pictures. This feature can, of course, also be related to Othello's race, and these images thus link up with another group of metaphors, to be discussed later, which reproduce the peculiar colour and atmosphere of Othello's sphere of life.

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A closer examination of the content of Othello's and Iago's imagery reveals further characteristic differences. The objects named by Iago belong to a lower and purely material world, whereas the things alive in Othello's imagination generally belong to a higher sphere. Iago's imagery teems with repulsive animals of a low order; with references to eating and drinking and bodily functions and with technical and commercial terms. In Othello's language, however, the elements prevail—the heavens, the celestial bodies, the wind and the sea—the forces of nature, everything light and moving that corresponds best to his nature. At moments of intense emotion his imagery links heaven and hell together, bearing out his inner relation to the cosmic powers, and revealing the enormous dimensions and power of his imaginative conceptions. Hyperbole is therefore more often found in Othello's imagery than in that used by other Shakespearian heroes. Othello's already quoted welcoming words to Desdemona in Act II may again serve as an example for the breadth of his imaginative world:

    And let the labouring bark climb hills of seas
    Olympus-high, and duck again as low
    As hell's from heaven!
    (II. i. 189)

But the contrast between Othello's and Iago's imagery will perhaps become most clear by comparing how differently the same theme is expressed in the language of each. Miss Spurgeon has already pointed out how differently the sea appears in Othello's and Iago's speech. Iago employs technical maritime terms, and colours some of his images with sailor's jargon. But the sea as a whole does not appear in his imagery. He looks at the sea only from a professional point of view. He is at home on the sea, but only in a practical way.

In Othello's imagination, on the other hand, the sea lives in its whole breadth and adventurous power. In his language it appears as a force of nature and as scenery. Again and again it occurs to Othello for the expression of his inner emotions through vivid, connected images.

We may compare, too, the different ways in which Othello and Iago speak of war and martial life. Iago speaks of the "trade of war" (I. ii. 1) whereas Othello thinks of the "Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war" (III. iii. 354). The life of a soldier is for Iago not an ideal, but a sort of business, in which everything is weighed according to material advantage and recompense. This mercenary attitude betrays itself when he introduces expressions taken from the language of commerce, as in the following passage:

    And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
    At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds
    Christian and heathen, must be be-lee'd and calm'd
    By debitor and creditor.
    (I. i. 28)

Othello's conception of war is worlds apart. He won Desdemona with the simple telling of his adventures and brave deeds as a soldier:

    Of moving accidents by flood and field,
    Of hair-breadth scapes i' the imminent deadly breach,
    (I. iii. 135)

and when, at the climax of the action, he loses his inner balance, it is the life of the soldier, it is war, which appears in his mind. In moving words he takes leave of his beloved element:

    Farewell the plumed troop; and the big wars,
    That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
    Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
    The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
    The royal banner, and all quality,
    Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!
    (III. iii. 349)

Thus in Othello the imagery has the function of making visible to us the contrasting life-sphere and background of the chief characters. In the tragedies Shakespeare treads new paths in order to bring home to us the nature of a character. The sources from which our conception of a character in the drama was formed and fed, were, apart from the action of the play, the character's behaviour in different situations and the words, through which he informs us of his plans, thoughts and feelings, and finally how the other characters react to him and what they say of him. These means of characterization naturally remain effective up to the last plays. But in the great tragedies Shakespeare creates with a greater fullness and differentiation the atmosphere typical of each central character. Othello brings with him the magic spell of distant lands and exotic things; Page 679  |  Top of Articlehis language is tinged with the lustre and strangeness of this other world out of which he comes. Shakespeare will have him understood from the very beginning as the "wheeling and extravagant stranger" (as Roderigo terms Othello in the first scene, I. i. 137). Already Othello's first long speech before the Venetian Senate is suffused with such touches. In the dramatic structure, this speech not only gives us the immediate proof of Othello's innocence, but it also presents us with a colourful picture of the world of Othello's origin. Othello tells of "Cannibals" and "Anthropophagi" and of

    antres vast and deserts idle,
    Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven,
    (I. iii. 140)

In his images we hear further of the "Pontic sea", of the "Propontic", "Hellespont", Ottomites, of Sibyls and strange myths, of a "sword of Spain", the "icebrooks' temper" (V. ii. 253), and of "Arabian trees" (V. ii. 351).

Iago, too, betrays his nature in his language, and this not only when he sets forth his base plans and intentions, or when he tries to entangle and to deceive the other characters. Even those words which at first glance seem to have no bearing upon the immediate issue, can reveal his personality to us. We need only examine what Iago thinks about other people, about love and general human values, in order to know what kind of man he is. If he is thinking of love, the image of rutting animals always makes its appearance in his imagination (I. i. 89; I. i. 112; III. iii. 403). He drags all higher values down to his low level. Whereas Othello characteristically never discusses general human values, Iago delights in defining them in a derogatory way. Love—according to his definition—is only "a sect, or scion" of "our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts" (I. iii. 336). "Virtue! a fig!" he cries, shortly before (I. iii. 322), "honesty's a fool and loses what it works for" (III. iii. 382), and "Reputation is an idle and most false imposition", we read in another passage (II. iii. 268).

Iago betrays to us his own cunning method towards his victims in two characteristic images. He views his action against Othello, Desdemona and Cassio as an ensnaring with the net and as a poisoning:

    … with as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio …
    (II. i. 169)
    And out of her own goodness make the net
    That shall enmesh them all.
    (II. iii. 368)

This image is echoed in Othello's desperate question at the end of his life: "Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?" (V. ii. 302). The idea of poisoning is quite conscious in Iago, when he seeks to awaken that false suspicion in Othello:

    I'll pour this pestilence into his ear,
    That she repeals him for her body's lust;
    (II. iii. 362)
    The Moor already changes with my poison:
    Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons,
    Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
    But with a little act upon the blood
    Burn like the mines of sulphur.
    (III. iii. 325)

Almost everything Iago says—not only his imagery—is marked by this conscious and purposeful quality. Iago always adapts himself to his partner in conversation, he uses his language as a chief means of influence and ensnarement. He is no stranger in this life, like Othello, but is indeed well informed about the abilities and the behaviour of men of the most various states and classes. This already becomes clear in the first sixty-five lines. Here he contrasts types of men and characterizes them with biting comparisons:

    You shall mark
    Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave,
    That, doting on his own obsequious bondage,
    Wears out his time, much like his master's ass,
    For nought but provender, and when he's old, cashier'd:
    (I. i. 44)

Such passages show how much he is accustomed to observe others and how he goes through life with critical and open eyes. In fact, the best and most appropriate judgement of Othello is uttered by him:

    The Moor is of a free and open nature, (I. iii. 405)
    The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not,
    Is of a constant, loving, noble nature,
    (II. i. 297)
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It is precisely this very "open nature" which is revealed in Othello's imagery and causes it to differ so decidedly from Iago's imagery. Othello does not measure his imagery by the effect which it is to have upon others; he speaks what is in his heart. Iago, on the other hand, speaks as it seems expedient to him. Othello's images can therefore be looked upon as a genuine self-revelation, and we quote again the famous passage from the third act:

    Like to the Pontic sea,
    Whose icy current and compulsive course
    Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
    To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
    Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
    Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love,
    Till that a capable and wide revenge
    Swallow them up.
    (III. iii. 453)

This image appears at the critical turning-point of the play: Iago has supplied him with the evidence of the handkerchief, Othello's suspicion is now hardened. The image is a marvel of language in this scene; at the same time, it is premonitory, casting light upon the following, often hardly comprehensible events. Here, in a simile, the tempestuousness and boundlessness of Othello's character find clear expression, a nature, which, when once seized by a real suspicion, rushes violently along this new path, incapable of every half-heartedness, of a return, or of any compromise. To this absoluteness of his character Othello gives metaphorical expression once again in a later passage, when he faces Desdemona in the hour of final decision. The images by which he here reveals to us the fundamental law of his nature no longer have anything in common with "poetic diction"; no language other than the language of imagery could express what is moving Othello at this moment in terms more poignant, more forceful or more convincing.

    But there, where I have garner'd up my heart,
    Where either I must live, or bear no life;
    The fountain from the which my current runs,
    Or else dries up; to be discarded thence!
    Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads
    To knot and gender in! Turn thy complexion there,
    Patience, thou young and rose-lipp'd cherubim,—
    Ay, there, look grim as hell!
    (IV. ii. 58)

The repulsive image of the "cistern for foul toads" is followed by the magnificent vision of "Patience, thou young and rose-lipp'd cherubim"—this bold sequence symbolizes the tremendous tension in Othello's soul and points to the abrupt change which is taking place within him.

It is indeed imagery which announces and accompanies the change that is taking place in Othello. In the third act Othello suffers the first great shock to his feeling of security and—like all of Shakespeare's tragic heroes in suchmoments—he, too, now calls upon the heavenly powers. He swears "by yond marble heaven" (III. iii. 460) and exclaims:

    Arise, black vengeance, from thy hollow cell!
    (III. iii. 446)

From this point on the heavens, the stars and the elements appear again and again in his language. He calls upon all the elements as witnesses and accusers of Desdemona's supposed unfaithfulness:

    Heaven stops the nose at it and the moon winks,
    The bawdy wind that kisses all it meets
    Is hush'd within the hollow mine of earth,
    And will not hear it.
    (IV. ii. 77)

It is not merely chance that in the final scene (v. ii.) the words heaven and heavenly occur seventeen times and that this scene is particularly rich in mighty adjurations of heaven. Himself nearing the end, Othello's imagination seems to be spellbound with the idea of heaven:

    Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
    Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe,
    Should yawn at alteration.
    (V. ii. 99)
    If heaven would make me such another world
    Of one entire and perfect chrysolite,
    I'ld not have sold her for it.
    (V. iii. 144)
    … Are there no stones in heaven
    But what serve for the thunder?
    (V. ii. 234)
    when we shall meet at compt,
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    This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
    And fiends will snatch at it.
    (V. ii. 273)

It is furthermore characteristic of the way in which the imagery portrays Othello's inner alteration, that from that third scene of the third act on, Othello's fantasy is filled with images of repulsive animals such as were up to that point peculiar to Iago. Iago's endeavour to undermine and poison Othello's imagination by his own gloomy and low conceptions has been successful.

Thus an examination of the imagery in Othello has been able to reveal the connection existing between the content of the image and the time of its appearance.

Source: Wolfgang Clemen, "Othello," in The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery, Methuan and Co. Ltd., 1977, pp. 119-32.

Harley Granville-Barker

Granville-Barker examines the dramatic structure of Othello and explicates the relation between Shakespeare's manipulation of time and the theme of sexual jealousy. He maintains that time in Act I passes naturally so that the audience can become familiar with the characters. Act II, however, introduces contractions and ambiguities of time that are sustained until Act V, scene ii, when "natural" time resumes, presenting a comprehensive view of the ruined Moor. The critic contends that the precipitous action is both dramatically convincing, since it hurries the audience along, and consistent with the recklessness of Iago and the pathological sexual jealousy that flaws the character of Othello.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]

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[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]

Ray Fearon as Othello and Zoe Waites as Desdemona in Act V, scene ii, at the Barbican Theatre, London, 2000 Ray Fearon as Othello and Zoe Waites as Desdemona in Act V, scene ii, at the Barbican Theatre, London, 2000 (© Donald Cooper/Photostage. Reproduced by permission)

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[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]

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[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]

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[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]

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[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]

Source: Harley Granville-Barker, "Excerpt," in Prefaces to Shakespeare: Othello, Sidgwick & Jackson, Ltd., 1945, pp. 1-35.


Bevington, David, "Shakespeare the Man," in A Companion to Shakespeare, edited by David Scott Kastan, Blackwell Publishers, 1999, pp. 9-21.

Bradley, A. C., "The Noble Othello," in A Casebook on Othello, edited by Leonard F. Dean, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1961, pp. 139-46.

Davies, Anthony, "Othello," in The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, edited by Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 330-33.

Eastman, Arthur M., A Short History of Shakespearean Criticism, Random House, 1968, pp. 350-51.

Eliot, T. S., "The Hero Cheering Himself Up," in A Casebook on Othello, edited by Leonard F. Dean, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1961, pp. 153-55.

Hunter, G. K., "Shakespeare and the Traditions of Tragedy," in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, edited by Stanley Wells, Cambridge University Press, 1997 pp. 123-41.

Neill, Michael, "Othello and Race," in Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare's Othello, edited by Peter Erickson and Maurice Hunt, The Modern Language Association of America, 2005, pp. 37-52.

Shakespeare, William, Othello, edited by Marie Macaisa and Dominique Raccah, Sourcebooks, Inc, 2005.

Shaw, G. B., "Othello: Pure Melodrama," in A Casebook on Othello, edited by Leonard F. Dean, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1961, pp. 135-38.

Stoll, Elmer Edgar, "Othello: Tragedy of Effect," in A Casebook on Othello, edited by Leonard F. Dean, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1961, pp. 147-52.


Auden, W. H., "The Joker in the Pack," in The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays, Random House, 1948, pp. 246-72.

Auden compares Iago to a practical joker who has no personal feelings or values but contemptuously uses the very real desires of other people to gull and manipulate them. Auden also claims that Othello prizes his marriage to Desdemona not for any great love he holds for her, but rather because it signals to him, mistakenly, that he has fully integrated into Venetian society.

Dash, Irene G., "A Woman Tamed: Othello," in Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays, Columbia University Press, 1981. pp. 103-30.

Dash writes that Othello demonstrates "the cost to husband and wife … of attempting to conform to stereotyped ideals of marriage."

Gregson, J. M., "Othello," in Public and Private Man in Shakespeare, Croom Helm, 1983, pp. 156-76.

Gregson maintains that the characters Othello and Hamlet are opposites, and argues that the true tragedy of Othello is the Moor's inability to separate his public conduct as military leader from his private judgments as husband.

Greenblatt, Stephen, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, W. W. Norton and Company, 2004.

Shakespeare's life is recounted not just through the bard's writing but also through the social, religious, and economic culture that he lived in.

Grudin, Robert, "Contrariety as Structure: The Later Tragedies," Mighty Opposites: Shakespeare and Renaissance Contrariety, University of California Press, 1979, pp. 119-79.

Grudin finds that Desdemona's "type of lamblike femininity" is compelling to Othello but not to Shakespeare and thus, the dramatist demonstrates that her passive helplessness is implicitly ironic, for it "sharpens the impulse to aggression in others." The ambiguities of her virtue are comparable, Grudin maintains, to the complexities of Iago's wickedness.

Hyman, Stanley Edgar, Iago: Some Approaches to the Illusion of His Motivation, Atheneum, 1970.

Hyman assesses Iago's motives from five different critical perspectives, alternately questioning whether the ensign should be viewed as "a stage villain, or Satan, or an artist, or a latent homosexual, or a Machiavel." A pluralistic approach to this issue, Hyman argues, demonstrates the "tension, paradox, and irony" in Shakespeare's portrayal of Iago, while a single line of inquiry can only produce one perspective that is "inevitably reductive and partial."

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Neely, Carol Thomas, "Women and Men in Othello: 'What should such a fool / Do with so good a woman?'" in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, University of Illinois Press, 1980, pp. 21-39.

Analysis of the kinship of the women in Othello and the heroines in Shakespeare's comedies which emphasizes their similar capacities to initiate courtship, tolerate men's fancies, and balance romantic idealism with a realistic view of sexuality.

Nicolle, David, The Moors: The Islamic West 7th-15th Centuries A.D., Osprey Publishing, 2001.

A history of battles and religious differences, as well as a richly diverse culture is presented in this history of the Moors in Europe.

Shapiro, James, A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599, Harper Perennial, 2006.

Shapiro focuses on one year of the playwright's life, a year filled with special events in drama as well as in politics and the influences of these events on Shakespeare.

Vaughn, Virginia Mason, Othello: A Contextual History, Cambridge University, 1997.

Vaughn follows the production of Othello through the centuries, analyzing its effect on various cultures.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2896100031