Making Sense of Othello

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, there are few, if any, that could fairly be called superior to Othello (though Titus Andronicus and Macbeth rest at the top of my list in that order with Othello placing a close third).  It tells the story of the title character, a Moorish general, assumed by many critics to be Black, though the hue of his skin has been of some debate, who marries, without the consent of her father, Desdemona, a Venetian woman (or perhaps girl, though her age is not specified, it is assumed she is quite young).  Jealousy and deceit ensue and the play ends in tragedy.  Just as Merchant of Venice (also set in Venice), took on a very different meaning to readers post-Holocaust, Othello has taken on a very different context, perhaps most especially in America, with conversations about race coming to the forefront, but the work is also relevant to contemporary issues of domestic abuse.  Aside from these issues, the play offers other complexities and begs the reader to ask: who exactly is the protagonist of this play?  Each of these layers makes the play as relevant today as when it was first produced.



Julia Stiles played a contemporary version of Desdemona in the 2001 production of "O".

Julia Stiles played a contemporary version of Desdemona in the 2001 production of “O”.

The focus then, for many scholars, is on race (though not exclusively).  The problem of course is that the word race had a very different meaning when this play was written than it does now, and this is made abundantly clear by the fact that the word race does not appear once in the entirety of the play despite the fact that ‘race’ makes up so much of the conversation regarding Othello.  As of 1547, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word race meant: “A group of people belonging to the same family and descended from a common ancestor; a house, family, kindred”.  This aligns race with family, not skin colour.  It also meant, as early as 1572: “A tribe, nation, or people, regarded as of common stock”, tying the word in more with nationality than what most perceive as ‘race’ today.  The words ‘racism’ and ‘racist’, which are problematic for a host of reasons I describe here, were not even listed as being in use by the OED until the 1920’s, and so, to call any of the characters racist, or imply that racism was central to the play is misguided because the understanding of ‘race’ was far different then than it is now.  Some scholars have argued that it is misguided to refer to works written before the first wave of feminism as feminist simply because the social meaning of the word did not exist in those times.  Likewise it is equally problematic to apply words race in such instances.  I think referring to Othello as ‘other’ rather than being of a different ‘race’ is more suitable.  I believe, though, that the play is largely about jealousy, and less about this otherness, though it is clear that otherness is an integral and extremely import part of the narrative.


Before becoming famous to Fan Boys for his roles as Magneto in "X-Men" and Gandolff in "The Lord Of the Rings", Ian McKellen helped solidify is reputation as one of the great Shakespearean actors by playing Iago in a stage adaptation of "Othello".

Before becoming famous to Fan Boys for his roles as Magneto in “X-Men” and Gandolff in “The Lord Of the Rings”, Ian McKellen helped solidify is reputation as one of the great Shakespearean actors by playing Iago in a stage adaptation of “Othello”.

Jealousy is what propels the play.  Iago for example professes his jealousy in the first scene.  Cassio has been decorated with a position by Othello that Iago believes he should have been awarded.  This has an interesting piece of dialogue behind it that argues for experience over education.  Cassio is an academic, where Iago has no schooling, but believes his experience is more valuable than Cassio’s education.  There is also an inference that Iago believes himself more deserving than Othello himself, and also rumours that Iago’s wife has been unfaithful to Iago and has cheated on him with Othello.  Iago also recognizes the beauty of Desdemona, Othello’s bride, and perhaps desires her himself.  All of these seem to generate a perfect storm for Iago who puts into motion a complicated plan that eventually leads to tragedy.  Iago knows jealousy better than anybody in the play and knows how to inspire it in others.  He inspires it in Roderigo and Othello alike, and their misdeeds are in turn motivated by jealousy.  Though it is true that both Iago and Barbantio, Desdemona’s father, make derogatory references about Othello regarding the colour of his skin, the Duke and senators and even Desdemona’s uncle and cousin make no such comments.  Their judgements are based on Othello’s actions.  It is the content of their character and not the colour of their skin, as Dr. Martin Luther King might have said, that the people judge Othello on.  So it seems as though ‘race’ is perhaps not intended to be as big a component to the narrative as contemporary readers make it out to be.  It is jealousy and not race that the author seems eager to explore with this narrative.


Screen legend Laurence Olivier played both Othello and Iago in his career, and, ever the experimentalist, portrayed Iago as a homosexual with a jealous attraction to Othello.

Screen legend Laurence Olivier played both Othello and Iago in his career, and, ever the experimentalist, portrayed Iago as a homosexual with a jealous attraction to Othello.

The puzzle of the play is attempting to discern who the protagonist is.  While the simple answer is Othello, as he is the title character, he is justifiably seen as the villain by the characters that people the play.  He allows himself to be manipulated and is moved to murder.  He is weak, easily duped, unquestioning, unreasonable, unthinking, unable to listen, and he allows his jealousy to move him to homicide.  While it is easy for some to suggest after the final curtain that Othello’s actions were the result of manipulation, this is problematic.  Even had Othello been correct about his assumptions, which he wasn’t, he did not act in a just manner.  If Desdemona had cheated on him, it did not give him cause to strike her, much less murder her.  Divorce her?  Yes.  Abandon her?  Yes.  Infidelity does not warrant the death penalty, so even if his suspicions were true; his actions were grossly out of line.  That said, his suspicions were not true and his inability to discern truth from fiction makes him an even more pathetic character.  For me, it is hard to think of a character that is willing to murder over an infidelity as anything other than an antagonist.


The beautiful Maggie Smith played Desdemona alongside Laurence Olivier in the 1965 film adaptation of "Othello".

The beautiful Maggie Smith played Desdemona alongside Laurence Olivier in the 1965 film adaptation of Othello.

What of Iago?  Though he is not the title character, he is certainly the lead.  No character has more lines or more scenes than does Iago, nor does any character have as much time alone with the audience.  Iago is to Othello what Tony Montana is to Scarface: an unsympathetic lead that the audience is forced to watch create and succumb to a tragedy that elicits not sympathy for him in the end.  It could be argued though that no character is as honest as Iago, or at least no male character.  Even in his deceit he is honest.  When suggesting to Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful, he offers a foreword, stating: “my jealousy/ Shapes faults that are not” (3.3.150-151).  He tells Othello that his jealousy creates faults that aren’t actually present, but Othello does not heed this warning.  Iago goes onto say that “he that filches from me my good name/ Robs me of that which not enriches him” (162-163).  This is another double meaning.  Taken at face value it is true, but it is doubly true because Iago has no good nature to steal, and to take what is good from Iago would truly leave the thief with nothing.  When Othello demands Iago’s thoughts, Iago says that Othello cannot have them, and he means this sincerely as he has no intention of sharing his actually thoughts with Othello.  Iago goes onto further warn Othello, telling him to “beware of… jealousy” (167) and notes that it is a monster that “doth mock/ The meat it feeds on.  That cuckold lives in bliss/ Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger” (168-170).  Here Iago is telling Othello that he does not love him.  Iago believes he has been cuckolded by his wife with Othello.  Othello though does not pick up on any of these meanings, yet they remain clear to the audience and so, Iago, it could be said, is as honest as Othello makes him out to be.  Iago is also an ‘other’ like Othello.  He is not a ‘ruling class’ figure, and has had to earn his position, which is meek.  His frustration is understandable.  One might liken it to xenophobic attitudes prevalent in Western countries that see immigrant compete for jobs with natives of whatever country they happen to be in.  Iago no doubt feels a degree of this having watched a ‘Moor’ come into Venice and receive such high office while he himself cannot even become the first officer of Othello.  Is it justified?  No.  Is it understandable?  Yes.  Othello though is awarded on his merits and Iago simply doesn’t wish to acknowledge that he lacks such merits.


Fay Compton played Emilia is Orson Wells' 1952 film adaptation of "Othello".

Fay Compton played Emilia is Orson Wells’ 1952 film adaptation of “Othello”.

Iago though is clearly the antagonist.  He manipulates others and brings about the tragedy about, so as interesting as it may be to suggest that Iago is the protagonist, such an argument works strictly as a polemic.  Who then is the protagonist?  Would it be Desdemona?  She is certainly a victim, but she is also a passive victim.  She is the patriarchal ideal to a fault, allowing herself to be killed in obedience to her husband and not even putting up resistance.  She seems almost a parody of the patriarchal ideal for a wife, though she is certainly superior to Othello in almost every way.  Most of the other characters are too minor.  Cassio serves to act solely as a pawn for Iago, as does Roderigo, and Bianca is strictly peripheral in terms of plot, though she is a viable candidate for thorough scholarly examination.  The Duke, senators and gentlemen of the play are pragmatic pieces on Shakespeare’s chessboard meant only to help move the plot.  That leaves a single character: Emilia.  She is the foil to Iago.  When the climax arrives, though she does not come in time to save Desdemona (well, she does, as Desdemona is able to speak after being ‘smothered’, and so is not actually smothered, but still spontaneously dies after speaking her last lines despite the fact that, judging from her ability to speak, she is able to breathe as well, but I digress), but what she does do is arrive in time to condemn Othello, and as he tries to justify his act of homicide, she reveals his flaws.  When Iago arrives with company, Emilia does not pause to consider her loyalty to Iago.  Her loyalty is with Desdemona because she has respect for Desdemona’s virtue, and honesty.  One might expect her to be concerned for her husband, but she recognizes his villainous nature and rejects him, refusing to blindly adhere to the patriarchal expectations of obedience on the part of the wife.  Indeed, Iago demands her silence several times and she refuses him, even upon the threat of death she insists on speaking the truth and in turn pays for it with her life.  It is Emilia then, as the curtain falls, who is the hero of the play.  Though she does not save anybody’s life, she saves Desdemona’s honour, and Cassio’s, and helps to capture the guilty party responsible for the tragedies of the play.


Suzanne Cloutier played Desdemona opposite Orson Wells in the 1952 film adaptation of "Othello".

Suzanne Cloutier played Desdemona opposite Orson Wells in the 1952 film adaptation of “Othello”.

Considering that Emilia is the hero of the play, it is fair to suggest that Othello can be read as a proto-feminist work.  The male characters are defined by ignorance (both Othello and Barbantio), jealousy (Iago, Othello and Roderigo) and naivety (Cassio and Roderigo).  Othello, though he has much time with Iago, is unable to discern his dishonesty, and in fact draws the opposite conclusion, infamously referring to his puppeteer as “Honest Iago” and several times asserting Iago’s honest nature.  Desdemona for her part, upon her first exchange with Iago, recognizes that he is dishonest immediately, referring to him as a slanderer (2.1.13).  The women are chaste in the play, well, Desdemona is, and though Emilia is presumed to be unfaithful and she does little to deny it, but she seems justified in her ways of dealing with men.  She suggests that men “are all but stomach, and [women] all but food:/ They eat us hungerly, and when they are full/ Belch us out” (3.4.105-7).  She goes onto claim later in the play that if women do fall, that “it is their husbands’ fault” as they “slack their duties/ And pour [women’s] treasures into foreign laps;/ Or else break out in peevish jealousies,/ Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us” (4.3.85-9).  Emilia clearly demonstrate the lack of equality that exists, certainly in her relationship, and in turns justifies her behaviour as the result of abuses endured by her husband.  Bianca for her part is faithful to Cassio as far as we see on the stage, though her male counterparts, including Cassio, demean her be referring to her as a ‘whore’, a practice which highlights the hypocrisy in the male view which passes judgement on women for engaging in the same sex act men often seem to absolve themselves of guilt for participating in.  The men, for their part, place the homosocial relationships above their heterosexual relationships and find themselves betrayed and their only happiness spoiled as a result, suggesting that women are more capable of preserving loyalty then are men.  The female homosocial relationships serve the inverse; they strengthen the women.  Emilia supports Desdemona and even in death is willing to offer her life to help Desdemona find justice, something it is clear none of the men would have been willing to do for each other save perhaps Cassio.



Orson Wells as Othello in the 1952 film adaptation of "Othello".

Orson Wells as Othello in the 1952 film adaptation of “Othello”.

There are those who may over simplify this play.  People who suggest that it is inherently racist and serves as a bigoted warning for white girls to stay away from Black men least they be killed in a rage of jealousy.  If one were to look strictly at the bare plot, one may come away with such a lesson, but it would be flawed.  The interesting thing for me is that Othello was honest and trusting of Desdemona.  Even when Iago first tried to convince Othello of Desdemona’s fictional infidelity, he would not believe it.  He was, up until that point, a brave, articulate and humble person.  His ‘race’ or origins seems have served him well and helped him excel in a foreign land.  It is the influence of a Venetian, Iago, which corrupts him.  Similar arguments could be made regarding indigenous populations in Africa, North America, South America and Australia, in that they each had a way of life that work in harmony with the environment that was spoiled when Western influences infiltrating their way of life.  In this way it could seem that Shakespeare is writing an act of self-deprecation on behalf of Western patriarchy.  Western patriarchy, it seems, spoils both foreign cultures and women alike, if Othello is to be a lesson in such matters.


Julia Stiles, who has twice starred in contemporary adaptations of plays attributed to Shakespeare, once in "10 Things I Hate About You" (based on "Taming of the Shrew") and also in "O" (based on "Othello").

Julia Stiles, who has twice starred in contemporary adaptations of plays attributed to Shakespeare, once in “10 Things I Hate About You” (based on “Taming of the Shrew”) and also in “O” (based on “Othello”).

There is also an interesting ecocritical aspect of the play that though minute is interesting.  The human realm is at odds with itself from the onset of the play, not only between the characters of the play, but also between nations.  The Turks, we are told, have launched an attack on Venice and will be arriving on the Venetian shores.  Othello is dispatched to deal with the attack, but the natural world rescues the human world from their barbarity. The Turkish fleet is lost as sea and not a Venetian solider is lost in the process.  What unfolds should be a celebration.  Nature has brought a storm upon the water that has rescued humanity from war, at least this one time.  Even without an outward enemy though, the play still witnesses one of the highest body counts in any of the plays attribute to Shakespeare.  Though nature provides a reprieve from death for the Venetians, humanity is unable to enjoy it.  Human constructs spoil the reprieve provided by nature and create tragedy.



Julia Stiles, again... yeah... she's pretty hot.

Julia Stiles, again… yeah… she’s pretty hot.

The play is an amazing work despite its flaws, and there are flaws, not the least of which is Desdemona dying of suffocation while not being suffocated.  The “double time” issue is another example, which notes that the entire play takes place pretty much within a 33 hour period and makes no allowances for Desdemona to even have time to have an affair.  This can serve to dispel the suspension of disbelief.  Other details, such as the fact that Emilia claims Iago has asked her hundreds of times for the infamous handkerchief despite the fact that Othello and Desdemona have been married less than two days, make it seem as though the author gleamed over some details, but these issues could be worked out.  The Arden edition has a great introduction by E. A. J. Honigmann, who though he has one too many initials in his name, does a great job of outlining some of the key scholarly topics on Othello, though it is by no means a comprehensive examination, it does speak to some of the narrative issues and does a great job of giving the reader the tools to really dig into the text.  Honigmann also mentions the theory that Iago has a homosexual attraction to Othello, but does a solid job dispelling that.  Some have asked: What other motive could Iago have beside romantic jealousy?  Well… there is the fact that Othello has the job Iago wanted, and the fact that Othello gave another job Iago wanted to somebody else, and the fact that Iago believes Othello slept with Emilia, and the fact that Iago wants to bone Desdemona, ect, ect….  Honigmann’s introduction is insightful and interesting.  The play itself is perhaps unsurpassed in its execution, and unlike most other plays attributed to Shakespeare, it doesn’t have an annoying secondary plot that is meant to mirror the main plot but more often than not simply slows down the narrative.

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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