Othello by William Shakespeare

Othello by William Shakespeare(Cover picture courtesy of Monster Marketplace.)

One of the greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Othello tells the story of a Moorish general who earns the enmity of his ensign Iago when he passes him over for a promotion.  Bleak and unsparing, this play offers a masterly portrait of an archvillain and an astute psychological study of the nature of evil. Explanatory footnotes.

Hmm, how does one review Shakespeare?  Not easily, as it turns out.  (This is my third attempt at doing a review for Othello.) So I’ll basically just discuss the play and my thoughts about it.

One thing I always have liked about Shakespeare is his characters.  His characters are vibrant, complex beings that stick with you long after you’ve finished the play.  Othello is one of them, but Iago is my favourite out of the whole play.  He’s a fascinating character and his soliloquies are some of my favourites in all of Shakespeare’s plays.  Iago’s interesting in that he doesn’t really have a concrete motive for hurting Othello.  Is it because he’s miserable and wants other people to be miserable too?  Could it be he’s jealous of Othello’s rank?  Or does he see Othello’s good traits and want to turn them evil to bring Othello down to his own level?  It’s certainly up for debate.

Desdemona is fascinating as well in her own way.  She dared to love Othello, a black man, in a time when racism was completely socially acceptable.  She even married Othello against the wishes of her father, which was extremely rare in those days even if you don’t consider the societal taboos on interracial marriages.  In the end her only fault was trusting her new husband, the man she loved.

In some ways Othello is one of my favourite plays by Shakespeare not just because of the characters but that every scene advances the plot.  There’s always a hint of what is to come maybe in a dialogue between two characters, Iago’s soliloquies or even just in the mood of the scene itself from the stage directions.  I sped through Othello like I have with no other Shakespeare play and it’s one that I really enjoyed even though it was pretty easy to predict the ending.

As for this Dover Thrift Edition, it’s adequate but nothing more.  There are notes about definitions of words that have changed over time but if you’re someone looking for an analysis of the play I’d recommend a different edition.

So overall?  One of the best Shakespeare plays I’ve read so far.

I give this play 5/5 stars.

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One comment

  1. Don Maker

    I appreciate you tackling “Othello” in a critique, and for your appreciation of Shakespeare. I also admire your honesty in explaining that you don’t understand certain aspects of the play. In order to understand Shakespeare, one has to study the political and cultural climate of the society, and certainly the driving forces behind the burgeoning public theatre.

    Even in Shakespeare’s London people from North Africa were numerous; he was quite directly dealing with issues of race in Elizabethan England where, not unlike the England of today, there was a growing black presence of as well as anxiety about various immigrants. In 1596, Queen Elizabeth issued an ‘open letter’ to the Lord Mayor of London, announcing that “there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready here to manie”, and ordering that they be deported from the country. One week later, she reiterated her “good pleasure to have those kinde of people sent out of the lande”, and commissioned the merchant Casper van Senden to “take up” certain “blackamoores here in this realme and to transport them into Spaine and Portugall”. Finally, in 1601, she complained again about the “great numbers of Negars and Blackamoors which (as she was informed) are crept into this realm”, labeled them as “infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel”, and, one last time, authorized their deportation. (Source: https://www.stormfront.org/forum/t776768/)

    How did Shakespeare react? “Othello, the Moor of Venice” is believed to have been written in approximately 1603, based on the Italian short story “Hecatommithi”, by Cinthio, first published in 1565. In the opening scene, Iago and Roderigo describe Othello by using racist insults: Iago calls him “the thicklips”, and their focus is on blackness and “animality”, with a considerable amount of racist sexual innuendo. Throughout the play Iago refers to Othello as “the Moor”, reducing him to this racial stereotype. They later pass these views on to Brabantio, Desdemona’s father. Their hatred of him is not entirely based on racial prejudice: Iago feels he has been unfairly passed over for promotion, not recognizing that Othello is by far the better military commander.
    Yet when Othello actually appears, he is sympathetically portrayed as an articulate, intelligent and introspective human being. As I wrote about “Romeo and Juliet” in another essay, it seems clear that Shakespeare has decided, once again, to thinly disguise his thoughts about Elizabeth’s opinions and policies—and his audience’s prejudices— behind the curtains of a play.

    Shakespeare’s strategy of Othello’s delayed entrance is that it forces the audience to emotionally commit itself to accept Iago’s and Roderigo’s perspective or reject it; to be complicit in this blatant racism, only to expose it by Othello’s obvious humanity and his superiority over Iago, or to give the audience the satisfaction of having their open-mindedness rewarded. This is a very subtle way of challenging public and official viewpoints.

    Why might he do that? Shakespeare was born of a very successful Catholic family in Stratford. However, the entire family suffered from the persecution of Catholics begun during the reign of Henry VIII. William was very bitter about this downfall of his father and family, which was eventually (it’s a long story, which I am detailing in “The Shakespeares and the Crown”) continued by Elizabeth. He undoubtedly felt a great sympathy for groups who were persecuted for their religion, race, or whatever, as shown in many of his plays.

    While he could not openly criticize the Queen or official policy (and, in the public’s mind, unofficial doctrine), he could discuss the issues in dramatic fashion. Being a great writer, however, Shakespeare did not limit himself to the racial, religious or political bases for his plays, but made them much deeper by weaving those issues into the frailties of human nature, and how we allow such ridiculous prejudices to negatively impact our happiness, and possibly even ruin our lives. That is why Othello falls, because of the typical human frailties of trusting his friends too much, of being too jealous of his beautiful wife, and of acting before learning all of the facts. It has nothing to do with the fact that he is a Moor.

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