Shakespeare’s Othello is a tragedy about instrumentalised slander in societal affairs. Othello, a General in the Venetian army, marries Desdemona, a Venetian lady, without the consent of her father, making them potentially outcast from society, however, he is shortly after deployed to Cyprus to fend off the invading Turks. At his request, Desdemona is also brought to Cyprus with Iago, who according to Othello is the image of trustworthiness which is why he is also one of Othello’s officers. Sadly this perception of Iago is completely false and which is why Iago is able to manipulate Othello into believing that his wife is not faithful. This results in the murder of Desdemona by her husband and his suicide once Iago’s ploy is revealed.
O, you are well tuned now: but I’ll set downIago (2.1.197)
The pegs that make this music, as honest
As I am.
What you need to know beforehand:
Othello is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating plays written by Shakespeare, but there is a necessity to engage critically with the text. The drama blatantly highlights racism and sexuality, which might be uncomfortable and too graphic for some people. However, contemporary comforts should be challenged as Othello remains a very relevant drama in today’s society, and although it has its difficulties adaptations of it must continue.
I wanted to mention the topic of racism first, not only because it is so apparent in the drama but also because that is what makes it so difficult to perform on stage nowadays. But let us start at the beginning; let’s begin with the title. Although I stick to calling the play Othello, and that is the title used most frequently now, the original title of the play is The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.
The (online) Britannica Encyclopedia explains that the term ‘moor’ relates to members of Muslim populations that moved and emigrated to North Africa. However, they also highlight that until the 17th century the term was used as a stereotype for dark skin colour. If you search for the term online then it quickly becomes apparent that most of us think of the same questions: is the term derogative? is it a racial slur? was it only ever used in these ways? I would personally advise readers interested in this to further investigate the term, but from how I see it, a stereotype does not necessarily have to be negative. It is the intention to be harmful and to reduce a person to a stereotype what makes it derogative and that is exactly what is happening within the play.
For example, in act 1 scene 1, Iago and Roderigo discuss their resentment of Othello. Iago mentions that he feels slighted because he was not appointed Lieutenant and instead Cassio was given the position with hardly any military experience. Roderigo is jealous of Othello for marrying and “stealing” Desdemona as he would like her for himself. In the whole first scene, Othello is not mentioned by name but is called mostly “the Moor”, as well as “thicklips (1.1.65), “an old black ram” (1.1.87) and “a Barbary horse” (1.1.110). The intention behind using these descriptions are clearly derogative and meant to be hurtful. Especially the last two terms are used when Roderigo and Iago go to see Brabantino, Desdemona’s father, and tell him that Othello has married his daughter and is most likely at that moment consuming his marriage. Which inherently connects Othello’s “race” to his sexuality, and perpetuates stereotypes of sexual predators.
There are many instances that show racism in the play, however, I would like to stress that there is a problem with performing a character that eventually is brought to fulfil the stereotypes. The discussion of whether Othello is a victim and whether or not he could have changed his situation is ongoing. Fact is that Othello turns cruel and murderous, and sadly there are still too many people that cannot think past the action of a play or film. It means that for an actor, there is a very fine line to tread; one that does not paint Othello as a racial stereotype and simultaneously does not take away the depth of the play.
In the beginning, sexuality is often referenced in combination with racist imagery. Bickley and Stevens in Essential Shakespeare highlight that “As far as most Venetians are concerned, ‘natural’ feeling is that which corresponds to societal norms: a woman ‘naturally’ desires a man of her own class and colour – and preferably one chosen by her father.” (128) Othello and Desdemona’s relationship is thus miles outside of what is considered normal. Sexuality and the sexual act are essential to the plot and the motives of the characters.
Fascinatingly, it is not just Othello who is made an Other through sexuality but also his wife Desdemona. It is important to note that slander is built upon a woman’s sexual freedom and confidence. It is later implied by Iago that she is sleeping with Cassio, and Iago even tells her to her face his opinion of women:
Come on, come on, you are pictures out of doors,
Bells in your parlours, wild-cats in your kitchens,
Saints in your injuries, devils being offended,
Players in your housewifery, and housewives in …
Your beds! (2.1.109)
He is implying here, that women look pretty when they go outside and chatter in their parlours, defend their home and pretend innocence when they feel slighted, but on the other hand, they are a nightmare when offended, they only play at being housewives meaning that they do not take it seriously and they are a “housewife” in bed meaning that women are easy. The Arden Shakespeare suggests that this could go as far as calling Emilia, Iago’s wife, and Desdemona a hussy, an outdated term for immoral women according to Lexico. This shows how Desdemona is made Other for her and generally women’s sexuality.
Another main element to considers is the way that seemingly harmless objects gain a sexual meaning, this would be especially the handkerchief that Othello gifted Desdemona. As a quick recap, Iago asks his wife Emilia to steal the handkerchief and then gives it to Cassio to give to Desdemona and then manipulates Othello into thinking that his wife gave it to Cassio as a sign of her affection and to make a mockery of Othello. The introduction of the Arden Shakespeare suggests that the handkerchief symbolises the bedsheets of the couple stained on their wedding night. Also, the bedsheets are continuously referenced to, for example in 4.2.106f Desdemona asks Emilia to lay her wedding sheets on the bed after Othello called her a whore, and she hopes to show them as a symbol of her love for him. These are only a few instances, but it shows that sexuality and its meaning can be found in quite a few different ways.
Class is also very important in Othello because it is a means of identifying oneself and it is a means of Othering. There are clear hierarchies in Shakespeare’s Venice which have interesting changes when viewed on different grounds. Take for example Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, who is a member of the Venetian Senate and thus he and his family are considered of high social standing. The problem is that this respect garnered through social rank is only presented towards men, meaning that when Iago tells Desdemona his opinion of women he is not, in fact, overstepping social boundaries.
Othello is another character that lives such a dichotomy. First of all, when he and Desdemona are asked before the Senate for disobeying Brabantio the reader learns that Othello used to be a slave. A “career” jump from slave to military general is quite astonishing within this narrative world but would be an impossible occurrence in real life. Nevertheless, Othello is quite often behind his back reduced to being “the Moor” and hardly receives the respect that his military position and his accomplishments give him. Othello defines himself through his military career, which is why his downfall is in many parts due to him being outside of the strict rules and hierarchies that a military career and rank provide.
Quite the opposite of this is Michael Cassio’s position, as he defines himself through his social standing. Cassio takes all kinds of precautions before Iago’s meddling, such as denying himself any alcohol and being generally non-confrontational to upkeep the image he created of himself. When Cassio falls out of favour with Othello he tries with all his means to right his wrong without knowing that with this he is playing into Iago’s hands. What this does make clear, is that his social standing is of so much importance to him that Iago could easily exploit it. Cassio creates his own dichotomy, because he makes his position and thus his identification dependent upon other people such as Othello. He could disregard Othello’s irritation, as he has come to his social standing mostly by himself. Nevertheless, Iago and Roderigo claim that he as bought himself into the additional military position which questions his position, but as seen with Othello military rank is in many cases not equal to social standing. He identifies his worth through his social standing but risks making himself an other by competing within the military ranks in which he has no practical experience.
Race, Class and Sexuality/Gender are pillars of modern cultural studies, however, there are far more themes one could explore within Othello.
Here a few more examples :
- The use of language
Potential Research Topics
- Othering & Racism through animal imagery (often with a sexual connotation)
- The repercussions of Female (Dis-)Obedience
- Social aspects elevated to Identity formation
- Adaptation Studies: Theater, Film & Opera
- the Power of Speech (Manipulation, Men vs Women)
- Making the Audience Complicit in Crimes/Injustice
Recommended Research Material
- Arden & Oxford Shakespeare (Scholarly Editions)
- Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare
- Pamela Bickley and Jenny Stevens’ Essential Shakespeare: The Arden Guide to Text and Interpretation
Films, Video and Other media :
- 2001 film: “O”
- Opera: Othello by Guiseppe Verdi
- Youtube: Insider’s Guide: Language in Othello by FolgerLibrary
The recommended research material will be continuously updated, if and when I find new helpful media. Also, if you have a scholarly edition of a play or another novel, and you mean to write a paper on anything, then read the introduction and notes as they most often include valuable and researched information!