Othello by William Shakespeare

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”

Othello the Moor is lauded over Venice for his help in attempts to rid them of the pesky Turks in their battle over Cyprus.  Yet when Othello weds the beautiful Venetian Desdemona in secret, some opinions of his prowess change, notably those of Desdemona’s father.  And unbeknownst to Othello, Iago, his third-in-command, is plotting a dastardly revenge for being passed over for promotion, the position being given to Othello’s loyal lieutenant, Cassio.  Hence proceeds perhaps the most shocking example of manipulation in literature, as Iago takes possession of Othello’s mind and emotions, like a beast taking possession of its prey, transforming our noble Moor from a honest, straightforward, respected man into an enraged, vengeful monster who believes every evil of his innocent wife, including her unfaithfulness with his second-in-command, Cassio.  Othello’s jealousy manages to eclipse anything within our understanding.

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud
ben Mohammed Anoun,
Moorish ambassador to Elizabeth I
suggest inspiration for Othello
source Wikipedia

Iago reveals that, as well as the injury of being passed over for promotion, he also harbours a suspicion that Othello has been sleeping with his wife, Emilia, who is Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting.  There is no proof of this accusation in the play, and it is likely that Iago is expecting people to act with the same lack of integrity and base bestial urges, that he himself would, in the same circumstances.

How does a gentle and admired military leader allow himself to be reduced to a maddened beast, his fury leading him to commit the worst atrocity against a perfectly innocent human being, and one who has loved and supported him through their short marriage?  What hidden button inside Othello’s psyche has Iago discovered and pushed, knowing that it will make him snap?

Maria Malibran as Rossini’s
Françoise Bouchot
source Wikipedia

Certainly there are various issues that come into play and work against Othello.  He is used to being a commander, yet is unused to being a husband and obviously, when in love, is out of his depth.  Perhaps he sees Desdemona as a possession that he has conquered and, instead of being able to relax in his marriage, he, like a military leader, feels that he must wage battle to keep her.  And when difficulties do arise, instead of trying to search out the truth, he acts like a military leader and attempts to “conquer the enemy”.  He has insecurities that lead to him being a willing pawn of Iago’s machinations. The jealousy that Iago is able to set aflame within him, corrupts his normal good sense and his actions become intemperate.  I certainly have compassion for his state, as I believe these aspects have severely affected his decison-making and emotional state, but, that said, he is still human and he still has the option of choice.  He knows right from wrong, yet he decides to allow his emotions to rule and himself to be led down the tragic path of mindless jealousy.  In reality, he allows himself to turn into a beast.

Othello & Desdemona
Antonio Muñoz Degrain
source Wikipedia

Shakespeare’s exhibits an uncanny ability to weave endless possibilities into a Gordian knot of drama and draw the reader into his poetic spell.  Will we ever know exactly what motivated Othello and his spiral from an honourable man to a madly jealous murderer.  Will we ever understand why he believed Iago without any “ocular proof”?  What happened to the military commander that must have been used to exhibiting self-control?  Do intense emotions subvert our ability to act as a human beings?  There are so many avenues to explore and no obvious or set answers.

Of all the characters in the play, my favourite character was Emilia.  While she remains surprisingly unaware of the plotting and intrigues of her husband, upon realizing the truth, she becomes the voice of the audience, who has until this point been mute in horror, and satisfyingly spews vile recriminations on the head of Othello.

T.S. Eliot had a different view of the last actions of Othello than many older critics:

“I have always felt that I have never read a more terrible exposure of human weakness — of universal human weakness — than the last great speech of Othello.  I am ignorant whether any one else has ever adopted this view, and it may appear subjective and fantastic in the extreme.  It is usually taken on its face value, as expressing the greatness in defeat of a noble but erring 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. Othello succeeds in turning himself into a pathetic figure, by adopting an aesthetic rather than a moral attitude, dramatising himself against his environment. He takes in the spectator, but the human motive is primarily to take in himself. 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.”

I read this play as part of a Shakespeare: From the Page to the Stage course that I’m taking online, and it’s definitely moved in among my favourites!

Laurence Fishburne & Kenneth Branaugh
Othello 1995
source Wikipedia

15 thoughts on “Othello by William Shakespeare

  1. How I hate this play. Hate is a strong emotion, and thus, to evoke it speaks well of the writer's craft. There's a reason they call em tragedies. An excellent review.

  2. Great review! I definitely liked the character of Emilia too. She doesn't have too many lines, but she's still a very interesting character to consider. The 'Page to Stage' course sounds fascinating; I did a similar course a few years ago, and we watched the Orson Welles Othello and then the Laurence Fishburne one after that. From what I remember, both Fishburne and Branagh were great in the leading roles.

  3. Thank you, Joseph. I assume that you mean "hate" in a good way, in that it emotionally devastated you, but you could appreciate it for its worth? 😉 I just finished King Lear and that one was gut-wrenching as well.

  4. Thanks! The course is kind of hit and miss. A little to much speculation for my tastes ….. a little like Shakespeare on Oprah, but I am learning from it. I really liked the Fishburne/Branaugh version. You can't miss with Branaugh. He's awesome!

  5. Great review! Putting this on the 'to read list'.
    Othello is the main character…..but we all remember Iago!
    Antonio is the main character in Merchant of Venice….but we all remember Shylock! A well written villian can make or break a story, Shakespeare used this to his advantage!

  6. Wonderful review! I'd never read Eliot's comments, but that's such an interesting view. I also love Emilia. Imagine taking that stand, against your husband, and knowing you can't even save your mistress at that point.

  7. Shakespeare is very proficient at getting you to believe the unbelievable, or perhaps the uncertain. It's a little bit of a hump, but once you're over it, you're hooked and shocked and "tragefied". 🙂

  8. Thanks so much, Melissa! I'm trying to catch up to you!

    People can have such different views of Shakespeare's plays that it's quite startling. I hadn't seen it as Eliot had, but after I read his words, I thought, you know, he may be right!

    Emilia screamed exactly what I wanted to. She rocks! 😉

  9. Well, I didn't know that! Thanks so much for making me that much smarter! 😉 Othello goes beyond he knew that he was right, to the point of trusting any worthless, deceptive being that comes along and refusing to listen to reason. But I haven't read this Trollope so perhaps he explores this intentional blindness as well. Sigh! Another "try to fit it in" book for 2015!

  10. Othello is one Shakespeare I have never read. Shame on me, I know!

    Anyway, I, of course, know the speech T. S. Eliot makes reference to, and, wow, his views are brilliant!

    Thanks for sharing such wonderful review :-), oh, and that online course sounds quite interesting, by the way.

  11. When you do get around to Othello, you're in for a treat!

    The course was okay, but I'm going to try another one in January on Hamlet. It's out of the UK on FutureLearn and I have high hopes for it!

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