Othello – William Shakespeare

I love this play. It shows the deep and powerfully destructive emotions of love, envy, sexual jealousy, greed and suspicion. Not all villains get their just desserts, and not all heroes have happy endings. Over four hundred years old, it can still speak meaningfully to issues of race and racism that, sadly, are still prevalent today. It also takes just a little imagination to substitute Othello’s blackness for his being of a certain religion, or a different gender identity, or a certain sexual orientation, or a certain demographic background, and you can see the issues can still be applied. Art truly imitates life.

Summary:

Othello is a successful general in the Venetian army, and is loved by his troops. He seems to have it all, as well as a loving wife in Desdemona. The seeds of his tragedy lie in the fact that he is a black man, married to a wealthy white woman, in a world that resents his success, and is deeply suspicious of him as a man.

Venice, Italy. Iago and Roderigo  have met, with Iago taking payments from Roderigo, for some “enterprise” that we are not yet aware of. They are talking about Othello, the “Moor” who has just favoured and promoted Cassio over Iago, and Iago is angry about this. Rodrigo is angry that Othello has taken Desdemona, to whom Rodrigo was paying court.

Brabantio is the father of Desdemona, as well as being a powerful senator in Venice, and the two decide to visit him. They know he is prone to anger, both from a protective father and a racist dynamic. The two conspirators tell Brabantio that his beloved daughter has eloped with Othello, and have since married without his permission. Brabantio flies into a rage, believing the “Moor” has “tricked” his innocent daughter. Witchcraft is mentioned.

We now met the famous prince. Othello is happily relating the story of his marriage to Iago, and about how deeply in love with Desdemona he is. Upon hearing about Brabantio, Othello fears he will aim to break up the happy couple. He hopes the love his troops have for him, and his succession of victories, will save them.

Cassio interrupts, telling Othello he has been summoned by the all-powerful Duke of Venice, to help defeat an enemy in Cyprus. Just as he is about to leave, the angry Brabantio arrives with a group of thigs, ready to injure Othello. However, reason prevails, and they all head to the Duke for him to settle the matter.

Othello gives a powerful defence of himself and his marriage, saying Desdemona was a willing and equal participant, that they are both deeply in love, and of course married. Desdemona makes her first appearance, and confirms everything her husband has related.

The Duke decides in their favour, maybe because he needs Othello’s expertise in the battle, but the matter is now resolved. Everyone then heads over to Cyprus, Desdemona and Emilia (Iago’s wife) joining the men (Othello, Iago, Rodrigo and Cassio). Rodrigo confesses to Iago his love for Desdemona, and Iago promises to deliver her to him. Iago then soliloquies about Othello having an affair with Emilia, a far-fetched rumour than even Iago doesn’t fully believe. However, he plans his revenge by aiming to convince Othello that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona.

When in Cyprus, the party of travellers just turns into a party, and we quickly see that Cassio has a thing for Emilia. Iago later gets Cassio drunk, and manipulates him into having a drunken brawl with Rodrigo. This would not have been too bad, except he and Iago were supposed to be on sentry duty at the time.

Othello intervenes in the fight, and angrily fires Cassio for being drunk on the job. Cassio is devastated, but Iago suggest he get Desdemona to intervene with Othello on his behalf, a plan to which Cassio eagerly agrees. When on his own, Iago reveals his true evil scheme – he will make Othello suspicious that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair

Cassio, platonically, meets with Desdemona, and fills his side of the plan. He then notices Othello and Iago in the distance, approaching, and thinking discretion is the better part of valour, leaves hurriedly. Iago comments on this seemingly suspicious behaviour, and deftly but deeply plants the seeds of suspicion into Othello’s mind about the supposed affair. He warns him about her behaviour, such as probably talking about Cassio constantly, and looking to do him favours (like getting his job back). These, he counsels, are signs there is an affair happening.

Desdemona nurses an ill Othello, using her special handkerchief as a bandage. This is a precious heirloom from his dead mother, and becomes known as the “handkerchief of death”.

Emilia, under pressure from Iago, eventually steals it, and Iago frames Cassio by placing it in his room. Othello sees it, and with Iago’s whispering lies, he decides Desdemona has to die, as this is proof of her infidelity. This brings us to the huge fight scene between Othello and Desdemona, with Othello demanding her to produce the handkerchief, and a bewildered and oblivious Desdemona innocently advancing the cause of Cassio. Emilia observes.

Enter Bianca, a prostitute in love with Cassio. He gives her the handkerchief, swearing it did not come from any other woman. Cassio doesn’t love her, but she is unaware. Iago then talks to Cassio, and gets him to brag about Bianca. Unknown to him, Iago had Othello in hiding, and Othello thinks Cassio is talking about his affair with Desdemona. This further enrages him.

Bianca, a woman scorned, then enters in a fury having discovered her love token belongs to someone else. She throws it in Cassio’s face, and he follows her out. An incandescent Othello appears, and Iago tells him there is nothing for it, but he has to strangle his cheating wife.

They have another huge fight, in front of a messenger, and Othello hits her, and calls her rude and hurtful names. He decides to kill her. Desdemona and Emilia talk, and Desdemona begins to act erratically, singing of her own death, and seeming to anticipate it. Emilia, curiously, defends infidelity, saying it’s acceptable if you have a good reason for it.

Rodrigo is tiring of Iago, and his inability to deliver up the woman of his dreams. Iago calms him, and tells him to prepare to kill Cassio. The action unfolds very quickly. Rodrigo attacks Cassio, but is beaten back and gets stabbed. He is only saved by sneaky Iago stabbing Cassio in the leg. Cassio falls, screaming, and is assisted by two Venetian gentlemen. Covering himself, Iago points at Rodrigo as the attacker, and kills him before he can state his case. Bianca arrives, and Iago tries to put the whole sorry mess on her head. Emilia then enters, and Iago spins another story of lies and deception, and tells her to run and find Othello and Desdemona, and tell them the news.

Just as Emilia arrives, she witnesses Othello killing his wife, and is too late to stop it. Emilia tells Othello that Cassio killed Rodrigo (she made a mistake, understandable given what she has just seen). This further enrages Othello, as both “lovers” were to have died. Emilia, observing the handkerchief, eventually realises that her husband had planned the whole thing, and is responsible for it all.

The room fills up quickly, and Emilia reveals Iago to be the evil mastermind. Iago stabs her, but she tells her story before she dies. Othello demands his (former) friend tell him why he destroyed his life, but Iago has no answer, either because he refuses or he just doesn’t know.

The play ends with the Venetian gentlemen agreeing to bring Othello back to Venice for trial, Cassio gets promoted to Othello’s role. Othello, in the depths of grief, decides to kill himself rather than face the prospect of life without Desdemona.

Main Characters:

Othello: The eponymous hero. He has achieved a lot in his career to date as a soldier, becoming wealthy, and revered by his men. His military prowess is, however, also the source of his weakness, for this is how he proves himself In a world which sees him as an outsider, and which is racist. When this prop is kicked away, such as in Cyprus when the Turkish fleet sinks and he has no-one to fight, he is vulnerable to jealousy, manipulation, etc.

Iago: Probably the most devious of all Shakespeare’s villains, Iago has a gift for manipulation and deceit. He may resent being subordinate to “a Moor”, and more so when passed over by him for a promotion, in spite of his battlefield bravery. He knows what buttons to press to get people to do what he wants, but I am left with wondering why he creates such destruction. Is it because of his own jealously, or from a sheer delight in causing mayhem?

Desdemona: The heroine of the play, and a strong determined character in her own right. Being single, she is considered as her father’s “property”, yet she decides to secretly marry Othello. She more than holds her own with Iago when the banter becomes bawdy, is loyal to her friend Cassio and tries to help him, and is honest and faithful to Othello, even when he is possessed by “the green eyed monster”.

Minor Characters:

Cassio: The innocent human cause of all the trouble! His promotion stirs the anger in Iago, his supposed affair with Desdemona whips up the jealous storm in Othello. He is young, slightly naïve, and totally loyal to Othello. He is easily duped and used by the cunning Iago.

Emilia: Wife to Iago, and loyal maidservant to Desdemona, she too is used by Iago to further his plans, most importantly in the matter of the handkerchief. She is clever and observant, though, and realises what Iago has done when the handkerchief of death is produced at the end.

Roderigo: A man of his times, he views everyone as having a price, single women as property to be had, and is deeply frustrated that “the Moor” has claimed the prize of Desdemona. Initially in league with Iago, this foolish and rich playboy is easily manipulated into attacking Cassio.

Themes:

Jealousy: The over-riding theme of the play, there are several streams that join to form a green river of mistrust, and hate. There is a huge level of insecurity as well – Othello as noted above, but also Iago who does not like being passed over, leaving him wondering what more is there for him. Iago is most likely envious of “the Moor” having the role that he himself would expect to have. He could also be envious of Othello’s happy relationship with Desdemona.

What is important to note, is that the seeds of jealousy are sown in very fertile ground – for example, there is an implication that women are promiscuous and very likely to have affairs, therefore are not to be trusted, thus mere circumstantial evidence causes the explosive growth in jealousy.

Gender: The second tripod of main themes, people are clearly divided on the basis of their sex. Single women are sexually rampant, and “belong” to someone. Men are the jealous “owners”, be they fathers or husbands, or potential suitors. Women have the power to humiliate and emasculate their men, by cuckolding them. Relations are thus toxic, to put it mildly!

Race: Race issues abound. Othello is the first, true black leading figure in Shakespeare, and thus effectively in all serious literature. In spite of his achievements, his skin colour marks him as an outsider. He has the equivalent “glass ceiling” that many women today are facing, in that he has to work twice as hard and long as his white (read: male) counter-part.

Even more threatening is his marrying a white woman, the deep racist fear of miscegenation that sadly is still prevalent today.

Note:

I don’t think this is a racist play, but rather one that should provoke the audience into rethinking your ideas and attitudes about and towards the issue of race. His whole life, Othello has been told he is a savage, born to violence. He is a “thick-lipped” “black ram” of a “devil”, and a foreigner to boot. The world expects nothing of him, and is moved to jealousy and hate when he does successfully rise above “his station”.

Fun Facts:

  • Playing Desdemona in 1660, Margaret Hughes was probably the first professional female actress to appear on a public stage  in England.
  • Paul Robeson was the first black actor to play Othello in America in 1943, amongst an otherwise all-white cast. (Other productions were all-black or all-white).
  • This latter 1943 production also holds the record for the most performances of any Shakespeare play ever produced on Broadway.

Famous Everyday Phrase Coined/Popularised:

“Foregone conclusion”

“Jealousy is the green-eyed monster”

“One that loved not wisely but too well”

“Pomp and Circumstance”

“Wear my heart upon my sleeve”

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