The ‘otherness’ of Othello, when compared to the other tragedies, doesn’t just stem from the fact that it features Shakespeare’s only (and English drama’s first) black hero. In Macbeth and King Lear, Shakespeare would go on to use the rugged bleakness of ancient Britain to depict scheming kings bringing about their own fall. But the decadence of Venice, where women “let heaven see the pranks / they dare not show their husbands”, and Cyprus, where the “beguiling” Turks prepare “a couch of war”, help to establish Othello as a tragedy of passion, in which a man is torn apart by the terrifying intensity of his relationships with his lover, his enemies and society as a whole.
Probably written and performed in late 1604, Shakespeare took the story of a Moorish warlord moved to a state of murderous jealousy by his ensign from Cinthio’s Hecatommithi. While Cinthio’s story is relentlessly brutal, with Othello finally bludgeoning his wife Disdemona with a sandbag before being killed by her relatives, Shakespeare gives his a near-erotic level of intimacy – Othello smothers Desdemona in bed, before turning his sword on himself when his mistake is revealed.
However, in many respects, it is not Othello but the villainous Iago with whom the audience is closest. It is he who raises dramatic irony to unbearable levels by describing his “net / that shall enmesh them all” to the audience from the very first act. While the reasons for his actions, other than a desire to “play the villain”, are rarely clear, his command of both verse and prose never fails to captivate his audience, creating a seductive evil which would inspire Milton’s Satan.
At the beginning of the 20th century, critical debate raged principally over whether Othello an entirely “noble Moor” brought down by Iago or whether the “green-eyed monster” was always lurking within him. More recently, critics and directors have explored the significance of Iago’s class, the play’s abundance of misogynistic language and, the unavoidable question of race. Some argue that the play subverts the contemporary stereotype of the lusty Moor by suggesting that “the sun where he was born / drew all such humours from him”; although the use of blackface actors is now directorial anathema, many modern black actors refuse the role because of its inherent use of blackness as a mere dramatic hook.
Contributed by Jack Belloli