- This page is about the Shakespeare play, for the board game, see Othello board game. For the manga, see Othello (manga)
Table of contents
Othello, a Moor who has just eloped with the white Desdemona when the play opens, leaves Venice to command the Venetian armies in Cyprus, accompanied by his new wife and lieutenant Cassio. The treacherous standard-bearer, Iago, plants Desdemona's handkerchief on Cassio, managing to convince Othello that his wife has been unfaithful with the lieutenant. Othello kills Desdemona out of jealousy, before Iago's wife eventually reveals that Desdemona's affair was but an invention of Iago's. Iago immediately kills his wife also, and Othello commits suicide in grief.
The plot for Othello was developed from Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi, which it follows closely. The only named character in Cinthio's story is "Disdemona", which means "unfortunate" in Greek; the other characters were identified only as "the standard-bearer", "the captain", and "the Moor". In the original, the standard-bearer lusts after Disdemona, and is spurred to revenge when she rejects him.
Shakespeare invented a new character, Roderigo, who pursues the Moor's wife and is killed while trying to murder the captain. Unlike Othello, the Moor in Cinthio's story never repents of murdering his wife, and both he and the standard-bearer escape Venice and are killed much later. Cinthio also drew a moral (which he placed in the mouth of the lady) that European women are unwise to marry the hot-blooded, uncontrollable males of other nations; Shakespeare suppressed this observation.
Iago can be seen as the driving factor or catalyst behind "Othello" he is the manipulator who plants the seeds of evil in the minds of the characters, playing on their emotions and therefore causing Othello's downfall.
Although the play is very much concerned with racial difference, the protagonist's specific race is not clearly indicated by Shakespeare. Othello is referred to as a "Moor"; for Elizabethan Englishmen, this term could refer to the Muslim Arabs of North Africa, or to the people we would now call "Black" (that is, people of sub-Saharan African descent). Shakespeare had previously depicted an Arabic Moor in The Merchant of Venice and a black Moor in Titus Andronicus. In Othello, the references to the character's physical features do not settle the question of which race Shakespeare envisaged. Popular consensus among average readers and theatre directors today lean towards the "black" interpretation, and Arabic Othellos have been rare.
Themes and Tropes
Signifier / Signified
Othello subverts traditional theatrical symbolism. A contemporary audience would have seen black skin as a sign of barbarism or satanism as Aaron is in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus: a "swarth Cimmerian... of body's hue spotted, detested and abominable". A white soldier would have been understood as a symbol of honesty. Iago indeed actively tries to convince other characters that Othello is a "barbary horse" that "covers" Desdemona, or a "black ram", horned and animalistically "tupping" her; and that he himself is truthful to a fault. In Othello, however, the Moor is "noble" and Christian; and the white soldier is a scheming liar.
Othello thus constantly challenges the link between a physical signifier and what is signified by it. For example, Iago – whose job as standard-bearer is to hold a sign of loyalty to Othello – says, of pretending to like the Moor: "Though I do hate him as I do hell pains/ Yet for necessity of present life/ I must show out a flag and sign of love/ Which is indeed but sign". Desdemona, too, sees a distinction between signifier and signified, saying she "saw Othello's visage in his mind" – not in his actual face. The play thus argues that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary; the plot itself hinging on the significance an utterly "made-up" sign – a handkerchief made to signify infidelity.
Othello's tragic flaw is thus that he is unable to cope with the notion that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary. For example, when Iago tells him Desdemona is an adulteress, Othello cries "Her name, that was as fresh/ As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black/ As mine own face" – leading to a suicidal conclusion: "If there be cords or knives/ Poison or fire, or suffocating streams/ I'll not endure it."
White / Black
The most basic aspects of traditional Western symbology; that white signifies purity and black signifies evil – are thus repeatedly challenged in Othello; . One example is in the character of Bianca. Her name in Italian means "white", yet, as Iago tells the audience, her name is again "but sign" of purity, as she is in fact a "hussy, that by selling her desires buys herself bread and clothes". Ironically, just before Desdemona pleads with Othello that she is not a whore, Bianca too protests to an accuser that she is "no strumpet, but of life as honest/ As you that thus abuse me" – leading the audience to realize that, just as with Desdemona, the only evidence anyone has that Bianca is a whore is Iago's word.
Heaven / Hell
Heaven nevertheless remains a signifier of truth, and hell a signifier of misrepresentation in the play. The words thus recur frequently throughout Othello, as Othello struggles to join other signifiers to them: for example he says to an innocent Desdemona: "Heaven doth truly know that thou art false as hell".
List of Characters
- Duke of Venice.
- Brabantio, a Senator.
- Other Senators.
- Gratiano, Brother to Brabantio.
- Lodovico, Kinsman to Brabantio.
- Othello, a noble Moor, in the service of Venice.
- Cassio, his Lieutenant.
- Iago, his Ancient.
- Roderigo, a Venetian Gentleman.
- Montano, Othello's predecessor in the government of Cyprus.
- Clown, Servant to Othello.
- Desdemona, Daughter to Brabantio, and Wife to Othello.
- Emilia, Wife to Iago.
- Bianca, Mistress to Cassio.
- Miscellaneous: Officers, Gentlemen, Messenger, Musicians, Herald, Sailor, Attendants, etc.
Movie and Opera versions
Othello was also made into a movie several times, including:
- Othello (1922) starring Emil Jannings. Silent.
- The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (1952) by Orson Welles
- Отелло (1955), USSR, starring Sergei Bondarchuk, Irina Skobtseva, Andrei Popov. Directed by Sergei Yutkevich. See Отелло at the Internet Movie Database
- Othello (1965) starring Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Frank Finlay, and Joyce Redman
- Otello (1986)
- Othello (1995) starring Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Fishburne, and Irene Jacob. Directed by Oliver Parker.
- Kaliyattam (1997), in Malayalam, a modern update, set in Kerala, starring Suresh Gopi as Othello, Lal as Iago, Manju Warrier as Desdemona, directed by Jayaraaj.
- O (2001) a modern update, set in an American high school.
- Also in 2001, the ITV television network in the United Kingdom screened a modern-day adaptation of the story of the play in modern English, with Othello now the first black Commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police. Made for the network by London Weekend Television, the new adaptation was scripted by Andrew Davies, directed by Geoffrey Sax and starred Eamon Walker, Christopher Eccleston and Keeley Hawes.
- Othello – plain vanilla text from Project Gutenberg
- The Tragedie of Othello – HTML version of this title.