Othello by William Shakespeare.

Othello is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to be written in 1603 and first performed in 1604. It was possibly inspired by Un Capitano Moro, a tale in Giovanni Battista Giraldi's (Cinthio) Gli Hecatommithi (1565; tales in turn inspired by Boccaccio's Decameron) and 'The Three Apples from One Thousand and One Nights, and it is one of his most famous and important plays.

The synopsis is fairly simple, though lengthy - Othello, described as a "Moor" ("The Moor of Venice" as is the subtitle), suggesting he is African (perhaps Islamic Arabic in Northern Africa, or perhaps referring to African from other regions of the continent), is a General in the Venetian army. He is married to the loving and faithful Desdemona, daughter of the senator Brabantio. His friend and captain is Michael Cassio; and he is also friends with his other captain Iago, unaware that he is a treacherous and wicked villain.

At the beginning of the play it is revealed that Othello has married Desdemona in secret, and Iago and Roderigo (who is in love with Desdemona) are discussing the matter. Roderigo hates Othello for marrying Desdemona, and Iago hates Othello because he promoted Cassio over Iago, so Iago bears a grudge. Finally, Brabantio, learning his daughter has been secretly married to Othello (he is informed by Roderigo with Iago's encouragement), is frankly none too keen either and accuses him of witchcraft to enchant his daughter, though this accusation does not convince the Duke.

With these circumstances set up and explained, the plot moves forward to Othello being posted to Cyprus, leading the Venetian army against the Turks. Desdemona accompanies him, along with Cassio, Iago, and Emilia, Iago's wife and Desdemona's friend and attendant. Not long in Cyprus there is an incident: knowing Cassio is not a good drinker, Iago purposefully gets him drunk and urges him to fight Roderigo. There is a brawl and Othello blames Cassio, and punishes him by demoting him. Iago then encourages Cassio to approach Desdemona and ask her to plead his case to Othello. All of this in place, Iago begins to try to convince Othello that Desdemona is secretly having an affair with Cassio.

Iago is surely the greatest of Shakespearean villains. He is almost sociopathic in his hatred for Othello and his anger goes far, far beyond reason. He seems to lack clarity in the situation; what should be disappointment, irritation, or indeed anger is blown beyond proportion to frenzied levels. And yet, to say he "lacks clarity" does not do him service: he coldly surveys his situation and calculates how to correctly manipulate those around him to achieve his own ends. He is out of control whilst maintaining control, and this contradiction and difficulty in understanding his character makes him all the more dangerous, fascinating, and compelling. I do think he is the most impressive character in Othello, though that is not to say the other characters are substandard. Othello himself is an outstanding character. Though he has status and great power within the army he is the outsider because of his race. And though he allows himself to be manipulated by Iago, this speaks more highly of Iago's characterisation rather than diminishing Othello himself.

It is a truly remarkable play, and I think it's Shakespeare's finest tragedy. Being a tragedy, and being subtitled a tragedy, we know that Iago will be successful in making Othello believe Desdemona is having an affair, but the repercussions of this are so far-reaching I wouldn't say the end was entirely predictable. It is, first and foremost I think, one of the deepest and best psychological dramas of its age and it is a Shakespeare play I've always loved. And - one final word, this play went on to inspire one of my favourite novels - He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope (1869).

Desdemona and Othello, by Antonio Muñoz Degrain (1880).

Comments

  1. I love this play. I read it last year and was absolutely mesmerized. I didn't, however, know that it inspired that Trollope novel. I can't wait to read it now. Great review, BTW!

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    1. Thanks Cleo! I did love it - and the Trollope novel - that was the first of his I'd read, I really recommend it. I ADORED it and I'm hoping I'll get to re-reading it soon :)

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