The Shakespeare Series: Othello Review

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

The famous image of the green eyed jealous monster is but one of the famous images in Othello, one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies and certainly a play relevant today. So many themes are explored in the play: race, jealousy, love, lust, deceit, acceptance, feminity… the list goes on.

The play’s main character, Othello, is a Moorish general in the Venetian army. His deeds are great and he is well loved, but he has secretly married Desdemona, the daughter of a wealthy Venetian, Roderigo. Meanwhile Iago, Othello’s ensign, harbours secret rage against the general because a younger man, Cassio, was promoted above him. It is on this basis that the rest of the play unfolds, both in Venice and in Cyprus. As is shown in the picture above, the play Othello is not solely about its namesake, and in fact it is the actions of Iago which send the play spiralling into the depths of tragedy. Most of the main characters are played skilfully by Iago, and it is Othello which bears the brunt of these machinations. No character goes unscathed.

Here, Othello is a character for which the audience ends up having many sympathies, even when he might be wrong. His skin colour automatically pits people against him; for all his greatness men still question his motives toward Desdemona because of the way he looks. Here, blackness is meant to synonymous with darkness, an impurity of spirit, charges which we know to be merely judgemental. By contrast, Desdemona’s whiteness makes her pure, far purer that Othello deserves. Iago too is white, but the blackness of his motives is ignored and unseen because of how he looks.

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise,
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
The tragedy here, in some ways akin to the rejection of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, is how presupposition can make us blind to the truth. Iago feeds on this: he feeds on the worst fears or assumptions of people in order to get what he wants. There is a whole plot surrounding a handkerchief which he uses to make OthelloΒ believe Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Even here, Othello succumbs to the stereotypes: he believes Iago and decides not to trust his wife, because he is dark of skin, her affair with Cassio seems plausible enough. Because Iago is a man and has produced (if fake) ‘proof’, he chooses to believe him and ignore his wife.
The women here are certainly victims too, none more so than Desdemona and Iago’s wife Emilia. The latter is also mercy to Iago’s plan, all too late can she reveal his plotting, all too late is Desdemona vindicated. Even Bianca, the courtesan Cassio has had a dalliance with, is at the mercy of Iago’s plotting.
I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice.
Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well,
Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe
There is too much that can be said about the greatness of the play, of why it is so loved and why generations more will love it too. In these few words I cannot think to do it justice. It is a play about the baseness of humanity, and like many of Shakespeare’s greatest works, strips away all our titles and our riches in order to see what at the core of it, makes us human. Othello the Moor, for all our judgement and (sadly) racism, is in many ways the tragic figure of humanity, buffered by a stronger wind and felled by it. Iago (to me the great villain of all time) is the ugliness within us, for at the end of the day we are still subject to the survival of the fittest, and some of us end up more scathed than others. Please read or watch this play, you will not regret it.
Next week: back to Henry IV, in Henry IV, Part 2.

(photocredit: The National Theatre)

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One thought on “The Shakespeare Series: Othello Review

  1. Great post on a beautiful playβ™₯
    Indeed, Iago is the best (and beautifully complex) Shakespearian villain to me.

    Do take care and stay well, too πŸ™‚

    Like

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