David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.
Othello and Literary Criticism
Othello is one of Shakespeare's most popular and controversial plays. It tells the story of the African general, Othello, who rises to lead the army of the Italian city of Venice and marries Desdemona, the daughter of a senator. But Othello is undone by his evil underling, Iago, who convinces Othello that Desdemona is cheating on him with his lieutenant, Cassio, leading Othello to murder Desdemona.
Othello is a complex play that deals with issues such as jealousy, gender, and race. Because of that, it has generated a lot of literary criticism in the 400 years since it was written and first performed. Literary criticism refers to attempts to understand literature through analysis, description, evaluation, and interpretation.
Critical Approaches to Othello
It is sometimes thought that literary criticism is a process of 'decoding' or 'unlocking' a literary text, where a critic takes a difficult piece of literature and explains what it really means. But that's not what literary criticism does. Great literature is endlessly complex and cannot be reduced to a single correct meaning.
Instead of seeing literary criticism as solving a puzzle, it's better to view it as joining a conversation. Every reader of Othello brings different experiences and interests to their reading and sees the play in a slightly different way. Literary criticism is the act of joining in the conversation about the play by listening to what others got out of it and adding in one's own ideas.
While every reading of a text is individual, readers often fall into large groups based on what they find of interest in a work of literature and how they interpret it. When a group of critics generally agree on what to focus on in a work of literature, this is called a critical approach.
The rest of this lesson will focus on three of the most common critical approaches to Othello: psychoanalytic criticism, feminist criticism, and critical race theory. We will see the differences in these approaches by looking at how each group might read one of the play's most famous scenes: Othello's speech right before he murders Desdemona in Act V, Scene 2, lines 1-24.
Psychoanalytic criticism emerged in the early twentieth century in response to new theories of psychology put forth by Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalytic critics take the theories of Freud and other psychologists and use them to understand the psychology of characters in works of literature.
Shakespeare's plays are often popular with psychoanalytic critics because of his use of soliloquies, long speeches delivered by characters that the other characters cannot hear. These speeches often give the audience insight into the mental state of a character. In Othello, Shakespeare uses soliloquies to tell us what both Othello and Iago are thinking at crucial moments in the play.
Othello's speech in Act V, Scene 2 is an example of soliloquy, as he considers what he is about to do. A psychoanalytic critic might see the following lines as examples of Othello's conflicted mental state as he prepares to kill Desdemona: 'Yet I'll not shed her blood, Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, And smooth as monumental alabaster. Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men' (V.ii.4-6).
He is not in an angry rage, but instead sad about what he is about to do, not wanting to make her bleed or scar her. Othello says that she 'must die,' implying he has no choice. Therefore, a psychoanalytic critic might see the play as primarily about a man who is caught between his emotions and his sense of duty and honor.
Feminist criticism emerged in the 1970s to bring women into the conversation of literary criticism. Feminist critics focus on how female characters are portrayed by male writers in ways that reinforce or challenge typical social norms about women's proper roles, as well as the portrayals of male characters and their attitudes toward gender. Feminist criticism is also focused on discussing female authors and bringing them into the conversation.
One thing a feminist critic might point out about Othello is that it's only the male characters, Othello and Iago, who get soliloquies. A feminist critic might also claim that psychoanalytic criticism can't tell us much about Desdemona because Shakespeare doesn't give us access to her mental state.
In the lines we just discussed, a feminist critic might point out that Othello sees Desdemona as a beautiful object instead of a real person. He is worried about damaging her beauty by scarring her skin, but still thinks she deserves to die for betraying him. By supposedly cheating on him, Desdemona has violated Othello's image of her as perfect and on a pedestal. He even compares her skin to alabaster, which is used to make statues. Therefore, a feminist critic might argue the play is primarily about a man who objectifies his wife and cannot handle it when his illusion is destroyed.
Critical Race Theory
Like feminist criticism, critical race theory emerged to focus on the experience of traditionally ignored groups, in this case racial and ethnic minorities. Othello has been a major focus of race critics as it is one of only two of Shakespeare's plays to feature a nonwhite character.
We just saw how feminist critics might focus on objectifying descriptions of Desdemona's beauty in Othello's soliloquy. A critical race theorist would add to this and point out that Desdemona's beauty is described in racial terms, as Othello describes 'that whiter skin of hers than snow.' In the time the play was written, and for a long time after, European and American ideals of beauty often associated 'white' and 'fair' with attractiveness. Conversely, dark skin was seen as ugly, as Othello himself expresses when he calls his face 'begrimed,' or dirty (III.iii.442). Othello, a black man living among white people in Italy, has accepted their ideas of beauty and, consequently, sees himself as ugly. To a critical race theorist, then, the play can be seen as primarily about an African man who tries and fails to become a part of European society.
These are only a few examples of the many critical approaches that have been used to analyze Othello. As we discussed earlier in this lesson, none of these approaches is the 'correct' interpretation and every reader must decide which approaches they agree or disagree with. But all good literary criticism makes us see a work of literature in a new way and helps us appreciate its depth and complexity.
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