Othello Literary Criticism

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

William Shakespeare's 'Othello' is a complex and fascinating play that has inspired reams of literary criticism since the time it was written. This lesson will examine some of the most common critical approaches to the play.

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.

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  • 0:03 'Othello' and Literary…
  • 0:53 Critical Approaches to…
  • 2:18 Psychoanalytic Criticism
  • 3:50 Feminist Criticism
  • 5:11 Critical Race Theory
  • 6:27 Lesson Summary
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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

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.

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