Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.
The Tragedy of Othello
If you've seen Aladdin, which I hope you have, you probably remember the parrot 'Iago.' If you haven't seen Aladdin, go away right now and watch it because you haven't had a proper childhood yet. (It's on YouTube in installments last time I checked, but you didn't hear that from me...) So now you've seen Aladdin, you know that Iago is the parrot belonging to the evil grand vizier Jafar. But what you might not know is that Iago isn't just a wise-cracking evil parrot sidekick with Gilbert Gottfried's voice.
The name comes from (I think this may be a record for how far I've gotten into a video without actually talking about the actual topic of the video) Othello! Iago comes from Othello. He's the bad guy - the main antagonist in this play. Othello is the good guy, unlike some of Shakespeare's other plays where the bad guy is the title, like Macbeth or Richard III. And none of them are parrots. (I suppose you could do a production in which some of them are parrots... I've seen more absurd Shakespeare productions than that, but no one's done it yet!)
The full title of Othello is The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. What's a Moor, you might ask? When I was little, I thought that it just referred to that hilly, rugged climate that people run around in England when they feel desperate - a moor, a marsh kind of land. But it's also a term that, at least in Shakespeare's time, referred to people who were from North Africa.
So Othello is a 'Moor,' again, someone from North Africa. It's spelled m-o-o-r, but it's pronounced 'more' like, 'more money, more problems.' A lot of Shakespeare's plays are set in England, so they probably won't have a ton of racial diversity. You probably haven't seen many people of other races in Shakespeare so far, but the areas around the Mediterranean, which is where Venice is (remember, he's the Moor of Venice), actually had a lot more Moors because Italy and North Africa are pretty close to each other.
So while a Moor in Venice is not an unheard of thing - there definitely were some - it's still important enough that Shakespeare includes that in the title of the play. He wants to indicate Othello's ethnicity right off the bat. Macbeth isn't called The Tragedy of Macbeth, the Crazy Scotsman in the same way that this is The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.
We'll get into what happens, and how significant Othello's ethnicity ends up being, and what Iago does that's so awful, in a second. First we're going to introduce the cast of characters.
OTHELLO: the Moor who's a Venetian general in the army.
IAGO: who is technically called an ensign (basically a rank of soldier) and he serves under Othello.
DESDEMONA: who is Othello's new wife.
EMILIA: who is Iago's wife and Desdemona's servant.
CASSIO: who is Othello's lieutenant who he ends up promoting over Iago, which upsets Iago as you can imagine.
We'll introduce others as they come along, but these are the most important ones. As you can tell by the short list of important characters, it's going to be more of an intimate drama than a political state intrigue kind of thing.
So what happens? Why is Iago such a bad dude? He hates Othello because Othello promoted Cassio instead of Iago. He's also convinced (maybe - this is a little unclear if he really believes this) that Othello might be sleeping with his wife Emilia... maybe. He's sort of cagey about whether he really thinks this. Iago's motivations have been up for debate for quite a while.
Samuel Coleridge, who's a Romantic poet (you might have heard of him), famously called Iago the 'motiveless malignity.' What he meant by this was basically that Iago's ostensible motivations - the reasons he says he's trying to destroy Othello - don't really hold up. Coleridge saw them more as justifications than motivations. His point is that Iago's hatred seems to just be there, and then there have to be these reasons to back it up. This is just his take on it, but it's an interesting one to keep in mind as we go through the play.
Iago sees his opportunity to ruin Othello's life when he finds out that he has eloped with Desdemona. There's this guy named Roderigo who was totally into Desdemona. He's upset when he finds out that Othello snagged her, and he complains to Iago about it. He's like, 'He took my girl!' Iago promises he's going to go tell on Othello to Desdemona's dad, who's a Venetian senator. He's kind of gross about it when he tells him - I don't think any father likes to hear that his daughter is off 'making the beast with two backs,' which is how Iago very tastefully puts it.
Meanwhile, Othello's being called in to see the Duke of Venice to deal with a potential military problem out in Cyprus. Desdemona's dad crashes the meeting, gets really upset, and calls Othello a thief. He basically says that she couldn't fall in love with him because she's afraid of Othello, which in general seems to be a reference to Othello's race and general Other-ness that we have gotten a sense of already in the play.
But the Duke likes Othello and takes his side. And Desdemona comes forward and says she married him freely, not corrupted by 'spells and medicines' as her father accuses Othello of doing. She says she fell in love with him because of his crazy life story. He told her how he got to where he is, and she was like, 'Oh, that's amazing,' and then she felt attracted to him.
So that's settled. The Duke is satisfied with this and decides to send Othello to Cyprus and is going to send Desdemona with him because she doesn't want to have to go stay at her dad's house now that all this stuff has gone down. So that's Act I.
They all go off to Cyprus, but Desdemona's actually traveling on a different ship, and she gets there early. She goes off to chat with Cassio - remember, he's one of Othello's lieutenants who's been promoted above Iago - and Iago sees that Cassio takes her hand as they walk off. He's like, 'Ding, ding, ding! Idea! I know how to ruin Othello.' He's going to spread the rumor that Desdemona is sleeping with Cassio. He's very opportunistic in his evilness. He didn't have this plan in his mind - he just thought, 'Oh, sure. Great! I'll use this.'
Othello gets there, and they have a big party to celebrate their military successes and also to celebrate the marriage because they haven't gotten a chance to do that yet. The happy couple sneak away to celebrate in their own fashion ('beast with two backs' again, I suppose). And Iago starts to put his plan into action.
Othello had told Cassio to be on guard duty at the party - bouncer or something like that - and not to get drunk. 'Just don't get drunk, Cassio. Don't do it.' So of course, this is where Iago starts. He gets Cassio super drunk. He gets all disorderly. Cassio's running around chasing people and being obnoxious, and he actually ends up stabbing someone - one of his fellow military people. Our office holiday party gets a little out of control sometimes, but no one ever stabs anybody. This is clearly on a different level of craziness, partying it up in Venice.
This means Othello has to leave the sexy times and come down and deal with the situation. He fires Cassio immediately after hearing the story from Iago. Iago then convinces Cassio that Cassio should appeal to Desdemona, since Desdemona's got Othello wrapped around her little finger, which might seem like a nice suggestion from Iago, but Iago basically turns to the audience and says, 'Nope, it's not nice. I'm setting him up to have Othello think that he's sleeping with his wife.' Because he's going to spend more time with Desdemona, begging her to appeal to Othello to get him back into his service.
We've got Cassio desperately trying to win Othello's favor again. He decides to send musicians to play under his window, which is kind of the ancient-day equivalent of sending an email with a funny YouTube video and going, 'We good now?' They're not good - Othello sends the musicians away. To be fair, it's probably pretty irritating. Like those singing a cappella valentines that people send each other in high school.
So Cassio goes to talk to Iago's wife, Emilia (who, remember, is Desdemona's servant), so he can eventually talk to Desdemona. Emilia informs him that they've all been talking about him, and Othello really doesn't think he can reinstate him because the guy he stabbed is a little too popular, and they might lose favor with the people on Cyprus.
Emilia does work it out, though, so they can all talk, and Desdemona tells Cassio that she's going to do everything she can. But while they're chatting, Othello and Iago enter the room. Cassio scuttles away guiltily because, again, he's feeling a little embarrassed, having stabbed somebody when he was drunk.
Othello asks Iago if that was Cassio, and Iago says, 'What, that guilty-looking guy? No way!' And Iago begins his plan in earnest now. He starts insinuating that the affair is happening. We're going to take this to the stage and hear their conversation and how really awesome Iago is at being a manipulative bad guy.
OTHELLO: What dost thou say, Iago?
IAGO: Did Michael Cassio, when you woo'd my lady, Know of your love?
OTHELLO: He did, from first to last: why dost thou ask?
IAGO: But for a satisfaction of my thought; No further harm.
OTHELLO: Why of thy thought, Iago?
IAGO: I did not think he had been acquainted with her.
OTHELLO: O, yes; and went between us very oft.
OTHELLO: Indeed! Ay, indeed: discern'st thou aught in that? Is he not honest?
IAGO: Honest, my lord!
OTHELLO: Honest! Ay, honest.
IAGO: My lord, for aught I know.
OTHELLO: What dost thou think?
IAGO: Think, my lord!
OTHELLO: Think, my lord! By heaven, he echoes me, As if there were some monster in his thought Too hideous to be shown.
So basically Iago's implying that Desdemona is cheating on Othello. He's kind of saying, 'Oh, yeah. She knew Cassio? Oh, she did? Oh, okay...' He's asking all these questions and then getting Othello to admit that they knew each other well and all this stuff. Then has the nerve to warn Othello about being jealous.
IAGO: O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock The meat it feeds on;
'Green-eyed monster'! That's where it comes from - the phrase about what jealousy is comes from Othello. Fun fact. Of course Othello thinks her alleged unfaithfulness is all his fault because he's not young enough or witty enough or white enough, honestly. He says:
Haply, for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years,--yet that's not much--
She's gone. I am abused; and my relief
Must be to loathe her. O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours,
And not their appetites!
So basically, he's decided that she's probably cheated on him and thinks that's just a horrible condition of marriage - that's she's his - these delicate creatures are ours (men's, is what he's saying) - but not really his because she can still want to sleep with guys who aren't him. The whole owning her thing is a little creepy.
Then Desdemona comes back, and there's a big kerfuffle in which she loses a handkerchief. And Emilia snaps it up because Iago's been telling her to get a hold of it. This can't be good. Immediately we see where this is going. Othello starts demanding that Iago get him proof that Desdemona is cheating on him. Iago's gotten his wife Emilia to pick up the handkerchief. So Iago says, 'I might be able to find something...'
And then Othello goes and he asks Desdemona, 'Where is your handkerchief?', which was apparently a gift from Othello, we find out, and a gift with some significance - it's supposed to make your wife be faithful to you. So it's starting to look worse and worse!
You probably can guess where this ends up. Iago plants the handkerchief with Cassio, and Othello sees it. He becomes totally enraged. He wants to kill both Cassio and Desdemona. Iago helpfully suggests that he should strangle her on their marriage bed because that would be symbolic and give him some cathartic emotional release. And he says that he'll take care of Cassio, so he's just being a stand-up friend, helping him kill everybody.
Othello gets in a series of fights with Desdemona and accuses her of being a whore. He's generally freaking out. He sort of had been known for being a cool cucumber, so this is really out of character for him.
Desperately, Desdemona says, 'Emilia, put the wedding sheets on the bed.' It's unclear actually if maybe they haven't been able to consummate yet because they keep getting interrupted by stuff, so maybe that's what this is about. And Desdemona asks Iago what's going on, and of course Iago plays innocent, and says, 'Othello must have been deceived by someone.'
Remember Roderigo, the guy who was madly in love with Desdemona at the very beginning, who complained to Iago in the first place? Iago convinces Roderigo to kill Cassio, just to kind of get him in on the plan.
Roderigo stabs Cassio, but of course he misses - he only gets him in the leg. Othello sees Cassio's wounds and thinks maybe he might be dead and thinks that Iago has done his part, so he starts to think that he better get going with his part of the plan.
He goes up to his bedroom where Desdemona is. He wakes her up with a cheerful 'prepare to die,' literally. She continues to deny her guilt - 'I didn't cheat on you!' - but he doesn't believe her. At this point, it's not even about evidence anymore. It's about the fact that he can't ever be sure that she didn't do it. This has been so planted in his brain that whatever she could say, he'd always think that she was guilty.
So he smothers her in her bed and she begs for mercy. He proudly tells Emilia this when she comes into the room. She informs him that Cassio actually isn't dead. Desdemona yells out that she's been murdered (apparently, not yet!), but then says, 'No, I actually killed myself.' And then Emilia says enough about Iago and his involvement that Othello starts to figure out what's been going on. Now he's feeling really regretful. He collapses onto the bed with the dead Desdemona.
His conviction in Desdemona's guilt is finally broken when Emilia explains what happened with the handkerchief - about how she was told to steal it and plant it with Cassio. Now Iago comes into the room. He stabs Emilia. So Othello's hanging out with two dead ladies. Everyone goes and chases Iago. They catch him and bring him back. Othello stabs him. They find a letter in his pocket that explains the whole plot.
The other men are preparing to bring Othello to Venice for justice because, you know, he killed his wife. And then he stabs himself and falls into bed with Desdemona. And that's the end.
Othello is numbered among one of the four 'Great Tragedies' alongside Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth. It's by far the most romantically oriented of the four. Hamlet's love interest is Ophelia. She's kind of incidental - she doesn't really matter. Othello is a tragedy of interpersonal relationships gone horribly wrong.
An interesting fact about the play is that even though Othello is the title character, Iago actually has more lines than Othello does in the play. This seems right because when you think about what goes on, Iago schemes and figures out how to get everything to go his way. Othello doesn't actually make any major decisions himself - he's manipulated by Iago.
Unlike someone like Hamlet, who rarely acts, but he expends a lot of lines agonizing over things and thinking about stuff, whereas Othello takes other people's council really easily.
All of this dovetails interestingly with the issue of race, which is inescapable when talking about Othello - I mentioned it a couple times at bits and pieces of the play where its reference is significant. In all modern productions, Othello is played by a black actor. His ethnicity has always been a bit in dispute because, to Elizabethan people, 'Moor' could just indicate anyone who's a little bit darker than your typical pale Englishman (which are pretty pale and like to take their shirts off whenever it gets warm so you can really see how pale they are).
He was actually played by white actors for a while, notably in an embarrassingly blackfaced performance by Laurence Olivier in 1964. I guess people just did that back then. You can YouTube that - it's kind of awful.
He makes reference to his own race a few times in the play. He says, 'Haply, I am black.' Others treat him with respect, but it seems to be a respect that comes from his Other-ness. Desdemona falls in love with him because he has such an interesting life story. She thinks he's really great. Her father thinks that she's afraid of him, and therefore couldn't be in love. But it seems like his different-ness is actually fundamental to her love for him and maybe responsible for her father's attitude toward him.
Shakespeare makes Othello 'different,' but also really noble (which is a contrast to his character in The Merchant of Venice who's Jewish, named Shylock, who's really stereotypically miserly and a villain), whereas Othello is a sympathetic hero. But, as I mentioned before, Iago has the most lines. Othello's kind of a hero but without agency. It's hard to tease apart what Shakespeare was getting at - how race plays into that, how Iago's manipulations play, and how that's an ethnically tinged interaction.
Another thing to reconcile is that Shakespeare wrote this play obviously in a much different racial context than we have today. It's pretty safe to say that Shakespeare's understandings of Moors and Africans was probably quite different than ours. Our context changes the way we see it, and that's another thing to tease apart - how much we should let that do so and how much we should think about what Shakespeare would have seen and thought about as he wrote this.
So at its heart, Othello is a simple story, but it gives us a lot to discuss and think about as literary scholars (those kind of people love that stuff).
Basically just plot review: Othello marries Desdemona and is set against her by his ensign, Iago. Iago convinces him that she's having an affair with Cassio, who's another soldier. Othello murders Desdemona, and then kills himself when he realizes he's been deceived.
But the simplicity of the story lends itself to a lot of interpretation and a lot of cool productions because there's a lot of things that you can make choices about as director and as an actor.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe the major characters and plot of Shakespeare's Othello
- Understand the historical and contemporary issues of race in the play
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