Point of View in Othello

Instructor: Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth has an MEd in reading and language arts and has written K–12 language and literature lessons for many major US textbook publishers.

Despite not having a narrator, Shakespeare's play ''Othello'' uses techniques that reveal an overarching perspective or point of view. Read this lesson to learn how to consider point of view in a play.

Introduction to Point of View

In a presidential debate, candidates present their unfiltered viewpoints directly to the audience. In a play, like Othello, the speaking characters present their points of view directly to the audience. Dramatic works usually do not have a narrator who presents an all-encompassing perspective. So we have to look elsewhere to determine an overarching point of view in dramatic works.

Congressional Debate in Arkansas
congressional debate in Arkansas

Point of View in Drama

In drama, as in a debate, it's as if all the characters take turns at being the narrator, each presenting his or her own point of view.

the character-narrators stand between the playwright and the reader

At first this may seem to leave the audience of a play without an overarching perspective. The comprehensive point of view--very close to the view of the playwright, since there is no narrator--is there, if we know where to look for it.

in a sense, the playwright communicates directly with the reader

Let's briefly review the plot of Othello. The action of the play develops because of Iago's desire for revenge after Othello overlooks him for promotion. Iago's ability to manipulate others, combined with the gullibility of both Roderigo and Othello and Othello's susceptibility to jealousy, drive the action. Before the final curtain falls, Othello kills his wife Desdemona, Iago kills his 'wife' Emilia, and Othello commits suicide after wounding Iago.

Othello and Desdemona
Othello and Desdemona

Where to Find Point of View in Drama

When you read the script of a play, you will notice some aspects of the play that go beyond individual speeches. Each of these elements provide information about the overarching perspective or point of view. These include:

  • The title
  • Dramatis personae (the list of characters)
  • The juxtaposition of a character's words in dialogue with his or her actions, his or her internal thoughts, and the words of other characters
  • How the play begins and ends

The Title of the Play

The full title of the play is The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice. The corruption of Othello by Iago and the death of Desdemona might be labeled sad, reprehensible, or criminal. The title leads us to expect the sequence of experiences that tragedy entails, including reversal of fortune, high and low characters, and catharsis, the purging of emotions evoked in the audience by the play's events. Catharsis is accompanied by a restoration of order, which is characteristic of Shakespearean tragedy. The title also makes clear that the role of protagonist belongs to Othello.

Dramatis Personae

The 'Dramatis personae' varies depending on the specific edition or playbill. In it, you will often find notes like:

  • Iago, a villain
  • Roderigo, a gulled gentleman or Roderigo, rejected suitor of Desdemona
  • Cassio, an honourable lieutenant
  • Othello, a noble Moor

Point of view is exhibited in these descriptions. Readers are being guided as to who are the good guys and the bad guys. Of course, these notes may be added by an editor, rather than the playwright. For the reader, they still contribute to the overarching point of view that fits with the elements of tragedy and the role of antagonist assigned to Iago.

Juxtaposition of Speech & Action

Stage Directions

The stage directions not only alert us to characters' speeches and actions but also point out asides and soliloquies. While most speeches in a play are part of a dialogue, asides are a character's remarks that only the audience can hear. Soliloquies are speeches spoken when alone. Both asides and soliloquies are unheard by other characters and therefore likely to be potent indicators of a character's true thoughts and feelings.

For example, in one soliloquy, Iago reveals how it is that he is able to convince Othello with lies that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona:

'The Moor is of a free and open nature

That thinks men honest that but seem to be so . . .' (I.iii.442-3).

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