1Othello has always been a popular play with acting companies and audiences, and over the centuries it has occasioned considerable and varied response among scholars. While many critics have regarded it as one of Shakespeare's most successful plays, there have been vocal detractors, both early in the play's life and more recently. The flash point of critical controversy has most often been the race and social status of its title character, but significant debates have also arisen about the play's dramatic structure, its representation of women, and the powerfully disturbing figure of Iago. The following discussion sketches in broad strokes some of the most influential literary critical approaches to Othello, including character criticism, formalism, psychoanalysis, and a range of politically inflected approaches such as feminism and new historicism.
2As early as the final decade of the seventeenth century, Othello was criticized for depicting a man of color as a tragic hero. Thomas Rymer (c. 1641-1713), whose A Short View of Tragedy appeared in 1693, is notable for providing the first major published criticism of the play, and also for the intensity of his dislike of Othello and its titular hero. Attacking the play as merely an unfortunate and implausible stage adaptation of the Italian prose tale from which its plot derives, Rymer argues that Othello ignores a number of key principles of dramatic composition, specifically the neoclassical prescription that a play ought to trace, in real time and a focused manner, the events of a single day in a single location. He saves his most virulent attacks, however, for what he presents as the play's violation of the conventions of a natural hierarchy that positions people of color firmly below white Europeans, and non-Christians below Christians. Discussing Othello's rank in the Venetian military, Rymer argues:
The character of that state [i.e., Venice] is to employ strangers in their wars, but shall a poet thence fancy that they will set a negro to be their general, or trust a Moor to defend them against the Turk? With us, a Blackamoor might rise to be a trumpeter, but Shakespeare would not have him less than a lieutenant-general. . . . Nothing is more odious in nature than an improbable lie, and, certainly, never was any play fraught, like this of Othello, with improbabilities. (91-92)
Of the many attacks on nature for which Rymer holds Othello responsible, he clearly considers its depiction of the marriage of a senator's daughter to a military commander irksome, and its portrayal of a man of color in the illustrious rank of general truly loathsome.
3Although Rymer's hostility to Othello and his overt racism make unpleasant reading for modern critics, A Short View of Tragedy is not without valuable perceptions about the play, and it is worth noting that Rymer is the first published critic to recognize (however disapprovingly) that language or "talk" is the basis of Othello's courtship of Desdemona:
Shakespeare, who is accountable both to the eyes and to the ears, and to convince the very heart of an audience, shows that Desdemona was won by hearing Othello talk . . . . This was the charm, this was the filter, the love powder that took the daughter of this noble Venetian [i.e., Brabantio]. This was sufficient to make the blackamoor white and reconcile all, though there had been a cloven foot into the bargain. (89-90).
While Rymer takes Brabantio's part in understanding Othello's rhetorical skill as a kind of devilishness, the critic's insight that language is presented in the play as equal to the task of reconciling difference, if not finally of overcoming tragedy, is one that continues to inform modern readings of the play.
4Othello was particularly popular with eighteenth-century critics, few of whom were convinced either by Rymer's strict views on neoclassical dramatic form or by his claim that the play's plot and characters were implausible. On the contrary, readers such as Samuel Johnson (1709-84), one of the most influential essayists and commentators of the period, defended the play specifically on the basis of its compelling portrait of human behavior. In this excerpt from the commentary in his 1765 edition of Shakespeare's plays, for instance, Johnson highlights the aesthetic value of Othello, and then argues that the play offers crucial insight into human nature:
The beauties of this play impress themselves so strongly upon the attention of the reader, that they can draw no aid from critical illustration. The fiery openness of Othello, magnanimous, artless, and credulous, boundless in his confidence, ardent in his affection, inflexible in his resolution, and obdurate in his revenge; the cool malignity of Iago, silent in his resentment, subtle in his designs, and studious at once of his interest and his vengeance; the soft simplicity of Desdemona, confident of merit, and conscious of innocence, her artless perseverance in her suit, and her slowness to suspect that she can be suspected, are such proofs of Shakespeare's skill in human nature, as, I suppose, it is vain to seek in any modern writer. (473)
As Johnson's comments suggest, the construction of Shakespeare as a national literary hero that was well underway by this time was firmly tied to the perception that he had a particular skill for creating convincingly human characters.
5While critical interest in the dramatic portraits drawn by Shakespeare produced some engaging readings of his work, the developing conviction that literary texts could hold, as Hamlet would have it, "the mirror up to nature," contributed to the problematic assumption that that which is "natural" is at once fully consistent and apparent to everyone. As socially constructed notions about race, religion, nationality, gender, and class came to be presented instead as the product of an unalterable "nature" that recognized the inevitable superiority of a white, Christian, European, male elite, readings of Othello as a literary confirmation of this hierarchical view began to gain ground. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, for example, German poet and translator August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767-1845) reads Othello's descent into murderous jealousy not as a shocking reversal, but as the inevitable return of an innately barbarous man to his ostensibly uncivilized roots:
We recognize in Othello the wild nature of that glowing zone which generates the most ravenous beasts of prey and the most deadly poisons, tamed only in appearance by the desire of fame, by foreign laws of honour, and by nobler and milder manners. His jealousy is not the jealousy of the heart, which is compatible with the tenderest feeling and adoration of the beloved object; it is of that sensual kind which, in burning climes, has given birth to the disgraceful confinement of women and many other unnatural usages. A drop of this poison flows in his veins, and sets his whole blood in the wildest ferment. The Moor seems noble, frank, confiding, grateful for the love shown him; and he is all this, and, moreover, a hero who spurns at danger, a worthy leader of an army, a faithful servant of the state; but the mere physical force of passion puts to flight in one moment all his acquired and mere habitual virtues, and gives the upper hand to the savage over the moral man. (Lecture 25)
In Schlegel's view, nature dictates that that which is European is civilized and moral, while that which is Moorish is savage and immoral; Othello may have "acquired" a veneer of civilization, but he was born with savagery in his "blood," and it is this "poison" which causes his fall. While this gross oversimplification of the play based on racist stereotypes seems absurdly simpleminded now, its account of the association of Moorish identity with violent sensuality persisted, in various guises, throughout the nineteenth century.
6As Romantic poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge's (1772-1834) comments on the play illustrate, the conviction that Othello depicts fundamental truths about human nature did not always lead to the sort of condemnation of its central character found in Schlegel. Favoring a view of Othello "not as a negro, but a high and chivalrous Moorish chief"—and thereby providing scholarly support for actor Edmund Kean's so-called "tawny" stage Othello—Coleridge reads the tragic hero's actions as the product not of innate and uncontrollable passions, or even of jealousy, but rather as the consequence of moral indignation and wounded honor, and he argues that by generating an empathetic response in the audience the play is finally sympathetic to Othello (2:350). Coleridge was also fascinated by the figure of Iago, and his assessment of the play's enigmatic villain as a "passionless character, all will in intellect" (1:49) influenced readings of the play for decades. Indeed, Coleridge's claim that Iago's final soliloquy is best understood as "the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity" (1:49) remains one of the most quoted assessments of Iago to this day.
7In addition to prompting a reassessment of Iago, the nineteenth-century view of Shakespeare's characters as expressions of fundamental truths about human nature stimulated a growing interest in Desdemona. This attentiveness to the play's tragic heroine intersected with a notable increase in the number of women's voices contributing to public conversations in the realm of literary criticism, as female actors began lecturing and publishing on the roles they performed on stage, and as women slowly began to be admitted to the ranks of professional scholars of Shakespeare. Among the latter category, Anna Jameson (1794-1860) is notable as the author of the first substantial and systematic discussion of Shakespeare's female characters, a volume published first in 1832 as Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical, and Historical, and later retitled simply Shakespeare's Heroines. Jameson challenges boldly many of her contemporaries by locating Othello's tragedy not in the plight of its male hero, but rather in the character of its heroine, arguing that "the source of the pathos throughout—of that pathos which at once softens and deepens the tragic effect—lies in the character of Desdemona" (224). Discussing Desdemona at length, Jameson describes her in amusingly patronizing terms as "one in whom the absence of intellectual power is never felt as a deficiency, nor the absence of energy of will as impairing the dignity, nor the most imperturbable serenity as a want of feeling: one in whom thoughts appear mere instincts, the sentiment of rectitude supplies the principle, and virtue itself seems rather a necessary state of being, than an imposed law" (224). Desdemona is, on Jameson's account, a young woman who is neither clever nor dynamic, and whose dominant features—her goodness and gentleness—are both beyond her control and inadequate to ensure her survival: "Desdemona displays at times a transient energy, arising from the power of affection, but gentleness gives the prevailing tone to the character—gentleness in excess—gentleness verging on passivity—gentleness which not only cannot resent—but cannot resist" (218).
8Jameson's work on Othello is also significant for locating the play's fundamental opposition not in the marriage of Desdemona and Othello, which so many of her contemporaries viewed as a hopeless mismatch, but in the relationship between Desdemona and Iago:
Had the colours in which [Shakespeare] has arrayed Desdemona been one atom less transparently bright and pure, the charm had been lost; she could not have borne the approximation; some shadow from the overpowering blackness of [Iago's] character must have passed over the sunbright purity of hers. . . . To the brutish coarseness and fiendish malignity of this man, her gentleness appears only a contemptible weakness; her purity of affection . . . only a perversion of taste; her bashful modesty only a cloak for evil propensities; so he represents them with all the force of language and self-conviction, and we are obliged to listen to him. (64)
Picking up on the play's discourse of color, Jameson argues convincingly that Othello's horror lies not in the affectionate relationship of the white-skinned Desdemona and the black-skinned Othello, but rather in the profound clash between the virtuous Desdemona and the malevolent Iago.
9Critical interest in Othello continued into the early twentieth century, when, thanks to A.C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), the play gained a place alongside Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth in the pantheon of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies. Bradley finds Othello "the most painfully exciting and the most terrible" of the tragedies, arguing that "the reader's heart and mind are held in a vice, experiencing the extremes of pity and fear, sympathy and repulsion, sickening hope and dreadful expectation" (131). In the midst of this maelstrom Bradley locates a thoroughly romanticized Othello, a noble and mysterious everyman whose destruction results from the cunning Iago's ability to turn his virtues against him and whose ruin speaks to a universal experience of tragedy. Like Othello, Desdemona is not a particularized character in Bradley's account, but a representative figure, "the 'eternal womanly' in its most lovely and adorable form, simple and innocent as a child, ardent with the courage and idealism of a saint," and the story of her love for the "noblest soul on earth" becomes for Bradley the story of anyone who has ever aimed high and been held back: "She met in life with the reward of those who rise too far above our common level" (150). While Bradley's brand of character criticism—his practice of treating the literary text as a "little world of persons" (28) populated by characters whose behavior could be explored just as one might discuss the behavior of one's neighbors—is the defining feature of his approach to Shakespeare's tragedies, he is also attuned to matters of dramatic structure. Of Othello, he argues that it was "not only the most masterly of the tragedies in point of construction, but its method of construction is unusual. And this method, by which the conflict begins late, and advances without appreciable pause and with accelerating speed to the catastrophe, is a main cause of the painful tension" (131). This analysis of the structural basis for the feelings of frantic and claustrophobic intensity generated in the play has gone on to shape the insights of many later critics.
10Bradley's sympathetic reading of Othello, with its emphasis on Othello's nobility, Desdemona's saintliness, and Iago's central role as destroyer of their mutual and admirable love, has been enormously influential, although his approach has been attacked vigorously over the years, mostly notably in the 1930s by G. Wilson Knight, L.C. Knights, and F.R. Leavis, and again more recently by poststructuralist critics. For Knight, Bradley's Romantic reading of the play as an anatomy of generalized human nature misses the point completely. "In Othello," Knight claims, "we are faced with the vividly particular rather than the vague and universal," and his own reading of the play focuses on explicating the symbolic function of its characters and celebrating what he calls the play's "formal beauty" (109). L.C. Knights's objection to Bradley, famously articulated in his mockingly-titled essay "How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth" (1933), lies in what he sees as Bradley's refusal to acknowledge Shakespearean tragedy's status as poetry. Knights accuses Bradley of treating the plays as novels, an approach he claims leads to an erroneous emphasis on their psychological dimensions at the expense of their verbal constructions. In "Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero" (1937), F.R. Leavis contributes to this attack, finding Bradley's reading of Othello excessively sentimental, and accusing him of an over-identification with Othello that blinds him to what Leavis reads as the general's "self-approving self-dramatization" (142). For Leavis, Othello is not the naïve and noble victim of Iago's superior intellect, but an egoist whose "self-pride becomes stupidity, ferocious stupidity, an insane and self-deceiving passion" (146-47).
11Perhaps the most influential close reading of the language of Othello remains William Empson's 1951 essay "Honest in Othello." Noting that the word "honest" appears so often throughout the play, Empson explores how this key term is used by various characters at significant junctures in the action, locating his discussion within an analysis of shifts in the word's meaning over time. According to Empson, Shakespeare is attentive to this semantic slippage and employs "honest," particularly as it is associated with Iago, as a means of acknowledging a gradual cultural shift toward individualism. Bernard Spivak's reading of Othello also afforded Iago particular attention, though his Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (1958) locates the play not within linguistic history but within the history of dramatic form. Noting that Othello shares a number of features with traditional morality plays, Spivak argues that Iago is best understood as a version of the stock character Vice, a personification of evil with a dangerously privileged relationship with the audience.
12For critics a generation and more later, the suggestion that Othello criticism ought to consist in consideration of the play's generic antecedents, in appreciation and explication of what Knight had earlier called the "music" of its language (109), or in analysis of its thematic preoccupation with jealousy as this relates to a generalizable experience of action, emotion, and moral value began to seem at best naïve and at worst politically suspect. In the 1960s, critics on both sides of the Atlantic sought to understand Othello not as remote from the social and political effects of its historically specific sites of production and reception but as shaped by them. Influenced by the same impulses that propelled the American civil rights movement, many of these critics explored the play's relationship to early modern representations of race rather than its formal properties. This period produced such groundbreaking work as Eldred Jones's Othello's Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama (1965) and G.K. Hunter's "Othello and Colour Prejudice" (1967), which offered accounts of medieval and early modern discussions of blackness, traced the effect of racial prejudice on the reception of literary texts featuring characters of color, and so introduced productive ways of exploring race in/and Othello. Although the impact of this early work on race in history and drama was gradual, the trail it laid was developed in the 1980s in a series of influential books, including Elliott Tokson's The Popular Image of the Black Man in English Drama, 1550–1688 (1982), Anthony Barthelemy's Black Face, Maligned Race (1987), and Jack D'Amico's The Moor in English Renaissance Drama (1991). The collective effect of these studies was to remind readers of the prominence of black characters on the early modern stage and literary page, to prompt new thinking about the impact of pernicious stereotypes equating blackness with ugliness, disloyalty, and evil, and to encourage further investigation of the historical realities and enduring legacies of slavery. Othello criticism became increasingly politically charged as scholars debated the play's relation to modern conceptions of race and racism. For some the play came to be about "a black man whose humanity is eroded by the cunning and racism of whites" (Cowhig 7), while for others it was an antiracist polemic that "in its fine scrutiny of the mechanisms underlying Iago's use of racism, and in its rejection of human pigmentation as a means of identifying worth . . . continues to oppose racism" (Orkin 188).
13Although attempts to carry issues of history and race to the center of the conversation about Othello gained ground in the 1960s, the determination persisted to read the play's characters and events as representative of a universal human experience. Bradleian character criticism had fallen out of favor, but the impulse to address the psychological complexities of Shakespeare's characters found fertile new ground in the insights of psychoanalytic theory. First published in the 1950s and reprinted a decade later, a series of influential psychoanalytic readings of the plays found a readership fascinated to explore links among Shakespeare, Freud, and the psychological dimensions of human sexuality. Martin Wangh's "Othello: The Tragedy of Iago," for instance, treats Iago as a case study in repressed homosexuality, arguing that the ensign's stifled erotic desire for Othello causes him to despise, and so to seek the destruction of, his rival for the general's affection, Desdemona. Building on Wangh's analysis of Iago as a paranoiac motivated by hatred for the wife of the man he cannot admit he desires, Gordon Ross Smith adduces a more general case for a psychoanalytic approach to Shakespearean drama on the grounds that it provides a "common sense" understanding of tragedy. "One may, if he wish," Ross argues, "continue to consider Othello a poetic melodrama creakily hinging upon an inexplicable villain and trivial mischance, but the sense of tragedy cannot be brought about by such elements" (182). Instead, in a move reminiscent of the character criticism that dominated in the previous century, he suggests that it is best to understand "all the major figures" of the play as "possible people caught in a net of circumstance which their characters make them unable to escape" (182).
14The influence of psychoanalytic approaches to Shakespeare continued to be felt as feminist criticism and sexuality studies evolved throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and as Othello criticism began to consider the play's language, symbols, and characters in relation to such broader social institutions as marriage, religion, and law. In an oft-quoted 1975 article titled "Othello's Handkerchief: 'The Recognizance and Pledge of Love,'" for instance, Lynda Boose argues that the strawberry-spotted handkerchief given to Desdemona by her husband gathers a heavy symbolic burden in the course of the play as it comes to stand for that much larger expanse of fabric, the couple's wedding sheets, and thus for both "the sanctified union promising life and the tragic union culminating in death" (373). Similarly, Edward A. Snow's "Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello" (1980) offers a symptomatic reading of Othello in which the "truth" (387) of its determination to expose a "pathological male animus toward sexuality" rooted in "the social institutions with which men keep women and the threat they pose at arm's length" (388) is both revealed and concealed by its theatrical and verbal discourses. Snow notes that the play's language and its "theatrical spectacle" (387) are marked by disavowal, denial, and introversion, and he calls on readers to "look for what resists dramatic foregrounding and listen for what language betrays about its speaker" (387), a process which reveals a world of sexual repression and misogyny in which the superego, the "voice of the father" upon which patriarchal social order is founded, is exposed as the site of "evil and malice" (410). Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) also finds in Othello the operations of a patriarchy based in sexual repression and the subordination of women. Reading Desdemona's proud claim "my heart's subdued / Even to the utmost pleasure of my lord" as a "moment of erotic intensity," Greenblatt argues that her forthright display of sexual submission, rather than reassuring Othello of her fidelity, plays into Iago's slanderous account of her as adulterous because it appears to confirm her as a sensual and desirous woman instead of as the sexually reluctant but obedient wife that marriage manuals and church doctrine taught men to expect and to value (250). Coppélia Kahn also accounted men's expectations about women's lustful nature responsible for Desdemona's death in her analysis of the intensity of early modern anxiety about cuckoldry in 1981's Man's Estate, while Marianne Novy focused her psychological account of gender relations in Othello on the paradoxical subconscious fantasy of "fusion with a woman both maternal and virginal" (133) that she argues forms the basis of Othello's desire for Desdemona.
15Irene Dash's sociological approach to Othello in Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare(1981) marked an important moment in the history of the play's reception as, for the first time, it focused critical attention on its depiction of the potential destructiveness for women of the institution of marriage. According to Dash, Othello explores the tragic possibilities for married women trapped within a patriarchal system that condones their subjection and even their abuse. Desdemona experiences "a slow loss of confidence in the strength of the self, always with the aim of adjusting to marriage" (104), and thus her death must be laid at the door of a sexist system that celebrates compliance and self-abnegation in wives rather than mutual respect in marriage. A few years later, Carol Thomas Neely's Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (1985), with its nuanced understanding of history and its attentiveness to the operations of power within patriarchy, helped feminist criticism develop a more robust account of the role of marriage in the social and dramatic construction of early modern women. Her reading of Othello locates the characters within an early modern moment that celebrates a newly emerging ideal of companionate marriage even as it continues to advocate for women's subservience to their husbands. Desdemona and Emilia become, on Neely's reading, the victims not of marriage but of male characters who view them through the opposing but mutually reinforcing cultural lenses of romantic idealization and anxious misogyny. The legacy of feminist scholarship committed to exploring both the historical and political dimensions of Othello continued throughout the 1990s in the work of critics such as Lisa Jardine, who reads the accusations of adultery levied against Desdemona within the context of defamation cases involving real early modern women, and in the 2000s by critics such as Sarah Munson Deats, who reads the play within the context of early modern debates between the religious doctrines of obedience and conscience.
16Gradually the discourses of race studies, psychoanalysis, feminism, new historicism, and sex/gender criticism began to coalesce as scholars became increasingly alert to the interplay of sexual politics and race in Othello and in history. In 1987's "'And wash the Ethiop white': Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello," for instance, Karen Newman argued that Desdemona's love for Othello represents a direct threat to Venice because it embodies the twin dangers of freely expressed female desire and miscegenation. This take on the play was then developed by Ania Loomba who argued that "the 'central conflict' of the play . . . is neither between white and black alone, nor merely between men and women—it is both a black man and a white woman. But these two are not simply aligned against white patriarchy, since their own relationship cannot be abstracted from sexual or racial tension" ("Sexuality" 172). The work of male critics, too, integrated analysis of the play's psycho-sexual elements with historically aware discussions of its treatment of race and of gender. For example, picking up on Snow's earlier analysis of Iago's repressed sexuality and employing a similar hermeneutic of suspicion, Michael Neill's "'Unproper Beds'" (1989) finds in the play's curtained bed a potent symbol for an "unutterable" anxiety about interracial love and sex (394). Bruce Smith's pioneering work on homosexuality in early modernity also built on Snow's insights as it investigated the fraught relationship between masculine friendship and marriage in Shakespeare (Homosexual Desire 1991). Smith's reading of Othello suggests that aspects of the relationship between Iago and Othello that might be characterized in modern terms as gay, are presented in the play as assertions of masculinity, while love of women is consistently associated with the threat of effeminacy.
17The imbrication of scholarly discourses on gender and race found perhaps its clearest material confirmation in Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker's 1994 volume Women, "Race," and Writing in the Early Modern Period, a collection which included a number of essays that touched on Othello. Most notable was Parker's own "Fantasies of 'Race' and 'Gender'" which interrogates notions of monstrosity, barbarousness, and civility by locating in the play a series of "split chiastic exchanges and divisions" that see Desdemona and Othello trading cultural identities as they assume varied roles within the complexly racialized and gendered narratives of literary teratology and colonialism. In the same year, Ruth Vanita's work on Othello addressed directly the vexed issue of its relationship to both sexism and racism, arguing that "the play forcefully combats racism (which posits blacks and whites as essentially different) precisely by its presentation of Othello as not at all different from any white husband" (342). Vanita's article indicts not only the play's male bystanders but also its readers and audiences for silent collusion in Desdemona's murder, claiming that she "is killed not only by Othello and Iago but by all those who see her humiliated and beaten in public, and fail to intervene" (338). Virginia Mason Vaughan's Othello: A Contextual History (1994) embodied the scholarly commitment to recognizing literature and history as mutually constitutive modes of discourse, both intimately connected to expressions of, and struggles for, power. Locating the play within both the historical moment that participated in its original production and the multiple pasts within which it was received and reconstructed by successive generations of players, audiences, and readers, Vaughan's wide-ranging study presents Othello as an index of changing conceptions of race, religion, and gender, and as itself a powerful producer of cultural meaning. Joyce Green MacDonald's work on burlesques of Othello is another important example of the influence of cultural criticism on the practices of stage history. By exploring the vexed relationship of Othello to conventions of blackface minstrelsy codified in the first half of the nineteenth century (see Contextual Materials: , MacDonald demonstrates how Shakespeare's play became part of the complex process of both constructing and challenging ideas about race at a moment in history when "playing race became a deadly serious kind of cultural work" (234).
18While work on Othello throughout the 1980s and 1990s was dominated by the impulse to contextualize in general and to historicize in particular, Edward Pechter's Othello and Interpretive Traditions (1999) offered a productively skeptical consideration of the drive to "embed" literary texts. Though keenly aware of Othello's status as "the tragedy that speaks most directly and powerfully to current interests" (2), Pechter insists, pace the cultural critics, that the play must be recognized as distinct from the narrative of its critical and theatrical reproduction, even though the latter will inevitably "contaminate" every reading of the former. Pairing a sustained reading of the formal and affective qualities of Othello with analysis alert to both discontinuities and consistencies in almost 400 years of critical and theatrical response to the play, Pechter demonstrates that the interpretive traditions that have grown up around Othello often say more about the preoccupations of their creators than about the play they purport to elucidate.
19Throughout the 2000s Othello criticism continued to benefit from the development of increasingly sophisticated accounts of the body, the self, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, and citizenship, while postcolonial theory offered useful frameworks within which questions about Othello's nature and his relationship to the people and institutions around him could be examined. Ania Loomba's Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism (2002), for instance, maps the complex connections among race, religion, and colonialism in the play, suggesting that Othello is best understood as the product of a historical moment which understood ethnic identity as fluid: "Despite being a Christian soldier, Othello cannot shed either his blackness or his 'Turkish' attributes, and it is his sexual and emotional self, expressed through his relationship with Desdemona, which interrupts and finally disrupts his newly acquired Christian and Venetian identity" (96).
Mary Floyd-Wilson's English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama (2003) also understands early modern notions of ethnicity and race as unstable. Situating Othello within the discourse of early modern geohumoralism—the myth that "variations in topography and climate produced variations in national characteristics" (133)—Floyd-Wilson argues that while early in the play Othello matches early modern constructions of southerners as cool and wise, he is later contaminated by Iago and becomes "hybrid—alienated from his Moorish complexion by an Italianate doubleness" (155). For Julia Reinhard Lupton, Othello is best located within a dramatic tradition preoccupied with the intertwining of religion and nation. In Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology (2005), she argues that the play models a profound religious ambiguity in the figure of Othello, who seems at once a convert from paganism whose new faith is assumed to be stable and a convert from Islam whose conversion is immediately suspect. On Lupton's reading, Othello becomes increasingly Islamicized in the course of the play, and she presents his self-stabbing as an act of extreme circumcision, what she calls a "death into suicide" that affirms both his commitment to Venetian Christianity and his identity as a Muslim man even as it reveals the tragic cost of early modern Europe's refusal to allow him this hybrid identity.
20Othello's intersections with Islam have also fascinated a number of other critics, including Daniel Vitkus whose Turning Turk (2003) identifies the play as one of a series of early modern dramas about the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the complex commercial, political, and ideological space of the early modern Mediterranean. According to Vitkus, Othello participates in stereotypes about Muslim men as despotic, lustful, and emotionally undisciplined by presenting Othello as a Christianized Moor so overcome by jealousy that he reverts to "a version of the Islamic tyrant" (99) and then ensures his own damnation by committing suicide. Jonathan Burton's Traffic and Turning (2005) also takes up the idea of conversion in Othello, arguing that Othello tries to counter the destructive psychological effects of an intense desire to be accepted by Christian Europe with "purple speech, his position at the vanguard of Christendom's forces against the Turks . . . and his marriage to Desdemona," all actions which Burton claims authorize the Moor's place in Venice and simultaneously reveal his profound self-doubt (253). For Burton, as Othello begins to believe in "his own irredeemable difference," and to embrace the discourse of misogyny, he loses the ability to "unsettl[e] the meaning of his skin," and this inability becomes proof of his Christian faith (254). For Emily C. Bartels in Speaking of the Moor (2008), on the other hand, Othello is one of a range of early modern texts that represent the Moor not as a figure of "racial or cultural difference" but of cultural indeterminacy (194). According to Bartels, "the Moor's story is never exclusively his own—or, rather, is his own, if we understand that story as insistent on the extravagant interplay of cultures here and everywhere" (189). Instead of enlisting Othello as evidence of a hostile collision between Islamic East and Christian West, Bartels argues, critics ought to understand the play as a product of a historical moment in which overlapping concerns about race, religion, and nationalism were being negotiated within the militarily and commercially significant space of the Mediterranean, and ought to view its titular Moor as emblematic not of cultural discord but of proto-globalization.
21While consensus is building around the notion of Othello as a text of the early modern Mediterranean, new work on connections between early modern London's black community and the city's playhouses (Habib 2013) and on links between sixteenth-century dyeing practices and the properties of Desdemona's handkerchief (Smith 2013) suggests that alternative historical contexts for the play will continue to emerge. The direction of Othello criticism will also be affected as literary criticism's longstanding commitment to cultural historicism comes under pressure from those who argue that explorations of context often come at the expense of literature's formal properties and affective registers, and as developments in the digital humanities enable fresh methods of exploring this engaging text.
The idea of a tragic hero varies throughout literature; Aristotle’sPoeticsstates that a hero within a piece of literature must incorporate the following; a peripiteia, anagorisis, hamartia and catharsis in order to be considered tragic. Each of these components collates to create a tragedy which in turn leads to the downfall of a great man, often resulting in his or her death.
Aristotle stresses that a tragic hero must be that of a great man and the question to whether Othello can be seen as a great man is questionable.
The debate to whether the hero Othello has both the characteristics and fortune of a tragic hero has been discussed by a variety of critics including A.C Bradley and F.R Leavis. These two critics have portrayed their views of the play Othello and questioned the extent of Othello’s representation of a tragic hero; Bradley, for example believes that the villain Iago is the main cause of Othello’s downfall whereas Leavis claims that it is due to Othello’s character and Iago is merely a catalyst who speeds the process up.
In the essay, “Shakespearean Tragedy” A.C. Bradley states that Othello is “the most romantic figure amongst Shakespeare’s heroes” through the way in which he presents himself throughout I, iii as both noble and dignified. Bradley sees this nobility and makes the conclusion that Othello, therefore cannot be wrong in the sense that his hamartia is within his character, rather than his judgement. Bradley continuously supports his opinion that Othello retains his grandeur throughout the play in that even his short speeches, along with his soliloquies, convey this nobility – Othello’s language does not deteriorate, but becomes simplified. However, it can be seen that Shakespeare wants to make Othello’s degeneration apparent;
Lie with her? Lie on her? We say lie on her
When they be-lie her. Lie with her: ‘Zounds, that’s
Fulsome; Handkerchief: Confessions: Handkerchief. (IV, i 43-45)
Shakespeare himself is denying Othello’s dignity; his language is clear in that no noble man can be manipulated to the extent where he is unable to construct a sentence in the way Bradley depicts; later on, Othello’s language regresses further to single words. The repetition of “lie” conveys Othello’s sense of confusion; he refuses to accept the concept of his wife with anybody else yet still, eventually, believes Iago. The rhetorical device ‘ploce’ is used to show that Othello is stuck on this train of thought. The deterioration of Othello’s nobility is emphasized when he refuses his wife one last prayer before he kills her,
But while I say one prayerIt is too late (V, ii 105-106)
Desdemona’s innocence and purity shines through at this particular part of the play, creating a huge contrast to Othello’s state of mind; in Bradley’s case, this is proof to show the impact Iago has had upon Othello’s reasoning.
Bradley argues that the hamartia of which contributes to the tragedy of Othello is Othello’s judgement of the other characters, “his trust, where he trusts, is absolute” which is true when compared to his relationship with Iago, yet not so with Desdemona or Cassio – the two characters closest to him at the beginning of the play. Bradley suggests that Othello has been manipulated by Iago resulting in the loss of trust in those he loves. This is through no fault of his own, but through his openness to Iago’s suggestion; Bradley, however he may romanticise the character of Othello, refers to him as ‘simple minded’ and his nature open and trusting.
Othello seems to have a romantic view of himself, which Bradley shares; his speech is full of powerful and poetic imagery which itself romanticises Othello and to the audience creates the illusion of a natural hero.
Wherein I spoke of most disastrous chances:
Of moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hair-breadth ‘scapes i’ th’ imminent deadly breach; (I, iii 159-161)
Othello clearly romanticises his past in order to persuade Brabantio to accept him as a son-in-law and also to convince to audience to consider him a tragic hero; what tragic hero has not had ‘most disastrous chances’? Othello is aware that he is being judged and, as A.C. Bradley points out, when he becomes “emotional, his imagination becomes excited”.
Desdemona’s murder, according to Bradley, was a sacrifice made by Othello to save her from herself; Othello here is under the same illusion fogged by his emotions yet at this time with a negative effect. Bradley argues that Othello’s actions are not made out of jealousy or anger but out of love; if this, however, is the case then his hamartia would be that Othello’s love for Desdemona is too great and, therefore renders the anagorisis of his realisation of Iago’s betrayal, irrelevant.
Leavis, opposed to Bradley, argues, in the “Diabolic Intellect and Noble Hero” that it is not due to Iago but the nature of Othello that contributes his name to the list of tragic heroes. Iago is “merely ancillary” and is not successful due to his effective manipulation, as Bradley suggests, but because Othello is so susceptible to Iago’s actions. Leavis clearly argues that Othello is the “main personage” and that Bradley places too much of the focus on the Iago-devil and his role in the downfall of Othello.
Othello’s character is, fundamentally, egotistical and lacks the self knowledge in which Aristotle refers to for a classic tragic hero. Throughout the play, the audience is led to believe Othello’s love and trust for Desdemona is complete; yet, as Leavis clearly points out, Othello’s openness for suggestion proves this to be incorrect – Iago successfully alters Othello’s perception of his wife and, although Othello asks for proof, Iago having obtained the handkerchief presents the fact he had seen Cassio use it and this, itself completely changes Othello’s direction of trust.
Now do I see ‘tis true. Look here Iago,All my fond love thus do I blow to Heaven. ’Tis gone. (III, iii 464-465)
Othello’s new found trust for Iago exceeds that for his wife; it is now, ironically, Othello who is being disloyal to Desdemona. It is this reason; therefore, that Leavis believes that Othello and Desdemona’s love is based on lust rather than love and full of ignorance thus supporting Bradley’s statement that since Othello was newly married he must have had very little knowledge of her.
The Aristotelian idea of tragedy states that the protagonist’s learning through suffering is essential but Leavis argues against Othello’s learning, he suggests it is not the fact that Othello has a moment of anagorisis but the theatrical aspect to Othello in that he dramatises his journey so poetically that makes him a hero in the eyes of the audience. The “faultless hero” of whom Bradley identifies Othello to be, Leavis sees him as egotistical and “self-approving” and his love for Desdemona simply self love. Othello’s final soliloquy conveys Othello’s simple nature to begin with, but the description soon alters once again into the self-dramatisation of which he portrays at the beginning of the play. Leavis’s interpretation of Othello’s anagorisis is that he may have discovered his mistake but there is no tragic self-discovery of which is vital for a tragic hero.
Of one, not easily jealous, but being wrought,Perplex’d in the extreme: Of one, whose hand
Like the base Indian threw a pearl away ( V, ii 529-531)
The audience is able to see clearly Othello’s regret; he realises he has thrown away something precious and only now sees Desdemona’s innocence. The feelings of regret overcome Othello’s feelings of anger or betrayal, it there are in fact any, towards Iago; he only reflects on his mistake of distrusting Desdemona, not for trusting Iago. Here, his language improves showing some signs of recuperation, the audience is again reminded of his feelings for Desdemona and also supporting Bradley’s argument that at the end of the tragedy the audience are presented with a nobler Othello; perhaps he does not become nobler, just simply attempts to regain his dignity. How the audience perceive Othello depends upon the text they see. In the quarto Othello compares himself to a “base Indian” whereas Othello in the folio is a “Judean”. The change of this single word is significant in the audience’s view of Othello; the word ‘Indian’ in the Quarto gives the impression that Othello is attempting to justify his actions. This being that the Indian is not aware of the true value of the pearl (Desdemona) whereas Othello comparing himself to a ‘Judean’ signifies his immense remorse; that Judas himself felt at the betrayal of Jesus.
Other characters throughout Othello are significant to the play as a tragedy other than Othello; firstly, it can be seen that Emilia is the character with the role of providing the catharsis for Othello. Throughout Act Five it is Emilia who strives for Othello to see the truth; she is the first character to see Iago’s evil and for that she loses her life. Scene two shows Othello’s anagorisis in which he reaches his moment of realisation through Emilia’s catharsis; it can be seen that she is the character responsible for Othello’s realisation.
Are there no stones in heaven,But what serves for the thunder?
Precious villain. (V, ii 278)
This is the first time throughout Othello where Othello sees Iago as the villain and clearly sees his mistake in trusting him. The tragic hero, in effect, could be seen as Emilia in that she incorporates some of the factors necessary to be considered as one; she has her catharsis when confronting her husband’s use for Desdemona’s handkerchief and figures Iago’s ploy out. Although Emilia does die she does not seem to have a great downfall, which is necessary for a tragic hero.
The peripiteia of Othello may be in the setting of the play; the reversal of fortune occurs after the characters leave their homes in Venice to travel to Cyprus. The symbolism of Venice being the island of love relates to the fact that Iago’s plan only becomes apparent to the other characters after they have left as is their feelings of love in Venice have clouded their senses – Iago uses this to his advantage. Shakespeare conveys the fact that Cyprus is so far away from Venetian society by showing that their arrival initiates the decline of the relationships between the characters.
The theme of jealousy mainly relates to Iago; the only reasoning to Iago’s actions of which the audience is aware of is the fact that he wants to take revenge on Othello for the promotion of Cassio. Shakespeare retains all other information about Iago and the introduction of his wife only occurs later in the play. The audience are therefore unable to relate to Iago; his enigmatic character is sophisticated and he cleverly uses language to manipulate Othello. However Leavis believes that the reason for Iago's success in the sense that he gains control over Othello is his great knowledge of him, Iago is aware of Othello’s weaknesses and uses them to his advantage; he also argues that any character with this particular knowledge is able to manipulate Othello in the same way.
The numerous arguments for and against Othello’s status as a tragic hero express valid points; Othello, in one way does not represent the idea of a tragic hero in that he never seems to have a catharsis and only a moment of anagorisis endorsed by the character of Emilia. Yet on the other hand Othello shows signs of a hamartia, either being his natural trust in people or his over-dramatisation and openness to suggestion. The play is successful as a tragedy as it does involve the fall of a great man and evokes pity within the audience but Othello himself perhaps cannot be classed as a tragic hero as, although he does represent some of the traits required, he does not fit fully into Aristotle’s idea of a classic tragic hero. Also, the audience at the end of Othello is left feeling pity for Desdemona, not Othello therefore the role of the tragic hero within the play does not fall entirely upon the protagonist but shared amongst the various characters.