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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

For other uses, see Othello (disambiguation).
Title page of the first quarto edition of Othello, published in 1622
Title page of the first quarto edition of Othello, published in 1622

The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is a tragedy by William Shakespeare written around 1603.

The play is a concentrated, tightly-constructed domestic tragedy with almost no subplot relief, revolving around five or six central characters. Othello's ill-placed trust in the villain Iago, resulting in his growing suspicion in his wife Desdemona's infidelity with his lieutenant Cassio, led to the ultimate tragedy. Othello is commonly considered one of Shakespeare's great tragedies, and one of his finest works.

Performance and Publication

Othello possesses an unusually detailed performance record. The first certainly-known performance occurred on November 1, 1604, at Whitehall Palace in London. Subsequent performances took place on Monday, April 30, 1610 at the Globe Theatre; on Nov. 22, 1629; and on May 6, 1635 at the Blackfriars Theatre. Othello was also one of the twenty plays performed by the King's Men during the winter of 1612-13, in celebration of the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Frederick V, Elector Palatine.

The play was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on Oct. 6, 1621 by the bookseller Thomas Walkley, and was first published in quarto format by him in 1622, printed by Nicholas Okes. Its appearance in the First Folio (1623) quickly followed. Later quartos followed in 1630, 1655, 1681, 1695, and 1705; on stage and in print, it was a popular play.

At the start of the Restoration era, on Oct. 11, 1660, Samuel Pepys saw the play at the Cockpit Theatre. Nicholas Burt played the lead. Soon after, on Dec. 8, Thomas Killigrew's new King's Company acted the play at their Vere Street theatre, with Margaret Hughes as Desdemona—probably the first time a professional actress appeared on a public stage in England.

It may be one index of the play's power that Othello was one of the very few Shakespearean plays that was never adapted and changed during the Restoration and the eighteenth century.[1]


The Death of Desdemona by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix.
The Death of Desdemona by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix.

Othello, a "noble Moor" who has just eloped with the fair Desdemona when the play opens, leaves Venice to command the Venetian armies against the Turks on the island of Cyprus, accompanied by his new wife and his lieutenant, Cassio. When they arrive, they find that the weather has destroyed the Turkish fleet. Iago, a standard bearer, repeatedly tries to undo Othello, finally succeeding when he plants Desdemona's handkerchief on Cassio, managing to convince Othello that his wife has been unfaithful. Othello smothers Desdemona out of jealousy, before Iago's wife, Emilia, eventually reveals that Desdemona's affair was but an invention of Iago's. Iago immediately kills his wife also, and Othello then commits suicide in grief. At the end, it can be assumed, Iago is taken off to be tortured and possibly executed.


Desdemona by Frederic Leighton.
Desdemona by Frederic Leighton.

The plot for Othello was developed from a story in Cinthio's (Giraldi Cinzio) collection, the Hecatommithi, which it follows closely. The only named character in Cinthio's story is "Disdemona", which means "unfortunate" in Greek; the other characters are identified only as "the standard-bearer", "the captain", and "the Moor". In the original, the standard-bearer lusts after Disdemona and is spurred to revenge when she rejects him.

Shakespeare invented a new character, Roderigo, who pursues the Moor's wife and is killed while trying to murder the captain. Unlike Othello, the Moor in Cinthio's story never repents the murder of his beloved, and both he and the standard-bearer escape Venice and are killed much later. Cinthio also drew a moral (which he placed in the mouth of the lady) that European women are unwise to marry the temperamental males of other nations.

Othello's race

"Othello and Desdemona in Venice" by Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856)
"Othello and Desdemona in Venice" by Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856)

Although the play is very much concerned with racial difference, the protagonist's specific race is not clearly indicated by Shakespeare. Othello is referred to as a "Moor", but for Elizabethan English people, this term could refer either to the Berbers (or Arabs) of North Africa, or to the people now called "black" (that is, people of sub-Saharan African descent). In his other plays, Shakespeare had previously depicted both a Berber Moor (in The Merchant of Venice) and a black Moor (in Titus Andronicus). In Othello, however, the references to the character's physical features do not settle the question of which race Shakespeare envisioned.

In his Arden edition of the play, E.A.J. Honigmann summarises the contradictory evidence. The various uses of the word 'black' (for example, "Haply for I am black") do not help, since 'black' could simply mean 'swarthy' for Elizabethans[2]. Iago twice uses the word 'Barbary' or 'Barbarian' to refer to Othello, apparently referring to the Barbary coast inhabited by the "white" Moors. Yet Roderigo also calls him 'the thicklips', which seems to refer to black physiognomy. Honigmann says that since these comments are all insults, they need not be taken literally.[3]

Honigmann also notes one piece of external evidence: an ambassador of the Arab King of Barbary with his retinue stayed in London in 1600 for several months and occasioned much discussion. Honigmann wonders whether Shakespeare's play, written only a year or two afterwards, might have been inspired by the ambassador. [4] Also, it should be noted that a real Othello might be a Berber or Arab than of entirely sub-Saharan African ancestry. On the other hand, sub-Saharans had visited the Mediterranean long before the time in which the events of the play are set, and a portrayal of Othello as sub-Saharan adds much to the feelings of alienation and suspicion that the audience must sense from him -- here is truly a stranger in a strange land, which makes his psychological plight all the more striking and his final inability to trust his wife the more "explainable" if he is constantly reminded of the fact that the two of them are from what would then be considered almost literally two different worlds. A Barbary Arab would not experience the same emotions; he might not be trusted but he would not be considered totally alien by the Venetians. Therefore when a Barbary Othello cannot trust Desdemona, the audience would be more likely to blame him and not pity him.

Very strong evidence in favor of a sub-Saharan Black origin is contained in a following passage: Othello speaks of being "sold to slavery," and of "Cannibals that each other eat,/ The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads/ Do grow beneath their shoulders." References to tales of the Anthrophophagi suggests that Othello's origins lie beyond the scope of territory familiar to everyday Elizabethans.

Due to the distinct nature of the Mediterranean slave trade, rather than, for example, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Othello's status in his cultural context may have been more realistic.

Also, interpretations of Othello's origins as Black were current as of the 1930s, when a performance of the play was banned in a southern state due to the problems with representing an idealized interracial love. The performance included a middle-age African-American performer.

Popular prejudice among average readers and theatre directors today leans towards the "black" interpretation, and "white" Othellos have been rare.[5]

Themes and tropes

Othello and Desdemona by Alexandre-Marie Colin.
Othello and Desdemona by Alexandre-Marie Colin.
This section may contain original research or unverified claims.
Please help Wikipedia by adding references. See the talk page for details.

Signifier and signified

Othello subverts traditional theatrical symbolism. A contemporary audience would have seen black skin as a sign of barbarism or satanism as Aaron is in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus: a "swarth Cimmerian... of body's hue spotted, detested and abominable" (Titus Andronicus, Act II, scene iii, ll. 72-74). A white soldier would have been understood of honesty. Iago indeed actively tries to convince other characters that Othello is a "barbary horse" that "covers" Desdemona, or a "black ram", horned and animalistically "tupping" her (Act I, scene i, l. 108, ll. 85-86); and that he himself is truthful to a fault. In Othello, however, the black character is "noble" and Christian; and the white soldier is a scheming liar.

Othello thus constantly challenges the link between a physical signifier and what is signified by it. For example, Iago – whose job as standard-bearer is to hold a sign of loyalty to Othello – says, of pretending to like the Moor: "Though I do hate him as I do hell pains/ Yet for necessity of present life/ I must show out a flag and sign of love/ Which is indeed but sign" (Act I, scene i, ll. 151-154a). Desdemona, too, sees a distinction between signifier and signified, saying she "saw Othello's visage in his mind" – not in his actual face (Act I, scene iii, l. 247). The play thus argues that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary; the plot itself hinging on the significance of an utterly "made-up" sign – a handkerchief made to signify infidelity.

When Iago tells him Desdemona is an adulteress, Othello cries "Her name, that was as fresh/ As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black/ As mine own face" – leading to a suicidal conclusion: "If there be cords or knives/ Poison or fire, or suffocating streams/ I'll not endure it" (Act III, scene iii, ll. 383b-387a).

White / Black

The most basic aspects of traditional Western symbology – that white signifies purity and black signifies evil – are repeatedly challenged in Othello. One example is in the character of Bianca. Her name in Italian means "white", yet, as Iago tells the audience, her name is again "but sign" of purity, as she is in fact "a housewife that by selling her desires buys herself bread and clothes" (Act IV, scene i, ll. 95-96). Ironically, just before Desdemona pleads with Othello that she is not a whore, Bianca too protests to an accuser that she is "no strumpet, but of life as honest/ As you that thus abuse me" (Act V, scene i, ll. 122-123)– leading the audience to realize that, just as with Desdemona, the only evidence anyone has that Bianca is a whore is Iago's word, and Cassio's (he calls her a "customer," whore {Act IV, scene i, l. 120}).

Heaven / Hell

Heaven nevertheless remains a signifier of truth, and hell a signifier of misrepresentation in the play. The words thus recur frequently throughout Othello, as Othello struggles to join other signifiers to them: for example he says to an innocent Desdemona that "Heaven doth truly know that thou art false as hell". This shows strong contrasts between the two.

Iago / Othello

Although the title suggests that the tragedy belongs primarily to Othello, Iago also plays an undeniably important role. For one, he speaks more lines than Othello. It is also Iago who manipulates all other characters at his will, trapping them in an intricate net of lies. A. C. Bradley—and more recently Harold Bloom—have been major advocates of this interpretation.

Other critics, most notably in the later twentieth century (after F. R. Leavis), have focused on Othello. Apart from the common question of jealousy, some argue that his honour is his undoing, while others address the hints of instability in his person (in Act IV Scene i, for example, he falls "into an epilepsy").

List of characters

"Desdemona's Death Song" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
"Desdemona's Death Song" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Persons Represented:

  • Duke of Venice.
  • Brabantio, also written Brabanzio, a Senator, father of Desdemona.
  • Other Senators.
  • Gratiano, Brother to Brabantio.
  • Lodovico, Kinsman to Brabantio.
  • Othello, a noble Moor, in the service of Venice.
  • Cassio, his Florentine Lieutenant
  • Iago, his Ancient, the antagonist of the play
  • Roderigo, a Venetian Gentleman.
  • Montano, Othello's predecessor in the government of Cyprus.
  • Clown, Servant to Othello.
  • Herald
  • Desdemona, Daughter to Brabantio, and Wife to Othello.
  • Emilia, Wife to Iago, maid to Desdemona.
  • Bianca, Mistress to Cassio.
  • Miscellaneous: Officers, Gentlemen, Messenger, Musicians, Herald, Sailor, Attendants, etc.


'Othello' in performance


Othello is the basis for three operatic versions:

  • The opera Otello (1816) by Gioacchino Rossini
  • The opera Otello (1887) by Giuseppe Verdi
  • The opera Bandanna, the opera (1999) by Daron Hagen [1]


See also Shakespeare on screen (Othello).
Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh as Othello and Iago respectively, in a scene from the 1995 version of Othello.
Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh as Othello and Iago respectively, in a scene from the 1995 version of Othello.

There have been several film adaptations of Othello. These include:

  • Othello (1922) starring Emil Jannings. Silent. [2]
  • The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (1952) by Orson Welles [3]
  • Отелло (1955), USSR, starring Sergei Bondarchuk, Irina Skobtseva, Andrei Popov. Directed by Sergei Yutkevich. See Отелло at the Internet Movie Database
  • Othello (1965) starring Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Frank Finlay, and Joyce Redman [4]
  • Othello (1981) part of the BBC's complete works of William Shakespeare. Starring Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins. [5]
  • Otello (1986) A film version of Verdi's opera, starring Plácido Domingo, directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Won the BAFTA for foreign language film. [6]
  • Othello (1995) starring Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Fishburne, and Irene Jacob. Directed by Oliver Parker. [7]
  • Kaliyattam (1997), in Malayalam, a modern update, set in Kerala, starring Suresh Gopi as Othello, Lal as Iago, Manju Warrier as Desdemona, directed by Jayaraaj. [8]
  • O (2001) a modern update, set in an American high school. Stars Mekhi Phifer, Julia Stiles, and Josh Hartnett [9]
Still from the film Omkara featuring Saif Ali Khan as Langda Tyagi (Iago) and Ajay Devgan as Omkara 'Omi' Shukla (Othello)
Still from the film Omkara featuring Saif Ali Khan as Langda Tyagi (Iago) and Ajay Devgan as Omkara 'Omi' Shukla (Othello)
  • Othello (2001). TV film. A modern-day adaptation in modern English, in which Othello is the first black Commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police. Made for ITV by LWT. Scripted by Andrew Davies. Directed by Geoffrey Sax. Starring Eamonn Walker, Christopher Eccleston and Keeley Hawes. [10]
  • Omkara (2006) (Hindi), a contemporary take of Othello set in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It stars Ajay Devgan as Omkara (Othello), Saif Ali Khan as Langda (Iago), Kareena Kapoor as Dolly (Desdemona), Vivek Oberoi as Kesu (Cassio), Bipasha Basu as Billo (Bianca) and Konkona Sen Sharma as Indu (Emilia). The film is directed by Vishal Bharadwaj who earlier adapted Shakespeare's Macbeth as Maqbool.


  1. ^ F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; pp. 346-47.
  2. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, 'Black', 1c.
  3. ^ E.A.J. Honigmann, ed. Othello. London: Thomas Nelson, 1997, p. 15.
  4. ^ Honigmann, 2-3.
  5. ^ Honigmann, 17.

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice
Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
  • Othello Study Guide
  • Othello – original text of the play from Project Gutenberg
  • [11] 100 essays on Othello by Dr. Bill Long
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