Season 05-06 Season

What Critics Have Said

Othello is the most domestic of Shakespeare's tragedies. Its focus is not on the fall of a king, the collapse of a nation, the agony of a prince or the contradiction between love and duty. Rather, it is about the end of a marriage and a husband's murder of his wife. It is intimately concerned with the details of sexual jealousy: how it is sparked, how the flames are fueled and how it brings down catastrophe on the protagonist's shoulder.

The poetry and formal control of Othello make it as organized as a symphony: scholars rightly talk of ‘the Othello music.' In particular, this quality is signaled by the soaring language that Othello, and Othello alone, is given to speak—in a marked contrast, for example, to Iago's style, which is witty, ironical, matter of fact and ruthless.”

A Pocket Guide to Shakespeare's Plays. Kenneth McLeish and Stephen Unwin. 1998.

“Iago stands supreme among Shakespeare's evil characters because the greatest intensity and subtlety of imagination have gone into his making, and because he illustrates in the most perfect combination the two facts concerning evil, which seem to have impressed Shakespeare the most. The first of these is the fact that perfectly sane people exist in whom fellow-feeling of any kind is so weak that an almost absolute egoism becomes possible to them, and with it those hard vices—such as ingratitude and cruelty—which to Shakespeare were by far the worst. The second is that such evil is compatible, and even appears to ally itself easily, with exceptional powers of will and intellect.”

A.C. Bradley. “Othello” in Iago. 1992.

“Othello is the night, and being night, and wishing to kill, what does he take to slay with? Poison? the club? the axe? the knife? No; the pillow. To kill is to lull to sleep. … And it is thus that Desdemona, spouse of the man Night, dies, stifled by the pillow upon which the first kiss was given, and which receives the last sigh.”

Victor Hugo. William Shakespeare. 1887.

“If, as Othello implies, Desdemona's honor and her handkerchief are the same, then either loss or rejection has the same alienating effect. He and Desdemona both understand something different by the piece of cloth, a difference in understanding that helps precipitate their tragedy.”

Frances Teague. “Objects in Othello” from Vaughan and Cartwright's “Othello”: New Perspectives. 1991.

“It is within these general discourses of race and Otherness, with all their contradictions, that the character of Othello is to be understood. As a Moor, he is clearly presented as Other, but not necessarily an offensive Other; the qualifier noble Moor does not extricate him from the realm of the exotic, yet it undermines the perception of him as evil. The association of him with blackness and its numerous signifieds, however, clearly locates him in the world of the undesirable. This blackness is articulated in a culture in which black is the color of degeneracy and damnation.”

Elliott Butler-Evans. “‘Haply, for I am Black': Othello and the Semiotics of Race and Otherness” from “Othello”: New Essays by Black Writers. 1997.

"One woman, Emilia, plays an interesting role in this connection. Although a wife herself, she seems to mediate between wives and whores, between Desdemona and Bianca. At first glance she would seem to confirm Othello's fears about the irrepressible sensuality of women that leads husbands to their horned fate. … Worse than that, however, Emilia demystifies the prevailing view that this kind of sexual duplicity is virtually genetic in women. ‘Is such behavior wrong?' she asks. ‘Why the wrong is but a wrong in the world; and having the world for your labor, ‘tis a wrong in your own world, and you might quickly make it right.' In other words, morality is legislated by property owners; if you own the world, as men do, you define right as what you do and wrong as what women do, even if both do the same thing for the same reasons.”

James L. Calderwood. The Properties of “Othello.” 1989.

“In transporting Othello and Desdemona to Cyprus, Shakespeare casts additional light on their relationship and enriches our understanding of the moral and psychological patterns of the play. … Desdemona's removal from her familiar environment isolates her during her ordeal. Finally, in what Alvin Kernan describes as the ‘symbolic geography' of the play, Cyprus stands as an insecure Christian outpost on the frontier of barbarism. It is an uneasy middle ground between civilization, represented by ‘The City' Venice and Desdemona, and ancient chaos, identified with the Turks, Iago and the savage origins of Othello himself. In the psyche of Othello, a ‘barbarian' and convert to Christianity, these polar forces are maintained in precarious balance.”

David M. Zesmer. Guide to Shakespeare. 1976.



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