Othello (1604) is generally regarded as a captivating domestic tragedy that concentrates on the psychological repercussions of racial hatred and sexual jealousy. The play recounts the tragic fate of Othello, a Moorish general and recent convert to Christianity, who is charged by his Venetian superiors with the defense of Cyprus from Turkish aggression. Against this historical backdrop, Othello focuses on the deceitful machinations of the villain, Iago, an amoral subordinate to Othello who sees to it that the Moor's brief marriage to Desdemona, the daughter of an influential Venetian senator, ends in her murder and Othello's suicide. Othello, after blindly succumbing to the diabolical scheming of his trusted lieutenant, descends into enraged jealousy, falsely believing that another lieutenant, Cassio, has had a sexual affair with his innocent wife. Othello later strangles Desdemona before killing himself as Iago's nefarious conniving comes to light. Modern Shakespeare scholars have studied the unsettling depiction of racial and gender conflict in Othello, typically examining these issues within the colonialist and patriarchal contexts of the early modern era. Recent commentators have also concentrated on Shakespeare's versatile use of language in the tragedy, the work's potential status as religious allegory, and the play's enduring reputation as a compelling and interpretively rich performance piece.
Modern critics have primarily emphasized the subjects of race and gender in their analyses of Othello. Featuring as it does a dark-skinned protagonist of Moorish (i.e., Muslim North African) descent, the drama has generally invited recent commentators to situate its narrative within the contexts of early modern colonialist and patriarchal discourse. For many scholars, these issues are notably apparent when studied in relation to the sustained performance history of Othello. Elise Marks (2001) draws attention to the racial uniqueness of Shakespeare's Moor as demonstrated by several notable historical productions of the drama, and the ways in which various male leads have enacted the character. According to Marks, in order for the figure of Othello to achieve his full emotional potential in performance, the actor playing him must satisfy a special combination of racial characteristics, namely that he somehow embody both the racial norms of western (i.e. European) civilization and the exotic otherness of a "barbaric" (i.e., non-European) culture. This effect is usually achieved, Marks asserts, when a white rather than a black actor assays the role, and in so doing pushes his character toward that liminal space between commonly perceived racial boundaries, thus allowing audiences to take vicarious pleasure in his culturally liberating performance. In a complementary assessment of Othello, Pascale Aebischer (2001) examines the final scenes of six exemplary twentieth-century stage and cinematic adaptations of the drama, including performances starring Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, and Laurence Fishburne as the Moor. For Aebischer, these productions provide an excellent survey of the ways in which the domestic tragedy has been used to foreground issues of racism and misogyny embedded in the play and in modern culture.
Ania Loomba (see Further Reading) takes a similarly ideological approach to Othello by investigating the drama with regard to the realities of European colonialism. Arguing that thematic tensions in the play arise from its dramatic rendering of clashing racial and cultural difference, Loomba underscores the work's status as the product of a long tradition of racialist discourse. Likewise, Sara Deats (see Further Reading) claims that the figures of Othello and Desdemona, despite their self-proclaimed individualism, are essentially formed of racial and gender stereotypes, and thus conform to the labels given to them in the play as, respectively, the "erring barbarian" and the "maiden never bold." Making use of the same critical tools as Loomba and Deats, Emily C. Bartels (see Further Reading) probes Othello's self-defining characterization with respect to the colonialist dynamics of the play. Bartels concentrates on Othello's attempts to adapt himself to Venetian society (and thus surmount his ostensible "otherness" as a Moor and a recently converted former Muslim) through his own personal testimony. After highlighting the generally ambivalent qualities of Othello's characterization, Bartels surveys a selection of tales told by the Moor in conjunction with early modern historical material, arguing that Othello's stories about himself appear to be compiled of clichd and sensationalized material designed to please the European sensibilities of his employers by underscoring his appealing exoticism rather than his potential threat as a cultural outsider. Turning to the female characters in Othello, Edward Pechter (2003) claims that the misogynistic dynamics of the drama's centuries-long theatrical and critical traditions have reinforced perceptions of Desdemona and her lady-in-waiting, Emilia (the wife of Iago). For Pechter, both of these figures have typically been rendered on stage and in criticism as passive, subdued, and generally powerless victims of male violence, regardless of the fact that both characters marshal substantial resistance to the hostility and brutal aggression of their husbands.
Recent scholarly attention to the central issues of gender and race in Othello has been accompanied by continued interest in several broader aspects of the drama, such as its overall thematic content, use of language, and generic status. Thomas Betteridge (2005) associates ostensible concerns with misogyny and racism in Othello with a thematic understanding of language in the play by focusing attention on the figure of Iago. For Betteridge, Iago's use of racist and sexist imagery, as well as his generally reductive descriptions and characterizations, prompt audience awareness of the failure of spoken language to convey meaning with any precision. While luring Othello into his trap, Iago manipulates gaps between verbal representation and meaning that, according to Betteridge, illustrate the redundancy of language as a central theme in Shakespeare's play. In a more conventionally thematic study of the tragedy, Michael Neill (2004) concentrates on the concept of personal service as a touchstone to the drama. Building upon traditional assessments of the drama that define it as a character-based study in jealousy and upon more modern analyses of its racial dynamics, Neill claims that Shakespeare's rendering of service to a superior in Othello offers unique insight into the work's thematic structure. For Neill, Iago's murderous malice toward Othello, the Moor's sometimes awkward relationship to his Venetian superiors, and even Desdemona's eerie submission to the violence of her husband can adequately be explained when viewed through the thematic lens of personal service, duty, and loyalty.
Contemporary critics interested in the generic status of Othello have tended to categorize the work as, in large part, a domestic tragedy, while acknowledging the significant political and socio-cultural components of the ill-fated union between Othello and Desdemona. Pamela K. Jensen (see Further Reading) suggests that in Othello Shakespeare presented a complex juxtaposition of private and public spheres. According to Jensen, the drama comprehensively renders the world of Renaissance Venice, evoking relevant historical and social forces--civic humanism, republicanism, martial virtue, and the familial bonds of marriage--that inform the tragedy and engender its conflicts, and which are then played out in the private, domestic sphere of Othello and Desdemona. Paula McQuade (see Further Reading) likewise contends that Othello bears generic similarities to the early modern English domestic tragedy, but underscores the religious, rather than political, contexts of the drama. For McQuade, the tragedy explores contradictions within the Protestant ideal of the so-called compassionate marriage, in which open communication and wifely honesty are considered paramount virtues.
Another topic of academic interest in recent years concerns Shakespeare's potential construction of a sophisticated religious allegory in Othello. Richard Mallette (2003) asserts that a careful survey of Iago's character reveals his extensive use (and manipulative misuse) of homiletic language. Regarding Iago as a "blasphemous preacher," Mallette examines the villain's false pose as a spiritual counselor, and considers his twisted rhetoric of salvation and moral edification designed for cynical and self-serving ends. The question of Shakespeare's unspoken religious loyalties motivates Richard Wilson's 2004 scholarly assessment of the drama. Centering his subject within the realm of early modern tensions between Catholics and Protestants in England and continental Europe, Wilson identifies a subtle religious allegory in the tragedy that alludes to past sectarian crises and the historical antipathy between Puritan reformism and the zealotry of the Roman Catholic Church. R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (see Further Reading) highlights another aspect of religious allegory in Othello, suggesting that an extensive analogy between Desdemona and the Virgin Mary is embedded within the work. Hassel identifies various theological allusions in the play, such as the Marian intercession for mercy and the idea of a divine judgment of souls, as well as a potential allegorical link between Othello and the biblical Joseph.
The intense psychological intrigue between the characters of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona has established Othello as a mainstay of modern Shakespearean theatrical production. In 2004, director Gregory Doran staged the drama at the Royal Shakespeare Company's Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, featuring modern-dress costume, an international cast, and a 1940s film noir aesthetic. Nicholas de Jongh admires Doran's fast-paced and inspired interpretation, which played to audience expectations of rapidly encroaching disaster. However, the reviewer expresses disappointment with Sello Maake ka Ncube's emotionally understated Othello and with Antony Sher's melodramatic and overly mannered Iago. In a separate review, Rhoda Koenig returns a somewhat more positive assessment of the ensemble cast, but laments that the staging as a whole lacked the requisite passion that serves as the foundation for Shakespeare's tragedy. That same year, director Declan Donnellan mounted a production of Othello with the Check by Jowl company at London's Riverside Studio. Michael Billington (see Further Reading) observes that Donnellan allowed the strength of his actors to carry the show, and praises its well-balanced emphasis on both female and male characters. Reviewer Benedict Nightingale returns a more critical evaluation of the staging, arguing that directorial gimmicks, odd textual cuts, and a somewhat placid Othello diminished its effectiveness. Two North American productions of Othello also appeared in the 2004 to 2005 period: Robert Richmond's Aquila Theatre Company staging in New York City and Karin Coonrod's Hartford Stage Company presentation in Connecticut. Reviewer John Heilpern commends Richmond's production for imbuing the tragedy with a mainstream, popular appeal--a feat achieved through the effort of a strong and effective ensemble cast. The critic singles out Anthony Cochrane's venomous, spellbinding Iago for special praise in Richmond's engaging presentation. By contrast, Frank L. Rizzo (see Further Reading) remarks that uneven acting--particularly Firdous Bamji's sometimes emotionally absent Moor--in Coonrod's staging muted the overall tragic scope of the play. Nevertheless, the critic admires David Patrick Kelly's Iago who was "so matter of fact, so chillingly low-key that you could understand how none of his victims might see the demi-devil coming."