Othello

Another delayed posting, friends. Honestly, I thought I was going to get this one out on time, but the play is so complex! This is a long post, so batten down the hatches.

I “read” it in my 10th grade English class (if you’ll remember, that’s the year we never finished anything in that class) but I apparently forgot most of the action of the play. All I could remember was the handkerchief, Iago, and Desdemona’s murder.

Honestly, I wish I had more time to go into the themes of this play. There’s so much to talk about! But, I’m just happy I’ve gotten the plot summary down. It was never the intention of this project to give a comprehensive overview of the themes and motifs of the plays, of course, but there’s still a lot to read up on your own, should you wish.

Enough rambling, onto the play!

Summary

We once again find ourselves in Venice (we’ve been here before, right? So many plays set in Italy…). Roderigo and Iago are arguing about Iago’s relationship with Othello, a general in the Venetian military and Iago’s superior. To summarize: Iago hates Othello and is jealous of everything he’s accomplished even though he’s a Moor. Roderigo is in love with Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator named Barbantio, but Othello has been wooing her (without her father knowing). What’s more, that very night Desdemona ran away from home and married Othello. Iago had promised to help Roderigo woo Desdemona (and has been given money in the meantime) but he hasn’t been effective. Iago argues that he does hate Othello, especially since Othello promoted Cassio to lieutenant over Iago; in the meantime, and until the opportune moment arises, Iago merely pretends to serve Othello.

Iago suggests Roderigo rouse Desdemona’s father and inform her that his daughter has eloped. They come to Barbantio’s house and make a great racket, insisting that Barbantio has been robbed. Barbantio answers the call and tells Roderigo to go away and that he refuses to let him marry his daughter (apparently Roderigo is rather persistent). Iago insists that Desdemona is currently having sex with Othello and Barbantio is appalled; he begins to take the two men seriously and sends people to search his house for his daughter. Iago then slips away so no one will recognize him; only Roderigo is left when Barbantio emerges from his house, distraught that his daughter has run away with Othello. Roderigo offers to take Barbantio and his men to where he knows Othello and Desdemona to be.

Once Iago arrives back at where Othello and Desdemona are staying he warns the other man that Barbantio is coming for him and cautions Othello that Barbantio may want to forcibly divorce the two lovers. The two men see a group approaching but it’s only Cassio and some of his men coming to bring Othello to the Duke’s summons; apparently something has happened concerning Cyprus. Just as Cassio and his men are about to leave Iago tells him that Othello is married. Before they can have further conversation Barbantio, Roderigo, and some men arrive to arrest Othello. Barbantio orders his men to attack but Othello calmly stops both his men and Barbantio’s from starting a fight. Othello mentions that he must go to the Duke and Barbantio decides they’ll go together and get the Duke to give judgment on the situation.

Meanwhile, the Duke and his senators are discussing the Turkish threat on Cyprus. A messenger arrives and brings news that the Turks have turned towards Rhodes, a different island under Venetian rule. One senator surmises that the Turks are trying to distract them from their true designs on Cyprus, and sure enough another messenger comes and supports this. Just then Barbantio, Othello, Cassio, Iago, Roderigo, et al. enter. The Duke is relieved that Othello has finally arrived but Barbantio stops the Duke from giving Othello his orders. Barbantio proceeds to lay out what he believes has transpired between the Moor and his daughter (it involves magic and charms and witchcraft). The Duke at first agrees wholeheartedly that Barbantio should be revenged, but then he finds out that Othello is the man in question and the Duke starts to disbelieve the story. He asks for Othello’s story and the man gives it; Othello has indeed married Desdemona, but she fell in love with him because of his life story, no witchcraft needed.

The Duke judges in Othello’s favor. Desdemona then enters and proceeds to tell her father that, while she loves and respects and obeys him, Othello is her husband and she obeys him first. Barbantio reluctantly accepts her decision and asks the Duke to move on with state affairs.

The Duke orders Othello to go to Cyprus and defend the island. Othello is happy to go but asks that Desdemona be given a proper place to stay in the meantime. Neither Othello nor Desdemona nor Barbantio want her to stay with her father, so that’s out of the question. Desdemona instead asks to accompany Othello to Cyprus and the Duke agrees. The couple exit to prepare for the journey.

Everyone but Roderigo and Iago leave. Roderigo is despondent that he’s lost Desdemona and states that he’s going to drown himself. Iago talks the man up and insists that they’ll get revenge. Instead, Iago tells Roderigo to come to Cyprus with a lot of money. The man agrees and leaves. When Iago’s alone he delivers a soliloquy expounding upon his hatred for Othello and his suspicion that Othello slept with his wife, Emilia. Iago then states that he plans to coerce Roderigo out of all his money and to convince Othello that Desdemona’s cheated on him with Cassio. Othello, he says, is too good and trusting; Iago, obviously, is not.

In Cyprus, the governor, Montano, speaks with two gentlemen and remarks that the Turkish fleet couldn’t possibly survive the storm that’s currently raging. A third man agrees and supports this with the fact that Cassio saw most of the Turkish fleet get destroyed as he was sailing from Venice. There’s still no news about Othello’s fate in the storm. Just then a new ship is spotted coming into shore, but it carries not Othello but Desdemona, Iago, Iago’s wife Emilia, and Roderigo. The group comes to shore and Cassio begins to tell Desdemona that no one’s certain of Othello’s fate. Just then another cry goes up that a third ship is coming to shore, this one with Othello. Iago takes a moment to disparage womankind and Desdemona laughs. Cassio then pulls Desdemona aside to speak with her about Othello’s arrival and Iago decides to use Cassio’s seemingly-familiar affection towards Desdemona as the basis for his plot against Othello.

Othello arrives and exchanges words of love and devotion with Desdemona. He thanks the people of Cyprus for their welcome and tells Iago to have the ship unloaded. Then everyone exits save Iago and Roderigo. Iago tells Roderigo to keep faith and that Desdemona will soon get bored with Othello; however, Iago states that he thinks Desdemona will then go to Cassio. Roderigo argues on this point, as he apparently has a good opinion of Cassio, but Iago convinces him that Cassio is covetous of Desdemona. Iago then soliloquizes to the audience, saying that he wants revenge against Othello for sleeping with his wife Emilia and, barring sleeping with Desdemona himself, Iago hopes that making Othello jealous over Cassio’s perceived interest will drive the man mad.

A herald then announces that Othello has ordered celebrations for that evening for both the end of the Turkish threat and his marriage. Othello has Cassio take guard duty during the celebrations and then leaves to consummate his marriage. Iago then comes and tries to convince Cassio that Desdemona is a seductress but Cassio doesn’t bite. Iago gets Cassio to invite a few people to celebrate with them. When Cassio leaves to invite a group Iago once again soliloquizes that Roderigo is going to be at the ready to start something with Cassio. With the group assembled, Iago intends to get Cassio drunk and put him in a disgraceful position or somehow get him to do a disgraceful action.

Cassio returns with Roderigo, Montano, and Montano’s attendant. After Cassio gets thoroughly drunk he wanders off, assuring everyone that he isn’t drunk. (As my brother once told me, the moment you try to convince people you’re not drunk by doing cartwheels in the street is the moment you should realize you’re very, very drunk [please note that I have never done this; my cartwheels are atrocious].) Iago then tells Montano that he worries about Cassio: though he’s a great soldier he has a lot of responsibility for someone with a drinking problem. Roderigo then enters and Iago directs him to where Cassio had gone. Montano insists that Othello should be informed of Cassio’s drinking when Cassio once again enters, chasing Roderigo and threatening him with violence. Montano steps in to stop the fight but Cassio attacks him instead. Iago has Roderigo leave and alert people to “mutiny”, thus rousing Othello. Montano tries to subdue Cassio but the other man stabs him in response. The alarm is raised and Othello enters.

Othello takes control and demands to know what’s transpired. Cassio and Iago claim that they don’t remember exactly what happened; Montano says he’s in too much pain from being stabbed and asks Iago to explain the situation. Iago pretends to be reluctant, insisting that the unnamed man Cassio was chasing (Roderigo) must have done something vile to make Cassio pursue him. Othello falls for it and states that he knows Iago is trying to get Cassio off the hook; Othello removes Cassio from his position. Desdemona then emerges, awakened by the noise, and Othello leads her and Montano back to their lodgings, stating that he’ll look after the governor’s wounds himself.

Iago and Cassio remain and Cassio deeply regrets his rash actions; he can’t even remember why he did what he did. Iago suggests that Cassio speak with Desdemona and get her to entreat Othello on his behalf, thus helping Iago in his scheme to make it appear that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. When he’s alone Iago tells the audience that he does his worst (evil) when he seems to be doing his best (good). Roderigo then enters, angry that Iago still hasn’t gotten him Desdemona and that he’s also gotten Roderigo to give him all the money he has. Iago counsels patience and urges Roderigo to stay in Cyprus, telling him everything is going according to plan.

Cassio goes to Othello’s house and has musicians play beneath the window. In response, Othello sends a Fool down to dismiss the musicians. Cassio asks the Fool to have Emilia come out to speak with him. When the Fool leaves Iago enters, assuring Cassio that he’ll send for Emilia himself so Cassio can have her intervene with Desdemona on his behalf; he also says that he’ll figure out a way to get Othello out of the house so Cassio can speak with Desdemona directly. Iago exits and Emilia enters, assuring Cassio that Desdemona has already been championing Cassio’s case with Othello. Othello, for his part, is worried that Montano’s opinion of Cassio would cause issues if Othello were to reinstate Cassio (keep in mind that Montano is the governor of Cyprus and the man Cassio stabbed). Still, Emilia swears she’ll do what she can to get Cassio an audience with Desdemona.

Emilia is good to her word and the three (Cassio, Desdemona, and Emilia) enter already in conversation. Desdemona swears she’ll do what she can in Cassio’s favor. Just then, Othello and Iago enter. Cassio quickly leaves so as not to cause an awkward scene. Iago points this out to Othello, suggesting that Cassio’s attempt at stealth suggests something unsavory between him and Desdemona. Desdemona then begins her campaign to help Cassio and Othello relents, swearing that he’ll speak with his former lieutenant…at some point. Desdemona presses him to set a time and not leave it open-ended. Othello swears he’ll set a firm date soon but asks to be left alone for a bit.

When Desdemona leaves Iago begins to “reluctantly” share his suspicions that Desdemona and Casio are having an affair. Iago also acts “reluctant” to say whether he thinks Cassio is an honest man. Iago subtly works Othello into a frenzy until the man demands Iago tell him what he truly thinks. Iago then tells Othello to watch Desdemona closely when she’s with Cassio, once more insinuating an affair but never outright saying the words. Othello then asks Iago to have Emilia watch his wife but Iago backtracks, asking Othello to forget that he said anything before he exits the stage. But the damage is done and Othello begins to believe that Desdemona is no longer in love with him, possibly because of his age or his race.

Desdemona and Emilia then enter, informing Othello that dinner is ready. Othello begs off, claiming to have a headache, and Desdemona offers to bind his head with her handkerchief (one embroidered with strawberries gifted to her by Othello). Othello declines and the handkerchief falls to the floor unnoticed. When Emilia is left alone she picks up the handkerchief, telling the audience that Iago has constantly asked her to somehow steal the item but that Desdemona cherishes it too much for Emilia to ever get her hands on it. Emilia states that she doesn’t know why Iago wants the item, merely that he does and that getting it will make him happy. And indeed, Iago is thrilled when she gives it to him.

Just as Iago tells the audience that he plans to put the handkerchief in Cassio’s rooms Othello enters, enraged. Othello rails against Iago for planting doubt in his mind, stating that he wished Desdemona had slept with everyone in Cyprus with him ignorant rather than to suspect her of a single affair. Othello demands that Iago bring him physical proof of her cheating. Iago pretends to balk a bit, stating that it would be very difficult to catch Desdemona and Cassio in the act (here he uses a lot of imagery to drive Othello mad). Still, Iago swears that he’ll find some evidence. One example he gives is that Cassio spoke in his sleep once; he and Iago were sharing a bed when Cassio began to speak to Iago as if he were Desdemona, then began kissing him and nearly climbing atop the other man. (One doesn’t need to be a genius to suspect that his might be a homosexual fantasy of Iago’s.)

The story has the wanted effect: Othello goes crazy with jealousy. Iago calms him by stating that it was only a dream and not full proof of an affair. Iago then goes on to state that he noticed Cassio using the handkerchief Othello gave Desdemona. Othello is once more enraged and swears he’ll have revenge. Iago kneels with Othello and swears to help him enact his vengeance. Othello then makes Iago his lieutenant.

Meanwhile, Desdemona is distraught because she can’t find her handkerchief. Emilia swears she’s helping her look. Othello then enters and asks Desdemona for the handkerchief, which of course Desdemona can’t give him. She makes an excuse that she doesn’t have it on her and Othello explains the story of the handkerchief: it was given to his mother by an Egyptian sorceress so she could keep Othello’s father loyal; if she ever lost it or gave it away, however, the sorceress told her that Othello’s father would abandon her. Othello’s mother gave it to him when she died and told him to give it to his future wife. Desdemona is understandably upset but continues to say she just doesn’t have it on her. Othello becomes enraged and begins to demand she produce the handkerchief this instant. That’s when Desdemona gets the brilliant idea to change the subject by bringing up Othello’s promise to speak with Cassio.

Othello storms off just before Cassio and Iago enter. Cassio immediately begins to once more entreat Desdemona for her help. Desdemona tells Cassio that Othello is in a bad mood and Iago swears he’ll calm the man down. Emilia states that she thinks Othello is jealous but Desdemona won’t believe her, thinking it’s some outside political issue that’s stressing him out. She tells Cassio that she’ll go fetch Othello to speak with him.

When Cassio is alone a prostitute named Bianca (whom Cassio has…erm, employed­) enters. She teases him for not visiting her more and he apologizes. He then asks her to copy the embroidery on Desdemona’s handkerchief, which he mysteriously found in his room. Bianca is angry that he’d have her copy a love token from another woman but Cassio tells her she’s mistaken. They make plans for that night as they exit.

Othello and Iago then enter, discussing the handkerchief. Iago is being “helpful” by trying to calm Othello’s jealousy by constantly bringing up images of Desdemona naked in bed with another man. Othello gets further enraged and becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to the handkerchief. Iago then “confesses” that Cassio boasted of sleeping with Desdemona; Othello proceeds to fall down incoherently.

Cassio then enters and Iago warns him that Othello is having his second epileptic fit in two days. He warns Cassio to stay away but asks him to come see him once Othello is gone. When Othello comes to Iago explained that Cassio had come by and that Iago will meet with him later. Iago suggests Othello spy on their conversation to learn more. In fact, Iago plans to joke with Cassio about Bianca. When the two get together Iago’s plan works; Othello truly believes they’re talking about Desdemona and not another woman. In a stroke of luck for Iago, just as Cassio is stating that he doesn’t intend to see her anymore, Bianca enters and goes off on Cassio again about the handkerchief being from another woman. Othello, of course, sees the handkerchief plainly. When Cassio and Bianca exit to have dinner together Othello comes out of hiding and begins to plan Cassio’s murder with Iago. Othello still can’t believe that his sweet, delicate wife could be an adulterer. Othello states that he plans to poison Desdemona but Iago helpfully suggests strangling her instead and offers to kill Cassio himself. Othello agrees.

Later, Desdemona is speaking with Lodovico, who’s come from Venice with news for Othello. When Othello enters Lodovico annoys him by asking about Cassio. Desdemona pipes in and answers Lodovico’s questions, further angering Othello. The message from Venice doesn’t improve Othello’s mood: the Duke wants Othello to return to Venice and to leave Cassio in charge in Cyprus. Upon hearing this Desdemona states how happy she is to be going home; Othello hits her in response and she flees. Lodovico is horrified and tells Othello to call her back and apologize. Othello does call her back, but rather than apologize he accuses her of being a whore, states that he and his wife will return to Venice, and then storms off himself. Lodovico doesn’t know what to make of this; this isn’t the controlled, disciplined Othello he knew. Lodovico wonders aloud if Othello might be going crazy but Iago pointedly refuses to answer one way or the other.

Othello then grills Emilia about how Desdemona acts with Cassio and whether they’ve ever been alone together. Emilia insists they never have and that there’s no way Desdemona has been sneaking away to see the man. Othello demands that Emilia fetch Desdemona and calls her (Emilia) a pimp while she’s gone. When she returns with Desdemona Othello has Emilia stand guard at the door. Othello then proceeds to break down and weep that he could have handled anything other than Desdemona’s promiscuity. Desdemona denies this but Othello obviously doesn’t believe her; he storms off and Emilia enters to console Desdemona. Desdemona then asks Emilia to dress the bed in her wedding sheets.

Emilia brings Iago at Desdemona’s request and she asks the man why Othello thinks she’s been cheating on him. Emilia states that Othello must have been tricked by a villain, perhaps the same one who made Iago think that Emilia had slept with Othello. Iago comforts Desdemona and assures her that Othello is only stressed about political business. Emilia and Desdemona then leave to dine with the visitors from Venice.

Roderigo enters, still angry that he hasn’t gotten anywhere with Desdemona. He decides that he’ll go to Desdemona herself and, if she won’t have him, get all the jewels Iago supposedly gave her on Roderigo’s behalf. Iago cautions against this and tells Roderigo that Othello is being sent away (true) and that Cassio will be taking over command in Cyprus (also true). He goes on to say that Othello is being sent to Mauritania in Africa (a lie) and that the only way to make certain that Desdemona doesn’t depart for Africa is to make certain that Cassio can’t hold command in Cyprus (possibly true, but definitely based on a lie). Iago thus convinces Roderigo that he must kill Cassio.

Othello leaves with Lodovico after dinner and tells Desdemona he’ll see her later; he also asks her to dismiss Emilia for the night. Desdemona  realizes, though not consciously, what’s going to happen to her and talks to Emilia as she gets ready for bed and asks Emilia to use her wedding sheets as her shroud should she die first. Desdemona then goes on to sing a song about a woman whose love abandoned her. Desdemona asks Emilia if she would cheat on her husband if she could gain the entire world. Emilia says that of course she would because then she’d be able to give the world to her husband but Desdemona doesn’t think she ever could. She and Emilia then talk about women’s sexual appetite and the fact that men can only blame themselves if they deceive their wives and their wives then proceed to cheat on them. Desdemona, ever innocent, decides that she’d rather respond to bad deeds with good deeds.

Iago and Roderigo wait outside Bianca’s brothel to ambush Cassio. Iago gives Roderigo a rapier and hides himself, though Roderigo doesn’t want him to go too far away just in case he needs help. When Cassio enters Roderigo attacks but doesn’t land a blow. Cassio wounds Roderigo and Iago darts out, stabs Cassio in the leg, and then runs off again. Othello then enters and hears Cassio crying murder. Othello believes Iago has done his part and, rededicated, leaves to kill Desdemona.

Lodovico and Graziano (Desdemona’s uncle, visiting with the Venetian contingent) also hear Cassio’s cries and go running to help. They can’t see much in the dark and fear a trap, but then Iago enters with a light. Iago “discovers” Cassio, who asks for help, and then “finds” Roderigo; Iago proceeds to kill Roderigo but no one can see what’s happening in the dark. Finally, the men gather around Cassio and ask him what’s transpired. Bianca enters, startled and alarmed by Cassio’s wounds. Iago asks Cassio about the man who attacked him but Cassio can’t tell him anything, just that he was attacked. Iago then blames Roderigo and also insinuates that Bianca had a hand in the affair. The men carry Roderigo’s body and Cassio away and Iago and Emilia (who was drawn to the commotion) have Bianca arrested. Iago then has Emilia go tell Othello what’s transpired (setting it up that he won’t be the one to discover Desdemona’s body).

Meanwhile, Othello stands over a sleeping Desdemona. He kisses her and wakes her up, then tells her to pray or do what she must before she dies. Desdemona pleads for mercy, asking why he wants to kill her. Othello tells her that he knows she’s cheated on him with Cassio and that he’s seen Cassio with her handkerchief. Desdemona denies everything but Othello doesn’t believe her, telling her that Cassio admitted to the affair. He then tells her that Iago has killed Cassio, which makes Desdemona weep; this further angers Othello. Desdemona begs him to let her live just a little bit longer but Othello refuses and smothers her. Emilia then begins to knock on the door, asking for entrance. Othello is in a daze, not certain if Emilia is calling out or Desdemona. He continues to smother his wife to make certain he’s dead, rationalizing that it’s a good thing for him to not let her be in more pain.

Othello then draws the curtains on the bed to hide Desdemona’s body and lets Emilia in. Emilia tells Othello that Cassio killed Roderigo but Othello is surprised when he finds out that Cassio is still alive. Just as Othello realizes that things have gone wrong Desdemona faintly cries out from the bed. She says that she’s been murdered, but then quickly recants and states that she killed herself to save Othello; then she dies. Othello wants none of it and instead tells Emilia that he was the one who killed Desdemona. Emilia is stricken and asks why. Othello proceeds to tell her what Iago helped him realize: that Desdemona was having an affair with Cassio. Against Othello’s orders Emilia cries out for help; Montano, Graziano, and Iago enter.

Emilia proceeds to rip into her husband’s stories, refuting all of Othello’s beliefs in Desdemona’s guilt. Graziano states that it’s a good thing Desdemona’s father had already died (news to us) because this would certainly kill him. Othello insists that Desdemona was guilty, using the handkerchief and Cassio’s “confession” as proof. Emilia then fully realizes what her husband’s done and Iago threatens her with his sword before she can tell what she knows. Graziano stops him and Emilia proceeds to explain how she found the handkerchief and gave it to her husband. Othello attempts to attack Iago in response, but Montano stops and disarms him. Iago then stabs Emilia and flees; Montano and Graziano chase after him. Emilia proceeds to die on the bed with her mistress, telling Othello that Desdemona was loyal and loved him.

Othello searches for another weapon and finds a sword. Graziano returns to find Othello armed. Montano, Lodovico, Cassio, and a captured Iago then enter. Othello wounds Iago before Lodovico has some soldiers disarm him once more. Iago’s wound isn’t life-threatening and he vows to not say another word so no one will ever know his motivations. Lodovico, however, has a letter they found on Roderigo’s body and proceeds to read everything Roderigo knew of the plot (which was quite a lot). Othello then asks Cassio how he acquired Desdemona’s handkerchief and he replies that he randomly found it in his room one day.

Lodovico tells Othello that he’s to be put on trial in Venice. Othello proceeds to recount one of his endeavors for the Venetian army, recounting how he killed a Turkish enemy in Aleppo and proceeds to stab himself as he recounts the action. He falls onto the bed with Desdemona and Emilia’s bodies and dies. Lodovico then charges Montano with Iago’s execution, tells Graziano that he’s Othello’s heir, and puts Cassio in charge of the Venetian forces in Cyprus; Lodovico himself will travel back to Venice and recount the tale to the Duke and the senate.

Of Interest

There’s so much to go into in this play that it’s overwhelming. There’s the interesting fact that, unlike other tragedies, no deaths happen until the final act of the play. There’s also the imagery of the strawberries on the handkerchief suggesting maiden blood on a wedding night and Iago’s strange obsession with plant imagery.

Actually, let’s talk about Iago for a moment. He has the most lines of anyone in the play, even Othello, whom the play is named for. [And yes, I ended the previous sentence with a preposition; we no longer speak Latin, this is a completely viable grammatical choice; instead of complaining learn something useful, like the correct use of the semicolon.] The amount of times Iago soliloquizes to the audience is incredible; he bypasses the fourth wall almost as much as he converses with other characters. He’s like a Shakespearean Deadpool but without the sarcasm and partial morality. This play may be a story about Othello, but Iago plays a vital and active role; without him, none of these events would have transpired. So really, this is a story about what Iago does to Othello, not just a story about Othello. And honestly, Othello’s a jerk; with very little evidence he commits first-degree murder on his wife because he thinks she cheated on him; yes, he was manipulated by Iago, but the man killed his wife in a premeditated fashion. This wasn’t a tragic accidental death, this was a conscious choice and he was in a fit state of mind for the entirety of the act. Desdemona is the only innocent victim here.

Of course, we can’t discuss Othello without at least touching upon the topic of race. The interesting thing? Othello wouldn’t have been very out of place in Venice at the time of the play. Othello raised his class in Venetian society through his military service and mercenary Moors were apparently quite common. Also, it’s never mentioned that Othello is black; he could just be darker skinned, which would make him “blacker” than the Venetians. (Personally, I’m so pale that I swear I’m part jellyfish and glow in the dark; most people are darker than I am.) All we know is that Othello is a Moor; his “blackness” is really just a way to make him “other”.  He could quite easily have been any flavor of Middle Eastern, South Asian, or even Eastern Mediterranean.

And that’s the important part of race in Othello: it’s “othering”. Othello is an outsider in Venetian society: barbaric, uncivilized, something to be feared. It’s very similar to how the people of Transylvania were viewed in Dracula. Being “black” in Elizabethan society could also mean any variety of negative things rather than just a reference to a person’s race or skin color. Othello is described as being noble but his Moorish nature as inflammable; he was being stereotyped by his race rather than the person he proved himself to be. Any deviance from society’s preconceived opinion of what his nature should be like was treated as a pleasant surprise and “in spite of” his race. (I know, this is a strange concept; it’s not like we have any preconceived notions tied to race nowadays, right?)

Othello is constantly likened to animals: a Barbary horse, a black ram, a guinea-hen, a baboon. When he and Desdemona are eloping it’s described as them “making the beast with two backs”. This is all a way to “other” Othello and make him less than human. It isolates him, both in the story and visually to the audience; he’s the only character whose skin is traditionally a different shade than the other characters.

Nota Bene

We won’t go into how many times the role of Othello was played by a white man wearing blackface. This happened as recently as 1984! (Although interestingly, Patrick Steward played the role of Othello in an otherwise all-black cast, which I think is kind of amazing and still serves the purpose of “othering” Othello.) This play is ripe with ways to play with race identity with casting choices, but hopefully we won’t see any more blackface. (Seriously, people; don’t be idiots.)

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