Othello, the Moor of Venice, is a tragedy Shakespeare is believed to have written in about 1603. It is based on the Cinthio short story Un Capitano Moro (‘A Moorish Captain’), and it is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, dealing with such themes as jealousy, envy, undeserved reputations, gossip, and the issue of racial prejudice.
On this last issue, it is necessary to examine the unclear racial background of Othello the Moor. He is referred to as, and calls himself, “black” several times in the play. What is meant by black is open to interpretation. Is he meant to be a sub-Saharan African, or a swarthy, dark-complexioned north African? Both interpretations are possible, based on the vague way the people of Renaissance England used the word black to describe people. One possible piece of evidence to suggest black, and not merely swarthy, is Roderigo’s pejorative description of Othello (in Act One, Scene i) as “the thick-lips,” but this is far from conclusive.
However Shakespeare meant the Moor to be, he was historically portrayed by white actors in blackface. Some notable exceptions to this include the first black actor to play Othello, Ira Aldridge, in 1833; later, there was Paul Robeson’s Othello, with Uta Hagen as Desdemona in the hit Broadway run in 1943. This use of blackface on white actors for the Othello role was finally starting to be faded out by the 1970s and 1980s: one of the last of these notable conservative productions being the BBC TV one with Anthony Hopkins in the title role. Ever since then, black actors have usually been used; one noteworthy exception to this, however, was an inverted 1997 production with Patrick Stewart as Othello without blackface, and with a black cast playing everyone else.
Here are some famous quotes:
1. I am not what I am. –Iago, Act One, scene i, line 66
2. Even now, now, very now, an old black ram /Is tupping your white ewe. –Iago, Act One, scene i, lines 89-90
3. Your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs. –Iago, I, i, 117-118
4. Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors,
My very noble and approved good masters,
That I have ta’en away this old man’s daughter,
It is most true; true, I have married her:
The very head and front of my offending
Hath this extent, no more. Rude am I in my speech,
And little bless’d with the soft phrase of peace:
For since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith,
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field,
And little of this great world can I speak,
More than pertains to feats of broil and battle,
And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnish’d tale deliver
Of my whole course of love; what drugs, what charms,
What conjuration and what mighty magic,
For such proceeding I am charged withal,
I won his daughter. –Othello, I, iii, 76-94
5. Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father, and may thee. –Brabantio, I, iii, 292-293
6. Thus do I ever make my fool my purse:/For I mine own gain’d knowledge should profane,/If I would time expend with such a snipe./But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor:/And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets/He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;/But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,/Will do as if for surety. He holds me well;/The better shall my purpose work on him./Cassio’s a proper man: let me see now:/To get his place and to plume up my will/In double knavery–How, how? Let’s see:–/After some time, to abuse Othello’s ear/That he is too familiar with his wife./He hath a person and a smooth dispose/To be suspected, framed to make women false./The Moor is of a free and open nature,/That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,/And will as tenderly be led by the nose/As asses are./I have’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night/Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light. –Iago, I, iii, 377-398
7. And what’s he then that says I play the villain?/When this advice is free I give and honest,/Probal to thinking and indeed the course/To win the Moor again? For ’tis most easy/The inclining Desdemona to subdue/In any honest suit: she’s framed as fruitful/As the free elements. And then for her/To win the Moor–were’t to renounce his baptism,/All seals and symbols of redeemed sin,/His soul is so enfetter’d to her love,/That she may make, unmake, do what she list,/Even as her appetite shall play the god/With his weak function. How am I then a villain/To counsel Cassio to this parallel course,/Directly to his good? Divinity of hell!/When devils will the blackest sins put on,/They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,/As I do now: for whiles this honest fool/Plies Desdemona to repair his fortunes/And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,/I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear,/That she repeals him for her body’s lust;/And by how much she strives to do him good,/She shall undo her credit with the Moor./So will I turn her virtue into pitch,/And out of her own goodness make the net/That shall enmesh them all. –Iago, II, iii, 325-351
8. Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul,/But I do love thee! and when I love thee not,/Chaos is come again. –Othello, III, iii, 91-93
9. O! Beware, my lord, of jealousy;/It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock/The meat it feeds on. –Iago, III, iii, 169-171
10. It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,–/Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!–/It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;/Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,/And smooth as monumental alabaster./Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men./Put out the light, and then put out the light:/If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,/I can again thy former light restore,/Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,/Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,/I know not where is that Promethean heat/That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,/I cannot give it vital growth again./It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree. –Othello, V, ii, 1-15
11. Soft you; a word or two before you go./ I have done the state some service, and they know’t./No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,/When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,/Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,/Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak/Of one that loved not wisely but too well;/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/Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,/Albeit unused to the melting mood,/Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees/Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;/And say besides, that in Aleppo once,/Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk/Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,/I took by the throat the circumcised dog,/And smote him, thus. –Othello, V, ii, 341-359
12. I kissed thee ere I killed thee, no way but this,/Killing myself, to die upon a kiss. –Othello, V, ii, 361-362
Particularly obvious themes in Othello are those of jealousy and envy, but it is useful to distinguish between these two similar words. Jealousy is usually used to describe someone who is afraid of losing a lover to a rival, whereas envy involves unhappiness or resentment over already not having what another has, and wanting to destroy the envied person. Envy comes from the Latin invidia, which refers to looking at people with an evil eye, in other words, with a feeling of malice and hatred towards the envied one. Iago, of course, perfectly personifies envy in Othello.
Iago envies Michael Cassio for getting the promotion to lieutenant that Iago feels he deserved. Instead, Iago, a much more experienced soldier than Cassio, must remain merely Othello’s ensign (or ‘ancient,’ as he is called in the play). Because Othello judged Cassio the better man for the promotion, the Moor must suffer; since Cassio got the promotion Iago should have been given, Cassio must suffer.
Though Othello suffers racial prejudice as a dark-complexioned Moor in Venice and Cyprus, both places dominated by whites, he is valiant, noble, and well-spoken; he only becomes violent when manipulated by Iago, the real beast of the story. And for all of Iago’s reputation for being honest and good, he gives all the indications of his own bestial nature, right from his first appearance in the play. Indeed, his first word is a blasphemy: “‘Sblood,” he says to Roderigo. Soon afterwards in the same scene, he says, “Zounds”, and he speaks crudely of Othello’s seduction of Desdemona (Quotes #2 and 3 above). Also, he constantly uses the imagery of beasts in his choice of words: ram, ewe, Barbary horse, baboon, cats, puppies, snipe, asses, “the green-ey’d monster,” etc. All these word choices of his set the tone of his evil character: wild, and immoral.
Othello’s jealousy over Desdemona’s supposed affair with Cassio isn’t the only instance of jealousy in the play. Roderigo is jealous of Othello’s marriage to her, hoping foolishly that she will get bored with the Moor (according to the lie Iago tells Roderigo), and then the buffoonish suitor will supposedly get his chance to have her.
Iago also grapples with jealousy when he has heard a rumour that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia (see Quote #6). This, given during a soliloquy, seems to be the greater reason for Iago to want revenge. “And nothing can or shall content my soul/Till I am evened with him, wife for wife.” (II, i, 223-224)
Apart from these jealousies, there is also Bianca’s jealousy when she finds Desdemona’s handkerchief, “spotted with strawberries” (as Iago has earlier described it) among Cassio’s things, and assumes her lover has been seeing another woman. Significantly, Othello has been secretly watching this altercation, and is himself even more inflamed with jealousy, assuming Cassio’s rumoured affair with his wife has been incontrovertibly proven.
Many reputations in this play are unjustly acquired. Iago, a most heinous liar throughout the play, is honoured as “honest Iago” right up to Emilia’s accusation of him lying to Othello. Iago feels Cassio doesn’t deserve the good name associated with being lieutenant, and easily engineers proof that, with a few cups of wine, Cassio can demonstrate his unworthiness of the rank. Othello has a reputation for being unshakeable in the face of war and death, yet the mere suggestion that his wife could be having an affair makes him fall so to pieces that he strikes her in public, in front of Lodovico, her cousin!
Ultimately, the most undeserved of reputations is that of Desdemona as “whore”. So guiltless is she that not only can’t she even say the word “whore” without difficulty, but she can’t even imagine any other married woman being unfaithful to her husband, as she says to Emilia on the night she is to be murdered. Indeed, she keeps a perfectly Christian attitude right to the end, expressing her love and loyalty to the Moor by saying, “Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell!” Then she dies, after having been smothered by a pillow held in Othello’s hands.
It is her very sweetness that makes her unjust murder so especially horrific.