Friday, March 1, 2013

Different Readings of Othello

A former Member of our Club, Jenny Hines, prepared a talk on Othello to accompany our reading of the play, back in May 2011. Jenny, who now lives in England (their gain, our loss!) was kind enough to send the text of her talk for the blog. Jenny had done a considerable amount of research, and here is what she had to say:
I was particularly struck, when doing my research for this little presentation of Othello, at the divergent views of the so-called Critics — you wouldn’t think they had read the same text! I got the impression that anyone who reads or sees Othello performed can respond any which way they want, and make up their own minds about the characters.

So I decided I would like to examine more closely how critics have dealt with Othello down the years and what readings we could look at. Some of the recorded negative responses go back as early as 1693, when Thomas Rymer picked up on what he saw as the improbabilities and absurdities; he says ‘Nothing is more odious in nature than an improbable lie and certainly never was any play fraught like Othello with improbabilities. What moral construction can we make out of this Catastrophe?’ In more modern times of course, the psychologists and avowed feminists have had a go at it: a certain Joel Fineman referring to ‘its ambiguously misogynist jealousy’ while both TS Eliot and WH Auden have difficulties with the idea of the Moor as a tragic hero. Eliot believes Othello fails to understand at the end what he has really done, that he is in fact still pathetically deluded rather than in the last agonies of a noble and erring nature. Auden, I think, is particularly perceptive in his analysis: in his 1963 work “The Joker in the Pack”, he writes “If Othello is a tragedy—  and one certainly cannot call it a comedy —  it is a tragedy in a peculiar way. In most tragedies the fall of the hero from glory to misery and death is the work, either of the gods, or of his own freely chosen acts, or more commonly, a mixture of both. But the fall of Othello is the work of another human being; nothing he says or does originates with himself. In consequence, we feel pity for him but no respect; our aesthetic respect is reserved for Iago. That’s interesting! (I’m not sure I respect Iago in any way, aesthetic or otherwise!)

If we ignore the inherited tradition of the mediaeval dramas and the social mores of the Shakespeare’s time, then I think the feminist reading has some plausability; Iago hates women, despises his wife, slanders women in general.  As he sets the whole sorry saga in motion, he knows full well that Desdemona will be the victim and actually suggests the form of her death, and then goes on to murder his own wife. Othello, on the other hand, doesn’t hate women (he seems genuinely in love with his wife and loath to believe in her infidelity almost to the end) but he assumes that she is his property, just as her own father Brabantio, had assumed Desdemona was his until marriage. The penalty on the woman who is unfaithful is an unquestioning speedy death penalty, with no trial, and no hint that this isn’t the right course of action. Here we do have to acknowledge the established patriarchal society and even if Shakespeare is questioning the institution of marriage himself, the play is seen by many feminists to be a case study of systemic abuse of women. Both Desdemona and Emilia acknowledge they are bound to obey and serve their husbands and are both killed by them. (In fact, it’s ironical that 400 years later some women still include those words to’ honour and obey’ in their marriage vows!) Is this a warning to women not trust men?

So then, we are left with the majority view, that this is a very great play, for the beauty of the language and the imagery; for its classical simplicity, whereby almost every scene is relevant to the central issue, needing no justification; and of course for its moral beauty directly opposed to what we can only call the evil of Iago’s thoughts and actions.

Finally, that leaves us with all the conflicting readings of the main characters and their strengths and their flaws. There isn’t time here for me to go into the multiplicity of opinions that have been recorded; suffice it to say that Desdemona is variously lauded for her pure and innocent love, her courage in defying her father and in remaining faithful to Othello; and yet panned for her passivity, her foolishness over the handkerchief in particular, her whimsicality which shuns realism, and her delusion in putting Othello on a pedestal , continuing to believe him a noble hero.

Iago is the tricky one, ideas ranging from demi-devil, evil personified, to a man who could be excused because he has just cause for grievance, unfairly passed over, a victim of a class conspiracy and neurotically jealous at the thought of being perhaps truly cuckolded by Othello. Whatever position we take, Iago is certainly very clever at changing his personality and his language to suit the occasion and its purposes and it’s difficult to put specific labels on him.

I was pleased to find a comment of high regard from Australia’s own Germaine Greer (always thought-provoking) who reminded us that Shakespeare had taken over traits from the mediaeval morality plays, showing evil working on the protagonist in the form of a Vice. In 1986 she said, ‘… it is futile to demand motivation from the Vice, or reasons for his actions, for the point about evil is that it is absurd, unmotivated and inconsistent. Such a character is Iago, whom generations of critics have struggled to psychoanalyse, without success. His one object is to destroy Othello and he can have no good reason for it. Shakespeare is at pains to show how a certain kind of evil, common enough in truth, is apt to manifest itself.’ I also like Professor John Wain’s reminder of A.C. Bradley’s critique: Professor Wain said ‘To me, Bradley is closer to the heart of the play: he recognizes that the tragedy lies in the assassination of love by non-love. He understands the essential truth about Iago, that  he was less than a complete human being, because love had been left out of his composition, left out so completely that he did not recognize it or suspect its existence. Othello, egotist as he is, unpractised at understanding other people as he is, retains the possibility of development because he knows what it is to love.’

Which brings us neatly to the eponymous hero: is he the Noble Moor, a great man suffering terrible destruction at the hands of another agent, embodying evil? Is he the ultimate romantic, and when you look at his speeches, perhaps more poetic than Hamlet.? Excuses are made for him: Perhaps his faults are good ones, he just lacks experience, and has a passionate nature, which is easy prey to Iago.  On the other hand, critics can see an Othello who is self-glorifying, hasty, blind to common sense, and whose love for Desdemona is possessive and impersonal. He is the outsider, who has the seeds of his own destruction in him, and Iago is really almost incidental, which is certainly a challenging take. Yes, Othello has plenty of faults, with pride perhaps the overriding one, but then we could excuse his hasty judgements and preference for action without real thought, because of his background. Sadly, due to time constraints, I have had to leave out any analysis of Emilia, who is my favourite character: she is hampered by the restricting customs of that male dominated society, and initially defers to Iago (especially over the handkerchief) but by the final Act she is able to encourage Desdemona and assert her own values, albeit still becoming a victim. Look closely at Act V, scene ii, where she finally stands up for what she knows to be right and defies her husband at last; we feel like cheering her on! Looking at other people’s ideas certainly helped me to realize what a rich and complex play Shakespeare made of it from such an unpromising source — but in the end we are free to read it from our own point of view.

Ira Frederick Aldridge (July 24, 1807 – 7 August 1867) was an American and later British stage actor who made his career largely on the London stage and in Europe, especially in Shakespearean roles. He is the only actor of African-American descent among the 33 actors of the English stage honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. He was especially popular in Prussia and Russia, where he received top honours from heads of state. A more complete biography can be found at

The portrait is attributed to James Northcote (1746-1831) and is found on Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this. It has definitely helped me with a better understanding of the depths of complexity that behold Othello. I wish you did indeed have time to add an analysis of Emilia, as she too is my favourite character and I find her an interesting and multi-faceted character to read and talk about.

  2. Sadly, I have lost touch with the writer of this article, but I'll see if I can get another clever person to write a character sketch of Emilia!