We’ve left Hamlet in Denmark, and today, we arrive on the island of Cyprus, the location of Othello. The play begins in Venice, but the majority of the action takes place in Cyprus.
Othello is a black military general who falls in love with Desdemona, the daughter of the nobleman Barbanzio. Barbanzio is outraged by their secret marriage, but eventually gives in and allows his daughter to go to Cyprus with Othello. Iago, one of Othello’s subordinates, plans revenge on Othello and his second in command, Cassio. Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio, and spends the play trying to provide adequate proof of his lies.
There are a great number of details left out of my synopsis, but most of these details are nuances of the language. Shakespeare’s wordplay in this work is beautifully done. Iago is an example of this in that he works his trickery through words. Desdemona and Othello’s conversations are filled with meanings concealed in words, and Iago and Othello’s conversations are filled with lies and Iago twisting the words of others.
Deception is dealt with once again by Shakespeare in this play. Iago, Desdemona, and Othello are all deceivers, although Iago is by far the most manipulative. Iago tricks Othello into believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful and that Cassio is not loyal to him, Desdemona won’t give an explanation for the incriminating evidence against her nor will she say why she is helping Cassio, and Othello won’t confide to anyone except Iago his fears of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness.
Shakespeare also has a great deal to say about love in Othello, idealistic love to be exact. My professor gave a paper assignment for this play, for which the prompt was, “Is Othello a good play to see on Valentine’s Day? Explain.” It certainly was an unusual assignment, and while I’m sure many of my classmates said no, I said yes.
Typical plans for Valentine’s Day would most likely not include seeing a performance of Shakespeare’s Othello, because of its tragic portrayal of idealistic love. However, its heart-wrenching depiction may be the very reason to see it on a day that is devoted to love; it warns lovers of the dangers of a relationship based on idealism. Shakespeare illustrates the problems with idealistic love through Othello and Desdemona’s lack of knowledge of one another’s faults, lack of communication, and lack of trust.
Othello and Desdemona demonstrate the dangers of marrying too quickly in a variety of ways. The couple met first in her father’s house, and that is where they fell in love. Othello would dine with Barbanzio and tell him stories of his past, which Desdemona overheard, and as Othello says, “She loved me for the dangers I had passed, // And I loved her that she did pity them. // This is the only witchcraft I have used” (1.3:166-8). The two were looking at each other through rose-tinted lenses. It may be argued that Desdemona knew Othello well because his experiences were what formed his personality, and while this is true, she fell in love with his heroism and perseverance in the face of adversity. These are admirable qualities, but Desdemona knew nothing of how Othello would react when angry, sad, or, most importantly in the play, jealous. She does not even think him capable of jealousy. She says, “my noble Moor // Is true of mind, and made of no such baseness // As jealous creatures are” (3.4:24-6). Any couple could find an applicable lesson here: know the shortcomings of your partner.
Othello and Desdemona’s marriage began beautifully, but ended tragically. Shakespeare demonstrated through them how damaging idealism can be when it is combined with affection for another. The ending might be a touch gruesome and depressing for a Valentine’s Day date, but even if a couple does not appreciate Shakespeare’s warning, they may enjoy knowing that at least their love does not have as many problems as Othello and Desdemona’s did.
I’ve edited my response for the sake of both length and spoilers, although it is a Shakespearean tragedy, so the end is fairly predictable.
I enjoyed Othello. I think Iago is one of Shakespeare’s best villains, partly because we receive so much insight into his character through monologues. I also think it is an interesting treatment of idealistic love, and a glimpse into the potential struggles experienced by a couple with such an age gap as is present between Othello and Desdemona.
Recommendation? Othello is shorter than Hamlet, so if you’d like to ease your way into Shakespeare’s tragedies, I’d say this is a good one with which to start. I liked reading it, and I think it is fairly accessible.
Speaking of accessible, remember what I said about watching Shakespeare instead of reading it? For Othello, several screen productions have been done. BBC Television made one in 1980, the Royal National Theatre staged a production in 1965 (starring Maggie Smith as Desdemona), and Ian McKellen starred as Iago in the 1990 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production. Personally, I would go for the Maggie Smith version because I love her, but the BBC version is going to be more accessible and very accurate. BBC did a series of Shakespeare’s plays as movies to create a standard visual for audiences, classrooms in particular.