Othello is the title of a play by Shakespeare and the main character of that play. It's about a General (Othello) who gets tricked into killing is wife by an evil young navy ensign named Iago. Iago manipulates and whips Othello into a jealous rage over things that he aren't real. The play is a source of many famous quotes, including O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster...

Othello is a board game, also known as Reversi. Kind of interesting. The idea of the game is to change all playing pieces on the board to your color. The players put pieces on the board; all opponent's pieces between the new piece and your other pieces, in straight lines, change colors to your color. A player must place the piece on place that will result in at least one piece's color change. (For full rules, see Reversi.)

It came with Windows 3.0 and earlier - too bad Microsoft removed it from Windows 3.1, replacing it with Minesweeper... I have also seen versions of it for DOS, TI-85 and of course several versions for Linux. Yahoo! and many other sites also have a networked, multi-player Java applet versions.

In 1952 Orson Welles made a movie version of Othello. It is shot in black and white and is breathtaking. The shots are incredible and the acting is amazing. It won Best Picture at the Cannes Film Festival that year for Morocco. Welles financed it on his own and even did a bit part in The Third Man to earn money to finish the film.

Othello is the Moor of Venice, a truly heroic officer and adventurer who has won the love of the fair Desdemona by his personal attractiveness, intelligence and fine reputation. Othello is black - but this is not seen as an issue by most of those around him. Only Iago and Desdemona's father, Brabantio, have a problem with his race. Both of these have other reasons to dislike the General - Brabantio resents Othello's relationship with his daughter, and Iago is angry that Othello has promoted Michael Cassio to Lieutenant - a position Iago sees as rightly his own.

Laurence Fishburne has played the Moor to excellent effect on film.

Shakespeare demonstrates his love of long words in this play: Othello is reputed to have escaped from the anthropophagi.

"Othello, the Moore of Venice"
A Tragedy By William Shakespeare

Act 1

Act 2
  • Scene 1 - A Sea-port in Cyprus. An open place near the quay.
  • Scene 2 - A street.
  • Scene 3 - A hall in the castle.
Act 3 Act 4
  • Scene 1 - Cyprus. Before the castle.
  • Scene 2 - A room in the castle.
  • Scene 3 - Another room In the castle.
Act 5
  • Scene 1 - Cyprus. A street.
  • Scene 2 - A bedchamber in the castle: DESDEMONA in bed asleep.

Although Hamlet can be said to be more complete, and Macbeth more interesting, Othello is the most psychologically compelling of the great Shakespearean tragedies. It is an unguarded study in malice and benevolence, strength and weakness, which does not easily lend itself to the intellectual and minute examination of the modern viewer.

The play is almost impossible to stage or film successfully. Shakespeare was not writing for a post-freudean audience, one which can quickly enter into the intricacies of a character's motivations. His characterisation is instinctive and capricious, enough so to make it extremely difficult for a modern method actor to compile a succinct and coherent character. It can best be directed and acted on a scene to scene basis, which unfortunately does not make for very cohesive viewing. Nevertheless the text itself is fascinating, lending itself to almost endless interpretation and re-reading.

As a narrative, Othello is extremely lacking; it is almost like the Bard was writing a saga of some sort and decided to stage, at random, a snippet. The plot between Roderigo and Iago, as well as the love affair between Othello and Desdemona, begin off stage and out of play time, and while final denouement occurs on stage, the ultimate punishment of the guilty, that post-tragic element which is supposed to restore to the audience a feeling of cosmic order and justice - namely, Iago's death - does not. The play both begins and ends in an external universe of its own, and this lack of narrative structure is in part what makes it so difficult for us to process.

It is also, of course, laden with melodrama which to the modern viewer is distasetful, almost grotesque. The murder scene of Desdemona is one of those often caricatured drawn out affairs, and the interactions between Iago and almost anyone are simply too ridiculous to be believed when put in living, breathing form. It is only the in the silent text that we can glimpse the true psychological genius of the writer, the fine attention to detail and dialogue and the truly titanic power he can invest in his language.

Every one of the main characters has their tragic flaw. Othello's is obvious - drunk with the power and glory of a victorious hero, he is arrogant and self assured (yet not so much so that he cannot be hurt on his weakest point - his relationship with women as incaranted by Desdemona - a very modern reflection on men in general). Iago is likewise arrogant and conceited, trusting to his allpowerful smarts to get him out of any situation. To see Desdemona's failing we must look back to a less liberated society, however; she had married without her family's consent and "outside the clan", following her heart rather than her duty. Some readings suggest that it was this act of willfullness that, paradoxically, first planted the seed of doubt in her husband's heart. And yet at the end of the play we are still left dissatisfied. We are not convinced that the figures in the play deserved their fates. Othello and Desdemona certainly did not deserve to have their happinness and lives cut short in so brutal a fashion, but more importantly, Iago does not deserve to have succeeded. And suceed he did.

For me the power of the play has always been in the picture of indifferent, almost casual malice that is encompassed in the character of Iago. His effortless intrigue overpowers the intellect and power of Othello, who is emphatically set up to be a shrewd, brave and capable man from the start. It triumphs over the ultimate force of good - Desdemona's virginal innocence (a careful reading of the play reveals that her marriage had probably not been consummated). Reading it reminds me that any unkind deed, any thoughtless harm, can grow and lead to that elusive "evil" which a secular society perforce battles with the definition of, and as an incarnation of which Iago's character is usually seen.

Is a hero's tragic flaw still a tragic flaw if it must be created and maintained by someone else?

This dilemma is the root of my belief that Othello's mystique and endurance as a classical work are based solely on the name of its author, William Shakespeare. Without the weight of the name of the world's most famous playwright, this play would be a minor blip in modern academia -- a simplistic tale of bitterness that also reveals some racial stereotyping from the early Renaissance period. Unlike Shakespeare's masterpieces, such as Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, Othello needs a diabolical villain -- Iago -- to keep the plot rolling. Shakespeare, for once, couldn't fabricate a believable yet surprising sequence of events that would cause the main character to implode on its own: Othello requires the betrayal of a friend to destroy him from without.

As alluded to above, a minor objection I have to Othello is its treatment of race. Othello is an African in Venetian society who has risen to become the leader of the city's armies, in spite of struggles with racism. With this setting, Shakespeare could have given a stunning social commentary on the issue of race in his era. Instead, race is delegated to the back burner after the characters are introduced in Act I.

Furthermore, Shakespeare's treatment of Othello's ethnicity is inconsistent. Othello is very eloquent and intelligent, but everyone speaks of him as if he were a social barbarian. Othello says it himself: "I am black / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have . . ." (Shakespeare III.iii.263-5) I understand that the vernacular was an uncommon literary tool in Shakespeare's time, but it still detracts from the authenticity of the play.

The character of Iago further detracts from Othello's authenticity. Iago is completely diabolical and self-serving, and as such is a 'flat', stereotypical character. His ability to disguise his intentions from Othello (and everyone else) enforces his one-sidedness by revealing his treachery and deceit, and also detracts from his character's believability for the audience.

Iago may just as well be the title character of this play in spite of his flatness. He is truly the protagonist of this play, as his scheming is the basis for Othello's plot. Iago is the instigator of action, and Othello merely reacts. As Iago says himself, "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 th' nose / as asses are." (Shakespeare I.iii.380-3)

Iago gets more stage time than Othello: Iago speaks approximately 8,600 words in the play, while Othello speaks about 6,500. In comparison, Hamlet has approximately 12,100 words to King Claudius's 4,300 (the next most verbose character in Hamlet), and Macbeth has 5,400 to his wife's 1,900. Othello is actually the only tragedy of Shakespeare in which a title character does not speak the most, except for Julius Caesar, in which most of the conspirators have more lines than the Emperor. (Statistics)

Iago's stage time is also more revealing than Othello's. The title characters of Hamlet and Macbeth both speak to themselves to give us insights into their minds. In contrast, Iago, not the title character, is the character whose mind we see the most in Othello. Iago gives five asides during the play, while the title character gives only one. (Statistics) Shakespeare also adds the character of Roderigo into the play for Iago to use as a sounding board for the audience. Why doesn't Shakespeare give us a view into Othello's mind instead?

You're probably asking why I'm focusing so much on Iago's ascendancy in Othello when the thesis of this node is that Othello is not truly an enduring work. I believe that the one contributes to the other: Iago's place in this play utterly disrupts the Aristotelian idea of tragedy. According to Aristotle, tragedy must follow a certain pattern: a great person tries to do something that the person believes is his or her destiny or duty, but because of extreme yet believable circumstances and a character trait of the protagonist, that person's actions cause death and destruction to all.

Before going further, I'd like to explain my comparison of Othello to Aristotle's ideas, and incidentally my use of the term 'tragic flaw'. As James Hammersmith writes, ". . . [T]he concept of the tragic flaw is not only an imposition upon the native tradition of English tragedy but is actually an inversion of the principle upon which tragic character in the Renaissance is built." (Hammersmith 246) Hammersmith contends, and I agree, that Shakespeare never intended for his protagonists to have a tragic flaw, but rather a "tragic virtue". This virtue was an attribute that wasn't evil in itself, and was furthermore a great help in general to the person. Furthermore, I believe that the term 'tragic virtue' is a better descriptor of Aristotle's ideas than 'tragic flaw'. I will continue with the term 'tragic flaw', however, because it is the established term for the literary element that will be addressed in this node.

I diverge slightly from Hammersmith, however, on the application of Aristotle's laws to Shakespeare's tragedies. Hammersmith believes that since "Aristotle's Poetics affected Elizabethan and Jacobean England scarcely at all" (Hammersmith 245), Elizabethan tragedy shouldn't be judged according to the Aristotelian standard. Specifically, we shouldn't expect Shakespeare to use the idea of the tragic flaw. In contrast, I believe that the minimal set of Aristotle's tragic laws given above are not guidelines for any particular 'sect' of tragedy -- such as 'Aristotelian tragedy' or 'Elizabethan tragedy' -- but general laws for tragic drama. As general laws, then, they are applicable to any tragedy, including that of Shakespeare. Any enduring tragedy will follow this minimal set. As for the 'tragic flaw' problem, since Aristotle's 'tragic flaw' is basically the same as Hammersmith's 'tragic virtue', continuity is preserved.

Now, returning to Othello and Iago: Othello does not match this minimal set that defines in part that which causes a tragedy to be successful. In Othello, Iago's actions and Othello's reactions cause death and destruction. This is in stark contrast with Aristotle's definition of tragedy, in which the protagonist's own actions, combined with extreme circumstance, cause destruction.

An argument can be made that Iago's actions fall under the category of 'extreme circumstance'. This argument is based on an opinion about the definition of circumstance, so it can't be fully refuted, but I personally believe this idea to be somewhat absurd. It's stretching the definition of circumstance quite a bit to say that it applies to a deliberate, malicious act done by another.

We come now to the question I asked at the beginning of the essay: Is a hero's tragic flaw still a tragic flaw if it must be created and maintained by someone else? Specifically, can Othello's jealousy be called a tragic flaw, or even a tragic virtue, if it didn't exist prior to Iago planting and nurturing an idea in Othello's mind? Conversely, can Othello's loyalty be called a tragic flaw in the Aristotelian sense if it is knowingly and maliciously used by another to destroy Othello?

My opinion is that the answer for both of these questions is no. If you look at some classical examples of the tragic flaw/virtue, such as Oedipus, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth, a consistency is found in terms of these questions. No one ever creates or exploits a tragic flaw in these examples; the tragic flaw is always a pre-existing condition for the protagonist in tragic drama, and circumstances, not individuals, are always to blame for causing the tragic flaw to destroy the hero. Shakespeare uses the term "star-cross'd" in Romeo and Juliet to describe the inevitability and impersonality of the events in a tragic drama.

One final attempt can be made to preserve the idea that Othello is a tragedy. Perhaps, despite the name of the play, Iago is the hero! Then Iago's tragic flaw/virtue would be his sense of personal injustice, which develops into a thirst for revenge when he is overlooked by Othello to be promoted to Lieutenant. While I actually believe this representation of the play may be the closest to the definition of tragic drama, some problems still arise.

First, as Hammersmith says, "To witness an evil man get what he deserves is perhaps to witness the workings of justice, but it is not to witness tragedy." (Hammersmith 248) Perhaps, in this attempt to make Othello a truly tragic drama, we can say that Iago is 'misguided' by his sense of injustice rather than 'evil'. However, Shakespeare definitely tries to make Iago as representative of villainy as possible.

Secondly, Iago can't really in any way be defined as a 'great person', which is required by Aristotle's tragic formula. Perhaps we can point to his capacity for deceit and manipulation as abilities only an exceptional human could exhibit. I, however, wouldn't call such a human 'great'.

I have one final justification for my belief that Othello is not a true tragic drama, and it also ties in with the character of Iago. Iago, as I've said before, is merely a one-sided character -- hateful, malicious, jealous, and deceitful. With this said, he seems to me to still be the most rounded-out character of the play. Throughout the play, I continuously got this Rosencrantz-Guildensternesque feeling whenever any of the other characters appeared. Iago would manipulate them completely and perfectly and send them off to accomplish his purposes. With one character a stereotypical hateful villain, and the rest of the cast merely tools in his hand, how much of a plot will the play have?

I would have preferred to more discretely analyze each facet of Othello, but Shakespeare's drama is so complex and interdependent that each area of argument partially explains and supports another. The root of Othello's inferiority in comparison to many of Shakespeare's other tragedies is the bard's overuse of Iago and neglect of Othello. This imbalance within the 'character' facet of the play cheapens its tragic drama, undermines its believability, reduces its impact as a racial commentary, and simplifies its plot to a "bad guy gets revenge" story. I had looked forward to reading Othello, as I have enjoyed Shakespeare in the past, but I came away from the play feeling as if it were simply an overrated melodrama.

Works Cited

Hammersmith, James P. "Shakespeare and the Tragic Virtue." Southern Humanities Review 24.3 (Summer 1990): 245-54. On-line publication edited by Joanne E. Gates, 1998. Pagination conforms to print edition. Viewed 4 Dec 2000. <http://www.jsu.edu/depart/english/gates/shtragcv.htm>.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's. 2000. 1049-1129.

Statistics of Plays by William Shakespeare. Compiled by Hartmut Ilsemann. Hannover University, no copyright date. Viewed 8 Dec 2000. <http://www.unics.uni-hannover.de/~nhtnilse/statist.htm>

Othello ben Mohammed Anoun (1495-1539) was a general with the Venetian Armed Forces.

Othello was born in Tunis in 1495 to parents of noble lineage. Othello left Tunis aged 7 to join his father who was stationed in Venice as a diplomat. While travelling to Venice the Venetian merchant ship on which Othello was travelling came under attack by Ottoman forces raiding Peloponnesos and he was forced to fight as a soldier. After sustaining heavy damage and consequent flooding, the ship ran aground near Kalamata and Othello was, with the rest of the crew, captured and enslaved by local militias.The young Othello was taken to Alexandria where he encountered a diverse population of people from many parts of the globe and observed how the wealthy consumed the ground up bodies of deceased slaves - a form of medicinal cannibalism. It is unclear how long he was held or how he escaped captivity but records show that later he briefly studied naval warfare at the Scuola del Bombardieri in Venice under Paolo da Canal.

Othello was a lieutenant under Gian Giacomo Trivulzio at the battle of Marignano in 1515. Othello later distinguished himself during the siege of Rhodes in 1522 before being stationed in Cyprus. In 1539 he led the Venetian reinforcements in repelling the Ottoman invasion of Cyprus, after Turkish fleets had been spotted gathering around Rhodes in preparation for attacks on Venetian strongholds on the Aegan sea. Othello is believed to have murdered his wife, Desdemona, whilst in Cyprus. He committed suicide shortly after the incident. His ensign was charged with treason for actions leading up to the event. Contemporary reports suggesting that his wife was bludgeoned to death with a sandbag, and the scene doctored in order to look like an accident, were shown to be false by a subsequent investigation.

His wife's body was shipped back to Venice and was interred in the family tomb at the church of Madonna Dell'Orto. Othello was buried within 24 hours, according to the Islamic custom, in a non-denominational pauper's graveyard in Cyprus.

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