By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions
In Othello, Shakespeare creates a powerful drama of a marriage that begins with fascination (between the exotic Moor Othello and the Venetian lady Desdemona), with elopement, and with intense mutual devotion and that ends precipitately with jealous rage and violent deaths. Shakespeare sets this story in the romantic world of the Mediterranean, moving the action from Venice to the island of Cyprus and giving it an even more exotic coloring with stories of Othello’s African past. Shakespeare builds so many differences into his hero and heroine—differences of race, of age, of cultural background—that one should not, perhaps, be surprised that the marriage ends disastrously. But most people who see or read the play feel that the love that the play presents between Othello and Desdemona is so strong that it would have overcome all these differences were it not for the words and actions of Othello’s standard-bearer, Iago, who hates Othello and sets out to destroy him by destroying his love for Desdemona.
As Othello succumbs to Iago’s insinuations that Desdemona is unfaithful, fascination—which dominates the early acts of the play—turns to horror, especially for the audience. We are confronted by spectacles of a generous and trusting Othello in the grip of Iago’s schemes; of an innocent Desdemona, who has given herself up entirely to her love for Othello only to be subjected to his horrifying verbal and physical assaults, the outcome of Othello’s mistaken convictions about her faithlessness.
At this moment in time, the play’s fascination and its horror may be greater than ever before because we have been made so very sensitive to the issues of race, class, and gender that are woven into the texture of Othello. Desdemona is white, Othello black. Their interracial marriage is a source of a stream of slurs from Iago that runs throughout the play. Class is emphasized when Iago is presented as someone bitterly resentful of his social inferiority (surely a factor in his initial failure to be named Othello’s second-in-command) and so knowledgeable about the workings of prejudice and self-doubt that he can easily twist others’ feelings and actions to serve his own mysterious ends. The issue of gender is especially noticeable in the final scenes of the play—with the attacks on Bianca, Emilia, and Desdemona—which are vivid reminders of how terrible the power traditionally exerted by men over women can be.
After you have read the play, we invite you to turn to “Othello: A Modern Perspective,” written by the late Professor Susan Snyder of Swarthmore College.