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Further Reading: Othello

Altman, Joel B. “ ‘Preposterous Conclusions’: Eros, Enargeia, and the Composition of Othello.” Representations 18 (1987): 129–57.

Shakespeare’s inquiry into the nature of probability and improbability provides the focus of Altman’s essay. While Othello may be “fraught . . . with improbabilities,” in the words of seventeenth-century critic Thomas Rymer, the very process of understanding that makes it seem so is, in Altman’s estimation, the subject of Shakespeare’s questioning throughout the canon. Shakespeare resists the seventeenth century’s tendency to ground both thought and action in a “scientific or moral or aesthetic certainty.” It is in Othello, however, where Shakespeare most strenuously attempts to reveal that the “probable is really nothing more than the contingent.”

Burke, Kenneth. “Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method.” In Othello: Critical Essays, ed. Susan Snyder, pp. 127–68. New York and London: Garland, 1988.

Othello performs a “conspiracy,” to use Burke’s term, in which Desdemona, Othello, and Iago are partners. They represent a trinity of ownership: Othello as the possessor, Desdemona as what he possesses, and Iago as the threat to Othello’s miserliness. The loss of the handkerchief is related to the conspiracy, for it is the privacy of Desdemona made public. In his belief that she has bestowed the handkerchief upon another, Othello feels a sense of “universal loss.” The play reveals that “ownership” projected into realms where there is no unquestionable security invites, ultimately, estrangement and profound loneliness.

Cavell, Stanley. “Othello and the Stake of the Other.” In Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays by Shakespeare, pp. 125–42. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Building on the initial premise that “the pivot of Othello’s interpretation of skepticism is Othello’s placing of a finite woman in the place of God,” Cavell suggests that the tragedy of the play lies in Othello’s refusal to acknowledge Desdemona’s imperfection. Cavell concludes that the consequences of this refusal of knowledge are not only the denial and death of Desdemona but also the failure of Othello’s own capacity to acknowledge, that is, his “imagination of stone.”

Donaldson, Peter. “Liz White’s Othello.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 482–95.

Liz White’s 1980 film of Othello is entirely the work of African-Americans, both the cast and the technical crew. Othello is played as a young, emotionally sensitive African in the midst of lighter-skinned urban African-Americans. The text’s vivid black/white polarities are muted in the film. Because Othello is ethnically akin to the “Venetians,” the tragedy of the last act is especially viable. In rejecting Othello, “the ‘Venetians’ are rejecting a part of themselves.”

Greenblatt, Stephen. “The Improvisation of Power.” In Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, pp. 222–54. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Greenblatt maintains that, in the sixteenth century, there was an increased self-consciousness about the fashioning of a human identity as a manipulable, artful process. In Othello, Greenblatt perceives a pattern of “submission to narrative self-fashioning.” It is Othello’s own subscription to a carefully constructed narrative self that allows his identity to be subverted (if unintentionally) by Desdemona’s submission to it and, in a more sinister vein, by Iago’s role as an improviser in this ceaseless narrative invention.

Grennan, Eamon. “The Women’s Voices in Othello: Speech, Song, Silence.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 275–92.

For Grennan, Othello is not only a play of voices but also a play about voices. He cites the myriad and diverse voices of the play but focuses specifically on the speech of the women, arguing that an understanding of the play’s “moral experience” follows an understanding of the women’s speech. The women, in their speech, songs, and, finally, silence, provide a “moral measure” as a thematic subtext that illuminates the meaning of the tragic action.

Jones, Eldred. Othello’s Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Jones undertakes a study of the dramatic representation of Africans on the English Renaissance stage. He finds Othello to make a significant departure from the Renaissance’s traditional dramatic treatment of Moors in that Shakespeare endows Othello with noble qualities. For Jones, the racial prejudice of Iago and Brabantio is invoked specifically so that it can be rejected.

Murray, Timothy. “Othello’s Foul Generic Thoughts and Methods.” In Persons in Groups: Social Behavior as Identity Formation in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, ed. Richard C. Trexler, pp. 67–77. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1985.

Murray shows that patriarchal Elizabethan society feared the theater, for, given the prevailing assumption that women were inclined to imitate, dangerous female identities could be forged if women were exposed to staged vice. The lucidity and logical discourse of Desdemona, then, worked to demystify the exclusive authority of men. Desdemona’s ability to read signs and interpret events implies that maxims about women’s inferiority are “impotent and archaic.” Her self-fashioning and sexual frankness, however, open her up to suspicion within the cultural codes of men and ultimately spell her doom.

Neely, Carol Thomas. “Women and Men in Othello: ‘what should such a fool / Do with so good a woman’.” Shakespeare Studies 10 (1977): 133–58.

Refuting the arguments of “Othello critics” and “Iago critics,” Neely reads the central theme in the play as love and the central conflict of the play as between the men and the women. The women inherit their roles from the heroines of Shakespeare’s comedies, yet despite their lack of competitiveness, jealousy, and class consciousness, they are constrained in the tragedies by the male characters from exercising their traditional roles as mediators. Neely argues that it is Emilia, recognizing and responding to this conflict, who most dramatically and symbolically represents the balance of the play.

Neill, Michael. “Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello.” Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 383–412.

Neill proposes that Othello’s most potent theatrical image is the bed. The play repeatedly gestures toward it in its absence and, at the end, the bed becomes the “place” where the action is centered. As such, it becomes the “imaginative center of the play”—the focus of Iago’s fantasies, Othello’s speculations, and the audience’s voyeuristic imagination. Because of the conventional symbolic importance attached to the marriage bed, the emphasis on the bed and on its violation in Othello forms the basis for a whole set of ideas about racial adulteration and sexual transgression.

Newman, Karen. “ ‘And wash the Ethiop white’: Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello.” In Shakespeare Reproduced, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion O’Connor, pp. 143–62. London: Methuen, 1987.

Newman investigates the production of race and gender difference throughout Othello and examines the way the black man and the desiring woman are linked as representatives of the monstrous. Connecting Othello with other Elizabethan representations of blackness and femininity, Newman reads Othello as contesting the conventional ideologies of race and gender in early modern England. In general Newman urges a resistant reading of Shakespeare that contests the “hegemonic forces the plays at the same time affirm.”

Orkin, Martin. “Othello and the ‘Plain Face’ of Racism.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 166–88.

Orkin begins by discussing Renaissance attitudes to people of color in Shakespeare’s England. He moves on to detail instances where racist mythologies inscribed critical responses to the play and ends with a focused examination of how, in South Africa, silence about the racist tendencies of some Othello criticism actually lends support to prevailing racist doctrines. For Orkin, in its scrutiny of Iago’s use of racism and its rejection of pigmentation as an indication of human worth, the play “continues to oppose racism.”

Rosenberg, Marvin. The Masks of Othello: The Search for the Identity of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona by Three Centuries of Actors and Critics. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1961.

Rosenberg charts the development of character images of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona on the stage and page during the last three centuries, providing an overview of approaches. He further demonstrates how both actors and critics have reshaped the text for performance. He argues against symbolic or skeptical interpretations of the play, claiming its complex humanity can be fully realized only on the stage.

Siemon, James R. “ ‘Nay, that’s not next’: Othello, V.ii in Performance, 1760–1900.” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 38–51.

Focusing on the final scene of the play, Siemon uses annotated promptbooks and performance records to explore how variations in staging and performance in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries suggest “a coherence of interpretation based on particular notions of both tragedy and femininity.” The constant alterations of and deviations from the Quarto and Folio texts reveal how many implicit and explicit directions had to be ignored to make the final scene conform to the “particular tragic mold” favored by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Snyder, Susan. The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare’s Tragedies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Snyder proposes that the tragedy of Othello develops from a questioning of comic assumptions about love, nature, and reasoning. By posing Iago against Othello and Desdemona, Shakespeare explores the strains and contradictions within the comic convention and uncovers their deeply tragic implications.

Spivack, Bernard. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Focusing on popular dramatic conventions that preceded Elizabethan drama, Spivack traces the figure of Iago and other major villains in the “family of Iago” back to late medieval dramatic traditions. Spivack shows Iago to be a descendant of the late morality figure of Vice. Iago’s malignity is curiously without motive because he is not fully human, but an allegorical representation of evil.

Stallybrass, Peter. “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed.” In Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, eds. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers, pp. 123–42. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Within the dominant discourse of early modern England, women were formulated under contradictory categories: gender or class. As a gender, they were postulated as a single set. As a class, however, inequalities of wealth and birth divided them into distinct social groups. In this context, Othello’s marriage to Desdemona is significant only when differentiations of class are recognized, for Othello marries “above his station” in terms of class. In “acquiring” Desdemona, Othello is a success, but in possessing her he lives with the fear of imminent loss. The openness of Desdemona that allowed Othello successfully to woo her must be, for him, closed off; after marriage, he linguistically moves her from the category of class to the category of gender, making her a figure of inconstancy. Thus the play constructs two Desdemonas and reveals the “antithetical thinking of the developing Renaissance state.”