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Othello, The Moor of Venice is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in approximately 1603. The work revolves around four central characters: Othello, his wife Desdemona, his lieutenant Cassio, and his trusted advisor Iago. Attesting to its enduring popularity, the play appeared in 7 editions between 1622 and 1705. Because of its varied themes — racism, love, jealousy and betrayal — it remains relevant to the present day and is often performed in professional and community theatres alike. The play has also been the basis for numerous operatic, film and literary adaptations.

Source Date and text Characters Synopsis
Themes and tropes Othello's racial classification Iago / Othello Sexuality
Critical analysis Performance history Adaptations and cultural references Opera
Film References in literature See also


The plot for Othello was developed from a story in Cinthio's collection, the Hecatommithi, which it follows closely. The only named character in Cinthio's story is "Desdemona", which means "unfortunate" in Greek; the other characters are identified only as "the standard-bearer", "the captain", and "the Moor". In the original, the standard-bearer lusts after Desdemona and is spurred to revenge when she rejects him. Unlike Othello, the Moor in Cinthio's story never repents the murder of his beloved, and both he and the standard-bearer escape Venice and are killed much later. Cinthio also drew a moral (which he placed in the mouth of the lady) that European women are unwise to marry the temperamental males of other nations.

Othello's character, in particular, is believed to have been inspired by several Moorish delegations from Morocco to Elizabethan England at the beginning of the 17th century. Or he could be Leo Africanus.

Date and text

The play was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on October 6, 1621 by Thomas Walkley, and was first published in quarto format by him in 1622, printed by Nicholas Okes, under the title The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Its appearance in the First Folio (1623) quickly followed. Later quartos followed in 1630, 1655, 1681, 1695, and 1705; on stage and in print, it was a popular play.


Persons represented:
Duke of Venice.
Brabantio, also written Brabanzio, a Venetian Senator, father of Desdemona.

Other Senators.
Gratiano, Brother to Brabantio.
Lodovico, Kinsman to Brabantio.
Othello, A noble Moor in the service of the Republic of Venice; the protagonist of the play.
Cassio, Othello's Lieutenant.
Iago, his Ancient and ensign (standard bearer), the villain of the play.
Roderigo, a Venetian gentleman. Harbours unrequited love for Desdemona.
Montano, Othello's Venetian predecessor in the government of Cyprus.
Clown, Servant to Montano.
Desdemona, Daughter to Brabantio, and Wife to Othello.
Emilia, Iago's wife, maid to Desdemona.
Bianca, Cassio's Courtesan.
Lodovico, Venetian Nobleman, Desdemona's cousin

Miscellaneous: Officers, Gentlemen, Messenger, Musicians, Herald, Sailor, Attendants, servants etc

Painting depicting OthelloThe play opens with Roderigo, a rich and foolish gentleman, complaining to Iago, a high-ranking soldier, that Iago didn't tell him about the secret marriage between Desdemona, daughter of a Senator named Brabantio, and Othello, a black general of the Venetian army. He is upset by this development because he loves Desdemona and has previously asked her father for her hand in marriage. Iago is upset with Othello for promoting a younger man named Cassio above him, and tells Roderigo that he is simply using Othello for his own advantage. Iago's argument against Cassio is that he is a scholarly tactician and has no real battle experience from which he can draw. By emphasizing this point, and his dissatisfaction with serving under Othello, Iago convinces Roderigo to wake Brabantio and tell him about his daughter's marriage. After Roderigo rouses Brabantio, Iago makes an aside that he has heard rumors that Othello has had an affair with his wife, Emilia. This acts as the second explicit motive for Iago's actions. Later, Iago tells Othello that he overheard Roderigo telling Brabantio about the marriage and that he (Iago) was angry because the development was meant to be secret. This is the first instance we see Iago blatantly lie within the text.

News arrives in the Senate that the Turks are going to attack Cyprus and Othello is summoned to advise. Brabantio arrives and accuses Othello of seducing Desdemona by witchcraft, but Othello defends himself successfully before an assembled Senate.

By order of the Duke, Othello leaves Venice to command the Venetian armies against invading Turks on the island of Cyprus, accompanied by his new wife, his new lieutenant Cassio, his ensign Iago and Emilia, Iago's wife, who works as a maid to Desdemona. When they arrive, they find that a storm has destroyed the Turkish fleet, and all break out in celebration.

Iago, who resents Othello for favoring Cassio, takes the opportunity of Othello being away from home to manipulate his superiors and make Othello think that his wife has been unfaithful. He persuades Roderigo to engage Cassio in a fight, then gets Cassio drunk. When Othello discovers Cassio drunk and in a fight, he strips him of his ranks, and confers them upon Iago, which in turn strips Iago of his two stated reasons to exact revenge on Othello. After Cassio sobers up a bit, Iago persuades Cassio to try Desdemona as an intermediary on Othello. It is of some note that throughout the text, Othello and other characters refer to Iago as "good" and "honest."

Iago now works on Othello to make him suspicious of Desdemona and Cassio. As it happens, Cassio is seeing a woman named Bianca. Desdemona drops a handkerchief that was Othello's first gift to her and which he has stated holds great significance to him in the context of their relationship. Emilia obtains this for Iago, who has asked her to steal it, having decided to plant it in Cassio's lodgings as evidence of Cassio and Desdemona's affair. Emilia is unaware of what Iago plans to do with the handkerchief. After he has planted the handkerchief, Iago tells Othello to hide, and goads Cassio on to talk about his affair with his mistress Bianca, but since Bianca's name is not mentioned Othello thinks that Cassio is referring to Desdemona. Bianca, on discovering the handkerchief, leaves Cassio. Enraged and hurt, Othello decides to kill his wife and orders Iago to kill Cassio.

Iago convinces a sexually-frustrated Roderigo to kill Cassio because Cassio has just been appointed in Othello's place and, if Cassio lives to take office, Othello and Desdemona will leave Cyprus, thwarting Roderigo's plans to win Desdemona. Roderigo attacks Cassio in the street after Cassio leaves Bianca's lodgings and they fight. Both are wounded. Passers-by arrive to help and Iago joins them, pretending to help Cassio. Iago secretly stabs Roderigo to stop him talking and accuses Bianca of conspiracy to kill Cassio.

In the night, Othello confronts Desdemona, and then kills her, smothering her in bed out of intense jealousy, before Iago's wife, Emilia, arrives. At Emilia's distress Othello tries to explain himself, justifying his actions by way of her affair. Emilia calls for help. The Governor arrives, with Iago and others, and Emilia begins to explain the situation. When Othello mentions the handkerchief (distinctively embroidered) as proof, Emilia realizes what Iago has done, and she exposes him, just before he kills her. Othello, realizing Desdemona's innocence, attacks Iago but does not kill him, saying that he would rather Iago live the rest of his life in pain. Lodovico, a Venetian nobleman, apprehends both Iago and Othello, but Othello commits suicide with a dagger, holding his wife's body in his arms, before they can take him into custody. At the end, it can be assumed, Iago is taken off to be tortured and possibly executed.

Themes and tropes

Othello's racial classification

There is no consensus over Othello's racial classification. Othello is referred to as a "Moor", but for Elizabethan English people, this term could refer either to the Berbers or Arabs of North Africa, or to the people now called "black" (people of sub-Saharan African descent), or to Muslims in general. In his other plays, Shakespeare had previously depicted what he called a "tawny Moor" (in The Merchant of Venice) and a black Moor (in Titus Andronicus).

E.A.J. Honigmann, the editor of the Arden edition, concludes that Othello's race is ambiguous. Various uses of the word 'black' (for example, "Haply for I am black") are insufficient evidence, Honigmann argues, since 'black' could simply mean 'swarthy' for Elizabethans. Moreover, Iago twice uses the word 'Barbary' or 'Barbarian' to refer to Othello, seemingly referring to the Barbary coast inhabited by the "tawny" Moors. Roderigo calls Othello 'the thicklips', which seems to refer to African physiognomy, but Honigmann counters that since these comments are all insults, they need not be taken literally. Furthermore, Honigmann notes a piece of external evidence: an ambassador of the Arab King of Barbary with his retinue stayed in London in 1600 for several months and occasioned much discussion. Honigmann wonders whether Shakespeare's play, written only a year or two afterwards, might have been inspired by the ambassador.

However, Michael Neill, editor of the Oxford Shakespeare edition, disagrees, arguing that the earliest references to Othello's colour (Thomas Rymer's 1693 critique of the play, and the 1709 engraving in Nicholas Rowe's edition of Shakespeare) assume him to be a black man, while the earliest known North African interpretation was Edmund Kean's production of 1814. Modern-day readers and theatre directors now normally lean towards the "black" interpretation, and North African Othellos are rare. One exception is Patrick Stewart, who had wanted to play the title role since the age of 14, so he (along with director Jude Kelly) inverted the play so Othello became a White man in a Black society.
Iago / Othello

Although the title suggests that the tragedy belongs primarily to Othello, Iago is also an important role, with more lines than the title character. In Othello, it is Iago who manipulates all other characters at will, controlling their movements and trapping them in an intricate net of lies. A. C. Bradley — and more recently Harold Bloom — have been major advocates of this interpretation.

Other critics, most notably in the later twentieth century (after F. R. Leavis), have focused on Othello. Apart from the common question of jealousy, some argue that his honour is his undoing, while others address the hints of instability in his person (in Act IV Scene I, for example, he falls "into a trance").

It might also be noted that there is additional internal evidence in the play, as well as the "trance" reference above, to suggest that Shakespeare wanted to imply that Othello was an epileptic. That disease was seen in Shakespeare's time as caused by a choleric excess, an excess of the red humour that produced passionate personalities given to emotional extremes. Othello's obsessive love of, need for control of, and jealously of Desdemona plus his horrenduous temper would all be explained by his epileptic predisposition.

Furthermore, his inside personality is also shown as responsible for his fate, with an inside combat between "the noble Moor" and the "malignant and turbaned Turk" (act V scene II), his moorishness brings up in himself. Othello is the victim of two opposite sides fighting inside his body and soul, which would then result in the dramatic ending that takes place.


At the beginning of the 21st century, several critics inferred that the relationship between the Moor and his Ancient is one of Shakespeare's characteristic subtexts of repressed homosexuality or him being gay. Most notably David Somerton, Linford S. Haines and JP Doolan-York in their 2006 publication "Notes for Literature Students on the Tragedy of Othello," devote several chapters to arguing the case for 'Sexuality and Sexual Imagery' in the play. They analyze in great depth the play's climax, Act III Scene III, with its oaths, vows and formal, semi-ritualistic declarations of love and commitment as being a dark parody of a heterosexual wedding ceremony; they continue by saying that Iago replaces Desdemona in Othello's affections.

Somerton, Haines and Doolan-York come to the conclusion that Iago is a pre-Jungian expression of Shakespeare's shadow, his repressed homosexuality (which remains the subject of much heated debate among today's scholars). This also would explain why the anti-protagonist of this tragedy is so much more appealing and developed as a character than in any of Shakespeare's other plays. The discourse concludes with the speculation that Shakespeare has drawn on the androphilia of Classical society and that Iago's unrequited love for the General is the explanation for his otherwise motiveless but passionate loathing.

It should be stressed that though there are arguments for this reading of the play's central relationship, it is a reading currently adopted only by a minority of critics. It can be concluded that Othello's own actions led to his own downfall. One may argue that it was the diabolical character of Iago that released the "green-eyed monster" in Othello, for he was his right hand man, his "ancient". F.R Leavis accounts for how Othello's "Self-pride became stupidity. A Dangerous stupidity. An insane self-consuming passion".

Critical analysis

There have been many differing views on the character of Othello over the years. They span from describing Othello as a hero to an egotistical fool. A.C Bradley calls Othello the "most romantic of all of Shakespeare's heroes" and "the greatest poet of them all". On the other hand, F.R. Leavis describes Othello as "egotistical". There are those who also take a less critical approach to the character of Othello such as William Hazlitt. Hazlitt makes a statement saying that "the nature of the Moor is noble...but his blood is of the most inflameable kind".

Laurence Olivier in his book, On Acting offers a comical fiction of how Shakespeare came to write Othello. He imagined Richard Burbage and Shakespeare getting drunk one night together and, as drunken colleagues are wont to do, both begin bragging about their greatness until finally he imagined Burbage to shout, "I'm the best actor and there's nothing you can write that I can't perform!"

Performance history

Othello possesses an unusually detailed performance record. The first certainly-known performance occurred on November 1, 1604, at Whitehall Palace in London. Subsequent performances took place on Monday, April 30, 1610 at the Globe Theatre; on November 22, 1629; and on May 6, 1635 at the Blackfriars Theatre. Othello was also one of the twenty plays performed by the King's Men during the winter of 1612-13, in celebration of the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Frederick V, Elector Palatine.

At the start of the Restoration era, on October 11, 1660, Samuel Pepys saw the play at the Cockpit Theatre. Nicholas Burt played the lead. Soon after, on December 8, 1660, Thomas Killigrew's new King's Company acted the play at their Vere Street theatre, with Margaret Hughes as Desdemona—probably the first time a professional actress appeared on a public stage in England.

It may be one index of the play's power that Othello was one of the very few Shakespearean plays that was never adapted and changed during the Restoration and the eighteenth century. Famous nineteenth century Othellos included Edmund Kean, Edwin Forrest, Ira Aldridge, and Tommaso Salvini, and outstanding Iagos were Edwin Booth and Henry Irving.
The play has maintained its popularity into the 21st century. The most famous American production may be Margaret Webster's 1943 staging starring Paul Robeson as Othello and Jose Ferrer as Iago. This production was the first ever in the United States of America to feature a black actor playing Othello with an otherwise all-white cast (there had been all-black productions of the play before). It ran for 296 performances, almost twice as long as any other Shakespearean play ever produced on Broadway. Although it was never filmed, it was the first nearly complete performance of a Shakespeare play released on records. Robeson had first played the role in London in 1931 opposite a cast that included Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona and Ralph Richardson as Roderigo, and would return to it in 1959 at Stratford on Avon.

Another famous production was the 1982 Broadway staging with James Earl Jones as Othello and Christopher Plummer as Iago, who became the only actor to receive a Tony Award nomination for a performance in the play.

When Laurence Olivier played his legendary and wildly acclaimed performance of Othello at the Royal National Theatre in 1964, he had developed a case of stage fright that was so profound that when he was alone onstage, Frank Finlay (who was playing Iago) would have to stand offstage where Olivier could see him to settle his nerves. This performance was recorded complete on LP, and filmed by popular demand in 1965 (according to a biography of Olivier, tickets for the stage production were notoriously hard to get). The film version still holds the record for the most Oscar nominations for acting ever given to a Shakespeare film - Olivier, Finlay, Maggie Smith (as Desdemona) and Joyce Redman (as Emilia, Iago's wife) were all nominated for Academy Awards. Olivier was among the last white actors to be greatly acclaimed as Othello, although the role continued to be played by such performers as Paul Scofield at the Royal National Theatre in 1980 and Anthony Hopkins in the BBC Shakespeare film (1981).

When Patrick Stewart played Othello at the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington D. C., he portrayed the Moor as a white man with the other characters played by black actors.

Actors have alternated the roles of Iago and Othello in productions to stir audience interest since the nineteenth century. Two of the most notable examples of this role swap were William Charles Macready and Samuel Phelps at Drury Lane (1837) and Richard Burton and John Neville at the Old Vic Theatre (1955). When Edwin Booth's tour of England in 1880 was not well attended, Henry Irving invited Booth to alternate the roles of Othello and Iago with him in London. The stunt renewed interest in Booth's tour. James O'Neill also alternated the roles of Othello and Iago with Booth, with the latter’s complimentary appreciation of O'Neill’s interpretation of the Moor being immortalized in O'Neill’s son Eugene’s play Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Othello is currently being performed at the Donmar Warehouse, with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello, Ewan McGregor as Iago and Kelly Reilly as Desdemona. Despite tickets selling as high as £2000 on web-based vendors, only Ejiofor has been praised, with McGregor and Reilly's performances negatively received. It officially opened on the 4th of December, 2007, directed by Michael Grandage.

Adaptations and cultural references


Othello is the basis for three operatic versions:
    The opera Otello (1816) by Gioacchino Rossini
    The opera Otello (1887) by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Arrigo Boito
    The opera Bandanna (1999) by Daron Hagen

There have been several film adaptations of Othello. These include:

Othello (1922) starring Emil Jannings. Silent.

The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (1952) by Orson Welles

All Night Long (1961) A British Adaptation in which the character of Othello is Rex, a Jazz Bandleader. Featuring Dave Brubeck and other Modern Jazz musicians.

Othello (1965) starring Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Frank Finlay, and Joyce Redman
Othello (1981) part of the BBC's complete works of William Shakespeare. Starring Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins.

Otello (1986) A film version of Verdi's opera, starring Plácido Domingo, directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Won the BAFTA for foreign language film.

Otello (1990) A TV film version staring Michael Grandage, Ian McKellen, Clive Swift, Willard White, Sean Baker, and Imogen Stubbs. Directed by Trevor Nunn.

Othello (1995) starring Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Fishburne, and Irene Jacob. Directed by Oliver Parker.

Kaliyattam (1997), in Malayalam, a modern update, set in Kerala, starring Suresh Gopi as Othello, Lal as Iago, Manju Warrier as Desdemona, directed by Jayaraaj.

O (2001) a modern update, set in an American high school. Stars Mekhi Phifer, Julia Stiles, and Josh Hartnett

Othello (2001). TV film. A modern-day adaptation in modern English, in which Othello is the first black Commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police. Made for ITV by LWT. Scripted by Andrew Davies. Directed by Geoffrey Sax. Starring Eamonn Walker, Christopher Eccleston and Keeley Hawes.

Omkara (2006) (Hindi) is an Indian version of the play, set in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The film stars Ajay Devgan as Omkara (Othello), Saif Ali Khan as Langda Thyagi(Iago), Kareena Kapoor as Dolly (Desdemona), Vivek Oberoi as Kesu (Cassio), Bipasha Basu as Billo (Bianca) and Konkona Sen Sharma as Indu (Emilia). The film is directed by Vishal Bharadwaj who earlier adapted Shakespeare's Macbeth as Maqbool. All characters in the film share the same alphabet or sound in their first name as in the original Shakespeare classic. It is one of the few mainstream Indian movies to contain uncensored swear-words.

Eloise (2002) a modern update, set in Sydney NSW, Australia.

Jarum Halus (2008) a modern Malaysian film, in English and Malay by Mark Tan.

References in literature
Ann Radcliffe's gothic novel, The Romance of the Forest, features an excerpt from Othello: "Trifles, light as air, / Are, to the jealous, confirmations strong / As proof of Holy Writ". In a piece of enjambment, the passage refers to Madame La Motte's growing, and unfounded, jealousy.

Al-Tayyib Salih's character Mustafa Sa'eed often refers to himself as specifically not being another Othello in Season of Migration to the North.

See also
Was Shakespeare anti-Semitic?
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
The Tempest
Much Ado About Nothing
William Shakespeare
A Midsummer Night's Dream
King Lear
Lord Chamberlain's Men
The Globe Theatre
Antony and Cleopatra
Julius Caesar
The Merry Wives of Windsor
As You Like It

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