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Othello is in many ways the most tragic of Shakespeare's heroes, because his ultimate destruction is so much a function of his best qualities, as opposed to folks like Hamlet, Lear, and MacBeth, who are destroyed by their worst.  Othello is a noble warrior, but very much an innocent and far too trusting of other men's counsel, and so he is easy prey for Iago, who in turn may be Shakespeare's greatest villain, because he is so purely evil.  Richard III, by contrast, while a force of malevolence, is also just more interesting and intelligent than those around him.  Iago has none of Richard's beguiling qualities, he is little more than the sum of his own jealousies and hatreds.  And so, when this noblest hero and this most vile villain collide, the events that follow are tragic in the human sense, not merely in a dramatic sense.  We mourn the loss of a superior being, in Othello, not just the general destruction of life.

Othello is also distinguished by just how trivial are the provocations that set events in motion.  Iago uses little more than a single prop, an embroidered kerchief, and his own treacherous words to bring about a series of deaths and the fall of a great man.  In this sense it is the most writerly of plays, reflects most fully Shakespeare's own confidence that he can take such slender threads and weave a compelling drama.  One despairs of ever saying anything novel about Shakespeare, he's been written about so much, but the thought occurs that Iago might represent Shakespeare himself.  Consider that it is Iago's tongue and a flimsy plot device of his contrivance that force the action of the drama and his jealousy of the handsome and much-heralded leading man that provides the motive.  Surely Shakespeare, who so loved the device of the play within a play, might have relished the idea of a play that's a simulacrum of his own profession?  I like to think so.

But in the final analysis, Othello does not capture us in the same way that some of the other tragedies do.  The main characters are so unambiguous that they lack a certain depth.  The plot is so contrived and so inevitable that it seems mechanical rather than natural.  You can imagine a world in which Hamlet exacts his revenge without hesitating or where Lear realizes he's acting like a fool, but you can't imagine a world in which Iago allows Othello and Desdemona to live happily ever after.  That's a pretty serious weakness.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

William Shakespeare (4 books reviewed)
William Shakespeare Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: William Shakespeare
-REVIEW ESSAY: Macbeth’s Politics—And Ours: Ralph Fiennes and the Shakespeare Theatre Company bring a timely tragedy of succession to the nation’s capital. (Daniel McCarthy, April 18, 2024, Modern Age)
    -ESSAY: Shakespeare: Folly, Humanism & Critical Theory (Sam Gilchrist Hall, April/May 2024, Philosophy Now)
    -ESSAY: Shakespeare’s Allegory of the Fall of Man: Notes on Macbeth and Christian Artistry (Paul Krause, 4/25/23, Voegelin View)
    -ESSAY: Buddhism’s Dukkha and Hamlet’s Dust: On Shakespeare’s Spiritual Wisdom: Lauren Shufran on How Reading Shakespeare Helped Her Better Read Herself (Lauren Shufran, May 25, 2022, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: In Defense of Polonius: Shakespeare’s tedious old fool was also a dad just doing his best (Jeffrey R. Wilson June 15, 2022, JStor Daily)
    -REVIEW: of The Hollow Crown: Shakespeare on How Leaders Rise, Rule, and Fall, by Eliot Cohen (Rebecca Burgess, City Journal)

Book-related and General Links:
-ONLINE STUDY GUIDE : Othello (Spark Notes)
    -Shakespeare : Othello (
    -Shakespeare Othello Guide (
    -About Othello -- Shakespeare's Tragedy On-Line (
    -ESSAY : Bradley on Othello : Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), by A. C. Bradley.

    -FILMOGRAPHY : William Shakespeare (
    -INFO : Othello (1995) (
    -REVIEW : of Othello (1995) (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Othello : Oliver Parker's sexual thriller suffers from the presence of Shakespeare's racial sensibilities and the absence of his poetry. (Alan A. Stone, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW : of Othello (1995) (Adrienne Martini, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Othello (1995) (Mick LaSalle, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Othello (1995) (Desson Howe, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Othello (1995) (Rita Kempley,  Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Othello (1995) (James Berardinelli's ReelViews )
    -REVIEW : of Othello (1995) (Jonathan DeMersseman, Christian Spotlight on the Movies)
    -INFO : Titus (1999) (
    -REVIEW : of Titus (1999) (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Titus (1999) (STEPHEN HOLDEN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Titus (1999) (Charles Taylor , Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Titus (1999) (Mick LaSalle, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Titus (1999) (Philadelphia City Paper review by Cindy Fuchs )
    -REVIEW : of Titus (1999) (Alan A. Stone, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW : of Titus (1999) (James Berardinelli's ReelViews)
    -INFO : Hamlet (1996) (

    -ESSAY : Freud on the Macbeths : Some Character-types Met With In Psycho-analytical Work (1916, Sigmund Freud)