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This content is taken from the University of Birmingham & Royal Shakespeare Company's online course, Othello: In Performance. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds JACQUI O’HANLON: Since 1604, when it’s first believed to have been performed, Othello has been staged many times. And as with all of Shakespeare’s plays, this is possible because of the number of different ways that you can interpret both the text and its characters. What it also means is that there is no one way of seeing the play. Throughout history, critical and historical accounts have presented very different views on the play’s content. And even today, critiques are incredibly divided on whether or not certain aspects of the play remain relevant or even appropriate. For a theatre company like the RSC, this makes it a really exciting place to stage.

Skip to 0 minutes and 53 seconds In talking to some of the acting company from the RSC’s current production of Othello, we have asked them to think about which themes or ideas in the play really stand out for them.

Skip to 1 minute and 5 seconds IQBAL KHAN: I think some of the most significant themes in Othello are to do with betrayal fundamentally, and that’s a domestic betrayal as well as a political betrayal. There are issues to do with gender politics throughout the thing, the position of a woman in that kind of society. And I suppose also having fundamental issues to do with race and the position of the “other” in a white society.

Skip to 1 minute and 34 seconds JAMES CORRIGAN: Well, obviously, I think race is a huge theme in the text, and our production, obviously, deals with it in a very different way by having a black Iago. You’ve got– and jealousy is a massive theme in the play, and that touches on how love can make you so vulnerable.

Skip to 1 minute and 55 seconds HUGH QUARSHIE: I think it is faith– obviously, religious faith, but also faith in love, faith in friendship.

Skip to 2 minutes and 6 seconds JOANNA VANDERHAM: I think the key themes are our loyalty, love, and– I mean, the idea of a woman in a man’s world.

Skip to 2 minutes and 23 seconds AYESHA DHARKER: I think the most significant themes in this text for me are, again, an exploration of what true love is, how strong it is. What is the basis of our belief in other people? And I think in this you realise that it’s essentially your belief in yourself that colours that. So whatever it is that you’re getting from someone else, because you are viewing it through your own lens, it’s how fragile that is– and in the most intelligent worldly people.

Skip to 3 minutes and 4 seconds LUCIAN MS: For me, the most significant themes in the text are those of jealousy, of “otherness,” of betrayal, and actually, of broken love. That, for me, is key.

Skip to 3 minutes and 20 seconds JACQUI O’HANLON: Even from the few people we’ve spoken to here, most of whom have spent many weeks and months in the same rehearsal room and onstage working on the play together, it’s clear just how broad and diverse the themes are that each person draws out. Othello is a play about so many different things– the nature of being a solider, a friend, and a leader; jealousy, revenge; what it means to be a lover, a daughter, a father. While we spend the next three weeks looking at the ideas of race, women, and tragedy, take this time to consider the many different ideas that come out through this text.

Talking themes

In this video Jacqui O’Hanlon returns to the idea of ‘themes’ and significant, recurring, messages in Othello. With the help of the acting company and director Iqbal Khan, they think about what some of those themes might be.

As you watch consider:

  • What you think the central themes are.

  • How your perspective, and the perspective of the acting company, might differ from Shakespeare’s original audiences.

Having watched you might also want to ask yourselves:

  • What are the central themes in the play? Would your perspective, and your answer, be different if you were considering this as an original audience member in the 1600s?

  • How and why as a director would you choose which themes to emphasise? Do you think it’s possible to do such a thing?

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This video is from the free online course:

Othello: In Performance

University of Birmingham