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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds ANJNA CHOUHAN: Hello, and thank you for joining me for this section of tragedy. So, we’ll be thinking about expectations of tragedy and how tragedy can be interpreted in Shakespeare’s Othello. We also will consider the nature of tragedy in Iqbal Khan’s 2015 production. So by the time Shakespeare wrote Othello, between 1603 and 1604, he had already written four tragedies– Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet. So, it’s fair to say that he had a good grip on tragic stories, characters, and even audience expectations of tragedies. If we jump forward to the 20th century, and one of the most powerful and important descriptions of Othello comes from a A.C. Bradley.

Skip to 0 minutes and 58 seconds Bradley says, “Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies Othello is the most painfully exciting and the most terrible. From the moment when the temptation of the hero begins, the reader’s heart and mind are held in a vice, experiencing the extremes of pity and fear, sympathy and repulsion, sickening hope and dreadful expectation.” Consider Bradley’s description of the play. He talks about it being exciting, painful, and terrible. The audience or reader is engaged both emotionally with the heart, and intellectually with the brain. Bradley talks about the audience experiencing multiple conflicting emotions– sympathy, repulsion, hope against all odds, and expectation of the worst. Now, the emphasis in this reading is on the audience or the reader. And this is fundamental to any tragedy.

Skip to 2 minutes and 2 seconds IQBAL KHAN: Central to any kind of tragic experience is the destruction of certainty. So, usually the tragic protagonist begins the play with some kind of hubristic certainty about the world, and their view of the world, and their view of themselves. And what happens in the movement of the play is that certainty gets challenged and stripped away. And so I suppose for them, it’s tragic, destructive. But for the audience it’s enlightening. And so, they are sacrificed on our behalf.

Skip to 2 minutes and 37 seconds ANJNA CHOUHAN: A tragic protagonist must suffer in order for an audience to feel any kind of sympathy, or even repulsion, for his or her plight. And once an audience can feel something for a character, suddenly, there’s something important at stake within the drama. Now, when we think about Othello, we see that the play follows the linear trajectory of a tragic hero who starts out in an exalted position as general of the Venetian army. He endures suffering, largely of the psychological kind, destroys the thing that he loves most, and ends the play by dying. If we didn’t care about Othello in some way, his downfall wouldn’t seem remotely tragic. And this is because tragedy is not born out of suffering alone.

Skip to 3 minutes and 29 seconds Something important has to be at stake in order for the loss of it to seem truly horrific. Now, directors have the challenge of choosing where to focus the sympathy, and therefore, the tragedy within any production, any performance. In 1989, for instance, Trevor Nunn made the tragedy about the gap in age, experience, and expectations between Desdemona and Othello. When thrust into a world of ogling older men, Desdemona is way out of her depth, and very much at the mercy of a scheming military professional, Iago. In 2000, Michael Attenborough did away with the age gap between Othello and Desdemona. And suddenly, the tragedy seems to be about lost youth, and true romance destroyed by the jealousy of an older, even impotent, Iago.

Skip to 4 minutes and 27 seconds The play has also being staged as a tragedy about extreme racial prejudice. Now, Gregory Doran’s 2004 production saw two South African actors in the lead as Othello and Iago. And the social and political connotations that these performers brought with them to this interpretation made this particular Othello feel like a tragedy of identity, race, and ingrained, destructive prejudice. Now, let’s consider some of Iqbal Khan’s choices. We have a large age gap between Othello and Desdemona. But we also have a young Cassio, a similar age to the Desdemona. And these characters seem to get along very well together. A relationship between the two of them doesn’t seem unfeasible. Now, think about what effect that would have on Othello.

Skip to 5 minutes and 24 seconds How might this contribute to the tragic, pity, fear, and repulsion that Bradley claimed were essential to this play? Furthermore, the company is calculatedly racially diverse. So, Othello is no longer a black man in a white world. Iago is a black man who has an Indian wife. And the soldiers represent a multicultural Venetian-Cypriot army. Suddenly, just through these choices, race, identity, and belonging all form the foundation of this particular interpretation– this particular tragedy. And then, in turn, shifts the emphasis on what’s actually at stake in this world.

Skip to 6 minutes and 11 seconds The pity and fear we might have felt watching Trevor Nunn’s aged Othello being duped by his white officer is transformed into repulsion and betrayal where we observe Lucian as Iago, deceiving his brother-like general in plain sight.

Skip to 6 minutes and 30 seconds LUCIAN MSAMATI: Look to your wife.

Skip to 6 minutes and 34 seconds Observe her well with Cassio. Wear your eyes thus, not jealous, nor secure. I would not have your free and noble nature out of self bounty be abused. Look to it.

Skip to 6 minutes and 47 seconds ANJNA CHOUHAN: Thank you very much, and please join me in the next session, when we will define tragedy within a context recognisable to Shakespeare’s audiences.

Tragic expectations

In this video Anjna introduces the conventions of the tragic form in relation to Othello, thinking about what we expect from a tragic play.

As you watch consider:

  • What the audience expectations of a tragedy and its protagonist are.

  • How Othello’s trajectory through the play conforms to tragic expectations.

Having watched the video, share your thoughts on the following questions in the Comments:

  • How is the ‘destruction of certainty’ that Iqbal describes referenced in the text? What steps does Shakespeare use to destroy the world Othello inhabits?

  • What directorial choices would heighten Othello’s tragedy for you?

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This video is from the free online course:

Othello: In Performance

University of Birmingham