Perspectives through time
Over time, reception of Othello, as well as the aspects of the play that directors and actors have chosen to emphasise, has varied extremely. This divided opinion and spectrum of response is one of the things about Othello that makes it such an interesting play to explore. Take a look at the below spectrum of perspectives. This has been put together using statements from critics and social commentators who have spoken out about Othello over the years.
Where on the spectrum would you fall and what’s your perspective on the play?
Thomas Rymer, A Short View of Tragedy, 1693
What ever rubs or difficulty may stick on the Bark, the Moral, sure, of this Fable is very instructive.
First, This may be a caution to all Maidens of Quality how, without their Parents consent, they run away with Blackamoors.
Secondly, This may be a warning to all good Wives, that they look well to their Linnen.
Thirdly, This may be a lesson to Husbands, that before their Jealousie be Tragical, the proofs may be Mathematical.
Karen Newman, And Wash the Ethiop White: Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello in Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama, 1991
‘Shakespeare was certainly subject to the racist, sexist, and colonialist discourses of his time, but by making the black Othello a hero, and by making Desdemona’s love for Othello and her transgression of her society’s norms for women in choosing him, sympathetic, Shakespeare’s play stands in contestatory relation to the hegemonic ideologies of race and gender in early modern England’ (157).
George Bernard Shaw, The Saturday Review, 29 May 1897
Othello, on the other hand, is pure melodrama […] But when the worst has been said of Othello that can be provoked by its superficiality and staginess, it remains magnificent by the volume of its passion and the splendour of its word-music, which sweep the scenes up to a plane on which sense is drowned in sound. […] The actor cannot help himself by studying his part acutely; for there is nothing to study in it. Tested by the brain, it is ridiculous: tested by the ear, it is sublime.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Notes on the Tragedies, 1835
Virtue? a fig! ‘tis in ourselves, that we are thus, or thus,’ &c.
This speech comprises the passionless character of Iago. It is all will in intellect; and therefore he is here a bold partizan of a truth, but yet of a truth converted into a falsehood by the absence of all the necessary modifications caused by the frail nature of man. And then comes the last sentiment,—
Our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts, whereof I take this, that you call—love, to be a sect or scion!
Here is the true Iagoism of, alas! how many! Note Iago’s pride of mastery in the repetition of ‘Go, make money!’ to his anticipated dupe, even stronger than his love of lucre: and when Roderigo is completely won —
I am chang’d. I’ll go sell all my land —
when the effect has been fully produced, the repetition of triumph —
Go to ; farewell; put money enough in your purse!
The remainder — Iago’s soliloquy — the motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity — how awful it is! Yea, whilst he is still allowed to bear the divine image, it is too fiendish for his own steady view, — for the lonely gaze of a being next to devil, and only not quite devil, — and yet a character which Shakespeare has attempted and executed, without disgust and without scandal!
© Royal Shakespeare Company