Othello stands alone among William Shakespeare’s tragedies. Whereas Macbeth and Hamlet play out against a backdrop of politics and war, Othello zooms in on a small group of characters, focusing on their private lives. Those characters include Othello, a respected general of (apparently) African heritage; Desdemona, his beautiful Venetian wife, and Iago, his trusted – but far from trustworthy – adviser. With this intimate cast, Shakespeare weaves a devastating tale of love, jealousy, pride, and racial discrimination, whose themes still resonate today.
Unusually for its time, Shakespeare’s play has a non-white character as a protagonist. Even more unusually, Othello is the hero. We never learn exactly where he is from, but we know that he is dark, and that many of the characters distrust him for this. Four centuries later, racism is still ubiquitous. Have we made any progress?
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In spite of Othello’s racial difference, Venice’s high society grudgingly respects him for his brilliance on the battlefield. His heroism attracts Desdemona, and gives him his sense of status and identity. We have a tireless need to worship heroes, both in fiction and in real life. Why?
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Othello trusts Iago, his adviser; Iago stabs Othello in the back – although to the end, it is not clear why. His disloyalty makes him the most evil character in all of Shakespeare’s plays, in many people’s eyes. Why do we despise betrayal so much?
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As Othello becomes increasingly jealous of his wife, he begins to lose his mind, and eventually has an epileptic fit. Iago then tells another character about this in order to discredit Othello. Today, mental illness is still often stigmatised, while others believe we have a lot more to understand about it.
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