Some criticisms of Othello…
Now, I like Othello. Shakespeare brings the issue of race into his plays, and really paints a stunning portrait of a pure marriage that is slowly poisoned. Despite that being at the heart of the play, I found that a lot of other aspects of it are slightly underdeveloped… and even slightly annoying.
Let’s start with the main man. Being Shakespeare’s first explicit, in my view, black character, Othello earns himself an immediate reputation. He does have some great lines, and a tragic story, but apart from that, he is fairly passive. He is extremely gullible and is basically Iago’s plaything. Othello is really led by him and is led to the conclusion that Desdemona is being unfaithful. In this respect, Othello doesn’t have much agency, he doesn’t think for himself and he basically does what he’s told. In comparison to other Shakespeare protagonists, from Richard III to Hamlet, Othello oddly doesn’t do much, and appears slightly underdeveloped. We know he tells a killer story, but for a title character, who has the play named after him, he doesn’t really have the same presence and impact that Hamlet does. Othello is mainly known for being jealous, and although it is an interesting take on the emotion, it isn’t the greatest thing to be known for. Is there a particular reason that Shakespeare’s biggest black character is known for being a jealous wife killer? Is Shakespeare trying to make some sort of racist comment? That we will never know, but we can speculate.
Othello pretty much ends up playing second fiddle to the far more superior Iago, who is probably Shakespeare’s nastiest villain out there. But… that’s all there is to it really. He’s just a downright villain, slightly like Don John in ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ He is interesting to read, but he’s just nasty, that’s it. I wouldn’t say he’s a three-dimensional character like Claudius from ‘Hamlet.’ His motivation is significantly underdeveloped, as he has a throwaway comment that he has a problem with Othello as he slept with his Mrs, Emilia. Iago’s actions are drastic, especially as they are based on a rumour. Coleridge swoops in to note this, declaring that the whole plot is based on ‘motiveless malignity.’ Coleridge is basically saying that Iago’s nastiness comes out of nowhere. When comparing Iago’s motives to the likes of Claudius, Richard III and Lady Macbeth, I’d back Coleridge any day. Also, Iago’s just very obsessed with sex. His motives are sex related, his plan to destroy Othello is based on Desdemona’s supposed sexual promiscuity. It’s all sex with Iago. He’s just a nasty sex obsessed man. And he also steals the show from Othello in Othello’s own play. That’s just rude.
Now I know women in Shakespeare don’t always have the easiest time, and apart from her sweet nature, Desdemona too is quite passive. She doesn’t even get a famous scene or line apart from her death scene. Lady Macbeth and Ophelia have some iconic lines and scenes, as does Beatrice, Juliet and the Nurse. Desdemona is just extremely kind, which although is endearing, it doesn’t make her that memorable. Her love for Othello is undoubtedly pure, as she loves him because of the stories he tells. Iago sours this due to his obsession with sex, and specifically Desdemona’s sex drive. Although she fights with her father and tries to reason with Othello, I can’t help but feel that she doesn’t stand out that much in comparison to Shakespeare’s other heroines.
Also, there’s that massive war that’s mentioned at the beginning, that the Turks are going to attack Cyprus, which is promptly dispensed with. It’s basically there to make Othello look like a hero, but apart from that, it just appears like a throwaway plot point. The Turks are destroyed by a storm, rendering them shipwrecked and very irrelevant. In Hamlet, the war is mentioned throughout, and comes full circle at the end of the play with the arrival and succession of Fortinbras, who serves as a foil to Hamlet and represents the rise of a stable kingdom. Fortinbras does all of this and only pops up twice in the play. I think that’s pretty good going. Iago’s hatred for Othello comes so out of nowhere that he probably could’ve tried to poison their marriage without any war with the Turks. It’s just that random.
The unsung hero of the play is by far Emilia, who fully dispenses with the patriarchy, her husband and all the passiveness that Shakespeare heroines are regularly accused of. I find her scene at the close of the play to be much more memorable than Desdemona and Othello’s dialogue. She becomes that strong female character that so many Shakespeare fans crave, despite her untimely death. Despite Iago’s underdeveloped motivations, to me, him and Emilia are much more memorable characters in the play, partly because they are both active agents who have pivotal roles within the plot.
In general, Othello is a great play on the surface, and there’s plenty of ‘marriage poisoned’ action to sink your teeth into. But when interrogating the characters, motivations and some of the plot points, it appears to slightly fall apart. Othello and Desdemona are supplanted as the most memorable characters by Iago and Emilia, the war with the Turks doesn’t really come to much, and if I were Othello, I’d be more jealous of characters like Hamlet and Claudius, who gain their iconic Shakespeare status for much more complex and intriguing reasons.
Thanks for reading!