Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005
Othello, The Moor of Venice
Adamson, Jane. “Othello” as Tragedy: Some Problems of Judgment and Feeling. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980. Adamson finds the unity of Othello in the similarities between the problems of judgment and feeling that characters confront and those experienced by an audience of the play. We are made uncomfortable with our own desire for certainty as we see characters who, in theirs, urgently construe and misconstrue actions and personalities.
Bayley, John. “Love and Identity.” The Characters of Love: A Study in the Literature of Personality. London: Constable, 1960. Examining the psychological and philosophical implications of Shakespeare’s revision of G. B. Giraldi Cinthio’s novella, Bayley sees the play as an intensely personal tragedy rooted in the difficulties of truly knowing another being. Both Desdemona and Othello reveal powerful conceptions of love but are tragically incapable of understanding any other kind of love or of being separated from their own sense of identity.
Boose, Lynda E. “Othello’s Handkerchief: ’The Recognizance and Pledge of Love.’ ” English Literary Renaissance 5 (1975): 360—374. Boose discovers in the “strawberry spotted handkerchief the motive forces of the play itself: the concerns with fidelity and justice. Examining Shakespeare’s transformation of his source material and exploring Renaissance marriage customs, Boose finds that the handkerchief functions as an emblem of marital consummation, and that Othello’s chosen role as judicial executioner derives from marriage laws and rituals that prescribe the death of a wife whose wedding sheets fail to provide proof of her bridal virginity.
Bradley, A. C. “Othello.” Shakespearean Tragedy, 1904. Rpt., New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Bradley’s deservedly influential study focuses on character: Othello is heroic, noble, not innately jealous but unreflective; Desdemona is passive, armed with nothing to oppose evil except endurance and forgiveness; and Iago is a liar, supremely evil, motivated by an unconscious longing for power and superiority.
Cavell, Stanley. “Literature as the Knowledge of the Outsider.” The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Scepticism, Morality, and Tragedy. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979. Rpt. as “On Othello,” in Shakespeare, the Tragedies: New Perspectives, ed. Robert B. Heilman. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1984. Cavell sees the play enacting the tragic implications of the individual’s need for the existence of—and acknowledgment by—another. Othello needs Desdemona to confirm his image of himself but simultaneously has to reject Desdemona for exposing his need. Othello’s tragedy is then not the tragedy of a man who lacks certainty but of one who knows too much—about himself as dependent and imperfect—and is unable to confront that knowledge.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Othello.” Coleridge’s Writings on Shakespeare, ed. Terence Hawkes. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959. Coleridge regards Othello as a noble and majestic figure, not jealous by nature but aroused by offended honor, moral indignation, and regret at his discovery that Desdemona’s virtue is apparently impure and worthless. Coleridge views Iago as a “passionless character, all will and intellect,” and, in a famous phrase, characterizes Iago’s rationalizations of his hatred for Othello as “the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity.”
Doran, Madeleine. “Iago’s ’If’: An Essay on the Syntax of Othello.” In The Drama of the Renaissance: Essays for Leicester Bradner, ed. Elmer M. Blistein. Providence, R.I.: Brown Univ. Press, 1970. Rpt. and rev. as “Iago’s ’If—’: Conditional and Subjunctive in Othello.” Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1976. Analyzing Shakespeare’s use of syntax to inform the dramatic structure of Othello, Doran discovers two dominant syntactic patterns counterpointed in the play: conditional and declarative sentences. The conditionals (which initiate every significant phase of the tragic action) disrupt and finally destroy the world of Othello’s assurance. His absolutism and ultimately his whole being fall victim to the terrifying ambiguities released by Iago’s “if.”
Empson, William. “ ’Honest’ in Othello.” The Structure of Complex Words. New York: New Directions, 1951. Empson argues that Shakespeare’s complex handling of the words “honest” and “honesty” (which appear over fifty times in the play) is central to an understanding of Iago’s character and motivation. Shakespeare exploits the words’ various possibilities of meaning, and a Renaissance audience, alert to the ironies and ambiguities of the words, would necessarily see Iago as less purely evil and more complexly human than most twentieth-century critics have allowed.
Gardner, Helen. “The Noble Moor.” Proceedings of the British Academy 41 (1956 for 1955): 189—205. Rpt. in Shakespeare Criticism, 1935—60, ed. Anne Ridler. London and New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1963. As her title suggests, Gardner sees Othello as a noble and heroic figure in a play of poetic, intellectual, and moral beauty. The play’s subject is not pride, egoism, or self-deception, but is, rather, loss of faith stemming from sexual jealousy. In Othello we are presented with the fall of a noble man from a great happiness to ruin, but a fall that affirms the value of the life and love that have been lost.
Garner, S. N. “Shakespeare’s Desdemona.” Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 233—252. Finding Othello to be among the “bleakest” of the tragedies, Garner traces Desdemona’s tragic trajectory from her initial courage and confidence to her “appalling innocence” and passivity of the last two acts. Exactly like Othello, she never fully knows herself or her spouse, and both fail to “understand the way the world fosters their misperceptions.”
Greenblatt, Stephen. “The Improvisation of Power.” Renaissance Self-Fashioning. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980. In Greenblatt’s suggestive cultural anthropology, Othello emerges as a play expressing the central social and psychic realities of the Renaissance. Iago’s understanding that the self is something “fashioned” permits him the improvisational freedom to enter into the psychic structure of another and turn it to his advantage. Playing upon the ambivalence of Othello’s relationship to Venetian society, Iago activates Othello’s terrifying sexual anxieties and mistrust.
Hadfield, Andrew. William Shakespeare’s “Othello.” London and New York: Routledge, 2003. Hadfield’s “sourcebook” is an extremely useful companion for students, providing a wonderful collection of documents bearing upon the historical and literary contexts of the play, a fine selection of critical essays, and a careful examination of several key passages.
Heilman, Robert B. Magic in the Web: Action and Language in “Othello.” Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1956. Othello, Heilman argues in his account of the play’s imagery and dramatic action, is a “dramatic poem” about love. Othello’s tragedy stems from his failure to recognize the transformative power of Desdemona’s love. His histrionic bent, his self-pity, and his self-love allow him to be seduced by Iago’s wit and reason, and he dies never knowing the true value of what he has lost.
Johnson, Samuel. “Othello.” Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo. The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, vol. 8. New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1969. Johnson praises the play for its moral qualities, its dramatic construction, and its vivid characterization. Othello is “boundless in his confidence, ardent in his affection, inflexible in his resolution, and obdurate in his revenge.” Johnson also admires Desdemona’s “soft simplicity” and finds her murder unbearable: “I am glad that I have ended my revisal of this dreadful scene. It is not to be endured.”
Jones, Eldred. Othello’s Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965. Jones surveys the Elizabethan knowledge of Africans and their representation on the stage and finds that Othello marks a significant departure from the traditional dramatic treatment of Moors: Shakespeare endows Othello with noble, human qualities, though the play invokes—in order to reject—racial stereotypes in the prejudice of Iago and Brabantio.
Knight, G. Wilson. “The Othello Music.” The Wheel of Fire: Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Tragedy, 1930. Rev. and enl., New York: Meridian, 1957. Iago’s corrosive cynicism represents for Knight a “spirit of negation” that would destroy “the domesticity, the romance, the idealized humanity of the Othello world.” But, while Iago succeeds in destroying the love and beauty of that world, his triumph is not complete. At the end Othello recovers his former dignity, rising above the chaos into which he has sunk and denying Iago an absolute victory.
Leavis, F. R. “Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero: A Note on Othello.” Scrutiny 6 (1937): 259—283. Rpt. in The Common Pursuit. London: Chatto and Windus, 1952; New York: New York Univ. Press, 1964. Leavis attacks what he calls the “Sentimentalists’ Othello,” promulgated by Coleridge, Johnson, and Bradley (see above). In place of their heroic and noble figure seduced by a supremely evil villain, he argues for an Othello driven by pride, sentimentality, and a lack of self-knowledge that makes him succumb “with an extraordinary promptness to suggestion.”
MacDonald, Joyce Green. “Black Ram, White Ewe: Shakespeare, Race, and Women.” A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare, ed. Dympna Callaghan. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. MacDonald’s essay brilliantly explores the complex “operations of race and sex” in the play. She shows how the familial and racial assumptions that underlie the action of Othello are buried in the verbal densities of Shakespeare’s text, which she unpacks to reveal the “racialization of his characters’ identity and relationships.”
Neely, Carol Thomas. “Women and Men in Othello: ’What Should Such a Fool / Do With So Good a Woman?’ ” Shakespeare Studies 10 (1977): 133—158. Rpt. in The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely. Urbana, Chicago, and London: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980. Neely proposes that the play’s central conflict is not between good and evil but between men and women. Unlike Shakespeare’s comedies, where witty heroines are able to dispel male folly, Othello defines a world where male fantasies remain tragically unaffected by female wit and energy. Here the conflicts are never resolved, and at the end we do not celebrate the pairing of lovers but can only look at the dead bodies of Emilia, Desdemona, and Othello.
Orkin, Martin. “Othello and the ’Plain Face’ of Racism.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 166—188. Orkin traces attitudes toward race and color in Renaissance England and ways in which a “racist mythology inscribes critical responses to the play.” In a final section, Orkin examines the specific case of the play as it is treated in the academic criticism of South Africa.
Rosenberg, Marvin. The Masks of “Othello”: The Search for the Identity of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona by Three Centuries of Actors and Critics. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1961. Rosenberg’s subtitle indicates the contents of his book. He examines the play on the stage from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, provides an overview of critical approaches, and attends to the ways in which the text has been reshaped for performance. In the two concluding chapters he argues against either symbolic or skeptical approaches to Othello, maintaining that Othello’s deep and complex humanity is most powerfully realized in the theater.
Spivack, Bernard. “Iago Revisited.” Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958. Finding no plausible motivation within the play for Iago’s exuberant evil, Spivack discovers an explanation for his behavior not in Iago’s psychology but in his literary ancestry in the medieval drama. Iago’s logic and energy derive from the allegorical Vice of the morality plays, and Spivack explores the implications of this legacy for the moral dynamics of the play.
Vaughan, Virginia Mason. “Othello”: A Contextual History. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994. Vaughan’s history is divided into two parts: the first examines the early Jacobean historical context of the play; the second traces the history of the play on stage and on film from the 1660s to the 1980s. Vaughan shows how the play engaged important cultural issues when it was first performed and continues to engage these today, even as the specifics of these engagements change.