Read though what the critics have said about Othello over the years. Notice how opinions on race and gender differ throughout the years.
Nothing is more odious in Nature than an improbable lye; And, certainly, never was any Play fraught, like this of Othello, with improbabilities ... The Character of that State is to employ strangers in their Wars; But shall a Poet thence fancy that they will set a Negro to be their General; or trust a Moor to defend them against the Turk? With us a Black-amoor might rise to be a Trumpeter; but Shakespeare (sic) would not have him less than a Lieutenant-General.
– Thomas Rymer, 1692
The fable of Othello is founded upon one action only, which is conducted with great skill; and if from the distress of the catastrophe it is not the most pleasing of Shakespeare's tragedies, it is undoubtedly the most perfect.
– John Shebbeare, 1771-72
Upon the whole, in this intercourse betwixt Iago and Othello, Shakespeare has shown the most complete knowledge of the human heart. Here he has put forth all the strength of his genius; the faults which he is so prone to fall into are entirely out of sight. We find none of his quibbling, his punning, or bombast; all is seriousness, all is passion.
– W.N., 1791
Othello does not kill Desdemona in Jealousy, but in a conviction forced upon him by the almost superhuman art of Iago, such a conviction as any man would and must have entertained who had believed Iago's honest as Othello did.
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1813 (writer)
The great moral lesson of the tragedy of Othello is that black and white blood cannot be intermingled in marriage without a gross outrage, upon the law of Nature; and that, in such violations, nature will vindicate her laws.
– John Quincy Adams, 1835 (President of the United States)
Iago is the whitewashed, hypocritical power of evil—his is a selfish, half-animal nature, which is unable to control its desires and passions simply because it has never made the attempt ... With Iago, honour, even in its worldly acceptation is a mere pretense.
– Hermann Ulrici ,1839
I quail at the idea of his laying hold of me in those terrible passionate scenes.
– Fanny Kemble (Sarah Siddons' niece who played Desdemona), 1848
By the side of Othello, who is night, there is Iago, who is evil—evil, the other form of darkness. Night is but the night of the world; evil is the night of the soul.
– Victor Hugo, 1864 (writer)
To portray Iago properly you must seem to be what all the characters think, and say, you are, not what the spectators know you to be; try to win even them by your sincerity. Don't act the villain, don't look it or speak it (by scowling and growling, I mean), but think it all the time. Be genial, sometimes jovial, always gentlemanly. Quick in motion as in thought; lithe and sinuous as a snake.
– Edwin Booth (John Wilkes Booth's brother who played Iago), 1886
The love of Desdemona is made to leap over quite all of the social limitations known to man; she bids defiance not only to the behests of family, but also to the feelings of nationality and to the instincts of race.
– Denton J. Snider, 1887
[Othello] is pure melodrama. There is not a touch of character in it that goes below the skin and the fitful attempts to make Iago something better than a melodramatic villain only make a hopeless mess of him and his motives. To anyone capable of reading this play with an open mind as to its merits, it is obvious that Shakespeare plunged through it so impetuously that he had it finished before he had made up his mind as to the character and motives of a single person in it.
– George Bernard Shaw, 1897The player who represents Iago should, when he speaks to the Moor, be so sincere in his doubts as to put the audience also in doubt, make it admire his character, and only by degrees discover his perfidious cunning. If the actor should make the betrayer a shade too Satanic, Othello would look foolish. His insinuations should be delivered with little care, and show a great respect for his captain.
-Tommaso Salvini (who played Othello in Italy), 1907
It is a tragedy of racial conflict; a tragedy of honour rather than of jealousy ... It is because he is an alien among white people that his mind works so quickly, for he feels dishonour more deeply.
-Paul Robeson (who played Othello) ,1930
I know no character in Shakespeare which has suffered from so much misconception. The general idea seems to be that Desdemona is a ninny, a pathetic figure chiefly because she is half-baked. It is certainly the idea of those who think an actress of the dolly type, a pretty young thing with a vapid innocent expression, is well suited to the part. I shall perhaps surprise you by telling you that a great tragic actress, with a strong personality and a strong method, is far better suited to it, for Desdemona is strong, not weak.
– Ellen Terry (who played Desdemona), 1932
Othello is all of the past trying to forget itself in a moment, he is Africa trying to breathe in Venice. That is his struggle, that is what threatens his peace; and that, over and above the wiles of Iago, is the source of our feeling that explosion will follow calm.
– Mark Van Doren, 1939
In [Othello] we see exemplified in the highest degree alike the spiritual greatness and the tragic weakness of men, in both of which the age of Shakespeare had a profound belief.
– Kenneth O. Myrick, 1941
Shakespeare usually works as a romantic, raising his audience to the cosmic significance of his theme by setting it in remote ages and in the courts of kings. In Othello he goes differently to work, showing that the old war of Good and Evil has its centre everywhere, not least in the private household.
– S.L. Bethell, 1952
Othello is thus a true, and sublime, love tragedy—not a true-love romance with a tragic ending brought about chiefly by a heavy villain. It is Romeo and Juliet matured and recomposed. In writing the earlier play Shakespeare was aware, though not deeply aware, that the tragedy of love, when supreme is also the tragedy of hate. In Othello those two passions comparatively superficial in all of his previous stories are intensified to the uttermost and deeply interwoven ... Othello is Shakespeare's, and surely the world's, supreme secular tragic poem of `human love divine.'
– G.R. Elliott ,1953
Our natural partisanship with love and lovers causes us to see only Iago's wickedness in destroying the love of Othello and Desdemona; we like to believe that, without his intervention, all would have been well ... Iago is only a mirror or an agent that causes the unseen to become visible. Lived over and over again, the love of Desdemona and Othello would end the same way ... Iago's speeches, read dispassionately, shows that he is the clearest thinker in the play. 'Honest Iago' is not merely a tragically misplaced epithet. Iago does tell more of the truth than any other character.
– Allan Bloom, 1964
Iago knows something essential that Othello does not know; the audience shares the knowledge and so are implicated with Iago whether they like it or not. Iago's knowledge is not objective knowledge of real human relations ... but the power it confers is real enough, and this is why the audience find themselves tied to Iago by a bond of complicity. The effect is intentional; Othello is not a play for making consciences comfortable.
– G.M. Matthews, 1974
In Othello, [Shakespeare] imagines a world in which internal grace may not exist and the mind of man is free to make the choices that will result in the shaping of its own ends. The implications of man's freedom turn out to be at least as tragic as the implication of man's bondage.
– Robert G. Hunter, 1976
Instead of being, like the other tragedies, a play of expansion, Othello is a play of contraction. The action does not widen out, it narrows down as public business is increasingly excluded from it until it finds its catastrophe, not on the battlefield, nor in the presence of a court, but in a bedroom at night where two people, united by the closest of ties, speak at cross purposes and misunderstand each other disastrously ... The pattern of this tragedy is that of a whirlpool, with its centre in the poisoned mind of the hero which reshapes, distorts, and degrades objective reality.
– Stephen Greenblatt, 1980
At the heart of the play, and centered in its full realization of both Desdemona's and Othello's anguish, is Shakespeare's insight into the dire necessity for, and the often impossible difficulty of sustaining, a life open to doubt and uncertainty and therefore always at risk.
–Jane Adamson, 1980
To be a black in Venice is to be a stranger, wherever you come from, even if you are a Venetian. Othello's case may seem unique, but the mirror he looks in reflects a universally human face. We are all trapped by accident inside bodies that misrepresent us, making us strangers in Venice to everyone but the Desdemonas who love us.
– James L. Calderwood, 1989
Shakespeare's tragic characters are visionaries, purists, idealists. Believing in a strict correspondence between the way things are and the way things appear to them, they commit themselves imaginatively to the fulfillment of an ideal, whether personal or political or both. This is what Alfred Harbage notices when he remarks on 'their unworldliness, their incapacity for compromise,' and speaks of them as 'imperfect ones torn by their dreams of perfection, mortals with immortal longings in them.'
– Russ McDonald, 1993
Othello provokes us with something new, something that many view as more dangerous than an unruly daughter wooing and wooed by an exotic storyteller. Othello taunted Englishmen of the 17th century and later readers to abandon their fears of the other, to accept an African's humanity, to correct centuries of theatrical and literary history that equated black men with the devil.
– Anthony Gerard Barthelemy, 1994
Like many tragic heroes, Othello is greater than those around him. He is, in Aristotle's term, spoudaios: excellent in character, intense in thought, elevated in feeling. But the forces assayed against him are immense—not superhuman forces ... but all of human society. Everywhere he turns, Othello confronts racism. Its different faces or masks—not only enmity, disdain, abuse, but friendship, admiration, love—serve to make it more insistent, compelling, inexorable. In the end, he succumbs to the racist vision of those around him.
– Patrick Hogan, 1998
[Desdemona] is shown as so pure that she cannot conceive of the impurity Othello accuses her of, and so obedient that she goes to bed to be murdered ... With her last breath she tries to save her loved Othello from punishment. It was not he who stifled her, she says—she did it herself. Shakespeare lavishes such plangent poetry, such spiritual delicacy, on this portrait, that it is very difficult to notice how such an unqualified display of virtue might be seen as provocative, from the analytical point of view—because it leaves the other partner in the relationship to carry everything else, the messy, unspiritual, gross, and violent elements of sexuality, as Othello in fact does.
– Felicity Rosslyn, 2001
Othello is a tragedy that continually surprises us. Not only did Shakespeare make the blackest man on stage a white man (Iago), I would suggest that he made the bravest warrior onstage a woman (Desdemona) ... Because none of the acknowledged literary sources for Othello describe the heroine as a warrior ... Shakespeare catches us off guard when Desdemona is identified as a warrior twice in the play, once by Othello who greets her on the seemingly peaceful battle front of Cypress as his "fair warrior" (2.1.180) and once by herself when she calls herself in the subsequent act and "Unhandsome warrior" (3.4.152) for uncharitably arraigning Othello.
– Joan Ozark Holmer, 2005
As trade opened up with northern Africa in the late 16th century, growing prejudices against Moors and Muslims in England added to the acceptance of this stereotype. In 1601, Queen Elizabeth issued an edict expelling all Moors from the British Isles. Debate continues today about whether Othello subverts Elizabethan expectations of a Moorish character or simply delays the reinforcement of the stereotype until later in the play, as Othello descends into madness and jealousy.
– Virginia Mason Vaughan, 2005
This multi-ethnic society and the blurring of social boundaries that accompanied it did not come without a sense of anxiety, whether in the Venice or the England of that time. Othello's relationships with himself and to those around him reflect renaissance imaginings of the exotic—of the cultural 'other'—that were at once glamorous and dangerous. In Shakespeare's England the abhorrence of 'otherness' was profound, and this anxiety ripples upon the surface of Othello.
– Farah Karim-Cooper, 2007
Shakespeare leaves Othello's religious conversion deliberately ambiguous, poised between Moor, Christian and the other complex ethnic group described in the play, 'the general enemy Ottoman.' This ambiguity surrounding the origins and approaches towards the figure of the Moor can be partly explained by the extensive and amicable relations that were established between Elizabethan England and the kingdom of Morocco. It is important to remember that by the late 1580s, Protestant England regarded Spanish Catholicism, rather than Ottoman or North African Islam, as its biggest religious and political threat.
– Jerry Brotton, 2007