- Shakespeare's tragedy of the Moorish general who "lovednot wisely but too well." It was written in about 1603 and firstperformed in 1604. Shakespeare based the play on a story in IlCinthio's Hecatommithi (1595), but made important changesto both plot and characterization.
As the play begins we learn that the Black Othello, a generalin the Venetian army, has secretly married Desdemona, the daughterof a senator. The main action of the play, which occurs in Cyprus,depicts the destruction of this relationship through the plottingof Othello's trusted ensign Iago, a consummate hypocrite whose malevolenceis never adequately accounted for. Iago's insinuations that Desdemonais having an affair with Cassio, another officer, appear to receivesupport when one of her handkerchiefs is found in Cassio's possession.Further prompting from Iago leads Othello, now reduced to a stateof psychotic jealousy, to smother Desdemona in bed. When the lie isrevealed, Othello commits suicide.
The demanding roles of Othello and Iago have boosted or bedevilledmany careers. The most famous Othello of the 19th century was EdmundKean, who enjoyed his first triumph in the role at DruryLane in 1814. During a later performance in the part at Covent Gardenin 1833, he collapsed into the arms of his son Charles (who was playingIago), dying two months later. In 1937 a production boasting RalphRichardson as Othello and Laurence Olivier as Iagoproved a surprise flop. Following the performance, Richardson is reportedto have paced back and forth in the corridor asking, "Has anyoneseen my talent? It was always small, but it used to be shining."
On another occasion, Olivier was playing Othello at an open-airtheater in America when a woman called at his portable dressing roomduring the interval to ask for directions to the exit. When Olivierasked why she was leaving so early, the lady shrugged: "Frankly,I saw it years ago back in Brooklyn. It was in Yiddish and it hurtsme to hear how much it loses in translation."
In 1951 Orson Welles made his London debut playingOthello in a production that he also directed. The critic T. C. Worsleywrote that Welles "gave off an aura of terror such as I haveseen no actor before produce." Kenneth Tynan, however, commented"Welles's Othello is the lordly and mannered performance wesaw in Citizen Kane slightly adapted to read Citizen Coon."Welles also released a film version in 1955.
Three Black US actors have proved particularly outstandingin the role of Othello. Ira Aldridge, the so-called African Roscius,played the part in his London debut in 1826. Paul Robesonstarred with Peggy Ashcroft in a 1930 production of the play at theSavoy Theatre, leading to an off-stage love affair between the two.In 1945 Robeson enjoyed a run of 295 performances in the part on Broadway,a record for a US production of a Shakespeare play. More recentlyJames Earl Jones was praised for his Othello in two productions(in 1964 and 1981).
Despite its acknowledged greatness, the play has often induceda queasy reaction in critics and audiences - partly becauseof the squalor of the tragedy but partly, no doubt, because of itsaffront to racial and sexual sensitivities. In the late 17th centurythe critic Thomas Rymer denounced the play as a barbarous farrago,valuable only as "a warning to all good wives that they lookwell to their linen." A later critic, S. T. Coleridge, provedto his own satisfaction that Othello was not really Black. To avoidthe strictures of Puritans, when the play was staged in Newport, RhodeIsland in 1761, it was advertised as "Moral Dialogues in FiveParts, Depicting the evil effect of jealousy...and proving thathappiness can only spring from the pursuit of virtue." seealso green-eyed monster.