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Shakespeare probably wrote Othello around 1610. He took the basic story from an Italian novella. The Moor is the first black hero in Western literature, though other black characters had already appeared, for instance Aaron, the anti-hero in TitusAndronicus, also by Shakespeare. The Moors, from Morocco, were feared at that time for their slave trading and attacks on European shipping. Before the action of the play, Othello had been enslaved, escaped, and joined the Venetians in their wars with the Turks, who are sailing to attack Cyprus. The story of Othello's difficult and dangerous life had drawn Desdemona, daughter of the Venetian Brabantio, to love and pity him.
The illustrations are mainly taken from the H. R. Forrest Collection, 76 folio volumes of illustrations to Shakespeare up to 1890. There are two volumes illustrating Othello, the first an extra-illustrated edition of the text, the second the illustrations. These include title pages, artists' impressions of scenes from the play and portraits of famous actors.
Iago reveals Desdemona's secret marriage.
Iago: 'Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise! Arise; '
Act 1 scene 1
Othello, the Moorish general, and Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian, Brabantio, have fallen in love and eloped to be married. Iago, Othello's lieutenant, secretly hates Othello and plans to destroy him. Iago uses offensive racist abuse to stir up Brabantio, who denounces Othello to the Venetian Senate.
There is a sub-plot to Othello, involving Roderigo, a Venetian in love with Desdemona, whom Iago tricks into financing him with large sums of money by pretending that he will act as go-between and corrupt Desdemona into an affair with him.
Desdemona defends her marriage
Desdemona: 'I saw Othello's visage in his mind
And to his honours and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate...Let me go with him.'
Act 1 scene 3
The Turks are about to attack Cyprus. Othello is called to the Venetian Senate, who appoint him to lead the defence of the island. Brabantio accuses Othello before the Senate of corrupting his daughter Desdemona: She defends her marriage to Othello and asks to be permitted go with him to Cyprus.
Cassio is dismissed
Othello: '..never more be officer of mine......
Cassio: 'Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!'
Act 2 scene 3
In Cyprus, Othello has promoted Cassio as his personal lieutenant, rather than Iago, and leaves him in charge of the guard. Iago contrives to get Cassio drunk and involved in a fight. Othello breaks up the fight and dismisses Cassio from his service.
Iago then persuades Desdemona to intervene for Cassio with Othello.
Iago stirs Othello into jealousy of Desdemona
Iago: 'Look to your wife, observe her well with Cassio;...
I know our country disposition well:
In Venice they do let God see the pranks
The dare not show their husbands. ...
She did deceive her father, marrying you...'
Act 3 scene 3
Iago subtly suggests to Othello that his wife Desdemona, who has just pleaded for Cassio's re-enstatement, may be having an affair with him. He plays cleverly on Othello's fears as an outsider, of another race and colour, and much older than Desdemona and Cassio.
Othello demands the charmed handkerchief
Desdemona: 'I say it is not lost.
Othello: Fetch't, let me see it.
Desdemona: this is a trick to put me from my suit.
Pray you let Cassio be received again.
Othello: Fetch me the handkerchief. My mind misgives.
Act 3 scene 4.
Iago has persuaded his wife Emilia to steal Othello's first love-gift to Desdemona, a charmed handkerchief. Iago then contrives that Cassio find it, and for Othello to see it in Cassio's hand.
Desdemona's pleading for Cassio ominously counterpoints Othello's demand that she produce the handkerchief, re-enforcing his suspicions of her infidelity.
Othello, overcome by jealousy, falls in a fit
Othello, falling in a fit:
Lie with her? Lie on her? We say lie on her when they belie her. Lie with her! Zounds, that's fulsome! Handkerchief confessions handkerchief! To confess....'
Iago: My medicine work! Thus credulous fools are caught...'
Act 4 scene 1
Iago has almost persuaded Othello of Desdemona's guilt, but he still demands further proof. Iago arranges for him to see Cassio with his mistress, Bianca, and think that this is Desdemona.
Desdemona and Emilia discuss infidelity
Desdemona: O' these men, these men!
Doest thou in conscience think- tell me, Emilia -
That there be women do abuse their husbands in such gross kind?
Emilia: There be some such, no question.
Desdemona: Woulds't thou do such a deed for all the world?
Emilia Why, would not you?
Desemona: No, by this heavenly light...
Emilia: The world's a huge thing; it is a great price
For a small vice...'
Act 4 scene 3
Desdemona sadly discusses men and, fidelity, and jealousy with the older, more worldly-wise Emilia. Full of fear at Othello's changing temper, Desdemona has Emilia put her wedding sheets on her bed.
Othello smothers Desdemona
Othello: 'Put out the light, and then put out the light;
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again they former light restore,
Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume...'
Act 5 scene 3.
Desdemona has fallen asleep. Othello enters, determined to strangle her for her supposed unfaithfulness. She wakes and pleads fruitlessly for her life, but Othello refuses to believe in her innocence and smothers her.
Emilia denounces Iago and Othello
Emilia: My mistress here lies murdered in her bed....And your reports have set the murder on...'
Act 5 scene 2
Emilia, discovering that it her husband's lies which have caused Othello to murder Desdemona, denounces Iago, who stabs her. Othello, realising that his wife was innocent, stabs Iago, then kills himsef.
Othello: 'All that's spoke is marred!
I kissed thee ere I killed thee: no way but this,
Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.'
Act 5 scene 2.
Black actors and Othello
Ira Aldridge (1807-67) was a notable African-American actor who played at the African Theatre in New York until it closed. He then moved to London where he played Lear, Macbeth, Richard III and Aaron in Shakespeare's TitusAndronicus as well as Othello. He toured very successfully all over Europe as Othello. He appears to have been the first Black actor on the British stage. With the exception of Aldridge, Othello was played in the U.K. by white actors until Paul Robeson played the role at the Old Vic in 1930, in Stratford in 1943 with Peggy Ashcroft, and also on Broadway in the USA.
Further performance history
In recent times the role of Othello has generally been played by Black actors, although some have refused the role, finding the portrayal of Othello unsympathetic and essentially racist. It can be interestingly compared with Shakespeare's Shylock, the Jew in The Merchant of Venice, which also covers themes of racial and cultural difference. Since Robeson, Black actors having success in the role include the opera singer Willard White who was particularly successful in Trevor Nunn's 1990 production with Ian McKellan as Iago and Imogen Stubbs as Desdemona. John Kani starred in Janet Suzmann's production with the South African Market Theatre, and in 1996 Laurence Fishburn played Othello on screen with Kenneth Branagh as Iago. Emphasising the theme of Othello as an 'outsider', and reverse colour-prejudice, Patrick Stewart played Othello in Washington in 1998, with an otherwise all-black cast. Most available film productions can be studied in the Birmingham Shakespeare Collection.
Birmingham Repertory has rarely performed the play, but Bill Alexander directed an excellent production there in 1993, starring Jeffery Kissoon as Othello, Alex Kingston as Desdemona and Hilton Mcrae as Iago. Material from this production is available for study in Birmingham Central Library in the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Archive.