Othello

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Othello and Desdemona, after taking a stab at some pillow-talk.

"O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the Green-Eyed Monster which doth mock

The meat it feeds on."
Iago, Act III, Scene 3.
"She has deceived her father, and may thee."
Brabantio, Act I, Scene 3.

"She was pure, she was clean, she was virginal too

So why'd ya hafta go and make her face turn blue?"
The Reduced Shakespeare Company

Othello, The Moor Of Venice is one of William Shakespeare's most famous plays. Adapted at least ten times for the screen (sometimes with setting changes), it is a play about racism (though not as we understand it today), trust, love, betrayal and smothering someone with a pillow because you think she's cheated on you, then killing yourself when you realize she didn't.

One thing that must be said is that the play is, along with a lot of contemporary works, far harsher in hindsight. It was written over two centuries before the scientific classification of races and the development of racial hierarchies and stereotypes as we understand them today, albeit they in in modified forms. 'Race' is by no means a static, universal concept. That's not to say people didn't look down on people who weren't from their village, or their county, but peoples' worlds were much smaller back then, and stereotyping and discrimination were in all probability a local or inter-county thing at the time.

It's worth noting that in times past, it was usual for white actors to play Othello by way of Blackface, up to and past the 1960's. In fact, the first time a black actor played the part in a major stage production with an otherwise white cast wasn't until 1943. Thus, the early Othello movies have a White Male Lead Othello. It is a case of post-facto Values Dissonance, but it does not make such portrayals inherently bad. As a Christian Moor, or part-Moor, Othello would likely have been some sort of shade of brown - we don't really know for sure - but in his most recent portrayals he has been portrayed by very dark actors, and the 'racism' angle - often using racial stereotypes as understood in the modern USA - has been played up considerably. What slaves there were in the 16th Century Mediterranean were Slavic peoples (Slavic being the adjective form of Slav, which comes from 'Slave') from eastern Europe, and if anyone was doing the slaving, it was probably an Italian or a Turk. Racial characterisation of black people as inferior, the way we understand racism against blacks today, was a post-facto justification of sorts for the trans-Atlantic slave trade when it got going in earnest over a century later.

Adaptations include

  • An 1887 opera by Giuseppe Verdi.
    • Which, while being generally true to the story, unfortunately ends with Iago running away, which significantly decreases his Magnificent Bastard status.
    • As well as more obscure operas by Rossini (1816, featuring an optional happy ending) and Daron Hagen (1999, retitled Bandanna, with Othello as the Mexican-born sheriff of a 1960's US border town).
  • Paul Robeson and James Earl Jones both made their names playing Othello in the theater, in the 50's-70's, with the latter following in the former's footsteps.
  • A 1952 film directed by and starring Orson Welles.
  • A 1965 film starring Laurence Olivier.
  • A 1981 BBC production starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role. It was originally going to star James Earl Jones, but British Equity disapproved.
  • A 1986 film of the opera directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Placido Domingo and Renata Scotto
  • A 1995 version starring Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Fishburne, and Irene Jacob. Notable for being the first film adaptation to feature a black man as Othello (also notable for Othello's Shirtless Scene).
  • A 1997 "photo negative" production by the Royal Shakespearean Society featured an all-black cast, with Patrick Stewart as Othello. With a stylish "fracture" skull tatoo to emphasize his martial prowess.
  • A 2001 film directed by Geoffrey Sax and starring Christopher Eccleston, Eamonn Walker, and Keeley Hawes, which moved the plot to modern England and changed everyone's names.
  • A 2001 film entitled O (originally slated for 1998 release), directed by Tim Blake Nelson and starring Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Andrew Keegan, and Julia Stiles. Updated to modern times and set at a prep school.
  • A 2006 Hindi film titled Omkara. The setting is updated to modern rural India, Othello changes from being a moor to a half-caste. Also Iago (named Langda (Hindi for limp) Tyagi because of his limp is less of a Complete Monster in this case as in he is given a reason for trying to destroy Omkara's life although its still Disproportionate Retribution.
  • A 2008 Malaysian film called Jarum Halus, directed by first time director, 22-year-old Mark Tan. The film is set in modern-day Kuala Lumpur with Othello changed to a Chinese CEO called Daniel who works at a company dominated by Malays. Guess who he runs away with. It stars Razif Hashim, Christien New, Juliana Ibrahim, and Dato Rahim Razali.

Tropes used in Othello include:
  • All Women Are Lustful: Iago says it time and again to everyone who will listen - which is, unfortunately, everyone - and more significantly, Othello, who makes the mistake of taking Iago's advice on women as he would on the battlefield. Iago also plays a stereotype card with regards to Venetian women; Venice had a real-life contemporary reputation as a city of high-class courtesans and prostitutes of all orders. Venice has lots of prostitutes; therefore Venetian women are lustful. Desdemona is a Venetian woman; therefore she is lustful and will do anything to satisfy her appetite, including cheating on Othello. Simple.
  • Almost-Dead Guy: Several characters manage a whole Final Speech apiece.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Othello. It's very hard to tell whether he is supposed to be a Moor of Moroccan descent or a Sub-Saharan African. And he was originally played by a white actor in blackface, which doesn't help at all.
  • Artistic License: Biology: Poor smothered Desdemona manages to gasp out a few words before dying. Dying of asphyxiation. Most adaptations end up cutting the speech entirely.
  • Batman Gambit/Evil Plan: Iago's plan to drive Othello into an absolute rampage. It works brilliantly, though it would have fallen on its face if Othello didn't listen to him.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: The 1995 film production had Iago look at the camera at several points; some say this adds the idea that he was in control of everything, while it is technically described as a soliloquy in which the audience can more clearly understand Iago's scheme, and he's notably the only character to do so in the film. Though other characters make soliloquys, they look like they're musing to themselves rather than directly speaking to the audience.
    • Another effect of him being the only one to talk to the camera is to emphasise the fact that he might be satanic in some way, since he's clearly operating on a whole different level to the other characters if he has a degree of Medium Awareness.
  • Canon Foreigner: Shakespeare created Roderigo, a character that didn't exist in the original story by Cinthio.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: One of Shakespeare's specialties was writing villains who proclaim their love for being evil without sounding lame; Iago continues the tradition.
  • Casanova Wannabe: Roderigo.
  • Character Filibuster: Iago.
  • Character Title: Othello, of course.
  • The Chessmaster: Iago. In some productions he's even shown playing Chess while talking to Othello.
  • Classic Villain: Iago represents Pride and Envy.
  • Concepts Are Cheap: Iago's motivation for acting against Othello is never specifically stated. Although he gives a few reasons in his monologues, it is never truly clear what he was trying to accomplish. His final words before being taken offstage can be seen as a Shakespearean "fuck you" for anyone trying to decipher his final goal.

Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word.

"I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs!"
"Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe!"

  • Green-Eyed Monster: Trope Namer.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: Iago makes sure that Cassio is one these for the majority of the play.
  • Honor Before Reason
  • Horrible Judge of Character: This is a tricky one. Othello constantly refers to Iago as "honest Iago" and everyone else seems to think likewise. To be fair, Iago does nothing to contradict this assessment until The Reveal and it's implied he goes way back with Othello.
    • Although much of what Iago says is actually perfectly honest. He does more damage through what he does not say than what he does say.
      • Moreover, "honest" was also a condescending title for a social inferior (like "sirrah"), as well as meaning "chaste" and the modern sense of "truthful". Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, plays with all three meanings.
    • Othello's lack of perception in general is the driving force of the plot. Of course, Iago inflamed his emotions, but it didn't take much and once Othello had made up his mind about what was happening, he behaved in a way that was disastrously blind towards everyone else's intentions.
  • Idiot Ball: Partially, anyway. Though the plot isn't completely driven by certain characters' stupidities, most non-Iago characters are completely and conveniently retarded whenever it supports the short-term plot.
    • Othello, suspecting Desdemona, questions Emelia, who has been with Desdemona basically from Act I onwards, whether his wife had cheated on him with Cassio. She says no. He then asks Desdemona to promise him that she hasn't cheated. She does. He decides not to believe either of them, which, one could argue, is proof of Iago's amazing skills of manipulation, but considering that the bulk of the play takes place over three days in Cyprus and Cassio and Desdemona haven't even had a chance, it kind of suggests Othello's being a little bit silly.
    • Desdemona has promised Cassio that she'll plead his case to Othello to try and get him re-instated. Perfectly fine. Desdemona proceeds to do so, insistently and constantly, ignoring things such as timing, tact, and Othello's mood at any given moment. She is also vague about the fate of the handkerchief when being direct probably would have served her better.
    • One of the most important motifs in the play is the handkerchief, Othello's family heirloom that he gives to Desdemona, and which becomes a symbol of all sorts of things, but particularly her innocence and faithfulness. Desdemona drops this on the floor directly in front of Othello. Nobody notices.
    • Roderigo is possibly the most stupid character in anything ever, and his stupidity directly facilitates Iago's plotting. He goes and gets smitten with Desdemona (who, given the era, is probably between twelve and sixteen years of age), and so follows her *and her newly-wed husband* (a big scary general) to a war-torn country in an attempt to win her back. In the meantime, he is played as a complete pawn, not only personally funding Iago's schemes, but also getting stabbed as a fundamental aspect thereof.
    • Cassio has a genius idea; flirting with his boss's wife, continuously.
  • I Don't Want to Die: Desdemona.
  • Ignored Confession: Iago flatout tells Othello that he shouldn't believe anything Iago says and that it's all probably lies anyway. Which of course just leads Othello to trust him more, which of course was Iago's plan all along.
  • It's All About Me: Iago and to a lesser extent, Othello himself.
  • Large Ham: Laurence Olivier, in the title role. He painted his skin black, spoke in an "invented" accent, and even walked in a different and bizarre manner.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Othello.
  • Made a Slave: In Othello's Backstory, according to his stories.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Othello's relationship with Desdemona is not much liked by Iago.
  • Manipulative Bastard: "The Iago" might have been the original name for For the Evulz, but if any trope fit his name better, would indeed it be this.
  • May–December Romance. Othello is supposed to be several decades older than Desdemona, and the age disparity, as much as sensitivity to racism, is why he so quickly believes she's been unfaithful.
  • Meaningful Name: "Desdemona", unsurprisingly, means "ill-fated". Othello even calls her "ill-starred wench".
  • Mistaken for Cheating: With disastrous consequences.
  • Motive Rant: Subverted; Iago delivers numerous soliloquies bragging about his intentions and offering competing motives to the audience.
  • Murder-Suicide: Othello stabs himself after killing Desdemona and then realizing she wasn't actually cheating on him.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Othello, unfortunately too late.
  • No Accounting for Taste: Iago and Emilia have a very unhappy marriage with him frequently making misogynistic jokes in her presence. One of the early results of her bad treatment is that Emilia puts forward some, for the time, very surprising ideas about whether a woman could ever be justified in cheating on her husband.
  • Overprotective Dad: Brabantio, though it's mostly a matter of "family honour", especially since she's run off with * gasp* a non-Venetian (a Moor, moreover! you know, those brown people that are the allies of the Turks!).
  • Politically-Incorrect Villain: The jokes Iago throws around to disarm people are a big case of Harsher in Hindsight.
  • Poor Communication Kills: The play is basically Farce Played for Drama.
  • Pride: Iago and Othello's hamartia.
  • Race Lift: The Patrick Stewart version has (white) Stewart as the title character, and everyone else is black.
    • There is a debate among scholars as to whether Othello is a black man or an Arab/Berber, as both were referred to as Moors at the time. Naturally, whenever a productions makes the call one way or the other, those who disagree with the decision will see it as a race lift.
  • Reverse Psychology: Used extensively and masterfully by Iago.
  • Scary Black Man: Othello himself, depending on how the actor chooses to portray him.
  • Spanner in the Works: Emilia ruins Iago's plan simply by stating she found the handkerchief and gave it to her husband, when Othello thought Desdemona gave it to Cassio. What's more amazing is that she spilled the beans even though Iago threatened her with a knife and stabbed her when she exposed him. Badass.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Desdemona and Othello.
  • The Storyteller: How Othello won Desdemona.
  • Subtext: See Ho Yay in the YMMV section. Some of Iago's lines really do support this particular Epileptic Tree, at least to modern eyes.
  • Talking in Your Sleep: Iago tells Othello that he knows that Cassio has an affair with Desdemona because he heard him talking about it in his sleep.
  • Tragedy
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: The title character, with only circumstantial evidence supplied by a truly nasty Manipulative Bastard, believes that his wife, Desdemona, is cheating on him. He proceeds plots to have Cassio, her supposed lover (he isn't), killed, and ultimately kills Desdemona himself. When the truth is revealed, it drives him to suicide. There's a reason why 'Othello' is also known as 'The Tragedy of the Handkerchief'.
  • Tragic Hero: Othello is practically the textbook definition.
  • Treacherous Advisor: Iago being referred to as "honest", "dear", etc. is played up for all the irony it's worth.
  • Unusual Euphemism: More creative than euphemistic; see Getting Crap Past The Radar above.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Roderigo, Othello, Emilia... anyone who's not Iago, basically.
  • Villain Protagonist: The plot revolves around Iago, not Othello. Iago actually has far more lines than the title character.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Iago, again. There's not one person who doesn't trust the guy. Except his wife. But who asks her opinion?
  • Vorpal Pillow: How Othello kills Desdemona.
  • Where Da White Women At?: Iago plays this card about Desdemona with regards to Othello as 'proof' of her sexual appetite. Iago goes on to convince Othello that Desdemona's defiance of her father in her courtship of Othello is proof of her lustful nature, noting how 'unnatural' it is that she should prefer him, the exotic foreigner, over all the Venetian Dandies like Roderigo who have sought her hand.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Roderigo thinks he's the hero of a romance, which Iago encourages to his own ends.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Lampshaded by Iago: "Every way makes my gain."
  • Yandere: Othello, and according to Alternative Character Interpretation, Iago.
  • You Know What You Did: The basis of the entire plot.