Othello has just recently married the love of his life, Desdemona. He has also just recently made an enemy of Iago without even knowing it. He gave Cassio a promotion when Iago feels he was the more deserving man. Now Iago is plotting against Othello and Desdemona, seeking revenge.
I feel completely incapable here of speaking on the topic of Shakespeare. I’m not a scholar, and I haven’t even read very much of his work. I went for this play because I have found that I love his tragedies, and this was one that I wasn’t entirely familiar with. I knew what you learn from pop culture osmosis, but I didn’t know details. Having read it, it was a rewarding experience.
There is a reputation Shakespeare has of being difficult, and I won’t pretend this was a cakewalk. Sometimes the meaning of a turn of phrase was lost on me, and I had to pause and do some Googling. But overall, there’s such a music to it that you get the gist as you read. Like most lyrical writing, once you’re there, you sink into it, and it proves easier than you thought it would be. It pays to attempt to be fearless about these things.
As for the themes, I think Shakespeare did an incredibly brave thing here, writing about race in a time when I’m sure most people either didn’t care or had very strong, negative opinions. I also think that by today’s standards, there are some problems. Yet even with its issues, I’m just so impressed that Shakespeare made a person of color a living, breathing character in a time when that was taboo.
I also think on the topic of Desdemona that it was important that she had a voice amidst what goes on. She suffers abuse and defamation of character, but she’s never silent. The tragedy is inherent in the time she and Othello lived in, meaning Desdemona has no means of escape. Unfortunate implications abound when considered under a modern light, and I could see how Desdemona’s fate could destroy any merit this play has for some readers. For me, I still see something that was ahead of its time in even caring how Desdemona might have felt, and again it impressed me.
The character that shines here is Iago. He’s an early example of a villain with philosophies and personal excuses for his awfulness. That doesn’t make him likeable, but he is fascinating. He argues at one point about people making their own misery while he makes misery for others, and it almost makes him seem like an agent of chaos rather than a man. He manages to act burned by Othello, but his plan is so elaborate and executed so coldly as to make him seem like a sociopath. I could see shades of so many villains who have come since in Iago, and I think the evolution of what we think of as an irredeemable antagonist might not even be the same without him.
Even with all this talk of character and theme, the bottom line is it was entertaining. High drama. I could easily imagine the first audience ever to see this play being shocked into gasps and shouts at the plot twists. I think at the end of the day, that’s the ruler we measure plays by: did it entertain? In this case, I can easily say yes.