William Shakespeare’s Othello was first performed for the court of King James I in London in 1604 and was an extremely popular play throughout the seventeenth century. Why is it, however, that are we still studying this play over four hundred years later? In my view the reasons are two-fold: the fascinating characters that haunt its pages and the universal themes that remain a feature of human society to this day.
Othello, the valiant general who worked his way up to a respected position in Venetian society despite being a Moor and Desdamona, the tender, graceful daughter of a Venetian senator who married a Moor without her father’s knowledge are both characters with great depth. They, along with characters like Cassio and Emilia, have a mix of nobility and weakness that makes them appear truly human and thus easy for the audience to identify with.
Iago, the sinister, manipulative and possibly sociopathic ensign on the other hand, seems to have no redeeming features, feeding off other people’s weaknesses and going so far as to murder his own wife. His unwillingness to explain his horrific actions have made him a fascinating enigma for audiences for centuries. We never truly learn why he did what he did:
Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word.
The central themes of the play: prejudice, jealousy and love, are issues that have remained vitally relevant in human society. People still struggle to find love, to keep relationships alive through hard times and to understand and relate to people who are very different to themselves whether through cultural, religious or racial differences.
Ireland, over the past twenty years has become a multicultural society with a vast amount of immigration from countries such as Poland, Nigeria, Lithuania and the Phillipines. As a society we’ve had to face up to our prejudice towards certain communities and institute laws against it. Othello, too, was an immigrant working in a foreign country and is the victim of racist slurs from his own ensign, Iago: “old black ram”, “thick lips” etc. His relationship with Desdamona is questioned by her father and it is only with articulate humility and dignified restraint that Othello proves himself worthy to Brabantio.
Love and jealousy also remain key elements of the human condition. We are deeply programmed to find a partner to love and feel deeply hurt if we think they love someone else. The ‘green-eyed monster’ can eat people up inside and, fueled by Iago’s malicious lies, Othello falls into its clutches in the worst possible way. The audience cannot help but feel some sympathy for Othello as his love for Desdamona is destroyed by Iago. Overall Othello inspires a strong emotional reaction in an audience and it is this emotional reaction that keeps people flocking to productions to this day.