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Who is Othello?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 23, 2024
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Othello the Moor is the main character of William Shakespeare’s tragic play, Othello. The character is significant as a hero, as in Shakespeare’s day, racism was widespread and non-white characters were generally portrayed as ignorant or evil. He is also an unusual hero in that he is afflicted with a condition that causes fits of rage and delusion. The tragedy of the character is that, even though he is a brave and brilliant man, he brings about his own death by allowing ego and fear to rule him.

At the beginning of the play, the character is described as a great general of the Venetian army, who has risen to power through many valorous actions. He secretly marries Desdemona, the daughter of a senator, even though her father’s permission was not obtained. The couple protests their true love for one another in front of the Senate, eventually receiving permission to remain together and go to Cyprus, where a war is taking place.

Othello has infuriated Iago, one of his subordinates, by promoting another soldier named Cassio to the position of lieutenant. Iago, who has the complete trust of the general, plots to convince him that Cassio and Desdemona are sleeping together. Based on very flimsy evidence, the tragic hero turns on Desdemona almost immediately, smothering her with a pillow in their bedchamber. When the wife of Iago informs the general that Desdemona was completely innocent, he kills himself rather than be imprisoned.

The motivations behind Othello’s behavior are a source of constant speculation by scholars. One popular theory suggests that he is dominated by self-loathing, believing himself not good enough to retain Desdemona’s love. Their secret, rather than public, marriage is cited as evidence for this idea.

As written, the character is plagued by indecision: he implicitly trusts Iago but promotes Cassio, he loves Desdemona but kills her, and he is reputed to be brave but commits suicide rather than face judgment. These contradictory impulses lead some to believe he is truly insecure, despite his many accomplishments. Some scholars argue that this self-mistrust is the character’s fatal flaw, leaving him easily influenced by the scheming Iago.

Other experts consider Othello plagued by an enormous ego. A straightforward reading of the texts implies that the character kills his wife out of rage at being betrayed. Rather than leading to self-loathing, this interpretation suggests that the racial and social characteristics that make him different lead to a superiority complex. In this theory, it is Iago’s constant vocal praise that makes the general so willing to believe whatever the villain tells him.

The title character of the tragedy has attracted actors since its inception, and has been performed by a variety of famous people. Richard Burbage, the lead actor of Shakespeare’s company, is believed to have been the first to undertake the role. On stage, Henry Irving and Laurence Olivier have performed as the character in heavy makeup to appear black. African-American actors James Earl Jones, Paul Robeson and Chiwetel Ejiofor have starred in well-known productions of the play as well.

One famous modern stage production was done in a racially reversed manner, with Patrick Stewart in the lead role, and the rest of the cast entirely portrayed by black actors. On film, Laurence Fishburn, Billy Crudup and Mekhi Phifer have each taken the role. In all, over 15 screen adaptations have been made since the 1920s. The character remains one of Shakespeare’s most revered heroes, and the role continues to be sought after by many actors.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for Language & Humanities. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By spanishInk — On Apr 07, 2011

I had heard that "Moor" can actually be traced back to meaning "from Mauritania" and would have helped explain Othello's ethnicity. Has anyone else heard of this?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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