Othello (full title: The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice) is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare, probably in 1603, set in the contemporary Ottoman–Venetian War (1570–1573) fought for the control of the Island of Cyprus, a possession of the Venetian Republic since 1489. The port city of Famagusta finally fell to the Ottomans in 1571 after a protracted siege. The story revolves around two characters, Othello and Iago.

Ira Aldridge as Othello, Henry Perronet Briggs (c. 1830)

Othello is a Moorish military commander who was serving as a general of the Venetian army in defence of Cyprus against invasion by Ottoman Turks. He has recently married Desdemona, a beautiful and wealthy Venetian lady much younger than himself, against the wishes of her father. Iago is Othello's malevolent ensign, who maliciously stokes his master's jealousy until the usually stoic Moor kills his beloved wife in a fit of blind rage. Due to its enduring themes of passion, jealousy, and race, Othello is still topical and popular and is widely performed, with numerous adaptations.


  • Othello – General in the Venetian military, a noble Moor
  • Desdemona – Othello's wife; daughter of Brabantio
  • Iago – Othello's trusted, but jealous and traitorous ensign
  • Cassio – Othello's loyal and most beloved captain
  • Emilia – Iago's wife and Desdemona's maidservant
  • Bianca – Cassio's lover
  • Brabantio – Venetian senator and Desdemona's father (can also be called Brabanzio)
  • Roderigo – dissolute Venetian, in love with Desdemona
  • Duke of Venice
  • Gratiano – Brabantio's brother
  • Lodovico – Brabantio's kinsman and Desdemona's cousin
  • Montano – Othello's Venetian predecessor in the government of Cyprus
  • Clown – servant
  • Senators
  • Sailor
  • Officers, Gentlemen, Messenger, Herald, Attendants, Musicians, etc.


Desdemona and Othello, by Antonio Muñoz Degrain, 1880
Othello costume. Illustration by Percy Anderson for Costume Fanciful, Historical and Theatrical, 1906

Act IEdit

Roderigo, a wealthy and dissolute gentleman, complains to his friend Iago, an ensign, that Iago has not told him about the recent secret marriage between Desdemona, the daughter of Brabantio, a senator, and Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army. Roderigo is upset because he loves Desdemona and had asked her father, Brabantio, for her hand in marriage.

Iago hates Othello for promoting a younger man named Cassio above him, whom Iago considers a less capable soldier than himself. Iago tells Roderigo that he plans to exploit Othello for his own advantage and convinces Roderigo to wake Brabantio and tell him about his daughter's elopement. Meanwhile, Iago sneaks away to find Othello and warns him that Brabantio is coming for him.

Brabantio, provoked by Roderigo, is enraged and seeks to confront Othello, but he finds Othello's residence full of the Duke of Venice's guards, who prevent violence. News has arrived in Venice that the Turks are going to attack Cyprus, and Othello is therefore summoned to advise the senators. Brabantio has no option but to accompany Othello to the Duke's residence, where he accuses Othello of seducing Desdemona by witchcraft.

Othello defends himself before the Duke of Venice, Brabantio's kinsmen Lodovico and Gratiano, and various senators. Othello explains that, while he was invited to Brabantio's home, Desdemona became enamoured of him for the sad and compelling stories he told of his life before Venice, not because of any witchcraft. The senate is satisfied once Desdemona confirms that she loves Othello, but Brabantio leaves, saying that Desdemona will betray Othello: "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. She has deceived her father, and may thee" (Act I, Sc 3). Iago, still in the room, takes note of Brabantio's remark. By order of the Duke, Othello leaves Venice to command the Venetian armies against invading Turks on the island of Cyprus, accompanied by his new wife, his new lieutenant Cassio, his ensign Iago, and Iago's wife, Emilia, as Desdemona's attendant.

Act IIEdit

The party arrives in Cyprus to find that a storm has destroyed the Turkish fleet. Othello orders a general celebration and leaves to consummate his marriage with Desdemona. In his absence, Iago gets Cassio drunk, and then persuades Roderigo to draw Cassio into a fight. Montano tries to calm down an angry and drunk Cassio. This leads to them fighting one another and Montano being injured. Othello arrives and questions the men as to what happened. Othello blames Cassio for the disturbance and strips him of his rank. Cassio, distraught, is then persuaded by Iago to ask Desdemona to persuade her husband to reinstate him. She succeeds in doing so.

Act IIIEdit

Iago persuades Othello to be suspicious of Cassio and Desdemona's relationship. When Desdemona drops a handkerchief (the first gift given to her by Othello), Emilia finds it and gives it to Iago at his request, unaware of what he plans to do with it. Othello appears and, then being convinced by Iago of his wife's unfaithfulness with his captain, vows with Iago for the death of Desdemona and Cassio, after which he makes Iago his lieutenant.

Act IVEdit

Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio's lodgings, then tells Othello to watch Cassio's reactions while Iago questions him. Iago goads Cassio on to talk about his affair with Bianca, a local courtesan, but whispers her name so quietly that Othello believes the two men are talking about Desdemona. Later, Bianca accuses Cassio of giving her a second-hand gift which he had received from another lover. Othello sees this, and Iago convinces him that Cassio received the handkerchief from Desdemona.

Enraged and hurt, Othello resolves to kill his wife and tells Iago to kill Cassio. Othello proceeds to make Desdemona's life miserable and strikes her in front of visiting Venetian nobles. Meanwhile, Roderigo complains that he has received no results from Iago in return for his money and efforts to win Desdemona, but Iago convinces him to kill Cassio.

Act VEdit

Othello weeping over Desdemona's body, by William Salter, c. 1857.

Roderigo unsuccessfully attacks Cassio in the street after Cassio leaves Bianca's lodgings, as Cassio wounds Roderigo. During the scuffle, Iago comes from behind Cassio and badly cuts his leg. In the darkness, Iago manages to hide his identity, and when Lodovico and Gratiano hear Cassio's cries for help, Iago joins them. When Cassio identifies Roderigo as one of his attackers, Iago secretly stabs Roderigo to death to stop him from revealing the plot. Iago then accuses Bianca of the failed conspiracy to kill Cassio.

Othello confronts a sleeping Desdemona. She denies being unfaithful, but he smothers her. Emilia arrives, and Desdemona defends her husband before dying, and Othello accuses Desdemona of adultery. Emilia calls for help. The former governor Montano arrives with Gratiano and Iago. When Othello mentions the handkerchief as proof, Emilia realizes what Iago has done, and she exposes him. Othello, belatedly realising Desdemona's innocence, stabs Iago (but not fatally), saying that Iago is a devil, but not before the latter stabs Emilia to death in the scuffle.

Iago refuses to explain his motives, vowing to remain silent from that moment on. Lodovico apprehends both Iago and Othello for the murders of Roderigo, Emilia, and Desdemona, but Othello commits suicide. Lodovico appoints Cassio as Othello's successor and exhorts him to punish Iago justly. He then denounces Iago for his actions and leaves to tell the others what has happened.


Othello is an adaptation of the Italian writer Cinthio's tale "Un Capitano Moro" ("A Moorish Captain") from his Gli Hecatommithi (1565), a collection of one hundred tales in the style of Boccaccio's Decameron.[1] No English translation of Cinthio was available in Shakespeare's lifetime, and verbal echoes in Othello are closer to the Italian original than to Gabriel Chappuys' [fr] 1584 French translation. Cinthio's tale may have been based on an actual incident occurring in Venice about 1508.[2] It also resembles an incident described in the earlier tale of "The Three Apples", one of the stories narrated in the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights).[3] Desdemona is the only named character in Cinthio's tale, with his few other characters identified only as the "Moor", the "Squadron Leader", the "Ensign", and the "Ensign's Wife" (corresponding to the play's Othello, Cassio, Iago, and Emilia). Cinthio drew a moral (which he placed in the mouth of Desdemona) that it is unwise for European women to marry the temperamental men of other nations.[4] Cinthio's tale has been described as a "partly racist warning" about the dangers of miscegenation.[5]

While Shakespeare closely followed Cinthio's tale in composing Othello, he departed from it in some details. Brabantio, Roderigo, and several minor characters are not found in Cinthio, for example, and Shakespeare's Emilia takes part in the handkerchief mischief while her counterpart in Cinthio does not. Unlike in Othello, in Cinthio, the "Ensign" (the play's Iago) lusts after Desdemona and is spurred to revenge when she rejects him. Shakespeare's opening scenes are unique to his tragedy, as is the tender scene between Emilia and Desdemona as the lady prepares for bed. Shakespeare's most striking departure from Cinthio is the manner of his heroine's death. In Shakespeare, Othello initially smothers Desdemona, then finishes the task in some unspecified way (saying "So, so"),[6] whereas in Cinthio, the "Moor" commissions the "Ensign" to bludgeon his wife to death with a sand-filled stocking. Cinthio describes each gruesome blow, and, when the lady is dead, the "Ensign" and the "Moor" place her lifeless body upon her bed, smash her skull, and cause the cracked ceiling above the bed to collapse upon her, giving the impression its falling rafters caused her death. In Cinthio, the two murderers escape detection. The "Moor" then misses Desdemona greatly, and comes to loathe the sight of the "Ensign". He demotes him, and refuses to have him in his company. The "Ensign" then seeks revenge by disclosing to the "Squadron Leader" the "Moor's" involvement in Desdemona's death. The two depart Cyprus for Venice, and denounce the "Moor" to the Venetian Seigniory; he is arrested, taken to Venice, and tortured. He refuses to admit his guilt and is condemned to exile. Desdemona's relatives eventually find and kill him. The "Ensign", however, continues to escape detection in Desdemona's death, but engages in other crimes while in Venice. He is arrested and dies after being tortured. Cinthio's "Ensign's Wife" (the play's Emilia), survives her husband's death to tell her story.[7]

Cinthio's "Moor" is the model for Shakespeare's Othello, but some researchers believe the poet also took inspiration from the several Moorish delegations from Morocco to Elizabethan England circa 1600.[8]

Another possible source was the Description of Africa by Leo Africanus. The book was an enormous success in Europe, and was translated into many other languages,[9] remaining a definitive reference work for decades (and to some degree, centuries) afterwards.[10] An English translation by John Pory appeared in 1600 under the title A Geographical Historie of Africa, Written in Arabicke and Italian by Iohn Leo a More... in which form Shakespeare may have seen it and reworked hints in creating the character of Othello.[11]

While supplying the source of the plot, the book offered nothing of the sense of place of Venice or Cyprus. For knowledge of this, Shakespeare may have used Gasparo Contarini's The Commonwealth and Government of Venice, in Lewes Lewkenor's 1599 translation.[12][13]

Date and contextEdit

Title page of the first quarto (1622)

The earliest mention of the play is found in a 1604 Revels Office account, which records that on "Hallamas Day, being the first of Nouembar ... the Kings Maiesties plaiers" performed "A Play in the Banketinghouse at Whit Hall Called The Moor of Venis". The work is attributed to "Shaxberd". The Revels account was first printed by Peter Cunningham in 1842, and, while its authenticity was once challenged, is now regarded as genuine (as authenticated by A. E. Stamp in 1930).[14] Based on its style, the play is usually dated 1603 or 1604, but arguments have been made for dates as early as 1601 or 1602.[2][15]

The play was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on 6 October 1621, by Thomas Walkley, and was first published in quarto format by him in 1622:

Tragœdy of Othello, The Moore of Venice. As it hath beene diuerse times acted at the Globe, and at the Black-Friers, by his Maiesties Seruants. Written by William Shakespeare. London. Printed by N. O. [Nicholas Okes] for Thomas Walkley, and are to be sold at his shop, at the Eagle and Child, in Brittans Bursse, 1622.

The first page of Othello from the First Folio, printed in 1623

One year later, the play was included among the plays in the First Folio of Shakespeare's collected plays. However, the version in the Folio is rather different in length, and in wording: as the editors of the Folger edition explain: "The Folio play has about 160 lines that do not appear in the Quarto. Some of these cluster together in quite extensive passages. The Folio also lacks a scattering of about a dozen lines or part-lines that are to be found in the Quarto. These two versions also differ from each other in their readings of numerous words."[16] Scholars differ in their explanation of these differences, and no consensus has emerged.[16] Kerrigan suggests that the 1623 Folio version of Othello and a number of other plays may have been cleaned up relative to the Quarto to conform with the 1606 Act to Restrain Abuses, which made it an offence "in any Stage-play, Interlude, Shew, Maygame, or Pageant, iestingly [jestingly], and prophanely [to] speake, or vse the holy Name of God, or of Christ Iesus, or of the holy Ghost, or of the Trinitie".[17] This is not incompatible with the suggestion that the Quarto is based on an early version of the play, whilst the Folio represents Shakespeare's revised version.[16] It may also be that the Quarto was cut in the printing house to meet a fixed number of pages.[2] Most modern editions are based on the longer Folio version, but often incorporate Quarto readings of words when the Folio text appears to be in error.[18] Quartos were also published in 1630, 1655, 1681, 1695, 1699 and 1705.



Portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moorish ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I in 1600, sometimes suggested as the inspiration for Othello.[19]

Although characters described as "Moors" appear in two other Shakespeare plays (Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice), such characters were a rarity in contemporary theatre, and it was unknown for them to take centre stage.[20]

There is no consensus over Othello's ethnic origin. In Elizabethan discourse, the word "black" could suggest various concepts that extended beyond the physical colour of skin, including a wide range of negative connotations.[21][22] E. A. J. Honigmann, the editor of an Arden Shakespeare edition, concluded that Othello's race is ambiguous. "Renaissance representations of the Moor were vague, varied, inconsistent, and contradictory. As critics have established, the term 'Moor' referred to dark-skinned people in general, used interchangeably with terms such as 'African', 'Somali', 'Ethiopian', 'Negro', 'Arab', 'Berber', and even 'Indian' to designate a figure from Africa (or beyond)."[23][24] Various uses of the word black (for example, "Haply for I am black") are insufficient evidence for any accurate racial classification, Honigmann argues, since black could simply mean swarthy to Elizabethans.

Othello is referred to as a "Barbary horse" (1.1.113) and a "lascivious Moor" (1.1.127). In 3.3 he denounces Desdemona's supposed sin as being "black as mine own face". Desdemona's physical whiteness is otherwise presented in opposition to Othello's dark skin: 5.2 "that whiter skin of hers than snow". Iago tells Brabantio that "an old black ram / is tupping your white ewe" (1.1.88). When Iago uses the word Barbary or Barbarian to refer to Othello, he seemingly refers to the Barbary coast inhabited by Berbers. Roderigo calls Othello "the thicklips", which seems to refer to Sub-Saharan African physiognomy, but Honigmann counters that, as these comments are all intended as insults by the characters, they need not be taken literally.[25]

However, Jyotsna Singh wrote that the opposition of Brabantio to Desdemona marrying Othello – a respected and honoured general – cannot make sense except in racial terms, citing the scene where Brabantio accuses Othello of using witchcraft to make his daughter fall in love with him, saying it is "unnatural" for Desdemona to desire Othello's "sooty bosom".[26] Singh argued that, since people with dark complexions are common in the Mediterranean area, a Venetian senator like Brabantio being opposed to Desdemona marrying Othello for merely being swarthy makes no sense, and that the character of Othello was intended to be black.[26]

Michael Neill, editor of an Oxford edition, notes that the earliest critical references to Othello's colour (Thomas Rymer's 1693 critique of the play, and the 1709 engraving in Nicholas Rowe's edition of Shakespeare) assume him to be Sub-Saharan, while the earliest known North African interpretation was not until Edmund Kean's production of 1814.[27] Honigmann discusses the view that Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moorish ambassador of the Arab sultan of Barbary (Morocco) to Queen Elizabeth I in 1600, was one inspiration for Othello. He stayed with his retinue in London for several months and occasioned much discussion. While Shakespeare's play was written only a few years afterwards, Honigmann questions the view that ben Messaoud himself was a significant influence on it.[28]

Artist William Mulready portrays American actor Ira Aldridge as Othello.[29] The Walters Art Museum.

Othello was frequently performed as an Arab Moor during the 19th century. He was first played by a black man on the London stage in 1833 by the most important of the nineteenth-century Othellos, the African American Ira Aldridge who had been forced to leave his home country to make his career.[30] Regardless of what Shakespeare intended by calling Othello a "Moor" – whether he meant that Othello was a Muslim or a black man or both – in the 19th century and much of the 20th century, many critics tended to see the tragedy in racial terms, seeing interracial marriages as "aberrations" that could end badly.[31] Given this view of Othello, the play became especially controversial in apartheid-era South Africa where interracial marriages were banned and performances of Othello were discouraged.[32]

The first major screen production casting a black actor as Othello did not come until 1995, with Laurence Fishburne opposite Kenneth Branagh's Iago.[33] In the past, Othello would often have been portrayed by a white actor in dark makeup or in a black mask: more recent actors who chose to 'black up' include Ralph Richardson (1937); Orson Welles (1952); Sergei Bondarchuk (1955); John Gielgud (1961); Laurence Olivier (1964); and Anthony Hopkins (1981).[33] Ground-breaking black American actor Paul Robeson played the role in three different productions between 1930 and 1959. The casting of the role comes with a political subtext. Patrick Stewart played the role alongside an otherwise all-black cast in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's 1997 staging of the play[34][35] and Thomas Thieme, also white, played Othello in a 2007 Munich Kammerspiele staging at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford. Michael Gambon also took the role in 1980 and 1991; their performances were critically acclaimed.[36][37] Carlo Rota, of Mediterranean (British Italian) heritage, played the character on Canadian television in 2008.[38]

The race of the title role is often seen as Shakespeare's way of isolating the character, culturally as well as visually, from the Venetian nobles and officers, and the isolation may seem more genuine when a black actor takes the role. But questions of race may not boil down to a simple decision of casting a single role. In 1979, Keith Fowler's production of Othello mixed the races throughout the company. Produced by the American Revels Company at the Empire Theater (renamed the November Theater in 2011) in Richmond, Virginia, this production starred African American actor Clayton Corbin in the title role, with Henry K. Bal, a Hawaiian actor of mixed ethnicity, playing Iago. Othello's army was composed of both black and white mercenaries. Iago's wife, Emilia was played by the popular black actress Marie Goodman Hunter.[39] The 2016 production at the New York Theatre Workshop, directed by Sam Gold, also effectively used a mixed-race cast, starring English actors David Oyelowo as Othello and Daniel Craig as Iago. Desdemona was played by American actress Rachel Brosnahan, Cassio was played by Finn Wittrock, and Emilia was played by Marsha Stephanie Blake.[40][41]

A vital component of the Protestant Reformation was the establishment among the general public of the importance of "pious, controlled behaviour". As such, "undesirable" qualities such as cruelty, treachery, jealousy and libidinousness were seen as qualities possessed by "the other".[42] The assumed characteristics of Moors or "the other", were both instigated and popularised by Renaissance dramas of the time; for example, the treacherous behaviour of the Moors in George Peele's The Battle of Alcazar (1588).[42]

Religious and philosophicalEdit

The title "Moor" implies a religious "other" of North African or Middle Eastern descent. Though the actual racial definition of the term is murky, the implications are religious as well as racial.[43] Many critics have noted references to demonic possession throughout the play, especially in relation to Othello's seizure, a phenomenon often associated with possession in the popular consciousness of the day.[44] Thomas M. Vozar, in a 2012 article in Philosophy and Literature, suggests that the epileptic seizure relates to the mind–body problem and the existence of the soul.[45]

The heroEdit

There have been many differing views on the character of Othello over the years. A.C. Bradley calls Othello the "most romantic of all of Shakespeare's heroes" (by "hero" Bradley means protagonist) and "the greatest poet of them all". On the other hand, F. R. Leavis describes Othello as "egotistical". There are those who also take a less critical approach to the character of Othello such as William Hazlitt, who said: "the nature of the Moor is noble ... but his blood is of the most inflammable kind". Conversely, many scholars have seen Iago as the anti-hero of the piece. W. H. Auden, for example, observed that "any consideration of [the play] must be primarily occupied, not with its official hero, but with its villain".[46]


Performance historyEdit

Poster for an 1884 American production starring Thomas W. Keene

Shakespeare's Day to the InterregnumEdit

Othello possesses an unusually detailed performance record. The first certainly known performance occurred on 1 November 1604, at Whitehall Palace in London, being mentioned in a Revels account on "Hallamas Day, being the first of Nouembar", 1604, when "the Kings Maiesties plaiers" performed "A Play in the Banketinge house at Whit Hall Called The Moor of Venis". The play is there attributed to "Shaxberd".[47] Subsequent performances took place on Monday, 30 April 1610 at the Globe Theatre, and at Oxford in September 1610.[48] On 22 November 1629, and on 6 May 1635, it played at the Blackfriars Theatre. Othello was also one of the twenty plays performed by the King's Men during the winter of 1612, in celebration of the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Frederick V, Elector Palatine.[49]

Restoration and 18th CenturyEdit

It may be one index of the play's power that Othello was one of the very few Shakespeare plays that was never adapted and changed during the Restoration and the eighteenth century.[50]

19th CenturyEdit

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Othello was regarded as the most demanding of Shakespeare's roles: it is considered a part of theatre legend that Edmund Kean collapsed while playing the role, and died two months after. [51] For Tommaso Salvini and Edwin Booth the role of Othello was a career-length project.[52] Konstantin Stanislavski admired, and was greatly influenced by, Tommaso Salvini's Othello, which he saw in 1882. In My Life in Art, Stanislavski recalls Salvini's scene before the Senate, saying that the actor "grasped all of us in his palm, and held us there as if we were ants or flies".[53]

20th centuryEdit

Paul Robeson as Othello, photographed by Carl Van Vechten (1944)
Advertisement for the Columbia Masterworks Records release of Othello (1945)
The 1943 production of Othello, starring Paul Robeson and Uta Hagen, holds the record for the most performances of any Shakespeare play ever produced on Broadway.

The most notable American production may be Margaret Webster's 1943 staging starring Paul Robeson as Othello and José Ferrer as Iago. This production was the first ever in America to feature a black actor playing Othello with an otherwise all-white cast (there had been all-black productions of the play before). It ran for 296 performances, almost twice as long as any other Shakespeare play ever produced on Broadway. Although it was never filmed, it was the first lengthy performance of a Shakespeare play released on records, first on a multi-record 78 RPM set and then on a 3-LP one. Robeson had first played the role in London in 1930 in a cast that included Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona and Ralph Richardson as Roderigo,[54] and would return to it in 1959 at Stratford-upon-Avon with co-stars Mary Ure, Sam Wanamaker and Vanessa Redgrave. The critics had mixed reactions to the "flashy" 1959 production which included mid-western accents and rock-and roll drumbeats but gave Robeson primarily good reviews.[55] W. A. Darlington of The Daily Telegraph ranked Robeson's Othello as the best he had ever seen[56] while the Daily Express, which had for years before published consistently scathing articles about Robeson for his leftist views, praised his "strong and stately" performance (though in turn suggested it was a "triumph of presence not acting").[57]

Actors have alternated the roles of Iago and Othello in productions to stir audience interest since the nineteenth century. Two of the most notable examples of this role swap were William Charles Macready and Samuel Phelps at Drury Lane (1837) and Richard Burton and John Neville at The Old Vic (1955). When Edwin Booth's tour of England in 1880 was not well attended, Henry Irving invited Booth to alternate the roles of Othello and Iago with him in London. The stunt renewed interest in Booth's tour. James O'Neill also alternated the roles of Othello and Iago with Booth.

The American actor William Marshall performed the title role in at least six productions. His Othello was called by Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times "the best Othello of our time",[58] continuing:

... nobler than Tearle, more martial than Gielgud, more poetic than Valk. From his first entry, slender and magnificently tall, framed in a high Byzantine arch, clad in white samite, mystic, wonderful, a figure of Arabian romance and grace, to his last plunging of the knife into his stomach, Mr Marshall rode without faltering the play's enormous rhetoric, and at the end the house rose to him.[59]

When Laurence Olivier gave his acclaimed performance of Othello at the Royal National Theatre in 1964, he had developed a case of stage fright that was so profound that when he was alone onstage, Frank Finlay (who was playing Iago) would have to stand offstage where Olivier could see him to settle his nerves.[60] This performance was recorded complete on LP, and filmed by popular demand in 1965 (according to a biography of Olivier, tickets for the stage production were notoriously hard to get). The film version still holds the record for the most Oscar nominations for acting ever given to a Shakespeare film – Olivier, Finlay, Maggie Smith (as Desdemona) and Joyce Redman (as Emilia, Iago's wife) were all nominated for Academy Awards. Olivier was among the last white actors to be greatly acclaimed as Othello, although the role continued to be played by such performers as Donald Sinden at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1979–1980, Paul Scofield at the Royal National Theatre in 1980, Anthony Hopkins in the BBC Television Shakespeare production (1981), and Michael Gambon in a stage production at Scarborough directed by Alan Ayckbourn in 1990. Gambon had been in Olivier's earlier production. British blacking up for Othello ended with Gambon in 1990; however the Royal Shakespeare Company did not run the play at all on the main Stratford stage until 1999, when Ray Fearon became the first black British actor to take the part, the first black man to play Othello with the RSC since Robeson.[61]

In 1997, Patrick Stewart took the role of Othello with the Shakespeare Theatre Company (Washington, D.C.) in a race-bending performance, in a "photo negative" production of a white Othello with an otherwise all-black cast. Stewart had wanted to play the title role since the age of 14, so he and director Jude Kelly inverted the play so Othello became a comment on a white man entering a black society.[34][35] The interpretation of the role is broadening, with theatre companies casting Othello as a woman or inverting the gender of the whole cast to explore gender questions in Shakespeare's text. Companies have also chosen to share the role between several actors during a performance.[62][63]

21st centuryEdit

In 2006, famed Bollywood producer, Vishal Bharadwaj produced the blockbuster Hindi movie Omkara, an adaption of Othello.[64]

In 2007, Othello opened at the Donmar Warehouse in London on 4 December 2007, directed by Michael Grandage, with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello, Ewan McGregor as Iago, Tom Hiddleston as Cassio, Kelly Reilly as Desdemona and Michelle Fairley as Emilia. Ejiofor, Hiddleston and Fairley all received nominations for Laurence Olivier Awards, with Ejiofor winning.

In 2009, stand-up comedian Lenny Henry played Othello, produced by Northern Broadsides in collaboration with West Yorkshire Playhouse.[65]

In summer 2013, the Royal National Theatre produced the play with Adrian Lester in the title role and Rory Kinnear as Iago. Lester and Kinnear shared Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actor[66] and Kinnear won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor.[67]

In September 2013, a Tamil adaptation titled Othello, the Fall of a Warrior was directed and produced in Singapore by Subramanian Ganesh.[68]

In March 2016 the historian Onyeka produced a play entitled Young Othello, a fictional take on Othello's young life before the events of Shakespeare's play.[69][70]

In June 2016, baritone and actor David Serero played the title role in a Moroccan adaptation featuring Judeo-Arabic songs and Verdi's opera version in New York.[71][72]

"Othello" Chechnya National theatre Director Roman Markha (2021)

In the fall of 2016, David Oyelowo starred and Daniel Craig appeared in a modern production of Othello at the New York Theatre Workshop Off-Broadway.[73]

In 2017, Ben Naylor directed the play for the Pop-up Globe in Auckland, New Zealand, with Māori actor Te Kohe Tuhaka in the title role, Jasmine Blackborow as Desdemona and Haakon Smestad as Iago.[74] The production transferred to Melbourne, Australia with another Māori actor, Regan Taylor, taking over the title role.[75]

In 2022, Queensland Theatre staged an adaptation by Jason Klarwein and Jimi Bani, set in the Torres Straits. It was performed in three languages; Kala Lagaw Ya, Yumplatok and English. Bani played Othello as a Torres Straits Islander and member of the Torres Straits Light Infantry Battalion during World War II.[76][77][78][79][80]


Othello has influenced many film makers, and often the results are adaptations, rather than performances of Shakespeare's text. The UK's National Film and Television Archive holds over 25 20th-Century films containing performances, adaptations or extracts from Othello including Anson Dyer's 1920 animated Othello, 1921's Carnival and its 1932 remake, the 1922 German film The Moor, the 1936 Men Are Not Gods, 1941's East of Piccadilly, George Cukor's 1947 A Double Life, Orson Welles in Return to Glennascaul and Welles' own Othello, Sergei Yutkevich's Russian language Otello, two productions for BBC Television (including Jonathan Miller's for the BBC Television Shakespeare series, discussed below), Basil Dearden's All Night Long, Janet Suzman's 1988 South African TV Othello, a film of Trevor Nunn's RSC production with Willard White and Ian McKellen in the central roles, and True Identity - a crime caper in which Lenny Henry's character Miles lands the role of understudy to James Earl Jones (playing himself) in a production of Othello. [81] Carnival, Men Are Not Gods and A Double Life all feature the plot of an actor playing the title role in Shakespeare's Othello developing murderous jealousy for their Desdemonas.[82] All Night Long reframes the story in a jazz milieu.[83] And Richard Eyre's Stage Beauty depicts a restoration performance of the play.[84]

The filming of Orson Welles' Othello was plagued by chaos. A pattern emerged where Welles would collect his cast and crew for filming, then after four or five weeks his money would run out and filming would cease: Welles would then appear in another movie, and using his acting fee would reconvene filming. Scenes in the final movie were sometimes spliced together from one actor filmed in Italy in one year, and another actor filmed in Morocco the next.[85] Welles decimates Shakespeare's text, and uses shadows, extreme camera angles and discordant piano music to force the audience to feel Othello's disorientated view of Desdemona.[86] The film was critically panned on its 1955 release (headlines included "Mr Welles Murders Shakespeare in the Dark" and "The Boor of Venice") but was acclaimed as a classic upon its re-release in a restored version in 1992.[87]

Laurence Olivier said that the role of Othello demanded "enormously big"[88] acting, and he incorporated what The Spectator described as his "outsize, elaborate, overwhelming"[89] performance into the film of his National Theatre production. The effect to modern audiences is (in the words of Daniel Rosenthal) "laughably over-the-top"[90] - in keeping with its nature as a filmed stage performance, rather than a performance designed for the screen. The film was a financial success, and earned Oscar nominations for each of Olivier as Othello, Maggie Smith as Desdemona, Frank Finlay as Iago and Joyce Redman as Emilia.[91] Subsequent critics have been less sympathetic to Olivier's performance than his contemporary audience had been, tending to read it as racist.[92]

The last of the screen versions to portray Othello in blackface was Jonathan Miller's for the BBC Television Shakespeare series, with Anthony Hopkins in the title role. Miller is said to have commented that "the play is about jealousy, not race."[93]

Oliver Parker's 1995 Othello failed to live up to its director's vision as an "erotic thriller".[94] Swiss actress Irène Jacob as Desdemona struggled with the verse, as did Laurence Fishburne, more experienced in expletive-ridden thriller roles, as Othello.[95] Iago was Kenneth Branagh in his first outing as a screen villain.[96] The film was described as a "fair stab at turning the Bard into a decent night at the multiplex"[97] but failed to achieve success at the box office.[98] The overall effect was to create, in Douglas Brode's words "the tragedy of Iago" - a performance in which Iago's dominance is such that Othello is a foil to him, not the other way around.[99]

Other adaptations of Shakespeare's story to be filmed include Franco Zeffirelli's 1986 film of Verdi's Otello.[100] Tim Blake Nelson's basketball-themed teen drama O reset the story at an elite boarding school. The similarity of the film's ending to the Columbine massacre, which happened while the film was being edited, delayed its release for over two years, until August 2001.[101] A British TV adaptation by Andrew Davies, screened in 2001, re-set the story among senior officers of the Metropolitan Police.[102] And the first decade of the 21st-Century saw two non-English language film adaptations: Alexander Abela's French Souli set the story in a modern-day Madagascan fishing village, and Vishal Bhardwaj's Hindi Omkara amidst political violence in modern Uttar Pradesh.[103]

Other MediaEdit

Stage AdaptationsEdit

The Othello story became the rock opera Catch My Soul in 1968, depicting Othello as a charismatic religious cult leader, Desdemona as a naive convert, and Iago as a malcontent member.[104] William Marshall played Othello, with Jerry Lee Lewis as Iago, in Los Angeles in 1968.[105][citation needed]


The Willow Song, sung by Desdemona in Act 4 Scene 3,[106] is not an original creation of Shakespeare's, but was already a well-known ballad. As such it has surviving arrangements from both before and after Shakespeare's time.[107]

The play has been a popular source for opera. Rossini's 1816 Otello, ossia il Moro di Venezia made Desdemona its focus, and was followed by numerous translations and adaptations, including one with a happy ending.[108] But the most notable version, considered a masterpiece with a power equivalent to that of the play, is Verdi's 1887 Otello,[109] for which Arrigo Boito's libretto marked a return to faithfulness to the original plot, including the reappearance of the pillow as the murder weapon.[110]

Othello was, with Antony and Cleopatra, one of the two plays which most influenced Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's jazz suite Such Sweet Thunder. Its opening track (itself titled Such Sweet Thunder, a quotation from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream)[111] came to stand for Othello telling his tales of travel and adventure to Desdemona, as reported in the play's first act.[112][113]

Sometimes the order of the play influencing a composer is reversed, as in the appropriations of classical music by filmmakers retelling Othello's story: for example in the film O, in which excerpts from Verdi's Otello are used as a theme for Odin (the Othello character) while modern rap and hip-hop are more associated with the white college students around him.[114]


In addition to his theatrical performances noted above, the play was also central to Konstantin Stanislavski's writings, and to the development of his "system". In particular, the part of Othello is a main subject of his book Creating a Role.[115] In it the characters of Tortzov, the director, and Kostya, the young actor, both partly autobiographical, rehearse the role of Othello in the opening act.[116]


  • Except where otherwise stated, references to the play Othello are to Honigmann, E. A. J. and Thompson, Ayanna (Eds.) "Othello" The Arden Shakespeare, Third Series, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., 2016.
  • Except where otherwise stated, references to other works by Shakespeare are to Wells, Stanley and Taylor, Gary (Eds.) "The Oxford Shakespeare - The Complete Works" Second Edition, Oxford University Press, 2005.

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External linksEdit