TRC Othello

Critics on “Othello”


“Rather may we ask here what unnatural crime Desdemona or her Parents had committed, to bring this Judgment down upon her: to Wed a Black-amoor, and innocent to be thus cruelly murder’d by him. . .If this be our end, what boots it to be Virtuous?”      Thomas Rymer   1693

“Had the scene opened in Cyprus, and the preceding incidents been occasionally related, there had been little wanting to a drama of the most exact and scrupulous regularity.”    Samuel Johnson   1765


“Shakespeare had portrayed [Othello] the very opposite to a jealous man: he was noble, generous, open-hearted; unsuspicious and unsuspecting; and who, even after the exhibition of the handkerchief as evidence of his wife’s guilt, bursts out in her praise. . . . He was a gallant Moor, of royal blood . . .whose noble nature was wrought on . . . by an accomplished and artful villain . . .”  (report of a lecture by) Samuel Coleridge   1813.


“The Othello who enters the bed-chamber with the words, 'It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul', is not the man of the Fourth Act.  The deed he is bound to do is not    murder, but a sacrifice.  He is to save Desdemona from herself, not in hate but in honour; in honour, and also in love.”    A C Bradley 1904

“I have always felt that I have never read a more terrible exposure of  human weakness – of universal human weakness – than the last great speech of Othello.”      T S Eliot  1932

Othello is dominated by its protagonist.  Its supremely beautiful effects of style are all expressions of Othello’s personal passion . . . It [style] holds a rich music all of its own . . . “      G Wilson Knight     1930

“The fifty-two uses of honest  and honesty in Othello are a very queer business: there is no other play in which Shakespeare worries a word like that . . . Everybody calls Iago honest once or twice, but with Othello it becomes an obsession; at the crucial moment just before Emilia exposes Iago he keeps howling the word out.”     William Empson    1951

“ . . . Othello is the chief personage – the chief personage in such a sense that the tragedy may fairly be said to be Othello’s character in action.”         F R Leavis    1952

“ To the onlooker the fact that Othello, in his effortless and terribly formidable way, does not fetch Iago at the outset a blow that would knock him from one end of the stage to another, is one of the great disappointments of the play. “   John Bayley    1981

“Many explanations have been given for the recovered stature which Othello achieves at the end.  In spite of all the bizarre behaviour Iago has induced in him the dignity of his ending is impressive . . . In his final speech and his suicide he is able, as he was before the Senate of Venice, to express his nobility and to manifest himself rightly.”   Anthony Brennan   1986

“Othello is of course the play’s hero only within the terms of a white elitist male ethos, and he suffers the generic ‘punishment’ of tragedy, but he is nevertheless represented as heroic and tragic at a historical moment when the only role blacks played on stage was that of a villain of low status.”   Karen Newman   1988

 ‘Psychologically Iago is a slighted man, powerfully possessed by hatred against a master who (as he thinks) has kept him down, and by envy for a man he despises who has been promoted over him.’ Neville Coghill

‘He is monstrous because, faced with the manifold richness of experience, his only reaction is calculation and the desire to manipulate … Ultimately, whatever its proximate motives, malice is motiveless; that is the secret of its power and its horror, why it can go unsuspected and why its revelation always shocks.’ Helen Gardner

‘We no longer feel, as Shakespeare’s contemporaries did, the ubiquity of Satan, but Iago is still serviceable to us, as an objective correlative of the mindless inventiveness of racist aggression.  Iago is still alive and kicking and filling migrants’ letterboxes with excrement.’

Germaine Greer

‘The audience becomes complicit in Iago’s intention and, like it or not, is soon involved in his vengeful plotting.  He actually asks them what he should do … Many actors who have played the part have been capable of getting members of the audience to share Iago’s delight in his own powers of evil invention.’

Sean McEvoy Shakespeare: The Basics (Routledge (UK))