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Catch Up with Shakespeare: Othello

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's Shakespeare experts have been busy hosting a series of digital talks and live Q&As with A-level pupils around the country in our popular new ‘Catch Up With Shakespeare’ sessions. In the second of a short series of blogs Darren explores some of the questions and themes that arose in the sessions.

Darren Freebury-Jones

On Thursday 29 May 2021, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust lecturers Dr Darren Freebury-Jones, Dr Anjna Chouhan, and Dr Nick Walton answered questions about Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello, from students and teachers of Sir William Ramsey School, High Wycombe; Bethany School, Kent; Kennet School, Berkshire; Kineton High School, South Warwickshire; St Anne's Catholic School & Sixth Form College, Southampton; Colston’s School, Bristol; Christ the King Academy, Nottingham; and Stoke Damerel Community College. 

Darren, who was chairing the session, began by asking Anjna and Nick what quotation first springs to mind when they think of the play. Anjna responded with the line, ‘My parts, my title, and my perfect soul’, in which Othello foreshadows his downfall; the only way is downwards after making that statement! For Nick, Iago’s line, ‘Look to your wife’, leapt to mind because it hints at the ways in which female characters like Desdemona and Emilia are put under a spotlight, and also captures the male anxiety of the play. For Darren, Othello’s speech, ‘I had been happy if the general camp, / Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body, / So I had nothing known’, stood out because it indicated that the foundations of Othello’s marriage to Desdemona are shaky, and revealed Othello’s obsession with his military reputation through the juxtaposition of Desdemona’s supposed infidelity and Othello’s army. 

The first question from the audience was: ‘Why does Shakespeare choose to keep Iago alive at the end of the play?’. For Nick, Shakespeare’s tragedies always end with a sense that something hasn’t been resolved. Shakespeare doesn’t provide a fully satisfying ending and leaves a chill in the air for the audience. Anjna pointed out that characters don’t behave as they are expected to, such as Michael Cassio, who gets drunk and attacks the Governor of Cyprus. Shakespeare denies closure and answers concerning the characters’ behaviour. This is an awesome way to end Othello because the audience will continue talking about the play and will return to see a repeat performance. Knowledge itself is as ambiguous in this play as Iago’s motivations: ‘What you know, you know’, as Iago puts it.

Another question asked was: ‘How is Othello so easily manipulated?’. Anjna considered Othello to be painfully earnest, rendering him ripe for the taking for Iago. Nick pointed out that Iago is a skillful manipulator, while Othello’s sense of status means he cannot risk his reputation as a General. Darren agreed that several male characters, like Othello and Michael Cassio, are so fixated on their reputations that they are blinded to manipulation and treachery.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's Shakespeare experts hosting a digital talk and live Q&As with A-level pupils over a video call.
Anjna, Darren and Nick answer questions about Othello such as 'How is Othello so easily manipulated?'

One student asked whether Desdemona could have done more to prevent her murder. Anjna pointed out that production choices are important: sometimes the actor’s interpretation of the character can be either feisty or naive. Darren argued that Desdemona is isolated from her Venetian support system when she enters the macho, militaristic world of Cyprus, making her vulnerable. Nick also pointed out that Desdemona reveals some agency in the ways she stands up to her father, but that she is almost rubbed out of the play as it progresses. All three lecturers agreed that the change of setting from Venice to Cyprus was incredibly important in its implications for both characters and audience perceptions of them.

Another student asked whether race was a prominent theme in the play. For Anjna, that theme was more prominent in plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Comparatively, race is an underscore in Shakespeare’s play, which is set in a multicultural Venetian society. Othello is deeply fixated on his race but not many other characters seem overly concerned with it. For Anjna, the play is more about masculinity and marriage. Darren felt that Othello’s concern with being a racial outsider in the Venetian society he inhabits contributes to his downfall, but that the text of the play doesn’t necessarily deal with race and/or racism in as much detail as many critics suppose. That said, race can be prominent in performances of the play, such as productions in South Africa following the decriminalization of interracial marriage. 

Shakespeare’s plays are interpretatively flexible and endlessly adaptive. And so a tragedy like Othello, as this Q&A session proved, still resonates with students and audiences today.