Theatre: Othello

Othello and Desdemona, after taking a stab at some pillow-talk.

"O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the Green-Eyed Monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on."
Iago, Act III, Scene 3.

"She has deceived her father, and may thee."
Brabantio, Act I, Scene 3.

"She was pure, she was clean, she was virginal too
So why'd ya hafta go and make her face turn blue?"

Othello, The Moor Of Venice is one of William Shakespeare's most famous plays. Adapted at least ten times for the screen (sometimes with setting changes), it is a play about racism (though not as we understand it today), trust, love, and betrayal.

In Venice, Othello, a Moorishnote  prince and general in the Venetian army, has acquired two enemies. Roderigo hates Othello for marrying Desdemona, an Italian noblewoman that he was interested in. Iago hates Othello for promoting a young man named Michael Cassio over him. Iago convinces Roderigo to help him destroy Othello's life using Cassio as a patsy. But Roderigo underestimates how much Iago is willing to manipulate and backstab everyone to get his revenge.

One thing that must be said is that the play is, along with a lot of contemporary works, far harsher in hindsight. It was written over two centuries before the scientific classification of races and the development of racial hierarchies and stereotypes as we understand them today, not that today's understanding of the concept is quite the same. 'Race' is by no means a static, universal concept. That's not to say people didn't look down on people who weren't from their village, or their county, but people's worlds were much smaller back then, and stereotyping and discrimination were in all probability a local or inter-county thing at the time.

It's worth noting that in times past, it was usual for white actors to play Othello by way of Blackface, up to and past the 1960s. In fact, the first time a black actor played the part in a major stage production with an otherwise white cast wasn't until 1943. Thus, the early Othello movies have a white Othello. It is a case of post-facto Values Dissonance, but it does not make such portrayals inherently bad. As a Christian Moor, or part-Moor, Othello would likely have been some sort of shade of brown - we don't really know for sure - but in his most recent portrayals he has been portrayed by very dark actors, and the 'racism' angle - often using racial stereotypes as understood in the modern USA - has been played up considerably. What slaves there were in the 16th Century Mediterranean were Slavic peoples from eastern Europe (and, in fact, the word "slave" is derived from "Slav"), and if anyone was doing the slaving it was probably an Italian, or a Turk. Racial characterisation of black people as inferior, the way we understand racism against blacks today, came after this period. A phenomenon largely, but not entirely, confined to the Americas it was a post-facto justification of sorts for the trans-Atlantic slave trade when it got going in earnest over a century later.

Trope Namer for


  • Aerith and Bob: To hispanic or latino readers, Roderigo feels unusually common.
  • Almost Dead Guy: Several characters manage a whole Final Speech apiece.
  • All Women Are Lustful: Iago says it time and again to everyone who will listen - which is, unfortunately, everyone - and more significantly, Othello, who makes the mistake of taking Iago's advice on women as he would on the battlefield. Iago also plays a stereotype card with regards to Venetian women; Venice had a real-life contemporary reputation as a city of high-class courtesans and prostitutes of all orders. Venice has lots of prostitutes; therefore Venetian women are lustful. Desdemona is a Venetian woman; therefore she is lustful and will do anything to satisfy her appetite, including cheating on Othello. Simple.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Othello. It's very hard to tell whether he is supposed to be a Moor of Moroccan descent or a Sub-Saharan African. And he was originally played by a white actor in blackface, which doesn't help at all.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Iago, in some adaptations, can be seen as this. Some scholars argue that his desire for Othello could be a possible motive for his crimes.
  • Arc Words: "Honest"
  • Artistic License – Biology: Poor smothered - and stabbed - Desdemona manages to gasp out a few words before dying. Dying of asphyxiation. Even by Renaissance standards, this may have stretched disbelief beyond the exigencies of the Rule of Drama. Most adaptations and modern productions end up cutting the speech and the stabbing entirely.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: In the BBC Modern Shakespeare adaptation, where "Ben Jago" commits a perfect crime and becomes head of the Met.
  • Batman Gambit / Evil Plan: Iago's plan to drive Othello into an absolute rampage. It works brilliantly, though it would have fallen on its face if Othello didn't listen to him.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Either this or a Downer Ending: Iago is taken to face justice, but Desdemona, Emilia, and Othello are dead, Cassio possibly crippled, Bianca is distraught, and now the white characters are both back in charge, with their prejudices reinforced by Othello's actions.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: The 1995 film production had Iago look at the camera at several points; some say this adds the idea that he was in control of everything, while it is technically described as a soliloquy in which the audience can more clearly understand Iago's scheme, and he's notably the only character to do so in the film. Though other characters make soliloquys, they look like they're musing to themselves rather than directly speaking to the audience.
    • Another effect of him being the only one to talk to the camera is to emphasise the fact that he might be satanic in some way, since he's clearly operating on a whole different level to the other characters if he has a degree of Medium Awareness.
  • But Not Too Black: As the Atlantic slave trade gained ground and racism developed as a justifying philosophy for it, it became increasingly implausible to audiences that the intelligent, complex Tragic Hero of a Shakespeare play should be a black man. As a result (and also because not having to cake on blackface made it easier to convey emotion), a paler-skinned, Arabic Othello came into fashion, who was usually characterised as being mild-mannered and civilised or aristocratic and arrogant rather than passionate and 'bestial'. These versions stuck around even after black actors playing the lead began to become more acceptable, both because of lingering racism and because of increasing guilt over the rather grotesque caricature blackface-Othello had so often become.
  • Canon Foreigner: Shakespeare created Roderigo, a character that didn't exist in the original story by Cinthio.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: One of Shakespeare's specialties was writing villains who proclaim their love for being evil without sounding lame; Iago continues the tradition.
  • Casanova Wannabe: Roderigo.
  • Character Filibuster: Iago.
  • Character Title: Othello, of course.
  • The Chessmaster: Iago. In some productions he's even shown playing Chess while talking to Othello.
  • Classic Villain: Iago represents Pride and Envy.
  • Concepts Are Cheap: Iago's motivation for acting against Othello is never specifically stated. Although he gives a few reasons in his monologues, it is never truly clear what he was trying to accomplish. His final words before being taken offstage can be seen as a Shakespearean "fuck you" for anyone trying to decipher his final goal.
    Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
    From this time forth I never will speak word.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy
  • Deadpan Snarker: Iago gets some pretty nice ones though most of them are misogynist, racist or just generally misanthropic.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Roderigo's first scene sets him up as the Dogged Nice Guy pursuing Desdemona, which he continues to believe is the case for the rest of the play.
  • Deuteragonist: Othello is actually this to Iago, with Desdemona as the tritagonist.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Othello doesn't grant Iago the promotion he wanted, so Iago decides to destroy Othello's life note .
  • The Dog Bites Back: Emilia, who ruins her evil husband's gambit.
  • Dragon with an Agenda: Iago to Othello. Also to Roderigo
  • Driven by Envy: Iago is incensed by Cassio's promotion (it's implied he's been at Othello's side for a while) and strives first to take him down and then Othello himself. Then again...
  • Driven to Suicide: Othello in the end. Interestingly, in at least one adaptation Cassio covertly passes him the knife to help him along.
  • Evil Genius: Iago.
  • Evil Is Petty: As noted in Disproportionate Retribution above, Iago decides to destroy Othello's life in response to not getting his desired promotion.
  • Exact Eavesdropping: At one point Othello hears what appears to be Cassio bragging about sleeping with Desdemona. Cassio's actually talking about his mistress, Bianca. A justified use of this trope as Iago was talking to Cassio at the time and deliberately guiding him to talk about his mistress.
  • Exact Words: Many of Iago's lies are actually true, if you interpret them as literally as possible.
  • Fallen Hero: Othello.
  • False Friend/Poisonous Friend: Iago, to everyone. Even Emilia doesn't know the full depths of his bastardry.
  • Fatal Flaw: Othello's jealousy.
  • Flaw Exploitation: Iago is the master of this, playing Brabantio's racism and paternalism, Cassio's low alcohol tolerance, Othello's jealousy, and Roderigo's lust (and lack of grey matter) all to his own advantage.
  • For the Evulz: Iago even says that he has basically no reason to destroy Othello, Desdemona, Cassio or Roderigo.
  • Get Thee to a Nunnery: Othello angrily telling Desdemona "I am glad to see you mad" has baffled Shakespearean scholars for centuries. No one is sure what that is supposed to mean.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Trope Namer, although it wasn't the first time Shakespeare used the idea of green eyes to denote jealousy.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: Iago makes sure that Cassio is one these for the majority of the play.
  • Honor Before Reason
  • Horrible Judge of Character: This is a tricky one. Othello constantly refers to Iago as "honest Iago" and everyone else seems to think likewise. To be fair, Iago does nothing to contradict this assessment until The Reveal and it's implied he goes way back with Othello.
    • Although much of what Iago says is actually perfectly honest. He does more damage through what he does not say than what he does say.
      • Moreover, "honest" was also a condescending title for a social inferior (like "sirrah"), as well as meaning "chaste" and the modern sense of "truthful". Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, plays with all three meanings.
    • Othello's lack of perception in general is the driving force of the plot. Of course Iago inflamed his emotions, but it didn't take much and once Othello had made up his mind about what was happening, he behaved in a way that was disastrously blind towards everyone else's intentions.
  • Idiot Ball: Partially, anyway. Though the plot isn't completely driven by certain characters' stupidities, most non-Iago characters are completely and conveniently stupid whenever it supports the short-term plot.
    • Othello, suspecting Desdemona, questions Emilia, who has been with Desdemona basically from Act 1 onwards, whether his wife had cheated on him with Cassio. She says no. He then asks Desdemona to promise him that she hasn't cheated. She does. He decides not to believe either of them, which, one could argue, is proof of Iago's amazing skills of manipulation, but considering that the bulk of the play takes place over three days in Cyprus and Cassio and Desdemona haven't even had a chance, it kind of suggests Othello's being a little bit silly.
    • Desdemona has promised Cassio that she'll plead his case to Othello to try and get him re-instated. Perfectly fine. Desdemona proceeds to do so, insistently and constantly, ignoring things such as timing, tact, and Othello's mood at any given moment. She is also vague about the fate of the handkerchief when being direct probably would have served her better.
    • One of the most important motifs in the play is the Handkerchief, Othello's family heirloom that he gives to Desdemona, and which becomes a symbol of all sorts of things, but particularly her innocence and faithfulness. Desdemona drops this on the floor directly in front of Othello. Nobody notices.
    • Roderigo is possibly the most stupid character in anything ever, and his stupidity directly facilitates Iago's plotting. He goes and gets smitten with Desdemona (who, given the era, is probably between twelve and sixteen years of age), and so follows her and her newly-wed husband (a big scary general) to a war-torn country in an attempt to win her back. In the meantime, he is played as a complete pawn, not only personally funding Iago's schemes, but also getting stabbed as a fundamental aspect thereof.
    • Cassio has a genius idea; flirting with his boss's wife, continuously.
  • Ignored Confession: Iago flatout tells Othello that he shouldn't believe anything Iago says and that it's all probably lies anyway. Which of course just leads Othello to trust him more, which of course was Iago's plan all along.
  • It's All About Me: Iago and to a lesser extent, Othello himself.
  • Large Ham: Laurence Olivier, in the title role. He painted his skin black, spoke in an "invented" accent, and even walked in a different and bizarre manner.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Othello.
  • Made a Slave: In Othello's Back Story, according to his stories.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Othello's relationship with Desdemona is not much liked by Iago.
  • Manipulative Bastard: "The Iago" might have been the original name for For the Evulz, but if any trope fit his name better, it would indeed be this.
  • May-December Romance: Othello is supposed to be several decades older than Desdemona, and the age disparity, as much as sensitivity to racism, is why he so quickly believes she's been unfaithful.
  • Meaningful Name: "Desdemona", unsurprisingly, means "ill-fated". Othello even calls her "ill-starred wench".
  • Mistaken for Cheating: With disastrous consequences.
  • Motive Rant: Subverted by Iago at the end. When Othello asks "why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body", Iago responds: "Demand me nothing: what you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word." However, during the play, Iago delivers numerous soliloquies bragging about his intentions and offering competing motives to the audience.
  • Murder-Suicide: Othello stabs himself after killing Desdemona and then realizing she wasn't actually cheating on him.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Othello, unfortunately too late.
  • Narcissist: Iago.
  • Near Villain Victory: Iago succeeds in his revenge plan, but he also fully intended to get away with it and live. Thanks to Emilia, he does not.
  • No Accounting for Taste: Iago and Emilia have a very unhappy marriage with him frequently making misogynistic jokes in her presence. One of the early results of her bad treatment is that Emilia puts forward some, for the time, very surprising ideas about whether a woman could ever be justified in cheating on her husband.
  • No Hero to His Valet: Emilia is the only person who doesn't think the world of Iago.
  • Overprotective Dad: Brabantio, though it's mostly a matter of "family honour", especially since she's run off with *gasp* a non-Venetian (a Moor, moreover! You know, those brown people that are the allies of the Turks!). Frankly, it could only have been worse if he was Genoese or, *gasp*, Catalonian!
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The jokes Iago throws around to disarm people are a big case of Harsher in Hindsight.
  • Poor Communication Kills: The play is basically farce Played for Drama.
  • Pride: Iago and Othello's hamartia.
  • Race Lift: The Patrick Stewart version has (white) Stewart as the title character, and everyone else is black.
    • There is a debate among scholars as to whether Othello is a black man or an Arab/Berber, as both were referred to as Moors at the time. Naturally, whenever a productions makes the call one way or the other, those who disagree with the decision will see it as a race lift.
  • Reverse Psychology: Used extensively and masterfully by Iago.
  • Scary Black Man: Othello himself, depending on how the actor chooses to portray him.
  • Signature Item Clue: The title character is convinced of his wife's infidelity when he discovers that her supposed lover is carrying her distinctive embroidered handkerchief.
  • Spanner in the Works: Emilia ruins Iago's plan simply by stating she found the handkerchief and gave it to her husband, when Othello thought Desdemona gave it to Cassio. What's more amazing is that she spilled the beans even though Iago threatened her with a knife and stabbed her when she exposed him. Badass.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Desdemona and Othello.
  • The Storyteller: How Othello won Desdemona
  • Subtext: See Ho Yay, above. Some of Iago's lines really do support this particular Epileptic Tree, at least to modern eyes.
  • Talking in Your Sleep: Iago tells Othello that he knows that Cassio has an affair with Desdemona because he heard him talking about it in his sleep.
  • Tragedy
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: The title character, with only circumstantial evidence supplied by a truly nasty Manipulative Bastard, believes that his wife, Desdemona, is cheating on him. He proceeds plots to have Cassio, her supposed lover (he isn't), killed, and ultimately kills Desdemona himself. When the truth is revealed, it drives him to suicide. There's a reason why 'Othello' is also known as 'The Tragedy of the Handkerchief'.
  • Tragic Hero: Othello is practically the textbook definition.
  • Treacherous Advisor: Iago being referred to as "honest", "dear", etc. is played up for all the irony it's worth.
  • Unaccustomed as I Am to Public Speaking...: Standing before the Venetian judges, Othello opens his speech by explaining his past as a hard-living soldier, saying he has no training in any kind of rhetoric. And he proceeds into a beautiful, eloquent, robust speech of the adventures he recounted to Desdemona. In fact, Othello's particular brand of diction is unique in Shakespeare, and some critics refer to his speaking pattern as "The Othello Music."
  • Unusual Euphemism: Throughout the play, there is a vast amount of sexual innuendo from many different characters. Iago is obsessed over Othello's sex life, introducing several more words to the lexicon in the process. Interestingly, all the other characters are far more open-minded, unlike Shakespeare's other play about race relations in Venice.
    "I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs!"
    "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe!"
  • Unwitting Pawn: Roderigo, Othello, Emilia... anyone who's not Iago, basically.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Iago completely flips his lid when Emilia exposes his duplicity and kills her in rage. When he is captured, he is completely broken at having come to the cusp of victory only to be defeated by his underestimated wife and resolves to never speak again up to his death.
  • Villain Protagonist: The plot revolves around Iago, not Othello. Iago actually has far more lines than the title character.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Iago, again. There's not one person who doesn't trust the guy. Except his wife. But who asks her opinion?
  • Vorpal Pillow: How Othello kills Desdemona.
  • Where Da White Women At?: Iago plays this card about Desdemona with regards to Othello as 'proof' of her sexual appetite. Iago goes on to convince Othello that Desdemona's defiance of her father in her courtship of and marriage to Othello is proof of her lustful nature, noting how 'unnatural' it is that she should prefer him - the exotic foreigner - over all the Venetian Dandies like Roderigo who have sought her hand.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Roderigo thinks he's the hero of a romance, which Iago encourages to his own ends.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Lampshaded by Iago: "Every way makes my gain."
  • Yandere: Othello's jealousy drives him to murder Desdemona over her perceived infidelity. According to Alternative Character Interpretation, Iago himself spurred Othello on out of his own jealousy at Othello and Desdemona's happiness.
  • You Know What You Did: The basis of the entire plot.

Adaptations include:

  • An 1887 opera by Giuseppe Verdi
    • Which, while being generally true to the story, unfortunately ends with Iago running away, which significantly decreases his Magnificent Bastard status. invoked
    • As well as more obscure operas by Rossini (1816, featuring an optional happy ending) and Daron Hagen (1999, retitled Bandanna, with Othello as the Mexican-born sheriff of a 1960's US border town)
  • Paul Robeson and James Earl Jones both made their names playing Othello in the theater, in the 50s-70s, with the latter following in the former's footsteps.
  • A 1952 film directed by and starring Orson Welles
  • A 1965 film starring Laurence Olivier
  • A 1981 BBC production starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role. It was originally going to star James Earl Jones, but British Equity disapproved.
  • A 1986 film of the opera directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Placido Domingo and Renata Scotto
  • A 1995 version starring Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Fishburne, and Irene Jacob. Notable for being the first film adaptation to feature a black man as Othello. (Also notable for Othello's Shirtless Scene.)
  • A 1997 "photo negative" production by the Royal Shakespearean Society featured an all-black cast, with Patrick Stewart as Othello. With a stylish "fracture" skull tattoo to emphasize his martial prowess.
  • A 2001 film directed by Geoffrey Sax and starring Christopher Eccleston, Eamonn Walker, and Keeley Hawes, which moved the plot to modern England and changed everyone's names. The male protagonists are high-ranking police officers in the London Met.
  • A 2001 film entitled "O" (originally slated for 1998 release), directed by Tim Blake Nelson and starring Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, Andrew Keegan, and Julia Stiles. Updated to modern times and set at a prep school.
  • A 2006 Hindi film titled Omkara. The setting is updated to modern rural India, Othello changes from being a moor to a half-caste. Also Iago (named Langda (Hindi for limp) Tyagi because of his limp) is given a reason for trying to destroy Omkara's life although it's still Disproportionate Retribution.
  • A 2008 Malaysian film called "Jarum Halus", directed by first time director, 22-year-old Mark Tan. The film is set in modern-day Kuala Lumpur with Othello changed to a Chinese CEO called Daniel who works at a company dominated by Malays. Guess who he runs away with. It stars Razif Hashim, Christien New, Juliana Ibrahim, and Dato Rahim Razali.
  • The central love story was adapted into Harlem Duet by Canadian playwright Djanet Sears