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First performed in London in 1604, Othello is one of four tragedies - Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear being the others - often considered the greatest of Shakespeare's plays. In Othello himself it features arguably the first black hero to appear on the English stage, in his adversary Iago, perhaps Shakespeare's most inscrutable and notorious villain. It also features the most famous handkerchief in world literature.
Othello's depiction of the love of a black military general for a white aristocratic Venetian woman, and the undermining of that love by a vicious, racist individual, have made it a controversial play from the time of its first performance to the present day. Its examination of prejudice, in particular of racial and sexual stereotypes, makes it an especially relevant and emotive play, and critics still hotly debate the best way to interpret its action.
Above all, they argue over how we should see the tragic descent of its protagonist from widely respected soldier and leader to wife-murderer. Is Othello the epitome of nobility, corrupted only by the devilish plotting of Iago, or an arrogant and overbearing man, fatally flawed by his lack of self-knowledge? Is he brought down by an inexplicable jealousy, or undone by insecurity that stems from being a black man in a bigoted white society? These are the kinds of questions you will need to address in considering his character, and the play as a whole.
n watching and reading Othello, and in writing about it, you will inevitably exercise your powers of judgement, deciding what to make of what you see. Because the play itself is full of characters who misjudge or are manipulated by other people, perhaps what it prompts readers to do above all is to think about how we make sense of what we see, how we attach meaning to words and things. The famous handkerchief is an example of a sign that is misread - a token that Othello comes to see as "proof" of his wife Desdemona's betrayal, when it is no such thing.
How you personally choose to interpret the play will not be a matter of life and death, but in the world of Othello itself mistaken interpretations can become just that.
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