Jealousy, adultery, treachery and race are the dark themes in William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. It was most probably written in 1603-04, and is based on the plot of an Italian story first published in 1565. Its sustained popularity made it one of the first productions in which a professional actress played a lead, and in 1826 it provided the first major lead for a black actor.
In the late eighteenth century, Othello became equally popular in painting, although many artists confined themselves to portraits of those playing lead roles without narrative context. With its strongly visual climax, it should have proved ideal for major narrative painters, but its themes may have been a little too challenging for most patrons.
This play is set in the midst of the war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire between 1570-73, and centres on three characters: Othello, a Moor and Venetian general, Desdemona, his young, beautiful and wealthy Venetian wife, and Iago, Othello’s malevolent passed-over ensign. When the play opens, Iago is angry that Cassio has been made Othello’s lieutenant, a post that he thinks he should hold, and Desdemona’s father, a Venetian senator, is enraged that his daughter has eloped with Othello.
William Mulready’s portrait of Ira Aldridge, painted at some time between 1840-63, shows the first black actor, who lived between about 1805-1867, in this role. Aldridge toured Europe playing Othello, and other leads including King Lear and Macbeth.
Lovis Corinth’s Black Othello from 1884 was probably the artist’s first success, and was exhibited to acclaim in Königsberg.
Among the many paintings of well-known actresses in the role of Desdemona, Albert Pinkham Ryder’s from 1896 is notable for its shocking condition, which has developed in little over a century. This has resulted from the artist’s disastrous experiments with flawed oil techniques.
William Blake is one of several who have painted double portraits of Othello and Desdemona, in this case from his early Illustrations to Shakespeare from about 1780.
Frederick Richard Pickersgill’s Othello and Desdemona from 1859 is unconventional for depicting Othello as white and monastic in appearance.
Desdemona’s father accuses Othello of seducing his daughter by sorcery, but they’re summoned to the Duke, who has learned that the Ottoman fleet is heading for the island of Cyprus. Othello is ordered to stop their attack. When the matter of his relationship with Desdemona is raised, she states that her first duty is now to her husband. She is therefore going to travel to Cyprus in the care of Iago, who in turn encourages Roderigo, who lusts after Desdemona, to come to Cyprus in the hope of seducing her. Iago thus intends gaining his revenge on the Moor.
Storms wreck the Ottoman fleet before it reaches the island, putting an end to that attack. They also delay Othello’s ship, so that Desdemona and the others arrive first. Iago hatches a plot in which Roderigo will provoke Cassio into a fight to discredit Othello’s new lieutenant, and allow Iago to convince the Moor that his new wife has been unfaithful to him with Cassio.
Above is Thomas Stothard’s study for The Return of Othello, ‘Othello,’ Act II, Scene II, painted in about 1799, and below is his finished work showing the joyful reunion of the couple once they had both arrived on Cyprus.
A feast is held to honour the marriage of Desdemona and Othello. The couple retire to bed early, leaving Cassio in charge, but Iago gets him drunk. Roderigo and Cassio fight as Iago intended, then Montano gets involved as well. Othello is summoned and questions them, only to be misled by Iago into believing Cassio is to blame. Once Othello has dismissed Cassio as his lieutenant he returns to bed, leaving Iago to advise Cassio to persuade Desdemona to arrange his reinstatement. Iago intends to get his wife to fix this with Desdemona, and for Othello to discover Cassio with Desdemona.
The following morning, Iago draws Othello away to the citadel, and arranges for Cassio to meet Desdemona, who promises to do all she can to get him reinstated. As Cassio is leaving, Iago and Othello return, allowing Iago to draw Othello’s attention to this departure and further arouse his suspicions about Cassio’s relationship with his wife.
When Desdemona returns, her husband complains of a headache, for which she proffers a handkerchief which had been his first gift to her. The handkerchief is dropped and picked up by Iago’s wife, who pockets it for her husband, who intends to leave it in Cassio’s lodgings to incriminate him. When the increasingly jealous Othello is alone again with Iago, the Moor challenges him to prove his claims about his wife and Cassio. When Iago vows to provide it, Othello commands Iago to kill Cassio, leaving him to kill Desdemona.
Desdemona sends for Cassio, but Othello arrives first. She tells him that Cassio is on his way, prompting him to pretend he has a cold and ask for the handkerchief, which she confesses she has lost. He reveals that it was charmed by a sorceress to ensure their love, making its loss disturbing. Othello is further upset when she reminds him that Cassio is coming, and he storms off, refusing to hear any case for his reinstatement.
Iago next tells Othello that Cassio has admitted to sleeping with Desdemona, which throws the Moor into a fit. When he recovers, Iago hides him so he can watch Cassio talking about Desdemona, but cunningly engages Cassio about the latter’s mistress. Othello is again misled, and witnesses Cassio’s mistress return Desdemona’s handkerchief to Cassio.
When Cassio has gone, Othello asks Iago to get him poison to give to Desdemona, but instead is persuaded to strangle her in bed that night, while Iago is to kill Cassio as instructed. A Venetian senator arrives with letters for Othello summoning him to return to Venice, leaving Cassio in command. In his rage, Othello strikes Desdemona before storming off.
Othello accuses his wife of being a whore, and dismisses her denials. Iago promises Roderigo that he will soon enjoy Desdemona once he has killed Cassio. After supper, Othello walks with the senator while Desdemona discusses infidelity with Iago’s wife, who tells her that wives should obtain their revenge in kind against unfaithful husbands.
Théodore Chassériau’s painting of Desdemona Retiring to her Bed from 1849 shows her lost in thought as Iago’s wife prepares her for bed. He developed this from one of a series of eighteen engravings of scenes from the play that he had made in 1844.
Following Iago’s instructions, Roderigo attacks Cassio in the dark, but this goes wrong. Cassio wounds Roderigo, and Iago only manages to wound Cassio in the leg. His cries inspire Othello to proceed with killing his wife. Iago pretends to help Cassio by killing Roderigo, then feigns horror at finding him dead, but Cassio’s mistress accuses Iago of being responsible. Iago’s wife is sent to inform Othello.
Antonio Muñoz Degraín’s Othello and Desdemona from 1880 is the first in the series of paintings showing the climax, as Othello enters Desdemona’s bedchamber to find her asleep.
Christian Köhler’s Othello (1859) follows, as he leans over her, incongruously with a dagger in his left hand.
Othello goes with a light to his sleeping wife and kisses her tenderly, waking her. He tells her to pray as she is about to die. She protests her innocence, and weeps when her husband tells her that Cassio is dead, as he incorrectly presumes. He smothers her in bed, then conceals her body as Iago’s wife enters to tell him of Roderigo’s death and Cassio’s wounding.
By the time of Alexandre-Marie Colin’s Othello and Desdemona (1829), Othello thinks he has suffocated his wife to death, and hears others approaching.
Desdemona regains consciousness briefly, sufficient to tell Iago’s wife that she has been murdered, but not by Othello, before finally dying. Othello confesses to her murder, explaining that Iago had told him of her adultery with Cassio. Iago and others arrive, and Othello tells of Desdemona’s handkerchief. When Iago’s wife explains what happened, the Moor suddenly realises the truth and tries to kill Iago, but is restrained. Iago stabs and kills his wife before fleeing the scene.
William Salter shows the full group assembled around the body of Desdemona, in Othello’s Lamentation (c 1857).
Othello draws a sword and laments over his wife’s body, intent on ending his own life. Iago is brought back under guard, leading Othello to try to kill him again. Othello seeks Cassio’s forgiveness and asks Iago why he had conspired against him, but Iago insists that he’ll never speak again. Othello asks that he is remembered fairly, then stabs himself and dies kissing his wife. Cassio, now appointed the governor of the island, is advised to have Iago tortured to death for his crimes.
Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.