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Shakespeare: Othello

2. Religion

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In this module, we think about the critical reception of religion in Othello, focusing in particular on: (i) the idea of the handkerchief as a religious relic, cf. the Veil of Veronica or the Turin Shroud; (ii) the significance of Iago’s name (= James); (iii) the tension between what is seen and what is heard, cf. the idea of Catholicism as a religion of the eye vs. Protestantism as a religion of the ear; (iv) the idea of Iago as a ‘blasphemous preacher’; (v) the importance of sheep and goats imagery in the play, cf. contemporary thinking about the elect (sheep) and non-elect (goats), and the implications of predestination for tragedy more generally; (vi) the tension between Christianity and Islam, especially in the figure of Othello, and the fear of characters ‘turning Turk’, i.e. converting to Islam; and (vii) the importance of (misinterpreted) proof and (false) belief in the play, and its implications for the concept of faith (i.e. belief without proof).

Reading List:
– R. Mallette, ‘Blasphemous Preacher: Iago and the Reformation’ in Dennis Taylor and David Beauregard (eds.) Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England (2003)
– Irving Ribner, Patterns in Shakespearean Tragedy (1960)
– Philip C. Kolin, ‘Exchange Me For a Goat: Iago's Ewes and Rams, Othello's Goats and Monkeys, and Matthew 25:31-45’, Cithara 46 (2007)
– Robert Watson, 'Othello as Protestant Propaganda', in Claire McEachern and Deborah Shuger (eds.), Religion and Culture in Early Modern England (1997)
– Daniel J. Vitkus, 'Turning Turk in Othello: The Conversion and Damnation of the Moor', Shakespeare Quarterly 48.2 (1997)


In this course, Professor Lisa Hopkins (Sheffield Hallam University) explores six aspects of the critical reception of Shakespeare's Othello. In the first module, we think about the critical reception of the handkerchief, beginning with Thomas Rymer's criticism that Shakespeare could allow so much human suffering to depend on something so insignificant. After that, we think about the ways in which the play has been read in religious terms, before turning in the third module to the critical reception of race in the play. In the fourth and fifth modules, we think about the critical reception of the characters of Iago and Othello, respectively, before turning in the sixth and final module to the critical reception of women in the play.


Lisa Hopkins is Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University. Her principal research interests are in Renaissance drama, especially Marlowe, Shakespeare and Ford. She is also interested in the influence of Darwin on fiction, adaptation, and the work of Bram Stoker. At the moment, she is completing a book on From the Romans to the Normans on the English Renaissance Stage. She is a co-editor of Shakespeare, the journal of the British Shakespeare Association, and co-editor of the Arden Early Modern Drama Guides.

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Hopkins, L. (2020, January 06). Shakespeare: Othello - Religion [Video]. MASSOLIT.

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Hopkins, L. "Shakespeare: Othello – Religion." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 06 Jan 2020,

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