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Shakespeare: Othello

5. Critical History

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In this module, we think about the critical history of Othello from the early 17th century to the present day, focusing in in particular on: (i) Henry Jackson’s comments when he saw the play performed by the King’s Men in Oxford in 1610; (ii) the focus of the earliest criticism on the relationship between Othello and Desdemona, and on the character of Desdemona in particular; (iii) the criticism of Thomas Rymer (A Short View of Tragedy, 1693), in which he complains about the lack of neoclassical unities, and the overall unlikeliness of the play (“Never was any Play fraught, like this of Othello, with improbabilities”); (iv) the praise of Samuel Johnson in the 18th century, who commented on Shakespeare’s ability to depict particular character traits, e.g. jealously in the case of Othello, maliciousness in the case of Iago; (v) the movement to more overtly racialised (and racist) discourse in the nineteenth century, including August Wilhelm Schlegel and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; (vi) the renewed focus on Desdemona in the 19th century, although with critical continuing to characterise her by her passivity and gentleness, e.g. Anna Jameson, Shakespeare’s Heroines (1832); (vii) A. C. Bradley’s character-driven analysis of the play (Shakespearean Tragedy, 1904); (viii) William Empson’s focus on the play’s use of language (The Structure of Complex Words, 1951); (ix) the increased engagement with the homosexual and homosocial undertones of certain characters’ relationships with one another – e.g. Michael Neill ‘Unproper Beds’ (1989) and Bruce Smith’s Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England (1991); (x) the focus from the 1960s onwards on race as an overt theme – e.g. Eldred Jones, Othello’s Countrymen (1965) and K. Hunter, Othello and Colour Prejudice (1967); and (xi) recent criticism on the play that has drawn together race and gender politics – e.g. the work of Stephen Greenblatt and Coppelia Kahn, Karen Newman (‘And Wash the Ethiop White’, 1978), Ania Loomba (Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama, 1989), Margo Hendricks and Patrician Parker (Women, ‘Race’ and Writing in the Early Modern Period, 1994), Joyce Green MacDonald (‘Acting Black’, 1994), Daniel Vitkus (Turning Turk, 2003), and Emily C. Bartels (Speaking of the Moor, 2008).


In this course, Professor Helen Smith (University of York) explores Shakespeare’s Othello. In the first module, we provide a broad introduction to the play and some of its key themes. In the second module, we think about the theme of race and racial difference in the play before turning in the third module to the theme of religious conversion in the play – the idea of “turning Turk”. In the fourth module, we look in more detail at the importance of Desdemona’s handkerchief, while in the fifth module we provide an overview of the critical history of the play, from the focus on the character of Desdemona in the earliest criticism to the exploration of race and gender politics (and their intersection) in the most recent criticism.

Note: We use the Arden edition of the play (Third Series, Revised Edition, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann). Students using a different version of the play may encounter slight differences in both the text and line numbers.


A graduate of Glasgow and York, Helen taught at St Andrews and Hertfordshire before returning to York in 2004. Her wide-ranging interests embrace Renaissance poetry, drama, and prose; history of the book; feminist literary history and theory; religion and conversion; the history of reading; and materiality.

Helen has published more than thirty articles and chapters on topics ranging from the printing of Shakespeare’s early plays to the links between reading and digestion, the cultural and domestic presence of animals, the imaginative connections between physical illness and spiritual trial, and the many uses of early modern paper.

Her first monograph, Grossly Material Things: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2012) was awarded the Roland H. Bainton Literature Prize and the DeLong Book History Prize. Helen is co-editor of Renaissance Paratexts (Cambridge University Press, 2011; paperback 2014), The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in Early Modern England, c. 1530-1700 (Oxford University Press, 2015; awarded the Roland H. Bainton Reference Prize), and Conversions: Gender and Religious Change in Early Modern Europe (Manchester University Press, 2017).

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Smith, H. (2021, January 04). Shakespeare: Othello - Critical History [Video]. MASSOLIT.

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Smith, H. "Shakespeare: Othello – Critical History." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 04 Jan 2021,

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