Othello | Sunday Observer


“Not poppy nor mandragora
Nor all the drowsy syrups
of the world
Shall ever medicine thee
to that sweet sleep
Which thou owedst yesterday.”

William Shakespeare, Othello

The BBC film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Othello is directed by Jonathan Miller and stars Anthony Hopkins as Othello, Rob Hoskins as Iago, Penelope Wilton as Desdemona, David Yelland as Cassio, Anthony Pedley as Roderigo and Rosemary Leach as Emilia.

The tragedy is set in Venice, Italy and Cyprus during the late sixteenth century. The plot revolves around the disastrous marriage between a Venetian lady called Desdemona and a Moor named Othello. The play begins in medias res or in the midst of events on the night that Othello and Desdemona elope. The Machiavellian villain Iago breaks the news of the elopement to Desdemona’s father, Brabantio who is a Venetian senator. Othello murders Desdemona because Iago tells him a malicious lie that Desdemona is having an affair with Michael Cassio who is Othello’s lieutenant.

However, Othello’s willingness to believe Iago’s lies about Desdemona is not due to credulity, and he is not a noble or sympathetic character. The Shakespearean critic A.C. Bradley paints a false picture of Othello as a noble character. Othello chooses to believe Iago’s lies about Desdemona because it gives him a reason to murder Desdemona and to use her as a sacrifice.

The critic F.R. Leavis provides an accurate analysis of Othello’s character and motivations in his essay titled “The Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero”, where he explains, “To anyone not wearing these blinkers it is plain that no subtilisation and exaltation of the Iago-devil (with consequent subordination of Othello) can save the noble hero of Bradley’s devotion. And it is plain that what we should see in Iago’s prompt success is not so much Iago’s diabolic intellect as Othello’s readiness to respond. Iago’s power, in fact, in the temptation scene is that he represents something that is in Othello— in Othello the husband of Desdemona: the essential traitor is within the gates...The tragedy is inherent in the Othello-Desdemona relationship, and Iago is a mechanism necessary to precipitate tragedy in a dramatic action.”

Hopkins brings out Othello’s inherently evil nature, but he cannot surpass Sir Laurence Olivier’s brilliant portrayal of Othello in the 1965 film adaptation of the play, where Olivierdepicts Othello’s speech, facial expressions, body language and the way he walks in such a way that Othello’s disposition betrays him and you know at a glance that Othello is a rotter, and you wonder what Desdemona saw in him. The BBC film is a very good adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello and Anthony Hopkins, Rob Hoskins, Penelope Wilton, Rosemary Leach, David Yelland and Anthony Pedley give compelling performances.