Our tragic, universal flaw: We are all Othello

Peter Macon as Othello and Laura Baranik as Desdemona in in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's 'Othello.' Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen. Peter Macon as Othello and Laura Baranik as Desdemona in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s ‘Othello.’ Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in The Denver Post in 2010 before the Denver Center Theatre Company’s staging of ‘Othello.’ A new production featuring DCPA veterans Geoffrey Kent, Sam Gregory, Peter Simon Hilton and Rodney Lizcano is now being presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through Aug. 8 in Boulder. Ticket information below.

By John Moore

There was only one Othello.

But even 400 years later, it seems as if there are aspects of the murderous Moor’s general character — and character flaws — in each of us.

Some of us are born great. Some of us wouldn’t know greatness if it were thrust upon us.

But we are all, at times, so easily misled. We succumb to insecurity. We misplace our trust. We turn degrees of violent.

We see the fallout play out in news headlines every day.

Singer Kurt Cobain, the pop legend now reads, followed a siren into the drug culture and eventually paid for it with his life. Thousands of investors — Othellos, all of them — trusted Bernie Madoff with their money, and it cost them at least $18 billion.

The fictional black Othello rose from slave to leader of the Venetian military. He fell fully in love with a white wife who was unafraid to challenge the prevailing racial bias of her day. They loved in bliss until malevolent and unfounded gossip fueled his utter moral disintegration.

Like a thread irretrievably pulled, this once-noble lover murders his innocent wife in a fit of blind, barbaric jealousy.

We all have a string-puller. Othello’s is a viper at his side named Iago. The general’s top lieutenant is motivated by military ambition and sexual jealousy. But he serves, in effect, as evil personified, and leads Othello down a dark path.

“Iagos” can take many forms, wreaking carnage that can range from silly to monumental. On the reality TV series The Hills, for example, fans see Spencer Pratt as an Iago figure for turning his wife, Heidi Montag, against all her friends.

But Iago can also be more institutional, and far more consequential: The CIA led Gen. Colin Powell to believe in the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And his fervid belief in that intelligence propelled an ongoing, unpopular war and cost him his own political aspirations.

And sometimes Iago is simply the devil inside. The most obvious, modern-day Othello of them all is former football hero O.J. Simpson. He, too, is a black man widely thought to have murdered his privileged, white ex-wife and her friend in a jealous rage.

“You hear about it all the time,” said Robert Jason Jackson, who played the Moor in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s 2010 production of Othello. “A jealous man comes in and shoots the wife, the kids, the grandmother and anybody else who’s around.”

According to the World Health Organization, three women are killed by an intimate partner every day.

“What is it in a person?” Jackson asks rhetorically. “We can’t understand it — but we can relate to it. Because over and over, we see people do horrible things, ruining the lives not only of themselves, but of anyone and everyone around them.”


The monster that blinded Shakespeare’s fallen hero remains so recognizable, there is a name for it in psychoanalysis: It’s called the Othello syndrome — by definition, the delusion of infidelity by a spouse or partner. And it is often accompanied by some degree of post-traumatic stress that manifests itself in a passion that turns to jealousy that turns to savagery.

And it’s magnified when the deluded one already has made a career out of killing.

“There is a schizophrenia associated with war,” said Jackson, “with men who have spent all their lives killing people in battle.”

Think Robert Duvall, who in Apocalypse Now delivers the immortal cinematic line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Think he’s coming out the other end well-adjusted?

At a military base in Killeen, Texas, an Army psychiatrist went on a shooting rampage last year that left 13 dead and dozens wounded.

Closer to home, there have been a cluster of murders involving Fort Carson soldiers experts believe returned from combat duty in Iraq with brain injuries or various forms of stress-related anxiety.

And sometimes all it takes to set a fragile psyche off is a whisper in a vulnerable ear.

“Othello” is not a tragic character solely because of what he does to Desdemona, Jackson said; it’s also because of who he once was.

“When we meet Othello, he is a man of an open and honest nature. He believes in the decency and virtues of people,” said Jackson.

A man with royal roots

Othello was born into African royalty, but at that time, whoever was the Turkish leader was considered the leader of the entire Islamic world. “He would literally seize all the royal children that were born in various Islamic countries, and that would keep their parents in tow,” he said.

If their parents ever did anything against the Turkish leader, their children would be sold into slavery. And that’s what happened to Othello.

It’s his subsequent rise to lead Venice’s army and his great love affair with Desdemona that make him a great, tragic figure.

“Othello is considered by some Shakespearean authorities as perhaps the greatest lover in the entire canon; certainly equal to Romeo,” said Jackson. “It’s an idyllic love. Desdemona has turned away suitors of her own culture and status, and has instead fallen for this exotic man — this alien, really — at a time when Venetian society was very closed.”

That racial element, Jackson said, is what makes it difficult to fully equate any contemporary figure to the real Othello.

“The difference is that, today, most all of our societies — European, Asian, African, the Americas — we all have people of different ethnicities and cultures within our societies. That was not the case in Venice. So there was that much more at stake.”

But what compares and endures is the gigantic arc in Othello’s character: a man celebrated for his prowess on the battlefield, yet utterly naive when it comes to personal, human relations.

“I really am constantly amazed at how clued-in Shakespeare was to the human condition,” Jackson said. “That’s what makes this 400-year-old play still so very relevant today.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist, where he is the editor of a new media outlet that covers the Colorado theatre community.

Othello in real life

We all have buttons that, when pushed, can lead to our own unraveling. For Shakespeare’s Othello, it was his wife’s imagined infidelity, simmered by his pal Iago’s lies. But history is full of Othellos who misplace their trust – or listen to the devil inside them. A few to consider:

Modern-day OthellosKurt Cobain, like Othello, was an outsider who rose through the ranks to become a great leader. For Othello, it was an army, for Cobain, it was an army of ambivalent grunge rockers. Courtney Love was both his Desdemona and his Iago – she was the great love of his life, but also the woman said to have gotten him started on the drugs that led to his suicide.

O.J. Simpson was a famous, rich and gifted black man. Nicole Brown was his white wife, and mother of their children. And he was found responsible (at least in civil court) for savagely butchering her and her friend, Ron Goldman, in a bloody ambush.

Colin Powell is a four-star Army general whose civility and statesmanship earned him widespread bipartisan respect. His testimony that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, based largely on CIA briefings, swung the tide of public opinion in favor of war. But the weapons have never been found, and that has cost Powell his reputation and, some say, any chance at the presidency.

In the most admittedly vapid application of our point, Crested Butte-born reality TV star Heidi Montag could be considered Othello to Spencer Pratt’s Iago. Fans think of him as pure evil, a man who wed Montag in 2008 and has since cost her all her friends, including series star Lauren Conrad.

Gossipmongers feasted in 2006 on news that Brooke Astor, the New York socialite and philanthropist with Alzheimer’s, was swindled of millions and mistreated by her own son. Tony Marshall, her only child, was indicted on criminal charges, including grand larceny, possession of stolen property, forgery and conspiracy.

Enron’s Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. Think of these two as a pair of Iagos who pressured the now-defunct accounting firm Arthur Andersen (we’ll call them Othello) to help them defraud their shareholders. Talk about a disaster. It cost 20,000 employees their jobs and many of them their life savings. Investors lost billions.

And a few you may not have thought of …

Hisham Talaat Moustafa was one of Egypt’s biggest property owners, worth $800 million. He was sentenced to death by hanging for paying $2 million for the 2008 killing of Lebanese pop star Suzanne Tamim, his former lover. A new trial has been ordered.

Sir Walter Raleigh was the British knight who led the royal search for a rumored “City of Gold” in South America. But when a Spanish outpost was illegally ransacked by men under Raleigh’s command, he was arrested on his return to England and beheaded in 1618. He was said to be brought down by the machinations of corrupt Spanish ambassador Count Gondomar, who successfully lobbied King James for his death.

Compiled by John Moore, with help from “Othello” cast members Meghan Wolf, Allison Pisotrius, Stephen Weitz, Randy Moore and Denver Center dramaturg Doug Langworthy.


Tragedy. Presented by the Colorado Sheakespeare Festival.

Dates: June 26-Aug. 8 in the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre .

Tickets are available at coloradoshakes.org or by calling 303-492-8008.

The box office is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and is located in the University Club on the CU-Boulder campus.

Also playing: Much Ado About Nothing, Wittenberg, Henry V and Henry VI, Part I

Previous coverage of the 2015 Colorado Shakespeare Festival:
2015 Colorado Shakes: Tried and true; black and blue-blooded


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