'Othello' is one of Shakespeare's later plays and one of his great tragedies, penned sometime between 'Hamlet' and 'King Lear'. It's a play which emphatically presents cultural tensions - gender, race, religion, nation, role. It's a play which, perhaps more thoroughly than any of his other works, relies on the potency of opposition and contrast, the characters being polarised into black and white.
Othello is a Moorish general who has saved Venice and who is now based on the exotic Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Here is a man who, despite his 'alien' origins, is hailed as the saviour of his community, a man who is universally loved and admired, except by his lieutenant, Iago.
In Iago Shakespeare beats out with blacksmith rhythm one of his greatest creations, a man fired by jealousy, tempered by hatred, a man whose determination is hammered into shape and whose evil expresses itself in duplicitous twists and malignant turns enough to topple Othello. It is the nature of Shakespearean tragedy that the hero should plunge from the sublime heights to utter destitution, despair, and death.
The cornerstone of Othello's triumph is his great love for his lady, Desdemona. Winning her hand, securing her devotion is his greatest achievement and elevates him to unimagined happiness. Yet it this very foundation which Iago undermines with the seed of jealousy. As suspicion takes root, the whole edifice of Othello's power and completeness collapses about him. He murders his wife, faces the realisation of what he has done, and recognises that eternal damnation is less of a punishment that enduring life aware of his own guilt.
Shakespeare is a major architect of English. His phraseology permeates the language like the mortar binding together a building. 'Hamlet', it has been said, is a play written in clichés, so commonplace have become the scores of quotations which have been lifted from it. 'Othello' has had a less dramatic impact on the language, but it remains one of the great examples of the tragedian's craft.
'Othello' embodies Shakespeare's oft-repeated theme of love and duty as the mortar mix which binds society. It is Othello's tragedy that he should adulterate both, exposing them as weaknesses rather than strengths, the alchemy of his emotions reducing them to acids which will eat into his soul and corrupt his very nature.
Shakespeare took characterisation to a new level. His triumph is not only in his invigoration of the English language but in his psychological awareness and insight, his ability to get inside the minds of his characters long before social science was conceived or psychology became the lingua franca of literature. Shakespeare's characters have a realism which contrasts with the earlier role of the staged character as a mouthpiece for words and vehicle for action. Shakespeare's characters breathe, their dilemmas and tragedies are painfully human.
Othello and Iago are two of his greatest creatures. Villainy, we discover, can be as enthralling and dramatically dynamic as any heroic role. A play which can pit such characters against one another is a play which will provide lasting rewards for both its audience and its actors. Shakespeare's plays, remember, have thrilled and inspired actors for centuries: they continue to do so, and each generation of actors wrings new interpretations and understandings from performance.
There are many published editions of the play available - your choice may reflect your pocket, it may more likely reflect your need to study for school or college. It's worth contrasting the various popular editions available and considering which most adequately meets your needs.
My first choice, for any student or anyone seeking a sound understanding of the play, is the Arden edition. It provides the most extensive notes, offers insights into the play and its performance, explores the dynamics of its characters, and offers you an excellent appreciation of the text. The textual notes are comprehensive and readily comprehensible. They are included on the same page as the text - text at the top, notes at the bottom - and make it easy to follow the meaning of the dialogue. Add to this good quality paper and printing, and you have a robust edition and an exciting resource for the student.
The Penguin Shakespeare edition offers an excellent introduction - some seventy pages of analysis of the play's themes and dynamics. This is well worth reading by any student. A small, pocket-sized edition, it is also convenient for carrying around. However, the notes on the text, while excellent, are confined to the back of the book - you have to keep turning backwards and forwards to refer to them, and this can be a drawback. Note, also, that there are three Penguin edition available. The Penguin Shakespeare is more up-to-date than the New Penguin Shakespeare, and the Penguin Popular Classics simply delivers the text of the play with little or nothing in the way of notes.
The New Cambridge Shakespeare is a sophisticated resource - it provides a dynamic Introduction, analysing the play and providing the sort of intellectual baseline sixth form and first year university students need. It offers further analysis at the end of the play. The text, itself, is beautifully printed, with tight little notes at the foot of each page (you may find you need glasses to follow these, however). Still, an edition to be recommended.
The Cambridge School Shakespeare provides lots of ideas for groupwork and class analysis of text and themes, and must provide teachers with an excellent practical resource with which to engage their class. The text appears on the right hand page, notes and commentary are kept to the left hand page - making it very accessible and readable. There is also a quality feel to the paper and printing.
The Heinemann edition is aimed at 'A' level students in the UK. It offers page by page notes on the text plus an overview of what is happening on stage to give you an insight into this as an active dramatic production, not simply words on a page. It's well laid out, well produced, well printed, making the text easy to follow. There are questions posed about the drama and characters, providing stimulating material for teaching and learning in groups, or for individual thought. There's a significant section at the rear of the book exploring themes and the major questions in the play, leading the student (and teacher) into a deeper awareness of language, setting, characterisation and drama. Designed emphatically for 'A' level students, it will nevertheless prove useful for first year at university (and possibly beyond), thanks to its ability to generate ideas and questions.
The Longman's School Shakespeare also provides notes on the left hand page, text on the right. The text is, perhaps, better presented than the Cambridge 'School' edition - it is slightly more expansive and lucid. The notes, however, don't feel as robust as in the Cambridge edition - they're more limited and less comprehensive.
The Oxford School Shakespeare is, I feel, the weakest of the 'school' editions. Overall, I didn't find it as dynamic or thought-provoking as the others. It provides a brief synopsis, a scene by scene analysis, and some useful notes. But text and notes run together on the same page, giving it a congested, claustrophobic feel which I found disconcerting.
For school work, I'd go for the Cambridge, Heinemann, or Longman's, for the keen student, the Arden edition is my top recommendation, followed by the New Cambridge. However, if you are studying the play, it's worth collaborating with your fellow students - you each acquire a different edition of the text, then you can compare and contrast the notes and commentaries.