In crafting this masterful essay, Mari Rooney used her skills as a researcher and analyst to revitalize persistent questions about Othello and offer some intriguing new answers. I would bet that you have read or seen Othello and have some opinions about it—but have you read the contemporary Renaissance tragedy All’s Lost by Lust that similarly represents “Moorish” men? Or George Best’s 1578 account that “I myself have seene an Ethiopian … taking a fair Englishe woman to Wife”? What about the bizarre descriptions of northern Africa from a German encyclopedia that Londoners read in translation after 1581? With impressive firsthand research into texts like these, Mari reinserts Othello firmly into its original historical context, and thus she arrives at a deep understanding of the ways the play responds to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century discourses about race, gender, nationalism, and more. That research (impressive enough by itself) provides raw material for her own imaginative interpretations, and that’s what allows us all to see the play anew; in her argument, Iago emerges as more than just Shakespeare’s skillful portrayal of jealousy and villainy. Instead, Mari’s essay demonstrates how the complex psychology of the character creates an ideological force-field where broad cultural problems intersect with old narrative tropes to fashion new socio-political possibilities. According to her argument, the play uses Iago to not merely represent racist prejudices, masculinist insecurities, and rhetorical constructions of non-Englishness, but to test them, critique them, re-evaluate them, and even weaken them.

WR 150: Shakespearean Controversies