Othello: Magic in the Web

A play that never wears out, Shakespeare’s Othello speaks to themes that are ever with us: power, lust, love, jealousy, racial hatred. As we read, discuss, and view the play, we will likely observe that these themes are ascendant in today’s American society. Yet the dramatic wonder of this play transcends analysis. Familiarity with Shakespeare is not needed for this course. MSC, Classroom #1; Limit: 30

Suggested (but not Required) Book: Othello (ed. Alvin Kernan), ISBN 0451526856.  

Paul’s notes on the course:
Othello: Magic in the Web

This course takes its subtitle from a line in the play. Othello has given Desdemona a handkerchief with a magic design in it, and she has lost it. The handkerchief becomes the lynchpin for Iago’s “proof” of Desdemona’s infidelity. More than that, though, the motifs of webs and magic are woven throughout the play, as the unthinkable becomes  the inevitable.

In a 1950’s New Criticism study of the play, titled “Magic in the Web: Action and Language in Othello,” Robert Heilman looks in depth at the patterns of language, image, and symbol that guide the action of the play. In this course we will take a different approach. For all that Othello is fertile ground for the New Critic, it seems to me that the glory of this play, written at the height of Shakespeare’s power and fame, lies in its exploration of human emotion and motivation. 

Othello may be the most human of the great tragedies; that is, it comes closest to our own experience of life, even if it is set centuries ago in Venice and Cyprus, among nobility and warriors. In choosing to set up a black hero, Shakespeare was innovating, as well as creating a scheme that generates love, lust, jealousy, and hatred on the stage. From the confrontation in Charlottesville last August to the controversy surrounding the national anthem at NFL football games, our society is faced anew with racial issues. Race plays a part in Shakespeare’s play, too, unavoidably.

Whether you are a novice or an aficionado of Shakespeare, I think you will be moved by reading and watching this timeless play. Please come join me!

The Camden Shakespeare Festival (http://camdenshakespeare.org/) is presenting Othello this summer, starting on July 28. See you there!

View the Course Website

Paul Kalkstein studied Shakespeare at Princeton and Yale, taught the plays to adolescents for 40 years, and lately discovered from his Senior College students how much there is still to learn.

Return to the Fall 2018 Courses Page

Print Friendly, PDF & Email