Othello as revenge drama

Features of revenge tragedy

Othello is an example of the style of Elizabethan revenge tragedy popular in Shakespeare’s day after Thomas Kidd wrote ‘The Spanish Tragedy,’ in 1587. In such plays, usually one or more characters are exacting revenge. In Othello, the central focus is on Iago, but his lies also subsequently motivate Othello and Roderigo to pursue vengeance. 
Some other (but not all) aspects typical of revenge tragedy also appear in Othello:

Machiavellian villain

The works of the Italian writer Machiavelli were popular at the time. In his book The Prince, he advised kings and other rulers how to plot and be devious in order to keep their power. Such advice was exaggerated in popular sentiment so that it is easy to believe that Iago’s evil typifies a Machiavellian plotter, albeit one working from within society rather than above it.

A malcontent

Iago has a grudge against his superiors, women, the undeserving wealthy and society as a whole, which motivates his plotting for revenge. He is suitably amoral, doing whatever is required to serve his turn. But whilst most malcontents in Jacobean drama had at least one moment of moral uprightness, Iago does not, nor does he in any way acknowledge that he deserves his eventual fate.


These are necessary, not only for advancing the plot, but also to reveal a character's state of mind. They are the only occasion, for example, when Iago voices his real opinions rather than adopting a persona. 

Murders and corpses

There are usually a number of murders that happen both on and off stage. In Othello the majority of the main characters are dead, wounded or captured for torture by the end of the play, all of them as a result of violence. Desdemona’s white corpse on stage is a focus for the tragedy throughout the last 280 lines of the play.

Physical torment

Whilst Othello doesn’t have extended scenes depicting the infliction of physical pain, Othello’s mental torment is almost as graphic. The time it takes to smother Desdemona is also realistically lengthy, her struggles gradually subsiding. 

Sudden reversals

Roderigo is clearly shocked when his ‘mentor’ Iago stabs him, but it is an unexpected reversal when Iago later discovers that Roderigo did not die before incriminating the ensign. More dramatic however is Desdemona’s apparently lifeless body briefly reviving after everyone has witnessed a lengthy death scene.
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