Wednesday, February 14th, 2018...1:40 pmnguyetra

Staging of Shakespeare’s “Othello”: A domestic tragedy

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The lights suddenly go out at once. The orchestra strikes up an abrupt, dramatic composition. As the curtain rises, excited chatters immediately fade into thin air and an absolute silence descends over the crowd. Then there is no other sound but the singing of a man who just walks on the front stage, whose expressions are of anger and exasperation:
“Tush, never tell me! I take it much unkindly…”

These images kept on floating around my head as I thought about the staging of “Othello.” Classical music, checked. Competent actors, checked. Effective stage lighting, checked. It seemed to me as if everything was ready and all it took was a simple call “Let the play begin!” I hesitated nonetheless: a small, irritating voice in the back of my mind told me not to start just yet – there was still an absent element.

It was not until I saw the term “claustrophobia” in a reading about Shakespeare’s works did I realize this was the missing piece: My “Othello” must be performed on a cramped, cluster-like stage! A highly concentrated and tightly constructed play, Othello is considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies for its domestic violence nature. The play’s lack of subplot for relief as well as great emphasis on too few a number of main characters simultaneously contribute to its claustrophobic effect, which highlights the inevitable tragedy of the main character.

It is evident that locations matter in “Othello.” At first, the plot begins with two spacious cities: Venice and Cyprus. Later on, the outer world in “Othello” gradually loses significance as the play’s focus becomes narrower and narrower, shrinking into a single spot – the family of Othello and Desdemona. The concept of claustrophobia dominates the play: its characters interdependent in a confined social setting where each individual holds a defined position, its storyline intense and compressed, its scenes confrontational and violent-oriented, its tension ever-increasing. As the scenes shift from a vast and prosperous Venice to a familial setting, the once kind-hearted protagonist slowly turns into a monster in his own home.

Shakespeare “Othello” is a terrifying journey into the human heart. Narrowed with very little space, the heart leaves no room for morality and love once it is filled with hatred and suspicion. The sense of claustrophobia is a fundamental factor for the success of “Othello”, one that I will try my best to portray in the production of this all-time domestic tragedy.


  • I love that you point out the literal space, or lack of, present in Othello because the amount of space between characters implies so much about their emotions and tensions between other characters. I think when reading the play it is not only hard to understand what is going on, but also the personalities of the characters if you do not visualize it. When you visualize the space between each character, one could imply their emotions. For example, when the characters are essentially clustered together there is a sense of intimacy. As compared to when there is a distance between the characters that implies there is no relationship, or at least a weak one. I think your post does a great job of proving that the physical qualities on a stage shape how the viewer’s or readers interpret not only the play, but also the characters.

  •   Professor Seiler
    February 20th, 2018 at 8:47 pm

    Trang, I’m with Elizabeth in appreciating your idea of literalizing the claustrophobia of _Othello_, and especially of the increased closure of the play as it goes one… just wait until Act V! (Your post also recalls Lillian’s observation about the glass-walled set in the operatic adaptation of _O_ she saw.)

    To your point about domestic tragedy, I wonder what you make of Iago’s grasp of this genre/setting. It’s Iago, after all, who gives Othello the idea of the bed as the just place to punish Desdemona.

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