Paul Foot

Reaching across the centuries

(7 January 1989)

From Socialist Worker, 7 January 1989.
Reprinted in Paul Foot, Articles of Resistance, London 2000, pp. 19–21.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The best thing about Christmas was Janet Suzman’s Othello on Channel 4. I have been a Shakespeare freak from a very young age, largely because I never did a Shakespeare play for any examination, and so could read the stuff (and speak it) for pleasure.

For years and years I puzzled over Othello. I couldn’t understand why Iago was so keen to do him down. I read the conventional criticism, including a man called Bradley, who wailed on about a ‘tragic flaw’ in Othello’s character, which was mirrored by a ‘tragic flaw’ in Iago’s character. The whole play, said Bradley, was about jealousy. Othello was jealous of Desdemona, and Iago of Othello. Not very convincing. I always thought the play more haunting and overpowering than any other.

One cold night about twelve years ago I spoke to a socialist meeting in Nottingham and stayed with a comrade who was interested in drama. The next day, as I was about to leave, he pressed into my hands a Pelican book called Shakespeare in a Changing World. I flicked through it as the train pulled out. It was written by people who were once Marxists or who might (at that time) admit to be Marxists, but on the whole were trying to avoid letting their readers know they were Marxists.

I was about to put it down when I came across a chapter entitled Othello and the Dignity of Man by G.M. Matthews.


I got to know Geoffrey Matthews later. He was, for all too short a time, a friend and a teacher. I shared his passion for the revolutionary poet Shelley. Geoffrey read Shelley not as a dead poet but a living revolutionary, and so he understood him. He also read and enjoyed Shakespeare, not just as the greatest poet and dramatist of them all, but also as a creature of revolutionary times who took a deep interest in the world about him.

Suddenly, I read two sentences which laid Othello bare.

Iago hates Othello because he is a Moor. This irrational but powerful motive, underlying the obsessive intensity of his feeling and the improvised reasons with which he justifies it, continually presses up towards the surface of his language.

Yes, but what of the ‘tragic flaw’ in Othello? Geoffrey explains:

The theory is a nuisance because the potentialities of men are infinite and any number of potential ‘flaws’ can be found or invented to account for his downfall. Yet in all Shakespeare’s tragedies, except perhaps Macbeth, the determining ‘flaw’ is in society rather than in the hero’s supposed distance from perfection.


Tragedy does not occur in Hamlet because the hero has a bad habit of not killing at once, but because the power of the Danish Court is founded on violence and adultery ...

The ‘tragic flaw’ theory means that it is a punishable offence to be any particular kind of a man. Moreover it shifts the emphasis from men in conflict to the private mind.

Othello all becomes very, very clear in this magnificent essay—but where to see it on stage? Othello is usually played by some fruity-voiced RADA graduate, rather apologetically blacked up. Extracts about racism, ‘human nature’ and prejudice are quietly shoved into the background.

I don’t know if Janet Suzman ever read Geoffrey Matthews, but the two seemed to come together most miraculously in her production – which was devised especially for the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, and greeted with sustained delight there by packed audiences of every colour, night after night.

Othello here is ‘rude of speech’ (though his language is magnificent). He is a South African black warrior marrying the daughter of a prominent white businessman. And Iago, though he recognises the Moor for a decent, generous, brave, open-hearted and friendly man, hates him with a consuming, irrational and all-devouring passion because he is a Moor.

The play throws its passions and its problems through 400 years, and means something at last. It is also triumphant. Geoffrey Matthews wrote:

All that Iago’s poison has achieved is an object that ‘poisons sight’: a bed on which a black man and a white woman, though they are dead, are embracing. Human dignity, the play says, is indivisible.

Last updated on 30 June 2014