The development of interpreting William Shakespeare’s plays for their progressive capabilities has been increasingly common in the modern era; Shylock, the Jewish character in The Merchant of Venice, portrayed on-stage for hundreds of years as a remorseless villain, is today played as a sympathetic and often ironic character whose persecuting is often shown to be more-or-less on-par with his persecution.
Similarly, the Othello seen in modern productions of Othello is a sympathetic tragic hero, rather than a dangerous, violent, and easily manipulated caricature. Yet, while some ambiguity about the nature of the character of Othello is inherent to the text, and even in keeping with the academic sentiment that the interpretation of art is more reflective of the morality of the reader than of any ‘opinions’ one may find in the work, Othello seems to contain a far more progressive element than The Merchant of Venice—in its antagonist, who in Othello is (of course) not the racialized character, but Iago.
The character of Iago is unambiguously the antagonist of the play, and, beyond this, serves as both the catalyst to the events of the play and as the detractor or destroyer, either directly or by extension, of every character who falls in the play. Indeed, in Othello, the character of Iago does more to challenge racial stereotypes contemporary with Shakespeare’s writing thereof than does the character of Othello to affirm them.
Antagonism in Othello: