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Catalog of the Shakespeare Art Collection  --  Oil Paintings on Shakespearean Themes

# 88 "OTHELLO "
Description of Painting - Oil on canvas 26" x 36"
by Hannah Tompkins

 

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The painting shows the three major characters; Othello, Desdemona and Iago in a composition of black and white, light and shadow, signifying the duality of good and evil.

The inference here is NOT one of ethnological consideration but rather allegorical, ancestral imagery as licenced in the poetic domain; of heaven being light because the sun is there, and hell being dark because the sun is not there. Since hell is where the devil dwells and the devil is evil, evil has been conjugated with darkness, Whether heaven or hell really exist is a moot question and since there are no facts to substantiate either, they can safely be assigned to the imagination, the sanctuary of all symbols.

Othello is cast as "a noble Moor in the service of the Venetian state". As for his color, he says of himself:
"Haply for I am black.."
And the Duke's comment to Brabantio:
"If virtue no delighted beauty lack
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black."
Thus is he delineated here: black on the outside, white on the inside.
Iago, on the other hand, is a white Venetian who confesses:
"How can I then be a villain
When devils will the blackest sins put on
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows."
He is therefore painted white on the outside and black on the inside.

Desdemona, whose purity, inside and out has been described by various characters in the play, is painted white on white.

The divided canvas suggests the divided man. In my personal interpretation I have ascribed the following symbols to this trio:
Desdemona= Truth 
Othello..= Humanity 
Iago.....= Hate
Their encounters and interactions expound the struggle of Humankind between Truth and Hate.

To the left is Othello/Humanity pushing apart the darkness as though trying to dislodge the ground on which Iago/Hate is standing, draped in a splendid red cape, surrounded by fractured cast shadows of intrigue and deceit. His left hand is in a gesture of offering, with nothing in it. In the right, a dagger precariously poised and pointing at the heart of Othello/Humanity.

In the left foreground is Desdemona/Truth reclining on monumental blocks as Humanity looks down on her. Behind her is an oblique, translucent shield: the ignorance and suspicion that separates Humanity from Truth.

Behind the shield is the pedestal from which Truth and Love have been deposed: Othello says:
"Arise black vengeance, from thy hollow cell,
Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne To tyrannous hate:"
The pedestal set in darkness is the tragic finality of Othello's:
" Put out the light and then put out the light."
referring to the candlelight and the light of Desdemona's life. This performed, he is thrown back into the darkness.

Suspended between the three figures is a vaporous globe: the world, the sun, the moon and the mystical sphere of the soul. Having committed the murder, Othello cries:
"O insupportable: O heavy hour!
Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe
Should yawn at alteration".
Behind the frosted orb is a shaft of gaseous gray that leads the eye to the right hand corner behind Iago/ Hate where the eye is almost trapped in Iago's web. He says:
"With as little a web as this I ensnare
As great a fly as Cassio."
But Cassio escapes, as we do, as though propelled by some mystical charm back to Othello's world and his words:
"Tis true: There's magic in the web of it."
But the scorpion remains to try again:
"So I will turn her virtue into pitch
And out of her own goodness make a net
That shall enmesh them all."
However, he is ultimately trapped in his own web, but the cycle continues, the eternal, timeless struggle of Humankind, for when it is deceived by Hate, it destroys the Truth.

FIN


Copyright © 1990 Hannah Tompkins. All rights reserved.

 

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