Othello - a classical drama by William Shakespeare - adapted for screen by Orson Welles, Serge Yutkevich and Oliver Parker

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

19 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Orson Welles’ adaptation of Othello
2.1. Special feature: camera work
2.2. Special feature: bars and imprisonment
2.3. Special feature: colour
2.4. Special scenes

3. Serge Yutkevich’s adaptation of Othello
3.1. Special feature: nature
3.2. Special feature: camera work
3.3. Special scenes

4. Oliver Parker’s adaptation of Othello
4.1. Special feature: main characters
4.2. Special feature: erotic and sexual images
4.3. Special feature: Iago’s motive
4.4. Special scenes

5. Comparison of the adaptations

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

There can hardly be two more different genres than a classical 16th century Shakespearian drama and a 20th century motion picture. But despite the enormous differences, many screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays have been produced. The purpose of this paper is to show how a classical Shakespearian tragedy such as Othello can be used as a basis for a 20th century motion picture and what changes the directors made in order to attract a modern audience with a Shakespearian play.

There are many adaptations of Othello, which are quite different. They range from word for word almost theatrical realisations of the play as for example the BBC version with Anthony Hopkins to modern adaptations such as the teenager movie “O” where only the main theme of Shakespeare’s Othello is kept and which is probably not recognised as a Shakespearian adaptation. In order to be able to compare the adaptations, this paper focuses on the adaptations of Othello by the directors Orson Welles, Serge Yutkevich and Oliver Parker. They are all fairly close to Shakespeare’s original but at the same time have some individual traits, which can only be found in these special versions of Othello. It should also be interesting to see how they can be distinguished according to the time when they were made, since the view and interpretation of Shakespeare’s play will differ depending on the time when the movie was directed.

According to the topic of this paper, a summary of Shakespeare’s Othello is not necessary since the general plot and a detailed knowledge of Shakespeare’s play is not crucial for the analysis of the motion pictures. The first main part of this paper gives descriptions of each adaptation. Selected key scenes will be illustrated in order to show the most distinctive features the adaptation has compared to the other adaptations. Then in the second main part the gathered information will be used in order to compare and contrast the different adaptations. A final conclusion restates and combines the facts in order to show how a classical drama can be used as a basis for a motion picture and in which way the directors made changes in order to create an interesting movie for the modern viewers.

2. Orson Welles’ adaptation of Othello

It took Welles nearly three years to finish Othello and the movie was finally released in 1952. Welles had to struggle with many financial problems. Due to this circumstance many scenes had to be re-shot in different locations – even with different actors. For example, the actress who plays Desdemona was changed three times. But in the end Welles had created an impressive adaptation of Othello, which even won the Palme d'Or in Cannes in the year 1952. The final cast consisted of Othello (Orson Welles), Iago (Michael MacLimmoir), Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier), Cassio (Michael Lawrence), Roderigo (Robert Coote) and Emilia (Fay Compton). The movie was restored and re-released in the year 1992, with an electronically altered dialogue. Welles’ adaptation is close to the original play, even though much of the text is cut out.

2.1. Special feature: camera work

Welles’ adaptation is characterized by montages of extremely short scenes which involve the juxtaposition of many different short scenes. For his adaptation “Welles assembled bits and pieces from Shakespeare’s most domestic tragedy, brought together fragments from all corners of the play, reworked them into a mosaic and then shattered them as a talisman to Othello’s chaotic search for beauty and love.”[1] These short scenes create an “hermeneutical circle – the whole cannot be understood without understanding the part, nor the part without understanding the whole.”[2] The movie consists of approximately 500 separate shots and includes shots at the same locations from various angles. There are almost no long shots.

2.2. Special feature: bars and imprisonment

Another fact, which is striking in this adaptation of Othello is the way Welles makes use of bars and images of being fenced in. There are many scenes in which gates, bars, gratings and net patterns appear and put one character in front or behind these barriers. This visual theme of being trapped or locked is visualized from the beginning of the movie on and reappears throughout the whole movie. For example Iago is imprisoned in an iron cage in the first scene. Desdemona especially can almost always be seen behind bars or through a mesh of shadows. Her room has leaded glass windows and even the hairnet she wears in the night she is killed has also a net pattern. There are further scenes including images of being imprisoned, for example when Othello listens to Iago and Cassio, he is in a concealed niche. In the bathhouse Iago stabs Roderigo to death trough duckboards. And in the final scenes, after Othello has killed Desdemona he locks himself in her bedroom and talks to Lodovico, Montano and the soldiers through a huge iron door. He has separated himself from Venice’s society. These images represent how Othello and Desdemona are trapped from the beginning of the movie on and practically have no chance to escape their confinement.


[1] Kenneth S. Rothwell,A history of Shakespeare on Screen (Cambridge, 1999), 78.

[2] Roland Barthes, 1972 in: Rothwell, 1999: 79.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Othello - a classical drama by William Shakespeare - adapted for screen by Orson Welles, Serge Yutkevich and Oliver Parker
Free University of Berlin  (Institut für Englisch Philologie)
Shakespeare and Cinema
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
438 KB
Othello, William, Shakespeare, Orson, Welles, Serge, Yutkevich, Oliver, Parker, Shakespeare, Cinema, Movies
Quote paper
Phyllis Wiechert (Author), 2003, Othello - a classical drama by William Shakespeare - adapted for screen by Orson Welles, Serge Yutkevich and Oliver Parker, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/73177


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