The Comedy of Othello: Commedia dell’Arte and Shakespeare the Genre-Bender
Episode 5 with Richard Whalen

Is Othello a comedy gone wrong?

Discover the surprising connections between Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice and Commedia dell’Arte, the satiric, improvised form of theater originating in 16th century Italy. Richard Whalen reveals how the seven main characters of Othello bear more than a coincidental resemblance to stock figures of Commedia dell’Arte. The links between Othello and Commedia dell’Arte offer insights into such perplexities as Iago’s extreme capacity for evil and Othello’s curious gullibility.

What does it mean that Shakespeare used comic characters and situations as a foundation for this bleak tragedy? And where did Shakespeare acquire his knowledge of Commedia dell’Arte, an artistic style that was unavailable in England during his most active writing years?

Recommended Reading

Books and articles for further exploration:


Richard F. Whalen is the author of Shakespeare, Who Was He? The Oxford Challenge to the Bard of Avon. He is co-general editor of the Oxfordian Shakespeare Series. His second edition of Macbeth in the series is forthcoming this year, and he is co-editor with Ren Draya of Blackburn College of the Oxfordian edition of Othello, published in 2010. Richard is past president of the Shakespeare Oxford Society and has published scores of articles in Oxfordian publications. He has also published in Harper’s Magazine and The Tennessee Law Review. His history of Truro Cape Cod, where he lives, has been published by the History Press.  A graduate of Fordham College and Yale Graduate School, he has lectured at the lifetime learning programs of Harvard University, Willamette University and several libraries.


Commedia dell’Arte in the 18th Century

Harlequin, 1577 engraving

Commedia dell’Arte troupe I Gelosi, c. 1590. By Hieronymous Francken I.

Famagusta Harbor, by John Thomson from his book, “Through Cyprus with the Camera in the Autumn of 1878.”

Edwin Booth as Iago, c. 1870


  1. John F.Newton on October 3, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Very intriguing questions and stimulating responses. Mr. Whalen’s knowledge and ability to convey it held the interest of this audience. These pod casts are a very convenient source for those interested in expanding their knowledge of this subject.

    It is a very professional presentation with the back and forth flow of communication. Adding segments of live performances is a nice touch and adds listening interest.

    All in all, an excellent production.

    • Jennifer on October 3, 2012 at 9:11 pm

      Thank you, Dad!!!!!