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Review: Othello (*****) BBC Shakespeare Collection

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The BBC’s Shakespeare Collection production of Othello is available:
– For streaming from Ambrose Digital ($25 / £16)
– For streaming from Amazon.com ($1.99 / ~£1.25)
– As a DVD from Amazon.co.uk for  £18.93 (£9.90 used) /
Note that prices quoted are indicative and subject to change. Check the prices on the Vendors’ pages at the links above.

Our Bottom Line:

Despite its age (made in 1981), and the limitations of the production environment used, this is the best version of Othello I have seen to date. The close-ups in 4 x 3 format, are used to explore the manipulation of Othello by Iago brilliantly, and the relationship between Othello and Desdemona. Bob Hoskins (Iago), Anthony Hopkins (Othello), and Penelope Wilton (Desdemona), supported by an excellent cast, make this an unforgettable production.

Our Review (*****)

 When I first saw this production of Othello, back in the 1980s, I was astonished by the performance of Bob Hoskins. He plays Iago with a malevolent sense of humour which convinced me that, not only does the Devil have the best tunes, he also has a wicked sense of humour.

Of course, even though Iago is a key character, the play is about Othello, and Anthony Hopkins is superb as the cultivated, civilized general, overcome by jealousy. Together Hopkins and Hoskins show an intimate relationship – as intimate as any marriage – in which one party sets out to destroy the other.

Desdemona is key to the play, and Penelope Wilton plays her to perfection – the loving innocent wife who is perhaps a little too insistent that Othello forgives Cassio. In an army camp, Caesar’s wife needs to be particularly above suspicion.

These three at the centre of the play are supported by a strong supporting cast.

To prepare for this review, I re-watched this production, and found myself as moved as I remember being, back in the 1980s. So how does this production, produced for television in the 1980s, and so limited to a small 4 x 3 image, mostly used for close-ups, and limited by budget and objective to simple sets, create such a powerful effect on the viewer?

You'll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse.

You’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse.


In the very first scene, Iago demonstrates a bawdy humour which shows the soldier aggravating the patrician Brabantio, but also shows his own over-interest in sex, and perhaps, as early as A1S1, starts to show aspects of his own relationship with Emilia.

And his relationship with Rodrigo is already beginning to suggest Iago’s dominance.



Look to her Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has deceived her father, and may thee.

Look to her Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has deceived her father, and may thee.

Soon we are with the Duke of Venice (a role I remember playing with delight) in his council chamber, with Brabantio accusing Othello of stealing his daughter, Desdemona. Hopkins uses his defence against this claim, to show the cultivated nature of Othello, not the rough soldier, but at ease in the atmosphere of the council, and capable of using sophisticated rhetoric to bring the audience to his point of view.

We also learn a lot about Desdemona in this scene, which we’ve explored in our Playreading Report of Othello in November 2015

 Venice needs Othello for the war against the Turks, so he wins the argument with Brabantio, though not before Desdemona’s father sows the seed of doubt that will feed Othello’s jealousy.


And now, we’re off to Cyprus. Iago arrives first, in time to greet Cassio and Desdemona .  Cassio

It had been better you had not kissed your three fomgers so oft.

It had been better you had not kissed your three fomgers so oft.

greets Emilia, Iago’s wife with a kiss, giving Hoskins the opportunity to demonstrate his mistrust and mysogny: “You [women] rise to play, and go to bed to work.” Then Cassio shows courtesies to Desdemona, courtesies which perhaps sow the idea in Iago’s head of making Othello jealous of Cassio’s supposed relationship with Desdemona.

In Cyprus too, Iago’s relationship with Rodrigo grows. Rodrigo complains of the expense that his

Put money in thy purse.

Put money in thy purse.

supposed courtship of Desdemona is costing him, and Hoskin’s Iago uses the refrain ‘Put money in thy purse’ again and again most effectively.


Ha, I like not that.

Ha, I like not that.

In Cyprus too, Iago works on establishing and growing Othello’s jealousy. Firstly tentatively, and subtly, and then increasingly open until Othello is in a  passion of jealousy and has a epileptic fit. Hoskins and Hopkins work together brilliantly to make this passion of jealousy completely believable in the cultured, sophisticated, general of the army.



And now Iago gets hold of Othello’s handkerchief, and the plot is rapidly heading towards its denouement. Othello loses the plot, and sends

Sing willow, willow, willow.

Sing willow, willow, willow.

Desdemona to bed. She sings, most movingly, her song of willow, and talks with Emilia of the relationships between men and women and faithfulness.

But Othello is determined that Desdemona must die, and die she does before the story of Iago’s betrayal comes out, Emilia dies, Othello kills himself, and Iago is condemned to ‘cunning cruelty that can torment him much and hold him long.’

Even in writing this review, I find myself moved by the story. Of course it’s a rather good play,  but this production takes the strengths of the play and builds upon them with the powerful performances from the principals.

I can’t tell you to ‘Enjoy’, but if you haven’t seen it, ‘Watch it and be moved.’


 ‘The Director’,

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Put out the light, and then put out the light!

Put out the light, and then put out the light!

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6 Responses to "Review: Othello (*****) BBC Shakespeare Collection"

  • Sharon Wells
    May 25, 2016 - 10:56 pm Reply

    I thought Bob Hoskins was excellent in this production.
    You might like to correct the error in the third paragraph — ‘Alan’ Hopkins.

    • Richard Forsyth
      May 30, 2016 - 5:40 am Reply

      Whoops! Thanks for pointing it ou t. It’s now corrected.

      • Sharon Wells
        May 30, 2016 - 11:57 am Reply

        You’re welcome!

  • Richard Forsyth
    September 24, 2017 - 12:42 pm Reply

    Harjinder Gill commented on The Shakespeare Forum:

    I have the dvd of this comes from the BBC Shakespeare collection. This version of othello is controversial because Anthony Hopkins had to black the American actor James earl jones was going to play othello . Even with this problem this is a riveting production because of bob hoskins largo its saves the play. Please try to watch it its on utube

    • Dan H
      August 20, 2018 - 12:02 am Reply

      It’s not a problem as such, when Anthony Hopkins is a great actor. Of course you would not have a white actor playing Othello today in such a production, but we have this production now, and it is a part he had much wanted to play.

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