Fear, Anger and Love

Exploring the Essence of Jealousy in two Othello Films

by andres lombana

Among all human emotions, jealousy is perhaps one of the most difficult to understand. Jealousy is a mix of fear, anger and love. It originates in love, ends in anger, and is produced by the fear that the loved person likes someone else better. Experiencing it can make human beings fools, irrational and crazy.  In The tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice, written by William Shakespeare around 1603, we find a successful dramatic representation of this complex emotion. The protagonist, a Moorish warrior that serves Venice, loses his reason and his heroism because of jealousy. Othello loves very much his wife and, guided by the confusing words of Iago, ends believing that his wife has had an affair with another man. The devastating effects of jealousy move Othello to kill Desdemona, his wife, and then to commit suicide.

In this paper I would like to compare two film adaptations of Shakespeare’s Othello:  Orson Welles’ The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (1952) andFrancoZeffirelli’s Otello (1986). Both films capture the essence of jealousy (a mixture of love, fear and anger) using the aural and visual features of the cinematic medium. Although both films successfully depict the fall of the hero and his loss in jealous madness, each film has the very particular signature of its auteur. Welles and Zeffirelli added their own mark to the tradition of Shakespeare on screen: the first with his particular way of editing fragmented shots (montage), his use of expressionist photography and his minimal use of sound; and the second with his fabulous scenery, his excessive use of visual symbolic details, and his use of Giuseppe Verdi’s music.

Orson Welles, the prolific American theater/radio/film director and actor, spent almost four years (1949-1952) making his cinematographic adaptation of Othello. Although Welles had already made Citizen Kane in 1941 and Macbeth, another Shakespearian adaptation, in 1948, it was very difficult to get enough money to complete his Othello film. He was filming in Europe and Morocco and had to work as an actor in other projects in order to get the money to complete his new production. As a result, the making of the movie was a very fragmented process with many breaks and difficulties, a real challenge that ended with the release of the film in 1952, a Palme d’Or in Cannes, a hostile reception by contemporary English and American critics, and a failure at the box-office. The major flaws identified in the movie at that time were the use of camera and montage, the fragmented narrative, and the bad quality of the soundtrack (it suffered complete drop-outs and the musical score was inaudible).  The critics and audiences then were prepared for neither the vertiginous fast tempo of the montage nor the non-linear narrative. In 1992, Welles’ daughter Beatrice Welles-Smith supervised a restoration of the film that fixed the problems with the sound, reconstructed Lavignino’s original score and added stereo sound effects to the original film. The release of Othello’s restoration brought new attention to the film and critics and scholars have recognized its many virtues. This paper, for instance, uses the restoration version as a media text.

Franco Zeffirelli, the Italian opera/theater/film director and designer, could not resist the temptation of making his Otello version after having directed the film adaptations of Romeo and Juliet in 1968 and The Taming of the Shrew in 1967. However, his Otello does not come straight from the Shakespeare text but from Verdi’s opera (1887). Zeffirelli’s Otello is a film overall, an opera-film that uses all the features of the cinematic medium and integrates them with the singing and music of the opera. The result is a long film (122 minutes) –still shorter than the opera– in which the visuals are incredibly rich. In fact, as Marcia Citron has argued in her article “A night at the Cinema: Zeffirelli’s Otello and the genre of film-opera”, visuality guides the organization of the music in this film. With the help of conductor Lorin Maazel, the music was tailored to the needs of the cinematic medium. For instance, the tempo was made slower than the original in some passages and the continuity of Verdi’s music was cut for inserting silences and transitions between the scenes. In spite of these changes, the music maintains all the beauty of Verdi’s masterpiece. The interpretation by the Orchestra and Chorus from Teatro alla Scala of Milan together with the lyrical singing of  Plácido Domingo, Katia Ricciarelli, Justino Díaz, and Urbano Barberini among others, and the quality of sound are excellent. The only criticism is that the dubbing is poor in this film, and on the screen the mouths of the singers do not perfectly synchronize with the voices that we heard.              

For the purpose of this paper I have selected three scenes from Welles’ and Zeffirelli’s films that are crucial for representing the essence of jealousy and the fall of the hero. I have named them “Storm and tempest” (Othello arrives in Cyprus as a hero and meets his wife after surviving a storm in the sea), “The seed of suspicion” (Othello talks to Iago and starts to doubt his wife), and “The murder of Desdemona” (Othello kills his wife with furious anger). Each scene represents one of the emotions that mixed together are the essence of jealousy: love, fear and anger.  I will compare the visual and aural elements present in these scenes and highlight their special features and accomplishments in order to demonstrate how each director represents the essence of jealousy while narrating the fall of a hero.


Storm and tempest

Welles’ portrait of the arrival of Othello in Cyprus is a very good example of the montage technique invented by Sergei Eisenstein. Basically, this technique juxtaposes shots that differ distinctly from one another. These elements, united because they collide, lead to a new meaning. In Eisenstein’s words: “(…) montage is conflict. (…) If montage is to be compared with something (…) [it] should be compared to the series of explosions of an internal combustion engine, driving forward its automobile or tractor: for, similarly the dynamics of montage serve as impulses driving forward the total film” (38).

The “Storm and tempest” scene is broken in Welles’ film into many shots from different perspectives. These shots are edited in a very fast tempo that produces a vibrant style sometimes confusing to the spectator. These shot are in conflict. Between each cut, the viewer is always missing something. There are always ellipses and this fact leads to an active participation by the spectator who has to feel all the gaps and, as Eisenstein said, generate some new meaning.

I was able to count 37 different shots (some shots may have escaped my eyes).  All of them are in constant conflict and collision. As an engine, the montage in this scene drives us to an epic moment, the arrival of the hero after bearing the dangers of nature and the meeting with his beloved wife. The visual world represented in the screen is plenty of light, is open, is vigorous, and is monumental.

The scene begins with the juxtaposition of extreme long shots of a black sky and lightning and frontal shots with medium close-ups of one cannon with the sea in the background. This juxtaposition repeats two times at a very fast tempo. Then, the shots of the sky and lightning are juxtaposed with extreme long shots of a choppy sea and middle shots with high angles of a fortress. These juxtapositions of shots from different angles and camera distances compose the mise-en-scene of a tempest where the nature is depicted as powerful and furious. This feature of the natural world is analogous to the love that Othello feels for his wife. The sound effects also work in this introductory phase in the same way as the visuals generating a strong contrast and conflict and configuring the epic world and the passionate love. For instance, the diagetic sounds of thunders and waves are juxtaposed and even mixed with the sound of a strong wind.

The montage increases tension around the arrival of the Othello’s ship. Medium shots and close-ups from low and frontal angles of characters (Roderigo, Cassio, Iago and Desdemona) looking at the horizon are juxtaposed with long shots from low and high angles of the fortress, few frontal long shots of the ship approaching to the coast and arriving to the port, and medium and close-ups shots from frontal and low angles of soldiers with trumpets and cannons. In a world with one hero, his arrival generates great expectation. The fragmented and oscillating perspectives of the camera shots reflect this anxious desire of seeing the hero in the screen. The use of diagetic sounds increases as well the configuration of the epic world in this part of the scene: sounds of cannons and trumpets celebrate a war hero in the middle of a fortress with an open sky and an open sea.

Finally, the hero appears in the mise-en-scene. With long shots from high and low angles Othello (Orson Welles) is presented entering the fortress with a flare in his hand. He runs to meet his beloved wife. Medium close-up shots of Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier) from eye level and low angles are juxtaposed with medium shots from high angles of Othello running. Then, medium shots from low angles of Othello and Desdemona together, surrounded by soldiers and with the fortress as a background, are juxtaposed with long shots of soldiers with flags doing a military formation, medium long shots and close-ups with low angles of soldiers with trumpets, and extreme long shots of the fortress with a crowd of soldiers in its walls. The montage of all these different kind of shots confirms to the viewer the heroism of Othello in a military world of trumpets, soldiers and flags. It also depicts the deep and strong love that Othello and Desdemona feel for each other.

The epic world depicted in this scene is also related to an epic love, a love that is enormous and passionate as the choppy sea and the lightning, a love that is clear and clean as the long diagonals that Welles traces in the expressionist photography that appears in each shot. Othello and Desdemona love each other and they are in the middle of an epic world running into each other, getting together, moving as the nature that is in the background moves.  Welles has made the shots of their meeting different from the other shots that appear in the scene. Their shots do not look like still images in which the actors are not really making any actions. The bodies of Othello and Desdemona do not seem to be without movement, and they are not just posing with beautiful costumes in front of monumental buildings and vast spaces. Othello and Desdemona are being moved by their love. And this strong emotion, mixed in Othello’s mind with fear and anger, will constitute the essence of jealousy and will cause his fall.

In contrast to the 3 minutes of length that has the “Storm and tempest” scene in Welles’ film, the same scene takes 6 minutes in Zeffirelli’s Otello. Having more time for the scene allows Zeffirelli to develop a narrative that appears more fluid to the spectator and is not as fragmented as the one of Welles. Zefirelli’s scene is easier to read but does not generate neither a mental movement in the spectator (to fill the gaps and ellipses of the narrative), nor create a high degree of contrast and tension as in Welles’ montage. The shots last longer and have pans, zooms and trackings that tell, through a slow pace, a complete story of what is happening in the Cyprus’ fortress and port. Instead of observing 37 shots, I just found 14 different shots in Zeffirelli’s scene. This few shots have the same function as the many shots of Welles, they portray an epic world and a passionate love.

Unlike Welles, Zeffirelli uses symbolic visual details for the configuration of an epic world during this scene. The shot from an eye level angle of a winged lion sculpted in a fortress wall opens the scene and as well the film. The camera makes a zoom out from the lion while the light changes in a lightning effect and then cuts to a long shot with high angle of a choppy sea with a blur swinging ship. This winged lion represents not only Venice but as well the hero, Othello’s power and strength, and functions through the film as a recurrent icon that will appear in doors, flags, and sculptures. In some sense the lion is the symbol of the epic world that Othello is going to lost. There is also a long shot of a crucifix inside a subterranean chamber that is relevant because the catholic imagery becomes central in Zeffirelli’s film. The epic world and the passionate love are represented in relation to the catholic religion; they are framed by the catholic faith. The arrival of the hero and the meeting of the lovers are in some way  a product of the faith. A third symbol is also shown at the end of this scene: a sword in the hero’s right hand. This symbol is directly associated with the battle and the war, and becomes very relevant when Othello gives it to his wife. In this moment it is evident that the epic world and the passionate love are represented together in the “Storm and tempest” scene.

Similarly to Welles, Zefirelli creates expectation before the Othello’s ship arrives and start to configure the epic world and the passionate love in exterior settings. The Cyprus port is huge and plenty of actors and details. There is fire in some of the fortress towers and soldiers in front of it. There are rain and lightning in the sky. There are long shots with high angles of the fortress and citizens in the street. There are many long shots with high angle of the swinging ship in the middle of a choppy sea. There are medium shots with eye level and point of view angles of soldiers and port workers screaming. All this shots are edited in a slow pace allowing the zooms, pans and trackings to move slowly while the Verdi’s music is becoming more vigorous.

In Zeffirelli scene, the sound effects work pretty well with the opera music. The diagetic sounds of the fire, the rain, the wind and the waves are mixed with the sounds of the orchestra and the chorus. For instance, in the first shot the sound of a thunder is blended with the percussion of cymbals and drums. All these aural details contribute to the representation of the epic world and the passionate love. They highlight the natural difficulties that the hero is bearing before meeting his wife and as well the strength of his love.

The depiction of the epic world and the passionate love is complete when the ship arrives to the port producing a completely change in the music and the lighting. The storm calms down and the purple gloomy rainy and dark atmosphere transforms into a more colorful one. The music changes into a victorious and glorious hymn and the voice of the tenor Placido Domingo (Othello) appears with all his power. A zoom-in provides the transition from the long shot of the ship in the port to a close-up with a low angle of Othello. During this camera movement we see the hero surrounded by the crew and with a sword in his right hand. The passionate love is also portrayed:  close-ups of Desdemona (Katia Ricciarelli) in the fortress are juxtaposed to close-ups of Othello.

Zeffirelli’s “Storm and tempest” scene finishes with the meeting of Othello and Desdemona in public. Long shots of Othello in the street surrounded by a crowd are juxtaposed to long shots of Desdemona walking fast towards him. In this epic world, the hero is literary in the shoulders of the citizens and all the faces appear happy in the mise-en-scene. There are even applauses and “hurrahs” coming from the crowd that are mixed with the sound of the orchestra and the singing of the tenor.  When the lovers finally get together, the representation of love reaches its climax in an epic world. All the people in the street celebrate the war hero, his wife and their love. And the moment when Othello kneels down and gives the sword to his wife shows clearly all the love and passion that he is feeling for her. There is love in the epic world. Desdemona and Othello kiss under the rain, in the middle of the street, in public, and the music of the orchestra is played in a triumphal tone.


The seed of suspicion

The second ingredient that constitutes the essence of jealousy is the fear (a feeling of agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger), in particular, the fear that the loved person likes someone else better. After having portraying the sentiment of love in an epic world of exterior settings, the two film directors depict the feeling of fear in a scene that I have named “The seed of suspicion”. During this scene Iago talks to Othello and makes him start to doubt his wife.

Welles’ montage continues to be used providing strong tension and expressivity to his film. This scene happens in an interior setting, a little room that is for the private use of Othello. Both Othello and Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir) have arrived to this room after a long walk along a fortress rampart. All the shots inside the room have very poor lighting and a feeling of fear is recreated by Welles with the use of lots of shadows that make the shapes difficult to recognize. The fear is also represented by the confinement of Othello inside of this room and the frames masked by walls and pillars.

Welles juxtaposes medium and close-up shots from low and high angles while Othello and Iago are talking. A medium shot from low angle of Iago removing the armor of the hero after he has taken off his cape becomes a very symbolic one. By removing the armor, Iago is letting the hero without any protection. And although Othello is not going to any war battle, this gesture represents the state of weakness in which he is placed. Iago words become perhaps the most dangerous weapons that the hero has ever encountered because they will mix his passionate love with fear in his mind. Othello does not have any protection to avoid the arising of the fear and its blending with love.  .

The mise-en-scene in Welles’ scene is difficult to appreciate because many bizarre shadows are projected all over the little room suggesting the sensation of confinement. However, two mirrors become central in the representation of the fear that Othello is starting to experiment. One mirror is placed on a wall and the other is on a table. Othello moves from the first one to the second and medium shots and close-ups of his face reflected in the mirrors are juxtaposed with medium shots of Iago in one extreme of the room. During the mirror close-ups, the spectator can appreciate the changes in the hero’s face. Othello starts to have a gesture of fear. Instead of having the nod of a soldier, he  is having the one of a defenseless kid. The music also increases the feeling of fear. The only non-diegetic music that we hear is a short phrase produced by some wind instruments (clarinets or flutes) that fades in when Othello is in front of the table. This minimal use of sound increases the suspense and as well the feeling of fear. At the end of the scene the fear is so overwhelming that Othello has to run away from Iago and to leave the little room in the search of a more open space.

Different to Welles, Zeffirelli narrates the arising of the fear during this scene using shots of interior and exterior settings that he juxtaposes in a very slow pace. The interior setting is a room inside a medieval castle that seems to be Othello’s studio and the exterior one is a garden. Inside the room are Othello and Iago, outside in the garden is Desdemona surrounded by kids and other servants. Othello’s gaze through a window grate connects the interior and the exterior in a crucial moment of the scene. After being confused by Iago words, Othello looks to the exterior in the search of his wife and find her singing and surrounded by the colors of a garden and the jovial kids. The fear to lose this beauty becomes more evident in Othello’s mind and also in his singing.

Another difference with Welles, is that in Zeffirelli’s scene the room where Othello and Iago are meeting is not little and dark. Instead of that, the room where they meet is very big, well illuminated and plenty of furniture. Zeffirelli has crammed the mis-en-scene with books, sculptures, maps, lenses, armors, swords, globes and sand clocks. His symbolic imagery jumps to the eyes of the spectator in these objects. For example, Iago holds some maps in his hand while he “talks” (sings) as a symbol of the confusing routes of jealousy that he is showing to Othello; the lenses on the table become a symbol of the fear that the hero is started to feel (especially when his face is framed through the lens); the navigation instrument that Othello is anxiously manipulating is a symbol of his fear of loosing his way (as loosing the control of a ship, he his loosing the control of his love); and there is of course the recurrent symbol of the winged lion in a flag on the wall and in the door of the room that is connected to the epic world that is starting to collapse.

The music is very intense during this scene and Zeffirelli constructs also a counterpoint between the outside sounds and the interior ones. When the shots of the garden are shown, a calm and happy melody is being played by the orchestra while Desdemona sings and the voices of children mix with the warbling of the birds. When the interior shots of the “dialog” (recitative) between Iago and Othello are shown the music is anxious, with a faster tempo and has a crescendo style that mixes very well with the arising of the fear in Othello. At the end of the scene, not only the face of Othello has changed from the one of a strong warrior to the one of  a defenseless kid, but as well the music has calmed down and has become soft and tender loosing its energetic tempo. The fear that has arisen in Othello’s mind has mixed with his passionate love and is destroying the epic world. The hero is falling.

The murder of Desdemona

The final sentiment that constitutes the essence of jealousy is anger, an emotional state of keen irritation that may range in intensity from mild discontent to intense fury and rage. In our two Othello films the intensity of anger increases with the development of the story and at the end the feeling is too intense that motivates the murder of the beloved person. Both directors, Zeffirelli and Welles, successfully has portrayed this sentiment and completed the mixture that constitutes the essence of jealousy. Each of them has made of this scene a kind of dark ritual in which Othello is reduced to a grotesque shadow, a decadent man committed to kill his wife because of the intense anger that he is experiencing. The epic world has disappeared and completely collapsed, the hero has turned into a killer.

Kathy M. Howlett has claimed in “The Voyeuristic Pleasures of Perversion” that the scene of the murder in Welles’ Othello represents the culmination of masochistic and sadistic male desires. From my point of view these violent desires are also a representation of the intense anger that Othello is feeling. Welles uses the montage of multiple shots and camera angles to make the rage and fury more vivid. The frame is masked by bars and walls during all the progress of the scene and the majority of shots are from the point of view of the killer. The world seems to close in and Othello is completely trapped inside it.  

Shots of Desdemona being passive in her bed as an illuminated domestic angel are juxtaposed with the very dark shots of Othello in which almost the only thing that could be appreciated of him are his mad eyes. The juxtaposition of these shots creates, in Welles’ scene, a dynamic montage rhythm that expresses the tension between the victim and the murderer. After a discussion, Othello strangles Desdemona using a white sheet over her face and making a sort of mask while pressing it. Then he kisses her while she is dieing. This action, as Howlett argues, is an expression of the sexual desire (57). For me, it is also an expression of the essence of jealousy brought to the most extreme level. Love, fear and anger have mixed in Othello’s mind creating a psychological labyrinth in which the only exit that he finds is the death. He loves Desdemona with passion, he can not support the fear that she likes Cassio better, and he is very angry with her. The explosive combination of these sentiments is the essence of jealousy, and Othello has become crazy because of it.

In Zeffirelli’s film the scene of the murder does not have the high aesthetic qualities and dramatic tension that Welles obtains by his use of montage and his expressive photography. Instead of that, Zephirelli resorts to his use of catholic symbols to describe the anger of Othello. In a kind of pagan ritual Othello is shown semi naked in a subterranean chamber surrounded by candles that project a huge image of his shadow. As a part of this ritual, he drops a little crucifix that he carries in her necklace into a candle. The intensity of anger has made him lost his faith in religion and turned him into a killer. He starts walking to the room of Desdemona and move upward through the ramparts while the mis-en-scene becomes darker and darker. Inside the room Othello contemplates Desdemona in a similar way as it happens in Welles movie: the woman is passive and illuminated while the man is active contemplating her in the middle of shadows and through the walls. During the discussion among Desdemona and Othello, Zeffirelli keeps using his moving cameras (pannings, tracking and zooms-in) to highlight the faces of the actor. After that, in contrast to Welles’ scene, Desdemona becomes active, stands up and runs away from Othello exiting the bedroom. Othello follows and catches her in the stairs. Then, he strangles her with his left arm and lets her body falls on the floor. She is dying and her body assumes the posture of crucifix. This final violent action is a clear manifestation of the rage of Othello.

The use of music in the two films during this scene is completely opposite. While Welles uses minimal sounds and short pieces of non-diegetic music, Zeffirelli uses the continuous melodramatic music of Verdi. On the one hand, Welles’ assemble of music is very delicate and contrasts with his effervescent and relentless visual description of the scene. Few discordant organ notes in staccato create suspense while Othello is approaching to the bedroom. During the precise moment of the murder the chorus voices in crescendo (aaaaa!) that Welles has used before appear again and mix with a soft female sigh. The minimal use of the sound makes the visual anger of Othello looks bigger and more intense. On the other hand, the music of Verdi’s opera during this scene represents the intensity of anger by increasing the volume and the tempo as the murderer approaches to his victim, discusses with her and violently kills her. Percussion instruments mark the culmination of the murder and in the same way the highest point of the anger.



The mixture of love, fear and anger constitutes the essence of jealousy. While narrating the fall of the hero, these three sentiments have been successfully depicted by Welles and Zeffirelli in his versions of Othello.  In “Storm and tempest” we find a great depiction of a passionate love in the middle of an epic world, in “The seed of suspicion” we encounter a representation of fear, and in “The murder of Desdemona” we see and hear a representation of anger and the complete collapse of the epic world.

Using the aural and visual features of the cinematic medium each director has printed their own mark on the tradition of Shakespeare on screen. On the one hand, Welles has created a vibrant visual style by the use of montage and expressionist photography. He has also contrasted the fast tempo and dynamism of his visual narration (too many shots in quick succession) with a minimal and carefully use of sound giving balance and coherence to his film. On the other hand, Zeffirelli has created a luxurious and excessive visual style with his elaborate tracking, panning and zoom shots, his fabulous scenery and the many symbolic details that appear in the mise-en-scene. Besides that, his use of Verdi’s music is very effective increasing the melodramatic tension of the film, and together with the lyric singing and the visuals generates a very rich audiovisual experience for the spectator.


Cambridge, Fall, 2006.




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