Othello and Tim Blake Nelson's "O": Shakespearean Violence in High School

Tim Blake Nelson’s “O” (2001), which features teenaged stars, raised concerns over the violence it portrays. While Shakespeare’s tragedies are inherently violent, film adaptations starring and marketed for young people remain controversial because of the issues they raise. “O”, for instance,takes on racism and school shootings. Nelson employs violence in his film not to glorify or sensationalize the behavior, but to address issues of the Western world at the turn of the century. He portrays violence to show how it leads to senseless death, not to provide mindless entertainment.


“O” will forever be analyzed in the context of the Columbine school shooting and, to a lesser extent, the O.J. Simpson trial (the protagonist Odin James shares the same initials, non-coincidentally). Even though “O” had finished filming in 1999, its theatrical release was postponed until 2001 in the wake of the Columbine shootings on April 20, 1999 (Semenza 99). Real-life events turned the film into a “topical hot potato” that studios were hesitant to touch (Buchanan 109).

Nelson takes Shakespeare’s Othello and “teens it down” to take place in a high school. He had other pre-Columbine school shootings to draw from for his adaptation of Othello; as he puts it, “‘the names of the schools’ towns had become shorthand for what seemed an epidemic of teenage violence: Jonesboro, Pearl, Eugene, Springfield, Edinboro’” (Semenza 100). Miramax feared that the release of “O,” which has Odin and Hugo leaving a string of dead students in the school dorm, could incite more school violence.

However, Nelson purposefully set out to examine how and why these senseless tragedies occur and how to prevent them (Semenza 100). As the closing scene unfolds, with the dead bodies being wheeled out on stretchers and the killer led to the cop car, the audience joins the on-screen parents and students with struggling to understand why. As the story concludes, we are left to wonder whether we can ever know or understand the true story behind these senseless acts of violence from the way they are shown in the media. Hugo’s and Odin’s motivations for murder are set up and revealed in the course of the film; is there any way to attach some meaning to school shootings in real life? It is not an easy question to answer. After each school shooting, there is an “onslaught of media analysis both about behaviorally disturbed young people and about their ready access to guns” (Buchanan 110).

Hugo (Josh Hartnett) poisons Odin's mind
Hugo (Josh Hartnett) poisons Odin's mind

Hugo, a sympathetic villain?

By turning Othello into Othello High, “O” faces some challenges in terms of adapting Shakespeare’s text. Because Hugo (the Iago figure) becomes a troubled teenager, the audience is more likely to sympathize with him. His jealousy and deep desire to have the attention turned on to him drives him to do evil acts, but that does not make him evil himself in the audience’s eyes (Semenza 102).

As Hugo reveals in his voice-over at the end of the film, “One of these days, everyone is going to pay attention to me.” Jealous of Odin’s getting all the attention of the school and Hugo’s father for his prowess on the basketball court, Hugo devises a scheme to bring down the popular student. Hugo plants seeds of doubt in Odin’s mind about his girlfriend Desi’s fidelity. Hugo is responsible for masterminding the plot to kill Desi and Mike Casio (which goes horribly wrong and also leaves Roger, Emily, and Odin dead). While Hugo devises these evil plots, his role as a neglected youth makes the audience pity him, something “that would be unthinkable in relation to Shakespeare’s Iago, whose villainy is too persuasive, and too appealing perhaps, for us to want it to be amenable to redemption” (Buchanan 113).

While providing pat psychological motives for Hugo’s deeds (jealousy, feeling unloved and neglected) diminishes his potency and mystery as a villain, it does suggest a possible reason that some students turn on their classmates. When Odin realizes that Hugo lied to him and tricked him into strangling Desi, he demands to know why Hugo betrayed him. Hugo says, “I did what I did, and that's all you need to know. From here on out, I say nothing.” His words leave “Odin and the survivors uncertain about why he has acted so maliciously” (Semenza 103). Only the audience has the benefit of Hugo’s final voice-over, “which attempts to answer the question that readers of tragedies such as Othello and Columbine most want to know: why did this happen?” (Semenza 103).

Mekhi Phifer and Julia Stiles as the doomed lovers
Mekhi Phifer and Julia Stiles as the doomed lovers

Odin, teen hero set for a downfall

Both Hugo and Odin are overly concerned with how others perceive them (which is common for most teenagers). While Hugo craves his classmates’ and father’s attention and adoration, Odin already basks in it. Hugo’s father, the basketball coach, makes Odin the MVP. He dates the beautiful and popular Desi.

Even though he is the king of the school, Odin is troubled by his being the only black kid at the preppy high school. While Odin is adored by the teachers and students, his past drug problems still come back to haunt him. When Roger and Hugo tell Desi’s father that Odin raped her, Dean Brabble brings up his criminal record. Odin’s past problems in “the hood” are used as “proof of an essentially immoral nature; surely, his struggle with drugs suggests that he is likely to rape Desi” (Semenza 113). The audience sympathizes with Odin in this scene, but we next see Odin beating up Roger. Even if he is unfairly accused of being barbaric, Odin responds by acting violent.

The similarities between Odin James and O.J. are relevant: both popular sports stars, both with a white girlfriend/wife who winds up dead, both guilty of “[loving] her so much” (in Simpson’s words) (Buchanan 110-111).

Race and school violence

Nelson does not shy away from racism in “O”—Odin and Desi jokingly discuss their different races. When she disapproves of his use of “n*****,” he tells her that he is allowed to say it but she cannot even think it. Despite his apparently glib answer, Odin is “haunted…by a profound self-consciousness about his own blackness” (Semenza 112). When Hugo tells him that Desi and Mike called him “the n*****,” Odin’s worst fears are confirmed and he begins to act out his rage and self-loathing (Semenza 114).

Odin begins a downward spiral, lashing out at Mike and Desi and disobeying his coach. Before an important basketball game, Hugo gives him some cocaine to help him out. When Odin sees Desi and Mike together in the stands, his rage and the power of the drugs make him shatter the basketball hoop. Curiously, he also directs his anger at one of the only other black characters in the film. When the ball boy, a younger kid, approaches Odin for the ball, Odin shoves the boy to the ground unprovoked. His self-loathing of his own blackness appears to extend to others of his race.

Shakespeare’s Othello is also “deeply anxious about how he is perceived by others; his greatest fear is that he will become the barbarian that white Europeans believe him to be” (Semenza 113). Similarly, through his increasing acts of violence, Odin gradually becomes what he believes others see him as. After one of Odin’s eruptions, Mike says that “the ghetto’s come out of him.” Just before Odin shoots himself, he implores his classmates to understand that “I ain’t no different than none of you all. My mom ain’t no crackhead. I wasn’t no gang banger….You tell ‘em where I’m from didn’t make me do this.” Odin (and Nelson) asks the audience to understand that it is not Odin’s race that makes him violent. To blame Odin’s violence on his blackness would be as shallow as blaming Hugo’s deeds “on the so-called excessive violence of so-called teen culture” (Semenza 115).

Gregory Semenza criticizes the assumption that teenagers are “supposedly [vulnerable] to every rap song and violent television show they encounter” (101). There is no simple reason that any teenager acts violently. Nelson attributes it to “a combination of inextricably linked social and psychological factors” (Semenza 111).

What to take away

“O” raises as many questions about school violence as it answers, and it ends with the young heroes being taken away in body bags. The film is not pessimistic, however; Nelson attempts to search for answers--parents and students are devastated, and the media tries to make sense of the deaths. “O” involves clueless or indifferent adults, angry and disillusioned youths, drugs, and guns. Characters die violently and needlessly. But by carefully analyzing the film, critics and audiences can take away strong messages in addition to watching young stars make out or play basketball. 

Works Cited

Buchanan, Judith. “O (Tim Blake Nelson, 2001).” Shakespeare on Film. Pearson, 2005. 108-118. Print.

Nelson, Tim Blake, dir. “O.” Perf. Mekhi Phifer and Josh Hartnett. 2001. Lions Gate, 2002. DVD.

Semenza, Gregory M. Colón. “Shakespeare after Columbine: Teen Violence in Tim Blake Nelson’s ‘O.’College Literature 32 (2005): 99-124. Academic Search Complete. Sturgis Lib. Electronic Resources, Kennesaw, GA. Web. 25 Nov. 2007.

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Comments 9 comments

Lee B profile image

Lee B 6 years ago from New Mexico

This is an interesting and compelling analysis. However, as a burned-out teacher, I probably will not watch this movie. It hits a little close to home.

Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 6 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

Makes sense to me, Lee. It definitely has a bummer ending!

JBunce 6 years ago from Minneapolis, Minnesota

Some fascinating commentary here. I've long thought that this was a very severely under-rated movie... possibly because of the Columbine situation.

By the way, although I've never met him personally, I used to work with Josh Hartnett's aunt. I've always thought this film was his best performance.

Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 6 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

Not to make light of the Columbine tragedy, but it was pretty poor timing for this film for sure. I wouldn't have heard of O if it weren't for a Shakespeare and Film course I took as an undergrad!

I agree, Josh Hartnett did a fine job. I haven't seen too many of his other movies because I always thought of him as just another heartthrob actor! Maybe I should give him a closer look.

Kendall H. profile image

Kendall H. 6 years ago from Northern CA

Very interesting analysis! Othello has never been one of my favorite so I never really paid much attention to it, but I do remember hearing about all the controversy surrounding O because of Columbine. I tend to like more of Shakespeare's comedies like Much Ado About Nothing, and Twelfth Night. But again great job!

Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 6 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

Thanks for responding, Kendall! Much Ado is one of my favorites too. I'm glad I got a chance to see it performed live, even in a small local theatre.

Rusty C. Adore profile image

Rusty C. Adore 5 years ago from Michigan

It's interesting... when I watched "O" for the first time after reading "Othello" I was annoyed by Hugo's voice over at the end because it did create sympathy for the villain (which I definitely didn't have for Iago, though he is a fantastic and fascinating character) but after reading this I understand a potential reason as to why it was done in that matter. Good hub!

Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 5 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

Thanks again, Rusty! I watched "O" for a Shakespeare and Film class, and I agree with what you said about Hugo. It's certainly interesting when filmmakers adapt Shakespearean tragedies to a teenagers' setting.

tedde 14 months ago

A little bit old, but still good.

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