The plays of William Shakespeare hardly ignore the topic of law. Yet most of the time when the legal lens gets pointed at the works of the Bard, they focus on the more explicitly judicial pieces, such as The Merchant of Venice or Measure for Measure. Working off of Chicago's 2009 Law and Shakespeare conference, however, Professor Richard McAdams presented a new paper at the tail end of the season's WIP talks on why Othello has far more to say about law and legal concepts that perhaps previously recognized. Showing both the benefits and shortcomings of resorting to the legal process, Shakespeare presents a nuanced and ambivalent perspective on law's overall utility.
The play is book-ended by two opportunities to use the legal process to avert an injustice. At the start of the play, Othello stands accused by Brabantio of taking his daughter Desdemona by force or fraud. Iago is the mastermind behind this misconception, stoking mistrust between the two and seeking to provoke street violence. However, at the critical moment Brabantio decides to divert the matter to a legal proceeding, which allows (through Othello and Desdemona's testimony) for Othello's exoneration.
By contrast, the play concludes with Othello serving as judge, jury, and executioner after accusing Desdemona of adultery with Cassio (again, a mistake fostered by Iago). In contrast the first Act, where Othello is vindicated by virtue of procedural rights, he flatly refuses to grant Desdemona any, including a rejection of her plea to call Cassio as a witness. The tragedy of Desdemona's death, after all, could have been averted the same way that Othello was freed -- through exculpatory witness testimony. Yet Othello, by choosing the path of private vengeance rather than public law, sowed his own bitter harvest, wrongfully killing his wife and love.
So at this level, Othello takes a significantly more positive view of law than many other Shakespearean works. Yet, in another sense, law is actually a dramatic failure in Othello--it provides virtually no recourse against the generally recognized true villain: Iago. Not only that, but this failing is one that drives several significant plot choices Shakespeare makes that cast light on otherwise seemingly odd authorial decisions.