Common Essay Questions Othello
How is Othello's race a factor in the play?
Othello ascends to the rank of the Venetian military, a city - much like Elizabethan England when the play was written - rife with racism. A general in the army, Othello holds a distinguished place in the Duke's court due to his victories in battle, but not an equal one. He suffers barbs and preconceived notions, yet Othello is esteemed and wins the love of the daughter of a nobleman. However, Brabantio is enraged by Othello's marriage to Desdemona and claims Othello used magic to compel her to run to his "sooty bosom". Race is a factor in the tragedy both in those who seek to destroy Othello, and the victims of the schemes - Othello and Desdemona. Perhaps the most pernicious form of race as an instrument of division is Othello's own view of himself as an outsider, which makes him more susceptible to Iago's plan.
How does Shakespeare's use of language reveal character?
Often Shakespeare uses verse lines written in iambic pentameter to illustrate nobility. It is illustrative of Iago's duplicitous nature that he tends to speak in verse when he is with Othello and in prose for his soliloquies. One way in which Iago is a master in manipulation is his tendency to use Othello's own words to disguise his active role of instigator and make it seem that any dark thought came not from him but Othello's own mind. Othello's speech is very sophisticated at the beginning of the play, and in his soliloquy at the close of Act V, but when he is consumed with jealous rage, his eloquence falters. Shakespeare uses dialogue to convey the innerworkings of his characters.
Othello is often called a tragic hero. Discuss his heroic qualities as well as his flaws which lead to his demise.
At the beginning of the play Othello is presented as an honorable man of noble stature and high position. In the end it is his misguided attempt to maintain that honor which brings about his, and Desdemona's, demise. However, Othello is not simply the victim of a plot. Iago is able to engineer Othello's downfall in part because of Othello's own insecurities. His pride blinds him to his weaknesses, and he puts his faith in Iago over the word of his love, Desdemona. Othello is obsessed with his reputation, and ends up killing his wife to save face. Only to a flawed man would murder seem like a solution to a problem of reputation. Othello is spurred on by lies and misrepresentations, but he brings about his own undoing.
What motives, stated and implied does Iago have for taking revenge on Othello?
Iago's stated reason for taking revenge on Othello is that he has been passed over for Cassio's post. But is this enough for him to "hate the Moor"? It is clear that he is jealous of Othello's ascension in the court and successful wooing of Desdemona. Othello's race and status as an outsider also seems to fuel this rage, as well as the rumor that Othello has slept with Iago's wife, Emilia. None of these motivations, however, seem to add up to inspire the violence that unfolds. Iago remains one of the most purely evil of Shakespeare's villains.
Discuss how loyalty is presented as a positive and a negative quality throughout the play.
Othello's lack of loyalty is what incites Iago's plan for revenge. Iago's ability to fool Othello that he is loyal while secretly plotting his demise is what makes his revenge effective. It is Othello's belief in Desdemona's lack of loyalty that seals their fates. In these ways loyalty, when misconstrued, can be dangerous. However Desdemona's loyalty to Othello even in her death and Othello's loyalty to her once his mistake is revealed are seen as ennobling aspects of their characters.
Compare and contrast the jealousy of Othello to that of Iago.
One major theme in Othello is revenge - Iago's revenge on Othello and Othello's revenge on Desdemona. They both believe death will bring justice. Iago's revenge is cooler, plotted out over time where Othello's is an act of heartbroken passion. Iago wears his lack of morals as a badge of honor where it is Othello's moral code that leads to his tragic end.
Although Othello is the title character in what way is Iago the main character?
Often in Shakespeare's plays such as Hamlet or King Lear, the title character is the main character and protagonist. In Othello this is not the case. Iago has almost 20% more lines than Othello, and has more asides with the audience. While it is Othello's decisions and actions that provide the dramatic structure for the play, it is Iago who sets in motion those decisions and spurs him to action. Othello is the tragic figure of the play, along with Desdemona, and it his characteristics that lend itself to most of the themes - jealousy, race, trust. However, Iago is the character who drives the plot.
How does Desdemona's dying assertion that she killed herself effect how you see her character?
From a modern feminist viewpoint Desdemona may be judged harshly for answering Emilia, when she asked who has mortally attacked her, "nobody; I myself. Farewell." Furthermore, she seemed resigned to her fate at the hands of her husband. While contemporary audiences may interpret these actions as unfathomable, they highlight the goodness of her character. Desdemona is described by others in the play with words that symbolize goodness - light, white, fair, delicate, alabaster. By the end of the play, Desdemona begins to symbolize goodness itself, so her reaction to her murder becomes another element in Othello's tragic end. Desdemona still loves Othello, though he is mistaken, and she goes to her death professing her husband's reputation. A modern audience may wish for a response that is less melodramatic, but that is not the world that Shakespeare has created in this play.
In what ways do Othello's suicide strengthen or undermine his heroism?
Though suicide is not usually the chosen end for a heroic figure, it is Othello's only escape from the crimes he has committed. Though the victim of Iago's trickery, Othello is still the author of his own demise. For Desdemona's death to be answered by anything less than his own would have felt false.
Describe how Othello's pride leads to his fall.
At the beginning of the play Othello is proud of himself and his achievements, but when Iago looks to punish Othello for his perceived slight, it is his pride that he preys upon. The belief that Desdemona has tainted his honor ignites Othello's rage, but it is his pride that blinds him to the fact that the evidence of her acts are lies invented not by a loyal friend but an enemy bent on his destruction.
First of all let’s look at the broad categories questions usually fall into:
You must be able to discuss the following when it comes to characters:
- a tragic hero? (does he recognise his flaws and gain self-knowledge?)
- his nobility (is he a good man?) / strengths & weaknesses / virtues & flaws
- his relationship with Desdemona & treatment of her
- his manipulation by Iago and transformation into a jealous brute
- the extent to which he is responsible for the tragedy which occurs at the end of the play
- our level of sympathy for him
- the real ‘hero’ of the action?
- flaws and virtues?
- his motivation
- how he controls & manipulates all of the action/characters
- too good to be true or a believable character?
- dramatic function in the play?
Emilia / Bianca:
- Emilia’s dramatic function in the play
- foils to Desdemona – worldly and cynical rather than pure and innocent
- add variety to Shakespeare’s presentation of women & his exploration of their position in society
- symbol of goodness
- extent to which he contributes to the tragedy
- contrast the extremes of good and evil presented in the characters in the play
- the play is very pessimistic about human nature
- the play is very pessimistic about human relationships
The major themes in the play are:
- Revenge / Power
- Good vs Evil
- Appearance vs Reality (Deception/Manipulation)
- Love & Hate / Loyalty & Betrayal
- Women’s position in society
For each theme – no matter what the wording – ask yourself
- WHO does this theme apply to?
- HOW / WHY does this character have to deal with this issue?
- Do they CHANGE over the course of the play?
- Are there any SCENES which highlight this theme specifically?
- What are our FINAL IMPRESSIONS of this issue?
- Relevance to a modern audience
- Pessimistic play
- Language & Imagery
- Dramatic Irony
- Compelling Drama – scene or scenes
Othello & Iago:
“Othello’s foolishness, rather than Iago’s cleverness, leads to the tragedy of Shakespeare’s Othello” (2008)
“It is Othello’s egotism and lack of self-knowledge, and not Iago’s evil schemes, which ultimately bring about the tragedy at the end of the play“
“Othello is arrogant, impulsive and violent. While Iago sets up the conditions for tragedy to occur, it is Othello, ultimately, who we must hold responsible for the tragic events which unfold“
“A combination of Iago’s skill, Othello’s weakness and a measure of good luck, bring about the tragedy in Othello“
“Iago cannot be blamed for the deaths of Desdemona and Othello“
“We cannot blame Othello for being fooled by Iago. Everyone else in the play, including Iago’s wife, believes that he is honest and true“
“Othello and Iago are both egotists, obsessed with proving how clever and capable they are, and hell bent on revenge when they feel they have been wronged“
“Othello is the principal agent of his own downfall” (1994)
“Othello is essentially a noble character, flawed by insecurity & a nature that is naive & unsophisticated” (1990)
“Othello is a good man who is skilfully manipulated by Iago. For this reason, despite his credulousness, we continue to feel sorry for him“
“Iago’s schemes succeed, not because Othello is weak, but because he is so noble“
“Othello is a noble hero who loses, but ultimately regains our sympathy“
“We do not approve of Othello’s behaviour, yet we nonetheless pity him“
“Othello is not a tragic hero; he is a gullible fool“
“Othello is not a tragic hero. He never really takes responsibility for his errors of character and judgement”
“Despite his suffering, Othello learns little of himself or of human relationships“
To what extent do you agree with Othello’s assessment of himself as an “honourable murderer” who “loved not wisely but too well“?
“The collapse of Othello and Desdemona’s marriage is the real tragedy of this play“
“Iago is the real hero of Shakespeare’s play Othello”
“Iago is a likable villain”
“Iago is motivated by jealousy of others good fortune and by a lust for power”
“Iago is a charming villain, but it is difficult to understand his motivation”
“Iago is an evil villain with no redeeming qualities“
“While we are repulsed by Iago’s evil, we are fascinated by his ingenuity“
“Iago is the most evil but also the most fascinating character in the play Othello”
“Desdemona is not a credible character, she is an unrealistic saint who does nothing to try and prevent her fate”
“Desdemona is a woman, not an angel; she lives and loves with her whole person, both body and soul”
“Desdemona’s dramatic function in the play is to act as a symbol of purity, innocence and goodness but this means that her behaviour is not always entirely believable”
“Desdemona and Iago are at opposite poles in the play, Othello, the one representing pure love, the other hate incarnate“. (1986)
Emilia / Bianca:
Discuss the importance of the character Emilia in the play as a whole. (1994)
“Women are not presented in a very positive light in Shakespeare’s Othello“
“Cassio may be a ‘proper man’ but he is also an honest fool whose weakness plays no small part in the tragic death of Desdemona”
“Shakespeare’s play Othello demonstrates the weakness of human judgement” (2008)
“Shakespeare’s Othello presents the very best and the very worst in human nature”
“Shakespeare’s Othello presents us with a dark and pessimistic view of human nature”
“Shakespeare’s Othello presents us with a dark and pessimistic view of human relationships”
“In the play Othello, naive, innocent characters are no match for the evil machinations of the world weary Iago“
“The destructive power of jealousy is dramatically presented in Shakespeare’s play Othello”
“Shakespeare’s Othello is concerned not so much with jealousy, as with misunderstanding”
“Shakespeare’s play Othello powerfully portrays a world dominated by jealousy and revenge”
“Evil ultimately conquers good in Shakespeare’s play Othello”
“In Shakespeare’s play Othello, we witness a profound inability to distinguish between appearances and reality”
“Appearances do not mask a sinister reality in this play, yet Iago manages to convince every character that there is more going on than meets the eye”
“Love and hate are presented as opposite sides of the same coin in Shakespeare’s play Othello”
“Shakespeare’s Othello initially questions, but then confirms racist stereotypes”
“The role and status of women is dramatically explored in Shakespeare’s Othello”
“Shakespeare’s Othello remains relevant for a modern audience”
“Despite the striking portrayals of goodness and nobility, the play Othello leaves the audience with a sense of dismal despair”
“Image of animals, images of storm and images of heaven and hell predominate in Othello” (1990)
“Irony is a powerful dramatic device used by Shakespeare to heighten the tragic dimension of his play Othello” (1998)
Othello contains many scenes of compelling drama. Choose one scene which you found particularly compelling and discuss why you found it so.