Othello | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Othello | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


Why is Othello's identity as "the Moor" important?

Othello's racial identity as a person from Northern Africa does not keep him from rising through the ranks of the Venetian military, gaining respect from the Duke of Venice, and winning the heart of Desdemona. He is clearly a successful leader. Yet despite this success, his identity (not just as a Moor, but as "the Moor") sets him apart from the rest of Venetian society. It makes him somewhat exotic; Desdemona is enthralled by stories of his adventures, which are full of magic, distant locations, and thrilling narrow escapes. But the downside is that he is labeled and isolated. He is known more for his race than for his humanity, no matter how flattering people's opinions are. He is called "the Moor" more often than he is called "Othello." Ultimately, this separation from others may be what makes him fall prey so easily to Iago's manipulations. Desdemona's love provides enough stability for Othello's personal identity that, when he believes he has lost her, he disintegrates.

In what ways is the character Othello a tragic hero?

A tragic hero is a character who has heroic qualities, but who also has a personal flaw that leads to his own downfall. Othello is a lauded general in the Venetian army, a courageous man whom the Duke of Venice turns to in times of crisis; he is confident and trusted. However, he is easily manipulated by Iago, revealing he does have a fatal flaw. One line of thinking is that his sense of honor proves to be the fatal flaw, because it gives Iago something to exploit. He cannot bear even the thought that Desdemona is unfaithful, because this makes him look weak. In addition, his own trustworthiness makes him believe others are trustworthy; it is difficult for him to believe Iago, whom he deems an honest and honorable man, is a liar. Another line of thinking suggests that his personal insecurity causes him to attach too much importance to Desdemona's love for him and that this is his fatal flaw. Iago finds it simple to goad Othello to jealousy. Othello's jealousy grows easily and quickly because he is too emotionally dependent on Desdemona and not secure enough in himself.

In what ways is or isn't Iago the protagonist of Shakespeare's Othello?

Although Othello is the title character of the play, Iago has many more lines than Othello. In addition, Iago seems to be the character who directs the action of the play. He acts, while Othello reacts. Iago plans, and Othello seems to follow those plans, without realizing he is doing so. Iago speaks directly to the audience, revealing his thoughts to them, which may give them more cause to identify with him, while Othello remains more distant from the audience. These unusual features of the play could lead someone to conclude Iago is the protagonist. However, a protagonist usually changes over the course of a play, and the arc of the character's changes provides the structure of the play. Othello does both of these things. He begins as a confident, respected military man, newly married. He becomes increasingly agitated and eaten up by jealousy as time passes. Finally, he is driven to murder and suicide. Iago, on the other hand, doesn't change: he is cold and villainous at the beginning, and remains so throughout the play. His character has little development, except for perhaps the fact that he has to improvise a bit more toward the end of the play. In addition, Iago more or less identifies himself as the villain, or antagonist, of the play from the first scenes, freely sharing his plans to ruin Cassio and Othello. Because he sets himself up as the antagonist to Othello's protagonist, it is hard to make an argument for the opposite.

How does Othello's trust in Iago's information create dramatic irony?

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows more about a situation than the characters, causing the audience to have a clearer view of what is happening than those inside the story. This play has more than its fair share of dramatic irony, and one example is Othello's reliance on Iago's information. This irony is inherent in the play from the first, because Iago admits to the audience that he is only acting trustworthy so he can cause mayhem. Characters in Othello, however, believe wholeheartedly in Iago's honesty, calling him "honest Iago" and taking his word as truth at every turn. The irony deepens as Desdemona denies any wrongdoing, and is not believed. She protests her innocence until the end, and the audience knows she is completely in the right. She is actually honest, and is not trusted. Iago is actually dishonest, yet is trusted.

In Othello, how does Iago's tendency to switch from poetry to prose reflect his character?

When Iago speaks with Othello, he primarily speaks in verse. This mirrors Othello's own speech patterns, which are fairly regular iambic pentameter toward the beginning of the play (for example, "How may the duke be therewith satisfied,/Whose messengers are here about my side"; from Act 1, Scene 2). In Shakespeare's works, speaking in verse is often associated with nobility and seriousness, while prose tends to be associated with lower-born characters and comic roles. Yet when Iago speaks to the audience, he primarily uses prose (for example, in Act 2, Scene 1, he observes, "He takes her by the palm. Ay, well said, whisper. With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio. Ay, smile upon her, do."). This reflects the difference between Iago's private and public selves, and his deceptive nature. He is truly an actor; he takes on the character that will give him the most leverage with those he is trying to manipulate.

In Act 2, Scene 1 how does Othello's greeting of Desdemona as his "fair warrior" reflect important aspects of her character?

He calls her "fair," which has a double meaning. It is a synonym for "beautiful," but it also means "pale," which highlights her racial difference from his own darker skin. In addition, he calls her "warrior," which suggests she is courageous. In fact, she has shown an assertiveness and boldness thus far in the play; she went behind her father's back to marry Othello, and in Act 1, Scene 3 she argues eloquently for the legitimacy of her actions: "My noble father,/I do perceive here a divided duty./To you I am bound for life and education./My life and education both do learn me/How to respect you ... But here's my husband./And so much duty as my mother showed/To you, preferring you before her father,/So much I challenge that I may profess/Due to the Moor my lord." She also boldly asks to accompany Othello on his mission. These character traits, so apparent here, seem to disappear as she is victimized by both Iago and Othello, so that by the end of the play she is a far more passive character.

What does Othello's behavior at his death show about his mental state?

When in Act 5, Scene 2 he realizes what he's done and was tricked so thoroughly by Iago, Othello stabs himself. Aside from the fact that he takes his own life, which clearly shows his deep remorse and despair, there are two other things of interest about Othello's death that reflect his mental state. First, he seems to regain his ability to speak in verse: "When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,/Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate." This suggests he is repentant and Iago's influence over him has been removed, so that he has been somewhat restored to dignity again. Also, he dies kissing Desdemona, with her on the bed, suggesting he has come full circle in his love for her as well. As tragic as this story is, Othello and Desdemona die together on their wedding bed, symbolically restoring their relationship.

How does Iago's statement in Act 1, Scene 3, "The Moor ... thinks men honest that but seem to be so," touch on an important central tension in Othello?

In Act 1, Scene 3 Iago observes, "The Moor is of a free and open nature/That thinks men honest that but seem to be so." This touches on the tension between what seems to be true versus what actually is true, a tension that drives the plot of the story, escalates the dramatic irony, and ultimately causes Othello's fall. Iago appears honest, but he is not honest. It appears to Othello that Desdemona has more than a friend's affection for Cassio, because she keeps appealing to Othello on Cassio's behalf. Desdemona appears to have given Cassio her handkerchief, when in reality she simply dropped it. Othello's susceptibility to believing what seems true, and his blindness to what is really true, is part of Iago's ploys against him.

What is the relationship between Iago and the audience in Othello?

Iago's revelations of his plan and his duplicitous nature through asides and soliloquies make for an unusual relationship between audience and villain, a relationship that invites the audience to view him with perhaps more empathy than a villain normally receives. After all, the tendency of the audience is to identify with the person they see and hear the most, just as readers of a book tend to identify with a first-person narrator, even if that narrator is unreliable. And Iago is unreliable. If there is one thing the audience knows for sure, it is that he lies to everyone. Is there really a rumor that Othello and Emilia have had an affair? Does Shakespeare want us to think he has a real motive, or is the playwright trying to create ambiguity? It is impossible to tell for sure. However, although Shakespeare does create a villain who challenges definitions of protagonist and antagonist in certain ways, the playwright makes Iago far too blatant about his evils to actually create any sympathy for him. Yet Iago's character is prideful, and he dwells on his own motivations and self-satisfaction in asides and soliloquies. This has the effect of drawing the audience, as Iago draws all the characters, into his web.

Why does Bianca claim to be "honest" in Act 5, Scene 1 of Othello, and why is this a strange thing for her to say?

In Act 5, Scene 1 Bianca tells Emilia, "I am no strumpet, but of life as honest/As you that thus abuse me," in response to Emilia's exclamation, "Fie on thee, strumpet." Because Bianca is a courtesan, or prostitute, this may seem like an odd thing to claim, as "honest" is generally taken to mean chaste. So Bianca may mean she is honest, but in her own way; that is, she is a prostitute but not a liar. Or she may mean she is just as honest as Emilia is, implying that Emilia is not chaste.

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