Othello | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Othello | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Act 5, Scene 1 of Othello, how does Desdemona's claim that she is to blame for her own death affect the interpretation of her character?

While Desdemona begins the play as a confident, assertive young woman, over the course of the play she seems to become far more passive. By Act 4, Scene 3, she seems to foreshadow and even be resigned to her own death, singing a "song of willow" that she learned from her maid. The maid, she notes, died singing the song, and then Desdemona proceeds to sing it: "Sing all a green willow must be my garland./Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve." This song prepares the audience for Desdemona's death as well as her acceptance of the blame. When Othello arrives in her bedchamber and admits he intends to kill her, she begs him to reconsider but does not attempt to flee or cry out. In the end, rather than blame Othello, she tries to claim she is responsible for her own death. This creates a character arc in which a strong young woman's confidence is undermined and she becomes a victim. Desdemona tries to protect the man who betrayed her, because her love for him is greater than her outrage at his betrayal. When Othello says, "Think on thy sins," she replies, "They are loves I bear to you." This character development suggests love, like honor, can be twisted into something destructive by a villain such as Iago. If the love of an admirable and honest woman like Desdemona isn't enough to bring her to a happy ending, what hope is there?

What is Iago's attitude toward women in Shakespeare's Othello?

Iago seems to have a very low opinion of women in Othello. Both his words and actions give this away. His language is regularly insulting and demeaning of women. He makes fun of his wife Emilia in Act 2, Scene 1, saying, "Sir, would she give you so much of her lips/As of her tongue she oft bestows on me,/You would have enough." In the same scene he crudely insults all women, saying, "You rise to play, and go to bed to work." In addition, he tells Othello in Act 3, Scene 3 that women, at least Venetian women, are generally unfaithful: "In Venice they do let God see the pranks/They dare not show their husbands. Their best conscience/Is not to leave 't undone, but keep 't unknown." Iago's actions are also demeaning: he thinks nothing of sacrificing Desdemona, who has done nothing against him, in order to get to Cassio and Othello, and he quickly decides to eliminate his wife when she tells his secrets.

In what ways do the two married couples in Othello compare and contrast?

The two married couples in Othello—Desdemona and Othello, Iago and Emilia—seem to have little in common. Othello and Desdemona are an interracial couple, while Iago and Emilia are not. Othello and Desdemona are romantic and affectionate (at least at first), while Emilia and Iago seem to have a more practical arrangement with far less affection involved. Emilia's and Desdemona's attitudes toward sexual fidelity are quite different. However, these couples have some things in common. For example, both Iago and Othello are military men, and their wives accompany them to Cyprus. Both wives want, initially, to please their husbands; Desdemona clearly wants to please Othello. And in Act 3, Scene 3, Emilia explains she will steal the handkerchief to please Iago: "I nothing but to please his fantasy." Both husbands feel strongly that betrayal is cause for death. Therefore, both wives are killed by their husbands, although Desdemona's betrayal is a lie, while Emilia does in fact betray Iago's confidence.

What does Othello's statement in Act 1, Scene 3, "She loved me for the dangers I had passed,/And I loved her that she did pity them," reveal about him?

This statement in Act 1, Scene 3 reveals how Othello won the heart of Desdemona by his storytelling and suggests her love for him is based on admiration and the thrill of his adventures. It also suggests he loved her for the attention and regard she had for him on account of these stories. It places Othello at the center of their relationship, making him seem self-centered and Desdemona self-sacrificing. This statement also shows Othello's intense need to be pitied, or to have someone sympathize with him. As a successful military leader, Othello has many people counting on him and bears the burden of great responsibility. As an outsider—a Moor in Venetian society—the prospect of a sympathetic ear must have been quite attractive. Still, there is no doubt that Desdemona is joining Othello's narrative, not hers. When she becomes someone who calls his honor into question, rather than someone who enhances his honor, he quickly turns on her.

What effect does the staging, and in particular the number of characters on stage at a time, have on the plot and mood of Othello?

Many scenes in Othello are staged between two people. Often, the two people are Iago and the person he is manipulating—Roderigo, Cassio, or Othello. At times, scenes between couples take place—Iago and Emilia, Othello and Desdemona, and Cassio and Bianca. And Emilia and Desdemona have a long scene together just before Othello arrives to kill Desdemona. This allows Iago to meet with each person who will further his plan and make his appeal individually. Iago's great strength is his ability to pinpoint exactly what it will take to move another individual to the planned action. And Iago's deception depends on giving each person a different story. Even more important, however, is the way so many two-person scenes affect the mood of the play. The intimacy of the scenes reflects Othello's growing preoccupation with Desdemona's supposed infidelity, which narrows to an obsession with her handkerchief. While crowd scenes lend themselves to an open, expansive mood, small-scale scenes convey a closed, more cramped space that feels anxious and obsessive.

How are each of the three female characters in Othello portrayed, and how do they allow Shakespeare to explore the idea of women and women's roles?

Desdemona is portrayed as a faithful and devoted wife; one who is chaste and honest. She does everything in the most morally upright way, yet is made to appear unfaithful and is many times called a whore; she is finally smothered by her husband. Emilia is portrayed as a slightly less devoted wife, who is more cynical about love and freer with her opinion about sex; however, she seems mostly faithful to her husband, and yet in Act 5, Scene 2 is called "Villainous whore" and then fatally stabbed by him. Bianca, a courtesan (prostitute with wealthy or upper-class clients), is decidedly not chaste. She is the one who is rightfully called "whore," and yet she is still alive at the end of the play. This situational irony allows Shakespeare to show how women are treated unfairly by men; women are often disparaged as whores whether or not they deserve the title.

In Act 3, Scene 3 what kind of proof does Othello demand Iago provide, and how does this demand play into Iago's hands?

In Act 3, Scene 3 Othello demands Iago provide him with "ocular" proof of Desdemona's affair with Cassio. "Ocular" refers to eyes, so Othello wants to see for himself, with his eyes, the proof of Desdemona's infidelity. He gets his ocular proof, but unfortunately this is presented to him carefully in order to give him the wrong impression. Because Othello does not hear the entire conversation between Iago and Cassio, Iago is able to present Othello with misleading visuals that make it appear that Cassio is joking around with Iago about having an affair with Desdemona. In fact, Iago and Cassio are jokingly discussing Bianca, a courtesan Cassio has been seeing. By the time Othello can use his other senses, he has missed important details of the conversation. In this context, Bianca's possession of the handkerchief—a powerful visual—is the final straw for Othello.

Why is it significant that Emilia is the one who reveals Iago's secrets in Act 5, Scene 2 of Othello?

Of all the characters in the play, Iago has the least malice toward Emilia. He uses her to further his own plan, but his plan does not include her ruin, as it does those of the other major characters. So it is significant that the betrayal of his own secret in Act 5, Scene 2—that he manufactured the entire issue of the handkerchief—is Emilia's doing. He betrays the trust of Othello, Roderigo, Cassio, and Desdemona, but Emilia is the one who betrays his trust. This shows that his reliance on her to obtain the handkerchief was the one weak point in his plan. His belief (that, as his wife, she would not give him away) was the blind spot that undermined his careful plan and ensured he would be punished.

In Othello, in what ways does Iago seem to make plans or take advantage of opportunities?

On one hand, Iago seems like he plans quite a bit. He has clearly planned to exploit Roderigo's foolishness and lust for Desdemona in order to take money from him. He spends whole soliloquies explaining exactly how he is going to cause trouble for Cassio and Othello. He is always planning, and refining the plan. However, he definitely takes advantage of opportunities; for example, Cassio holds Desdemona's hand briefly, and Iago gets the idea to make it seem as if they are having an affair. This opportunism is a feature of Iago's character as much as his cold planning is. It makes him adaptable, even when something does not go according to plan, like Roderigo's failing to kill Cassio. So while Iago does make plans, he also takes advantage of opportunities.

In what ways is Iago, the villain of Othello, Shakespeare's most evil villain?

In many of Shakespeare's plays, the villain is motivated by something simple and believable, like revenge, or being the bastard son, denied legitimacy when some hapless legitimate half-brother gets the inheritance. But in Othello, Iago's motives for his heinous acts just do not add up. He seems to indicate to Roderigo he is angry at being passed over for promotion to lieutenant. Later, he suggests he is angry at Othello for sleeping with his wife, Emilia, but this hint is never substantiated and his treatment of Emilia does not show the same kind of malice as his treatment of Othello. Iago seems to delight in precipitating pain and death, not in achieving a particular act of revenge. It is this lack of a believable motive and Iago's clear enjoyment of the havoc he is causing that has given Iago the reputation of "pure" evil.

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