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Othello | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Othello | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In what ways does the timeline of Othello reveal a logical problem in the plot?

The timeline in Othello appears to take place in approximately 48 hours. Iago and Roderigo visit Brabantio in the middle of the night, or wee hours of the morning. This is the night Desdemona has run off with Othello. The next day, Othello is sent to Cyprus, and everyone arrives there in time for a celebration party that evening, at which Cassio gets drunk. The next day, Iago ramps up the temptation, and by that evening, Othello is murderous. Clearly, there is no time for Desdemona and Cassio to have had an extramarital affair, and certainly no time for her to have "A thousand times committed" adultery, as Othello claims in Act 5, Scene 2. Other details also indicate that the play covers a longer period of time. For example, Bianca notes that Cassio has been away from her for "Seven days and nights" (Act 3, Scene 4), and Iago's story that he witnessed Cassio talking in his sleep (Act 3, Scene 3) seem to suggest that more nights have elapsed while on Cyprus, because their first night there was the night of the celebration.

Of what significance is Brabantio's warning to Othello in Act 1, Scene 2?

In Act 1, Scene 2 Brabantio has clearly lost the argument over Desdemona. As he concedes the victory, he says "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see./She has deceived her father, and may thee." There are several points of interest here: First, Brabantio calls Othello "Moor," rather than "Othello," emphasizing his position as an outsider. Second, Brabantio utters a very Iago-like sentiment, saying that the very thing Othello took as a sign of her love for him—elopement—could be seen as a fault: she lied to me, so she may lie to you as well, he tells Othello. Othello becomes very susceptible to these kinds of insinuations, and he does come to believe she has deceived him. The third item of interest is that Brabantio tells Othello to "Look" or watch, Desdemona, if he has "eyes to see." It is Othello's eyes that see the manufactured "ocular" proof. Perhaps the implication is that Othello should not trust his eyes.

What significance does the handkerchief hold for Othello?

The details of how Othello obtained the handkerchief are not entirely consistent in the play (he first states that his mother got it from a charmer, then later says his father gave it to his mother). Yet it is clear that, to Othello, the handkerchief has sentimental value. It was given to him by his mother, who told him to pass it on to his wife; as a result, it represents his love for Desdemona. Yet it also represents a sort of magical force that keeps husband and wife together. Othello tells Desdemona in Act 3, Scene 4, the handkerchief had magical properties that allowed his mother to "subdue my father/Entirely to her love." Furthermore, if lost, it could spell disaster: "But if she lost it,/Or made a gift of it, my father's eye/Should hold her loathed." The handkerchief's symbolism is also tied up with the materials it is made from, which Othello claims were prepared from the mummified hearts of maidens (virgins): "And it was dyed in mummy, which the skillful/Conserved of maidens' hearts." Because Desdemona likely dies while still a virgin, the handkerchief could be seen as a foreshadowing of her death.

Why does Othello believe Iago's lies but not Desdemona's truth?

One recurring idea in Othello is that once people have an idea in their heads, they will interpret their observations and any new details to fit this idea. So because Othello thinks Iago is honest, he must be. Because Othello is convinced Cassio is sleeping with his wife, the evidence seems to appear so (with a little help from Iago). Does Othello have a preconceived idea that Iago is honest and women are not? Given cultural norms that valued men more than women, this is certainly a possibility. Moreover, the biblical story of Adam and Eve, which is reflected in the garden temptation scene in this play, can be interpreted to place more responsibility for the fall of humanity on the woman. Another possibility is that Othello is simply more susceptible to accusations over Desdemona's possible dishonesty because he has more at stake in that relationship—his honor, his pride, his love, his identity.

In Othello, how is the issue of honesty developed through the characters of Iago and Emilia?

The issue of honesty is developed with dramatic irony throughout the play. Shakespeare, a master of dramatic irony, gives the audience much more knowledge of what is true and what is false than the characters have. The audience knows Iago is dishonest, but the characters in the play believe he is honest. Iago seems honest but is not; his lies betray all those he comes into contact with. In contrast, Emilia tells the truth; she reveals all the lies and manipulations Iago has been carefully concealing. Her honesty is seen by Iago as a betrayal. Many characters in the play are more honest than Iago, but it is Emilia who speaks the truth most forcefully.

Ultimately, in what ways is Othello or Iago responsible for Desdemona's death?

On one hand, Iago seems like the responsible party, because he sets out to cause trouble, he carefully controls events and manipulates people, and his actions do result in the murder of Desdemona. He is the villain, and he completely owns this identity as the devil figure. Still, Othello is the one who fell for Iago's tricks, who was willing to believe that Desdemona—completely innocent—was an adulterer, and who ultimately commits the murder. So he cannot be completely absolved of his participation. "The devil made me do it" is not an excuse, although Othello does suggest in Act 5, Scene 2 that he has been used by the devil: "O cursèd, cursèd slave!—/Whip me, you devils." Even allowing for the influence of the devil, Othello knows the punishment is his to bear, saying at the last judgment his soul will be hurled from heaven, and "fiends will snatch at it."

What is revealed about Iago in the first scene of Othello?

In Act 1, Scene 1 we are introduced to Iago, and all of the important parts of his character are on full display. We see clearly he is a liar who changes his manner and his story to manipulate situations, and does this with an untroubled conscience (or no conscience). We learn he does not respect Othello, his superior: "We cannot all be masters, nor all masters/Cannot be truly followed." He also does not respect those who do their duty: "Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave/That, doting on his own obsequious bondage,/Wears out his time, much like his master's ass." Whom does Iago admire, if he does not admire the honest "knaves" who do their duty and remain self-sacrificing? He admires those "who, trimmed in forms and visages of duty,/Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,/And, throwing but shows of service on their lords,/Do well thrive by them; and when they have lined their coats,/Do themselves homage." He goes on to align himself with these types: "And such a one do I profess myself," even boasting to Roderigo that he follows Othello only to "serve my turn upon him." At the outset, Iago is a self-serving liar and is rather proud of it, having disdain for those who are honest.

In Othello, how does Iago's statement to Brabantio in Act 1, Scene 1, "the devil will make a grandsire of you," create dramatic irony?

Iago clearly is the devil figure in the play. His statement, "I am not what I am" in Act 1, Scene 1 is a negation of God's famous statement in Exodus 3:14: "I am who I am" (New Revised Standard version). Throughout the play, this characterization holds. He is called "viper" in the final scene; he plies Cassio with drink, for which Cassio calls him a "devil"; and he tempts Othello in a scene that mirrors the Garden of Eden temptation. In his "divinity of hell" soliloquy in Act 2, Scene 3 Iago even claims to be like a devil: "When devils will the blackest sins put on,/They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,/As I do now." To the audience, all signs point to Iago as the devil figure. So it is manifest dramatic irony, and grim humor, that Iago accuses Othello of being the devil.

In what ways do Iago's and Emilia's ideas regarding love and lust compare and contrast in Othello?

Iago seems to believe love and lust are really the same thing. In fact, this is the crux of his argument to Roderigo in Act 1, Scene 3 when he tries to convince the foolish gentleman that Desdemona will soon tire of Othello and be fair game for Roderigo: "I take this that you call love to be a sect, or scion ... It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will." A similar idea is present in Iago's vivid imagining of Othello and Desdemona's lovemaking, which he uses to disgust Brabantio and flare up his anger. To Iago, sex is an animal instinct or act: "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe," he tells Brabantio in Act 1, Scene 1, going on to call Othello a "Barbary horse." Emilia's ideas about lust are quite similar to Iago's. She sees sex as an appetite, a physical urge. In fact, in Act 3, Scene 4 Emilia talks of men as if they are nothing but appetites: "They are all but stomachs, and we all but food;/They eat us hungerly, and when they are full/They belch us." Later in Act 4, Scene 3, talking with Desdemona, she says, "Let husbands know/Their wives have sense like them. They see, and smell,/And have their palates both for sweet and sour,/As husbands have ... And have not we affections,/Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?" Yet Emilia also believes in love as something apart from appetite. As she dies in Act 5, Scene 2 she tells Othello, "She loved thee, cruel Moor."

In Othello, in what ways is the poisonous nature of Iago's influence seen in Brabantio?

After Iago leaves Brabantio's house in Act 1, Scene 1, Brabantio says, "this accident is not unlike my dream./Belief of it oppresses me already." One of Iago's main influences is to cause belief in a lie; then the belief, which comes before the proof, makes very little real proof needed, or makes everything seem like proof. In addition, Iago's influence can be seen in Brabantio's word choice, just as Othello will later incorporate Iago's tendency to use animal and devil images into his own language. Iago and Roderigo wake Brabantio with the news that his home has been robbed. When Brabantio gets to the Duke of Venice in Act 1, Scene 2, he immediately calls Othello a "thief." This shows that Iago's characterization of Othello as a robber has influenced Brabantio's perception.

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