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Othello | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Othello | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


How does Iago begin to ensnare Othello in his trap in Act 3, Scene 3?

Iago's method with Othello is to first hook him into listening and then, when he has Othello's undivided attention, speak more plainly his lies. In Act 3, Scene 3 Iago's first suggestion that all is not well is his remark, "Ha, I like not that" as Cassio leaves, and his (completely invented) worry that Cassio looked like he was hiding something: "I cannot think it/That he would steal away so guiltylike,/Seeing your coming." At this point, Othello's interest is piqued, and he is paying closer attention to Iago's words and expressions: Iago makes facial expressions that can be interpreted as showing concern. Othello, now tuned in to Iago, notices these. He notes Iago "didst contract and purse thy brow together,/As if thou then hadst shut up in thy brain/Some horrible conceit." This allows Iago an opportunity to go further. In addition to telling outright lies, Iago exploits Othello's insecurities as an outsider in Venetian culture by suggesting he, Iago, understands Venetian women's promiscuous ways better than Othello does: "I know our country disposition well./In Venice they do let God see the pranks/They dare not show their husbands." He also manages to use Desdemona's past actions, which were done out of love for Othello, as a point against her as he makes his case: "She did deceive her father, marrying you,/And when she seemed to shake and fear your looks,/She loved them most."

How does Iago's statement in Act 2, Scene 3, "I'll pour this pestilence into his ear," apply to his plot against Othello?

In Elizabethan times, poisons were thought to contaminate the body through the ear. This can be clearly seen in Hamlet's "The Murder of Gonzalo,"—performed as a play within the play. The image suggests Iago will poison Othello, and also the poison will be in an audible form—the words Iago speaks to him. In fact, Iago's words, to which Othello listens, are likened specifically to poison in Act 3, Scene 3 when Iago adds, "The Moor already changes with my poison." Iago adds that no medicine will be able to heal Othello: "Not poppy nor mandragora/Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world/Shall ever medicine thee."

How does the relationship between Bianca and Cassio compare or contrast to other relationships in Othello?

On the surface, the relationship between Bianca and Cassio differs from other relationships because Iago and Emilia are married, as are Desdemona and Othello. Furthermore, Bianca is a courtesan, so she doesn't have the social standing of the married women. However, in all three relationships, the women are treated poorly. Desdemona and Emilia are called whores and killed, and Bianca, who is a whore and who does not die, is still an object of ridicule when Iago and Cassio speak about her in Act 4, Scene 1: "She gives it out that you shall marry her./Do you intend it?" Cassio laughs in response, then says, "I marry her? What, a customer? Prithee bear some charity to my wit! Do not think it so unwholesome. Ha, ha, ha!" By featuring three very different women in three very different relationships, Shakespeare shows the difficulties women faced in society.

In Act 3, Scene 3 why does Othello say he has a "pain upon [his] forehead"?

In Act 3, Scene 3, after his first conversation with Iago, Othello tells Desdemona, "I have a pain upon my forehead, here." This phrase has a plot purpose, a character-development purpose, and a symbolic purpose. The fact that he comes in with a pain in his head prompts Desdemona to offer to bind it with her handkerchief, which she then accidentally drops, setting off the whole handkerchief series of events, so it is important to the plot. It suggests that Othello is so disturbed by Iago's words that he experiences physical pain, developing the downward spiral Othello finds himself in. It also symbolizes Othello's growing surety that he is being cuckolded, because the "horns" of a cuckold would grow from the head of the man whose wife was unfaithful.

Why is Lodovico surprised by Othello's behavior when they meet on Cyprus in Act 4, Scene 1, and how does Iago use this surprise in his scheme?

Othello is acting very strangely by the time Lodovico arrives on Cyprus in Act 4, Scene 1 with messages from the Duke of Venice. To Lodovico, it appears that something in the messages makes Othello react so strongly he exclaims, "Fire and brimstone," even though Othello is actually thinking of Desdemona. And so when Othello turns that anger on Desdemona, Lodovico is very surprised. He is also surprised because of Othello's reputation for keeping a calm head under pressure: "Is this the noble Moor, whom our full senate/Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature/Whom passion could not shake, whose solid virtue/The shot of accident nor dart of chance/Could neither graze nor pierce?" Taken off guard by Othello's strange and violent behavior, Lodovico is in just the right state of mind (an uncertain one) for Iago to manipulate him. Iago says, "He is much changed," and "It is not honesty in me to speak/What I have seen and known. You shall observe him,/And his own courses will denote him so/That I may save my speech." Iago is clearly setting the stage for Othello to break down much further, by making it seem like Iago, as Othello's friend, has seen a decline in Othello's character but hasn't wanted to mention it. Like Iago's comment about Othello's epileptic fit, Iago has begun to invent a backstory for Othello's decline that leaves himself out of the narrative.

How does Shakespeare use syntax and diction to show Othello's emotional state?

Syntax refers to how words are arranged into sentences, while diction refers to word choice. Shakespeare uses both to reflect changes in Othello's emotional state. As Othello moves from calm and collected to deranged by jealousy, his speech patterns reflect this. In Act 1, Scene 3 Othello is asked to give an account of his marriage to Desdemona, and he begins, "Rude am I in my speech,/And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace;/... And therefore little shall I grace my cause/In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,/I will a round unvarnished tale deliver/Of my whole course of love." Here, Othello displays a very polite false modesty, because he is obviously very well spoken—not "rude" in his speech. His sentences are long, complete, and complex, and his word choice varied and full of adjectives such as little, soft, gracious, and unvarnished. In contrast, when Iago's poison has been working and Othello is beside himself with jealousy, Othello's word choice becomes violent and much narrower, full of repetition, as in Act 3, Scene 3: "Monstrous, monstrous," "Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her, damn her!" "O, blood, blood, blood!" In Act 3, Scene 4 Othello's syntax becomes jagged, full of short sentences: "Is 't lost? Is 't gone? Speak, is 't out o' th' way?" and "Fetch 't. Let me see 't!"

How does Iago use a musical metaphor to describe his effect on Othello and Desdemona?

In Act 2, Scene 1 Othello says, kissing Desdemona, "And this, and this, the greatest discords be/That e'er our hearts shall make!" Iago, always looking for a way to take control of a situation, even takes over this metaphor. "O, you are well tuned now," he says about Othello and Desdemona, referring to how strings of an instrument must be loosened and tightened to get the correct pitch. Then he suggests he is going to cause the music of these two lovers to go out of tune: "But I'll set down the pegs that make this music." If he sets the pegs down, or loosens them, the strings will no longer play the correct notes.

Why in Act 1, Scene 1 does Brabantio prefer to believe that Othello bewitched Desdemona?

In Act 1, Scene 1 Brabantio is clearly affected by Iago's descriptions of Othello's skin color ("black ram," "Barbary horse," and the like), and Iago is clearly using these references to leverage Brabantio's racism. As Desdemona's father, he feels her choice of Othello as husband is a reflection on his paternal duty to ensure her "breeding." Her choice has implications for his own reputation and honor, and her disobedience in not going through the proper channels (asking his permission) also reflects poorly on his ability to control his own household, which he is expected to do. As such, it is easier for him to believe in Othello's magical ability to enchant his daughter into running away and eloping than it is for him to believe Desdemona would fall in love with a Moor and disobey her father of her own free will.

Why does Shakespeare include the conversation among Montano, the gentlemen, and Cassio in Act 2, Scene 1 of Othello?

On its face, the conversation in Act 2, Scene 1 simply describes a scene that would be difficult to recreate on stage: a large storm destroys a fleet of large warships. It also explains why Othello is the last to arrive, even though the plan was for Desdemona to follow him. Othello's late arrival gives the characters a chance to interact without Othello there—important for character development—and Iago, specifically, a chance to observe the interaction between Cassio and Desdemona and formulate Cassio's downfall. Furthermore, this conversation describes a threat to Othello's physical safety, the storm, which can then be eclipsed by the threat to his soul throughout the remainder of the play.

How does the conversation between Desdemona and the Clown in Act 3, Scene 4 of Othello tie in to the story as a whole?

This humorous interaction between Desdemona and the Clown in Act 3, Scene 4 hinges on a pun (of which Shakespeare was fond). The pun involves the several meanings of the word lie. By this time in the play, it is clear Iago is a liar; here, Desdemona asks the Clown, "Do you know, sirrah, where Lieutenant Cassio lies?" and the Clown replies, "I dare not say he lies anywhere. ... He's a soldier, and for me to say a soldier lies, 'tis stabbing." Desdemona wants to know where Cassio is currently located, and the Clown comically uses another meaning of "lie" to make a pun. In Act 4, Scene 1 the multiple meanings of "lie" take on a more sinister role in the play. Iago tells Othello that Cassio is known to "lie with" Desdemona—a euphemism for having sex with someone. And Iago can't resist making it sound crude, saying Cassio lies "with her—on her—what you will."

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