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Othello | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Othello | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


How does Desdemona react in Act 3, Scene 4 when Othello asks her about the handkerchief, and how does her reaction affect Othello?

In Act 3, Scene 4 Othello asks Desdemona where the handkerchief is, and when she doesn't give a straight answer, he demands "Is 't lost? Is 't gone?" She, not wanting to anger him further, tells a small lie: "It is not lost, but what an if it were?" She repeats this lie, and then pivots the conversation to Cassio's suit. Othello cannot let the issue of the handkerchief go, however, and becomes more and more demanding. And her small lie is amplified when, later, Othello sees Bianca with the handkerchief. Although Desdemona is generally an honest person, she does tell this one lie, and it serves to cement her fate.

Why is it significant that Iago's last line in Othello is "From this time forth I never will speak word"?

Throughout Othello, Iago has exercised power over others by his words; he suggests, accuses, and makes himself seem honest through his crafty manipulation of language. So when in Act 5, Scene 2 he is finally betrayed by his wife, Emilia, and taken into custody for his part in the violence, he refuses to use words to confess. In fact, he swears never to speak again. This may be an admission of defeat on his part, or it may be parallel to Othello's suicide: While Othello gives up his physical self to death, Iago gives up the most important part of himself—his power of words.

What is the significance of Iago's metaphor in Act 3, Scene 3 of Othello that jealousy "is the green-eyed monster which doth mock/The meat it feeds on"?

This image suggests jealousy will both devour and make a fool of a person. And indeed, Othello is devoured by his jealousy and finally made a fool of by it, because it was completely unfounded. He kills his loving wife for jealousy, and realizes his mistake too late. The other interesting facet of this line is that jealousy is characterized as "green-eyed." This puts the focus on the eyes, suggesting that seeing is somehow related to the growth of jealousy. Othello's eyes, while not green, see events in the play through a lens of jealousy, and it is his eyes that deceive him.

What does the character of Roderigo add to Othello?

Roderigo provides a small amount of comic relief, because he is such a fool and easily duped by Iago. He occupies an important place in Iago's characterization, because it is through conversations with Roderigo that Iago first reveals his character as a liar and manipulator, then fleshes out parts of his plan to ruin Othello and Cassio. And his failure to wound Cassio forces Iago to act unexpectedly and, for one, fatally against them both, so he does ruin Iago's plan to some extent. In many ways, though, Roderigo shows the audience just how petty Iago can be, and how far-reaching his schemes are. Iago's nature is to exploit, and he will exploit his prey, large or small.

In Othello, how do Iago's motives for killing Roderigo and Emilia compare or contrast?

It is important to note that Iago does not set out to kill anyone with his own hand. His preference is to have others carry out the actions to which he has goaded them. But Iago does kill Emilia and Roderigo. Iago kills Roderigo in Act 5, Scene 1 because Roderigo knows many of Iago's secrets; it is a murder done to save face and protect Iago's solid reputation as an "honest" man. However, in Act 5, Scene 2 Iago kills Emilia in retaliation for revealing his plot. This is a murder done simply out of revenge. It does him no good, because she's already shared all she knows.

Why does Othello refer to himself as "he that was Othello" in Act 5, Scene 2?

After he kills Desdemona in Act 5, Scene 2 and finds out her infidelity was all based on a lie, Othello loses himself. His identity was based partly on his own reputation as a successful military leader and adventurer and partly on Desdemona's great admiration and love for him. At the end, he's lost both of those things. He no longer has Desdemona's regard, because she is dead by his own hand. He no longer has his honor, or reputation, because he has done terrible crimes and his status in society has fallen. So he speaks about himself in the past tense: "he that was Othello." The jealousy—that "green-eyed monster"—has consumed him entirely.

Why does Othello speak "a word or two" before he kills himself in Act 5, Scene 2?

Othello's "a word or two" in Act 5, Scene 2 is actually a long speech in fairly regular iambic meter, showing he has come back to his right mind and wits. He seems to want to be remembered favorably: "Then must you speak/Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;/Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,/Perplexed in the extreme." And he does ask the assembled people to remember that he did the state good service at one time. Yet part of what he seems to be doing here is distracting the other characters from his intention to kill himself. At the end of his speech, he launches into a tale about a "turbanned Turk" who attacked a Venetian, and "smote him, thus." And at this, Othello suddenly stabs himself. Presumably, those listening would have tried to prevent him from suicide, but he lulls them with his words and can complete the act before they can stop him.

Why does Shakespeare include the interaction between the Clown and the musicians in Act 3, Scene 1 of Othello?

In Act 3, Scene 1 the audience has just watched as Cassio becomes drunk and Iago exploits him. This is a dramatic scene, and more will soon follow. So Shakespeare gives the audience a little needed comic relief, complete with a pun on tale/tail and the bathroom humor of "wind instrument." Shakespeare's audience would have appreciated the joke "Why masters, have your instruments been in Naples, that they speak i' th' nose thus?" because it suggests Naples is a place where one might get syphilis, which was known to cause deterioration in the nose. This episode may also remind the audience that Othello and Desdemona are newly wedded and are trying to have time alone, which keeps getting interrupted.

Why is it strange Brabantio is so angry that Othello and Desdemona are married?

Brabantio, like others in Venice, seems to be intrigued by Othello's race, while not wanting to include him as an equal in all ways. Othello is exotic and popular, but he is also an outsider. Brabantio is a very clear example of this attitude. Othello notes in Act 1, Scene 3 that Desdemona's "father loved me, oft invited me,/Still questioned me the story of my life/From year to year—the battles, sieges, fortunes/That I have passed." These are the very stories Desdemona enjoyed! Brabantio was also impressed by them, and kept inviting Othello back to his home, which caused Desdemona to fall in love. But even though Brabantio is partly responsible for the couple falling for each other, he is completely beside himself when they actually tie the knot.

Why are the settings of Venice and Cyprus important in Othello?

Venice is a place where, as Brabantio puts it, a "house is not a grange." It is "civilized" in that it has rules, a duke, and a senate. It is a wealthy and influential city-state in the 1500s, located on the coast, and with a busy port for merchants to use for trade. It has a fleet and a thriving economy, including a thriving sex trade. Yet it is Desdemona's home and the culture in which she belongs, while Othello, as a Moor, remains an outsider. Cyprus, on the other hand, is a small island in the Mediterranean Sea, and a less civilized and less metropolitan place than Venice. It has a governor appointed by the Duke of Venice, and saw more violence due to its location as a likely point of attack by the Turks. The island's isolation from Venetian society provides the smaller stage on which this small, yet potent, drama plays out. In this small space that Iago's influence over Othello seems to grow disproportionately, and a small thing like a handkerchief is allowed to grow in significance until it overtakes Othello's mind.

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