|Studying Othello, the Moor of Venice|
This web page is intended for students who are following GCSE specifications (a UK exam) in English Language and English literature. It may also be of general interest to students of Shakespeare's plays.
If you have the text of the play as an electronic document (an e-text), you can use your text editor (such as WordPad) or word processor (such as Word, WordPro or WordPerfect) to search for items of interest, and help you in other ways. To get a copy of the play as a text file, go to the e-text library of Project Gutenberg.
About the play
Othello is a play: it was not written to be read in schools, but to be seen and heard in live performance. It is possible, and can be enjoyable, to act out Shakespeare's plays, but you should not expect to enjoy or understand everything. Why not? Because Shakespeare uses a form of English which often differs from how we speak. Even in his own day, he used a far wider vocabulary (range of words) than almost anyone in his audience. He refers to ideas, people or objects with which the audience in his day would be familiar because these things were part of their education or current events. But modern audiences will not always know about them in detail. Also, the plays require great skill in the actors: it is easy to perform them incompetently. Shakespeare makes great demands of his actors, because he knows how good they are at what they do.
Although there are many beautiful and interesting speeches, Shakespeare was just as interested in narrative, that is telling a story in words and actions. Modern editions of the plays, for use in schools, have extensive notes to explain the meaning of odd terms or unfamiliar ideas. If you use these for your own reading and acting, you may begin to enjoy the plays. You should also try to see video or feature film versions, or listen to radio productions, but a good performance in the theatre should be better than all of these.
This guide is intended to support study of the play by an examination class. A range of activities will be described, from which students should make their own choice, or a selection negotiated with the teacher.
Oral and performance activities
To perform the whole play requires a large, very competent, cast and takes weeks, but a short episode can be performed by a small group or pair; a very short part can even be done as a monologue. You could read the episode, learn the lines and then direct yourself in performance. A simpler approach is to split readers and actors. Each part is read by one person, while another does the actions in mime.There are many striking and beautiful speeches which you could learn, perform or recite. Your teacher will help you make a suitable choice.
UK exam boards may allow you to present some of your work for assessment in reading, as a spoken activity - rather than submit a written essay, you may present a spoken essay, or record a radio or TV type broadcast on audio or video tape.
In Shakespeare's day there were no novels, films or television drama. If you wanted to tell a story, you either wrote a long poem (a very few highly-educated people would read it) or made it into a play. Until the 16th century most plays in England were rather crude acted versions of Bible stories. These were performed by tradesmen who might be very good at their craft, but were not professional actors. When Shakespeare started acting (first) and (later) directing and writing, the English theatre was as new a medium as television is today, and just as fashionable. In London, theatres were built where people could see the plays. Occasionally travelling companies, as today, would take plays to other towns, or to the houses of rich noblemen for private performances.
All of Shakespeare's plays tell stories, and tell them in entertaining ways, with conflict, humour, love, violence, a mixture of language and very good plotting. Most of these stories had to be told in a single performance, so the story would be fitted into a two to four hour telling. Only with stories from history did Shakespeare split the drama into parts (though each of these made a perfectly good play in its own right).
A good approach to Othello is to take a part (not all) of the narrative and tell it in other ways. To practise your writing you could do any of the following: a character might keep a diary or journal in which he or she would record a day's events, with comments on his or her view of these. In this way you could tell one character's part of the story with suitable comment. This would work for Montano (he might keep a log, or send reports to Venice) or Lodovico. A more personal view could come from Cassio.
You could also try to modernize and or shorten the play to produce a script which tells the story in a simplified form.
Versions of the play
One enjoyable way to support your study is to watch different versions of the play. You could also describe these versions in terms of how the script is changed, in terms of what you see, of how characters are presented to the audience and anything else of interest. As theatre productions only run for a limited time these are not listed. Notable feature films of Othello include those directed by Orson Welles and Oliver Parker's 1995 version, in which the title rôle is played by Laurence Fishburne, while Kenneth Branagh appears as Iago. Perhaps the most highly-regarded production of recent years was that of the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) in 1989, which was subsequently adapted for a television broadcast by the BBC. Your teacher should be able to give you guidance about comparing versions of the play.
The story of the play
Some of the time, you may not know what is happening in the play. This outline will give you an idea of the plot, with some comments on the action. Editions of the text for use by students will normally contain both summaries of plot and extensive comment, and you may find these helpful to use also. Othello has perhaps the simplest plot of any of Shakespeare's plays. There are no real sub-plots, only very brief comic interludes, and what happens from Act 2 to Act 5 takes place in a period of some thirty-six hours.
Iago has been unsuccessful in seeking promotion; instead Othello has made Cassio his lieutenant, while Iago has to be content with the post of ancient (find out what these jobs involve). Othello is a Moor (a native of northern Africa) but a loyal officer in the Venetian army, who has repeatedly proved himself in battle. Iago is a Venetian (most of the characters in the play are from Venice or Cyprus) but Cassio comes from Florence (an independent state; remember that the modern country of Italy was not united until the 19th century).
Othello has also, before the start of the play, eloped with Desdemona, daughter of a respected senator, Brabantio. Iago hates Othello; although he speaks in racist terms, it seems that racism is not the biggest cause of his hate (this will be discussed later). With Roderigo, a stupid but wealthy young Venetian, Iago wakes Brabantio with the unwelcome news of his daughter's marriage. Brabantio's attempt to have Othello arrested fails. Othello has been summoned to an important meeting, and is to be posted to Cyprus, which is threatened by invasion. In front of the Duke, Othello explains his actions; Desdemona is sent for, and confirms what Othello has said. She is also given permission to accompany Othello to Cyprus. At the end of the first act, Iago explains to the audience that he wants revenge on Othello, but is not sure how to achieve it.
The second act begins with the arrival in Cyprus of Iago, Cassio, Desdemona and Othello. At the same time we learn that the Turkish fleet which has threatened Cyprus has been battered by a storm, and the island is no longer in danger. Iago realizes that he may be able to exploit Cassio's affection for Desdemona to make Othello jealous. Knowing that Cassio has a weak head for drink, he persuades him to celebrate the Turks' defeat with the Cypriots. Meanwhile Roderigo, whom Iago has brought to Cyprus (supposedly to help him gain Desdemona's love), is to ambush Cassio. The plot (which Iago outlines to the audience beforehand) works perfectly: Cassio, brandishing his sword, chases Roderigo (who escapes); Montano (the senior Cypriot officer) tries to restrain him, and is wounded in the struggle: Othello is woken by the noise, and dismisses Cassio from his job. Iago, who has appeared to speak in Cassio's defence, while giving a truthful account of his actions, now comforts him, and suggests that he seeks Desdemona's help in getting his job back.
In the last three acts, the plot moves almost without interruption to its tragic conclusion. At the start of Act 3, Othello is happily in love with Desdemona, yet his happiness is about to be destroyed. Seeing Cassio with Desdemona, Iago hints at an adulterous relationship between them, although he knows he has no hard evidence. Seeing Desdemona, Othello will not tell her why he is troubled; she mops his brow with a handkerchief, which he brushes aside, causing her to drop it. It is found by Emilia (Iago's wife) who gives it to him, as he has so often asked her to steal it. When Othello demands that Iago prove Desdemona's guilt, he is told that Cassio has her handkerchief. Othello makes Iago his lieutenant, while Iago gives Othello further evidence of Desdemona's treachery by speaking to Cassio of Bianca (his mistress), in such a way that Othello thinks he speaks of Desdemona. Othello asks Iago to kill Cassio while Othello is to kill Desdemona.
Lodovico and other Venetian officers arrive in Cyprus with orders for Othello's recall to Venice, while Cassio is to govern the island. Roderigo is angry with Iago, who has failed to help him win Desdemona's favour (Iago has used Roderigo's money and jewels, but done nothing to help him in return). Iago once more is able to deceive Roderigo, who is persuaded to attack Cassio (Iago wants both men dead, if possible). Roderigo attacks Cassio in the dark, wounding him, but is beaten off. As both men lie bleeding, Iago is able to finish Roderigo off, but Cassio lives. Believing Cassio is dead, Othello kills Desdemona. Emilia discovers what he has done, and tells him he is wrong in his suspicions of Desdemona. Emilia and the wounded Cassio are able to persuade Othello of the truth, though Iago stabs his wife fatally, in an attempt to silence her. We learn that Brabantio has died out of grief at Desdemona's elopement. In his final speech, Othello speaks of his great loyalty to the Venetian state (which he has disgraced by murdering Desdemona) and of his terrible mistake, before stabbing himself. Iago is taken away to be tortured.
How does Shakespeare present themes of love and hate?
This extensive part of the guide will help you study the play in terms of its central themes. You should write about the content of the play (what it is about) and Shakespeare's technique as a dramatist, looking particularly at stagecraft (the play in performance) and language (especially word-play and imagery). If you are to achieve the highest grade for reading, you must write about all of these. If this is too hard, attempt those parts of the task which you can understand, or try a different task.
How to avoid retelling the story
Make judgements, and support these with reference to the play in detail or by direct (short) quotation. Please note that in standard English usage quote is a verb, but you need never, in any case, write it. To see how quotation should be set out, look at examples from the edition of the text which you are studying, or ask your teacher for an explanation. Where the point of your quotation is not obvious, you should explain it, and what it has to do with your argument. As a rule of thumb, your comment should follow the pattern of statement, evidence (direct quotation or reference to detail), explanation of evidence (where needed) and interpretation/judgement. It is a good idea to keep sentences short (don't try to make multiple comments). Ensure that you avoid basic spelling errors: get the names right, and remember how to spell characters.
Love and hate in the play
In this part of your essay, you should outline the principal relationships of the play, looking also at the reasons (or absence of reason) for the characters' attitudes and actions. To keep this part of your work simple, you should look at Othello, Iago and, perhaps, Desdemona only. (All the other characters are important because of their relations with these three). It is interesting to decide which is the more important character, Iago or Othello (scholars and critics over the years have failed to agree about this). What is not in doubt is that in the first part of the play we learn much about Iago's motives from his soliloquies (speaking alone), while Othello dominates the later scenes of the play.
Discuss the following
Discuss the following
Discuss the following
Shakespeare's technique - stagecraft and appeal to the audience
In this part of your essay, you should consider how Shakespeare presents the play's central theme in terms of stage performance. This is fairly difficult to do, but you should have a go. At the very least, it may remind you that Shakespeare did not write books full of notes to bore schoolchildren; his plays were popular entertainment as good feature films or television drama are today.
Shakespeare's theatre was not naturalistic, and relied on a number of conventions which were no problem for his audience, but might be so today. Costume and props were quite elaborate and realistic, but sets were very basic - there was no scenery and certainly no scene changes; dialogue was always used to give indications of place and time (as when in the play's first scene, Iago lets us know he is at Brabantio's house). There was no lighting - plays were performed by daylight in the theatre and by lamplight in private houses. Apart from some episodes in late plays like The Tempest there were no special effects. Some features of Shakespeare's stagecraft in Othello which you might wish to consider are soliloquies, action, contrast, time and place, and the importance of Othello's colour. This list is not exhaustive and you may wish to discuss other things. You should at this point also write about how the play was performed in any versions you have seen, especially where directors have tried different approaches.
(These are episodes in which a character - Iago or Othello in this play - speaks while no-one else is present [at the start of Act 5, scene 1, Desdemona is on stage but asleep, so Othello's speech here qualifies]; the speech is a conventional way of revealing the speaker's thought). Audiences sometimes think Othello stupid for trusting Iago; it is worth remembering that we have been told by him that he is a villain - if the play were performed without the soliloquies would we think about Iago any differently from those around him? Some things you may consider are:
This is a play in which persuasive or beautiful speech does much of the work, but some scenes are notable for physical action. You cannot comment on every such scene, but should discuss in detail the action in a few critical scenes, explaining how what we see (as much as what we hear) is important. Among the episodes to discuss are:
The contrast of love and hate is reflected in a series of other contrasts. Discuss these and show how they help present the central theme of the play. Some contrasts you might wish to discuss are light and dark, honour and dishonour, honesty and deceit and good and evil.
Time and place
In this play, events happen in a shorter space of time than is usual with Shakespeare. The classical Greek writer Aristotle recommended that the plays should have what he called unity of time, place and action. He argued that the action of a play should not take longer than twenty-four hours. Excluding the first act (which is like a prologue) Othello comes closer than most Shakespearean plays (only the late comedy The Tempest follows all of Aristotle's rules). The effect on the audience is to make the tragedy seem more intense. This is especially the case because there is barely any comic relief (Iago's jokes may be enjoyed by those on stage, but the audience knows too much. We laugh, if at all, uneasily). Another odd consequence is that Othello's belief in Desdemona's adultery is literally illogical, as there is no time when it can have occurred: Desdemona and Cassio come to Cyprus on different ships; from this moment there is no time which is not accounted for. This does not make Othello's jealousy more difficult for us to believe in; it shows it to be more insane - Iago makes him believe what is clearly impossible, but Othello cannot see it!
Cyprus is important to the drama because it is so different from Venice; it is close to the danger of invasion, the people are reputedly hot-headed, and Othello is in absolute command. But the loss of the Turkish fleet gives him time to dwell on his private life rather than attend to his duty. Venice is important in two ways. First, it has a sophisticated and snobbish social hierarchy, according to which Othello is welcome as a visitor but quite unsuitable as a son-in-law. Othello does not really understand the fine points of social conduct (etiquette) and Iago is thus able to tell him various untruths about it (such as that Venetians are all promiscuous). On the other hand, the Venetian army (perhaps like the US Army today) while it may allow some racism, still has opportunities for a very good soldier (which Othello certainly is) to make it to the top. In Act 1, scene 3, Brabantio fails to have Othello punished; Brabantio has not been invited to the meeting of the council, but Othello has - even Iago recognizes that Othello is too important for the state to do without him. In return, Othello is almost fanatically loyal to the state he serves. When he is sure he has been betrayed (Act 3, scene 3) he makes a moving speech bidding farewell to his occupation. Before committing suicide he recalls how he once killed a Turk who had dishonoured the state by beating a Venetian.
This play depicts racist characters, but in no way supports racism. The two characters whose dislike of Othello are simply racist (Roderigo and Brabantio) are shown to be foolish. It is interesting that in the 20th century some critics have attempted to show that Othello is not meant to be seen as a Negro! Yet the play is full of references to Othello's colour and appearance which make it quite clear he is a black African. (Roderigo's racist description thick lips only makes sense if Othello is black.) When first performed the part of Othello would have been played by a white actor made up (just as the women's parts were played by boys). As there are now coloured actors and actresses, there is no reason for modern productions to use blacked-up white actors (although as recently as the 1980s, a BBC production gave the rôle to the white Welsh actor, Anthony Hopkins).
In the play it is accepted (this may trouble some modern audiences) that Othello is not conventionally good-looking; his colour makes him unattractive or frightening (it is often linked with the ideas of bestiality or devilishness). But this point is made to show (by contrast as it were) the great beauty of his speech and the nobility of his character: this point is made most clearly by Desdemona: I saw Othello's visage (face) in his mind. The play does not support the view that mixed marriages cannot work - the marriage is destroyed by the extreme wickedness of Iago. The RSC's 1989 casting of Willard White (an opera singer) in the title rôle seems exactly right; the actor is tall and powerfully-built, mature (Othello is an experienced soldier) but above all gifted with a deep and resonant voice. Oliver Parker's 1995 choice of Laurence Fishburne gives us a handsome, more youthful and athletic (and sexy) Othello.
The Language of the play
Although we can spot features of the play's language on the page, remember the play was written (never published) by Shakespeare for theatrical performance, and that effects of language are meant to be heard, as by an attentive audience they would be. Moreover, few of these effects are merely decorative; most help interpret the action on stage. In discussing the play's language, you should not merely list matters of interest, but should structure your comments according to categories or some other arrangement. The headings under which this section of commentary has been arranged may help. Be aware of the form of dialogue which Shakespeare writes at various points. This will usually be blank verse (which is always fairly formal), prose (informal) or rhymed verse (little used in this play, save in Iago's songs and improvised jokes). Some things you may wish to discuss are language and theatre, the language of Othello and Iago, the importance in this play of the single word honest and animal images. As this section is so difficult, you have been given more extensive notes. You should try to understand the important ideas here, and write about the language of the play under these headings or others you may have found elsewhere (e.g., in your edition of the play or published study guides).
Language and theatre
In the play we hear dialogue used to convey the immediate action, for narration (storytelling) of past events, for description, and for comment. Dialogue is used sometimes to advance the plot (as when Bianca appears with Desdemona's handkerchief, letting us know that Iago's use of it has succeeded). Narration is used effectively in Act 1, scene 3, where Othello explains his courtship of Desdemona, though his narrative is liberally embellished with descriptive detail; Othello's descriptions of the handkerchief (Act 3, scene 4, 52-72) and of himself (5, 2, 335-353) include narration of events in his past; Iago narrates events in the play. He appears to defend Cassio, to satisfy Montano's desire for impartiality, yet still secures Cassio's demotion.
Comment is extensive in the play: in the first part, Iago not only explains his plans, but goes some way to telling us about his motives; in the later scenes his comments are merely about the success or failure of his scheming and the danger of discovery. Othello, in the early part of the play, explains much about himself and the beginnings of his love for Desdemona; he reflects on his own life, but in a very outward-looking way, speaking not of his emotions but of the places he has visited, the things he has seen: he is somehow both self-possessed and self-effacing; deceived by Iago, he becomes much more introspective: this leads him at first into near-madness, then a determination to execute justice on his supposed betrayer; finally, he comes to a more complete self-knowledge before death. But the latter part of the play is far more concerned with the portrayal of Othello than of Iago.
The language of Othello and Iago
The contrast in the characters of these two is reflected in their language. Othello is noted for the beauty of his speaking, about which he makes falsely-modest jokes, claiming to be rude in his speech and (being black) not to have those soft parts of conversation which chamberers have. Audiences have felt the beauty of Othello's speeches, but we should note that within the play, characters are aware of it (the Duke suggests that Othello's tale would win his daughter, too). It is a quality which Othello has doubtless developed and found useful, as a commander, for its inspiring effect on his men; that a woman with a thirst for adventure should also be inspired by it is not surprising to us. It has not occurred to Brabantio that this would move Desdemona to love, and it may at first have surprised Othello, but, given a hint by Desdemona, upon this hint he spake, and won her. Othello's rhetoric is presented somewhat ambiguously. There is no doubt that he really does love using his gifts of composition, of poetic comparison, and of oratory (=art of public speaking; it is made clear that the tone of his voice is as musical as what he says) to achieve beauty in his speaking, and that, allowing for some imaginative colouring of things recalled, he uses these gifts to speak truth.
On the other hand, we have a sense of Othello's self-consciousness, of knowing he is adopting a rôle, just as his controlled display of anger at the brawl in Act 3, scene 3 is something of a pose. The language of Venice and the manners of the Venetian army will have been learned by one who uses them with evident awareness of what he is doing. Thus, Othello's final speech in Act 5, scene 2, though it is an honest confession in its detail, is delivered with an eye (or ear, rather) to effect: he knows it is his epitaph, and does his best to make it as resonant and moving in manner, as it is poignant but dignified in content. We can see this in, say, the deliberate understatement which qualifies his boast of duty done: I have done the state some service, and they know it, and his immediate closing of the subject which he has introduced: No more of that...
Warning: This section is very advanced, but if you can use it, you are encouraged to do so! Iago is as skilled as Othello in manipulating language; if he had (but he does not) an idea of beauty, he would find the words for it no less than Othello. As he kneels by Othello (end of Act 3, scene 3) to pledge his help, Iago exactly mimics the solemn rhetoric he has just heard; we might be moved by it if we did not know it to be bogus. This identifies a problem of which we should be aware in noting others' response to Iago: we are forewarned (by him) of his wickedness, and can see, with critical detachment, how it works. If the part is well played (i.e., if Iago is not a pantomime villain, showing his evil in appearance and tone of voice) we should find it plausible (believable) that Iago should be thought honest. If, for Othello, speech is to be used to create beauty or convey the idea of beauty, nobility or goodness, for Iago, speech is just another thing or tool, to be used to manipulate the world to his own advantage. The device of the soliloquy lets us see this at once, and in these speeches, early on in the play, Iago gives us his motives, his modus operandi (Thus do I ever make my fool my purse) and his intentions: the master of deception is open to the scrutiny of the audience, that we may admire, horrified, the progress of his scheming.
In his soliloquies, Iago uses a level of eloquence rarely present in his public utterances, speaking in fluent blank verse, marked by occasional, homely imagery. His bluff honest public persona shows in the informal prose of his advice to Cassio about reputation, or the crude, comic rhyming of his description of the ideal woman in Act 2, scene 1. The long speech describing Cassio's attack on Montano is worth studying: the language seems to have a simple, neutral quality, with simple, everyday vocabulary fluently arranged (he speaks in verse, to indicate the formality of the situation: he is giving evidence, in public, to his commander). The account of what happened is accurate, though the parenthesis: as it so fell out, is skilfully inserted to remind Othello of the result of the fight.
But the attempt to clear Cassio with which Iago opens and closes his account, his truthful suggestion of the strange indignity received from him that fled (a description which seems to rule out the possibility of identifying the unknown assailant), this ensures the result Iago has wished for. It is curious that it is the plainness of his speech, the clarity of meaning at the level of grammar, that supports Iago's reputation for honesty. The idea that the plain speaker tells the truth, while the more eloquent person is not to be trusted, is a commonplace: Shakespeare, through Iago and Othello, shows the error in this belief: plain speaking does not merely accompany (accidentally, as it were) Iago's malice, but is the very medium in which it operates.
The words honest and honesty have changed meaning since the play was written. In Othello, as applied to Iago, honest implies what we might now call down to earth. An honest person is one who makes no pretension to live by principle, but is plain-spoken and straightforward. The term suggests transparency or lack of subtlety. As we say now: What you see is what you get. The terms also imply low social status; a gentleman is expected to live by principle and is rebuked if he fails, but an honest fellow lives by a lower standard. Thus, the term implies, as it does now, a measure of truthfulness or integrity, but is also a (perhaps, to him, painful) reminder of Iago's social class. It is quite clear that Iago knows that others see him as honest and exploits it: thus, he plays up to others' belief in his plain-speaking in his denunciations of virtue and love (above), of reputation (Act 2, scene 3, 258 ff.) and in the ironic conclusion of his mock praise of a good woman.
On the other hand, Iago is upset that others see him as typical of his social class: he suspects that Cassio's promotion has been due to his social position (since this gives Cassio the qualities he needs for the job, this is probably a true judgement). Cassio, drunk, is guilty of snobbery to Iago (the lieutenant is to be saved before the ancient; Act 2, scene 3, 103,4). The audience (especially the orally attentive early 17th century audience) soon learns to attend to this word honest (or honesty) which becomes charged with our awareness of how Iago feels about the term, our understanding that Iago is the opposite of honest in being exceptionally subtle and deceitful (save, in his soliloquies when he is more or less honest with himself and us) but that this very error is one he encourages, for the opportunities it gives him; and, finally, that this reputation for honesty is one of Iago's motives for seeking revenge on Othello and, especially, on Cassio.
Theatrically, the gradual loading of the word with significance allows Shakespeare to achieve a particularly powerful effect in Act 5, scene 2, 152: Emilia's discovery of the real depths of Iago's wickedness, and its terrible result occurs simultaneously with Othello's discovery of his error. The nature of their misunderstandings is embodied for the audience in the reiteration of the word husband: with each repetition the speakers move nearer to sharing true knowledge with the audience
Othello's last desperate assertion of his understanding of events: My friend, thy husband, honest, honest Iago horrifies the audience as we understand from it the whole course and cause of Othello's deception, and as we see Emilia's terrible refutation almost before she delivers it. When Othello repeats honest we are moved by a complex of ideas: of what Iago really is, of how others have seen him, of the enormous trust Othello has reposed in that honesty, of its history up to this moment in the play, and of its certain results.
There are far too many images in the play for you to study them all, but one very interesting source of images is animals. Early in the play, we hear Othello described in animal terms (a feature of racist speech, then as now; Iago call him an old black ram...tupping [a] white ewe). Later in the play, he will also use comparisons to goats and monkeys to express his horror of what he believes Desdemona to have done. See how many such images you can find, and discuss what they mean in their context (where they appear) and what they contribute to our understanding of the whole play.
The outline above is only a rough guide. Anything you may wish to discuss for yourself, or which you have discovered from other sources is more than welcome!
In conclusion, you should make a personal judgement both about the play and about the version(s) of it which you have seen. It helps if you can be positive without being obviously gushing and over the top in your compliments!
© Andrew Moore, 2001; Contact me