Guide to Shakespeare : the plays, the poems, the life

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A Study Booklet for

Year 13 ENGLISH 2012 KHPA

The rough guide to Shakespeare : the plays, the poems, the life. Andrew Dickson

Find it in our library!!

Not as philosophically deep as some of his other plays, Shakespeare’s second ‘great tragedy’ is said to be his most ‘gripping and tormenting play’.
The story of a soldier propelled into murderous fury by his wife’s apparent unfaithfulness first appears in a sensationalist Italian novella1, but Shakespeare transforms this small-scale, domestic drama into a maelstrom2 of turbulent emotion, and he produces the most heart-stopping of tragic finales. Othello is also about race: its hero is a black man in a society governed by white people, and from its first days on the stage audiences have been forced to confront the complex ethnic issues it presents. Othello is a hero, not a devil – Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have assumed the reverse – and ends the play an isolated and tragic figure. The calculating killer of an innocent white girl, he might easily have been the lurid villain of racist stereotype, but instead, crucially, he becomes another victim. For we in the audience see what Othello does not: the demonic nature of the play’s real villain, the white Italian Iago, who, unbeknown to everyone on stage, directs every moment of the action. It is impossible not to respond strongly to Othello, and passionate reactions also dominate the play’s history in the theatre: there are numerous stories of audience members fainting or screaming – or even begging the cast not to go through with it because the events are too painful to watch. The tragedy of Othello draws us in like no other, and for that reason it is one of Shakespeare’s very greatest achievements.
Interpreting the play

Elizabethan and Jacobean plays featuring black characters were a rarity; ones in which they took centre-stage were unheard of. In England there was a long tradition of ‘blacking-up’ in order to represent evil or exotic characters for the medieval mystery and morality cycles and in courtly entertainment acting ‘black’ became briefly fashionable with plays such as Ben Johnson’s Masque of Blackness where female courtiers3 often amused themselves by dressing as ‘blackamoors’. Yet in real life, even with the expansion of colonial trade involving far-flung corners of the globe, there were few black people resident in England itself (some had been expelled by Elizabeth) during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The theatre would have been one of the few places where the public could experience such ‘exoticism’ first hand.

Shakespeare turns the traditional notion of black being evil and white being good on its head in this play. A black man is the tragic hero, the noble ‘Moor of Venice’ for whom the play is named; it is the white Italian, Iago, who is the villain.
That apparent contradiction must have struck Othello’s first audiences hard, and indeed the Duke of Venice admits to feeling it too, hearing that Desdemona, daughter of one of his Senators, had done the unthinkable and married a black soldier. ‘Noble signor,’ he addresses her fuming father:

If virtue no delighted beauty lack,

Your son-in-law is far more fair than black


The division between outward appearance and inner reality will prove a crucial – and increasingly malignant4 – idea in Othello, but for the moment it seems that at least some Venetians recognise that a man who happens to be black need not be a savage.
This realisation is not had by all characters – we witness some rather nasty racism in the first scene when Iago and Roderigo break the news to Brabantio that his daughter is ‘making the beast with two backs’ with the Moor. The scene is full of unparalleled bitterness and brutality as we watch Othello’s ensign5 and Desdemona’s rejected suitor slander his name. Attempting, and succeeding, to drive Desdemona’s father insane with anger at the news that she has eloped with Othello, Iago puts it in the basest6 terms he can think of: ‘a lascivious Moor’; ‘thick lips’; ‘a “Barbary [Arab] horse’’. ‘Swounds7, sir, you’re robbed,” he taunts Branbantio,

Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul.

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram

Is tupping your white ewe.


What we are soon to see described (in Othello’s rapt words) as a love ‘too much of joy’ (2.1.198), a love upon which the play will hinge, is here reduced to brute animal lust and crude racist stereotype by Iago and Roderigo.

Over the four centuries that Othello has been upon the stage, actors and audiences have likewise struggled with the idea that Othello could be both black and the hero of the piece – one commentator, writing in the southern United States only a few years after the Civil War had brought an end to slavery, declared that, in her view, ‘Shakespeare was too correct a delineator of human nature to have coloured Othello black…Othello was a white man.’ Such colour blindness (in the worst sense of that phrase) was hardly a lone voice in the wilderness. Critics have fussed over his ethnicity, as if by being not a ‘veritable negro’ he could more easily be misunderstood.
The surprising thing is that apart from those deliberately shocking first scenes aside, Othello is not a play that explores racism in any real detail. As Othello himself testifies, he is employed as a general by the Venetian state and has every reason to expect his position to be respected. Roderigo’s grudge against Othello is simply that Desdemona prefers her new, more exciting, suitor to the drab Venetian.

Enmesh them all

Othello has, it seems, not the slightest idea of Iago’s plot against him. Iago’s racist insults, delivered while Iago successfully pretends to be Othello’s closest companion, take on a more frightening aspect when the action relocates to the far flung island of Cyprus. Posted there in order to confront the invading Turks, the party of Venetians – Othello, his wife and Cassio, plus soldiers – arrives to the welcome news that the Turkish fleet has been broken up by the storm. But though the military threat has evaporated, Iago has not. Trapped as he is in this suffocating outpost, his plot to devastate the fragile colony and Othello, the man at its centre, develops and builds strength uninterrupted.

We might wonder why Iago is so desperate to destroy Othello, but the play has no real answer – or rather, presents too many to believe. Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously commented on Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’, and though more literal-minded commentators have taken up scattered (and often desperate) clues Iago tosses to the audience (professional envy, personal jealousy). Coleridge comes closer than most in describing the sense of absolute evil that Iago represents. There is a terrifying void at the centre of his character, something that cannot be rationalised. In one of Iago’s most chilling soliloquies, he even plays tricks with the one thing that is certain about him – his insatiable wickedness. ‘And what’s he then that says I play the villain?’ he taunts,

‘When this advice is free I give, and honest…?


Dispensing ‘advice’ to anyone who will listen under the cover of plain-speaking honesty, Iago’s devilishness, as he goes on to boast, lies in his ability to produce ‘heavenly shows’ while all the time plotting the ‘blackest sins’ imaginable – a triumphant duplicity that will see Othello calling his ensign ‘honest Iago’ until practically the last moment of the play.
Once the Venetians are settled in Cyprus, Iago sets to work. He does so by telling stories – more specifically a single story; that Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio. Here the power to transform is entirely in the service of evil, as Iago reflects, outlining his plan to set Desdemona up:

So will I turn her virtue into pitch,

And out of her own goodness make the net

That shall enmesh them all.


Relying on Desdemona’s open-heartedness and Othello’s absolute trust, Iago turns each and every ‘virtue’ into a flaw, and each character into their own worst enemy. In this sense he rewrites Othello itself, which begins like a comedy, with a marriage achieved against all odds by a rebellious daughter (ringing any bells?) followed by a storm that presents deliverance, not evil, and yet which turns into monstrous tragedy, one that, as Iago boasts, does indeed trap everyone. When we see a storm in literature it is known as a pathetic fallacy – mirroring the emotional state of the characters. Othello will soon be overtaken by an emotional storm of jealousy.

Shakespeare gives Iago nearly a third of the lines within the play, many more than Othello. His control of the plot and his willingness to improvise is masterly, a work of genius. On their first night in Cyprus, Iago arranges for Cassio to get drunk and start a fight with Roderigo (who has only accompanied Iago to Cyprus at Iago’s urging). As Iago knows, this night is the ‘wedding night’ and Othello is so unimpressed at being disturbed that he strips Cassio of his post on the spot. Cassio is mortified and desperate to recover his ‘reputation’, so Iago persuades him to appeal to Desdemona. With all this in place, Iago begins to work on Othello. When the two men are alone, Iago innocently asks, ‘Did Micheal Cassio, when you wooed my lady,/ Know of your love?’ and sets about planting the idea that Cassio might be dishonest and having an affair with Desdemona.
The audience knows that the whole thing is a set of lies but the fiction will not be exposed until it is too late. Iago uses his control of language to run rings around Othello. He hints and insinuates, never actually stating anything. Deniability is a key element of Iago’s plotting, as is his technique of ensuring that Othello is left to construct his own nightmare, breed his own ‘monsters’. And it works, horribly. ‘By the world,’ Othello rages at Iago soon afterwards, ‘I think my wife be honest, and think she is not.’

I think that thou art just, and think thou are not,

I’ll have some proof. My name, that was as fresh

As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black

As mine own face. If there be cords, or knives,

Poison, or fire, or suffocating streams,

I’ll not endure it.


Once Othello’s feelings are aroused they will not be assuaged, and over the next scenes of the play his doubts about Desdemona’s faithfulness (and Cassio’s honesty) will harden into certainty. Iago, typically, is the first to mention the word ‘jealousy’, warning his master with apparent concern that ‘it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock/The meat it feeds on’ (3.3.170-171). For his part, Othello is already becoming convinced that his ‘name’ is destroyed and that murderous violence is inevitable.
Confirmations Strong

Othello persuades himself that he is acting rationally by demanding ‘some proof’, but he reckons without Iago’s skill – or the workings of chance. As Iago had planned, Othello’s jealousy is so strong, ‘that judgement cannot cure’ (2.1.301), and he will be convinced by the flimsiest of grounds. That ‘proof’, almost farcically, is a handkerchief, ‘spotted with strawberries’ that Desdemona happens to drop. Seized on by Emilia, who hands it to her husband, the handkerchief makes its way to Cassio’s chamber and thereby becomes the sum total of physical evidence proving Desdemona’s guilt. As Iago jubilantly remarks, ‘trifles light as air/ Are to the jealous confirmations strong/ As proofs of holy writ (3.3.326-7). Even the tiniest, insignificant details are put under huge pressure by this play, and when they fail to take the weight, the tragedy collapses with spectacular force. Desdemona’s well-meaning eagerness to help Cassio rebounds terribly against her; Emilia’s desperate attempts to earn her husband’s love makes her an unwitting accessory to his plot.

Perversity of structure

The play’s great perversity comes from its very structure. Othello is the site of one of Shakespeare’s most invasive theatrical coups, the so-called ‘double time-scheme’. Othello and Desdemona have, on one level of the play, almost implausibly little time together: their new marriage is threatened by her father’s wild intervention, then by the news that Othello must be sent to Cyprus; likewise their wedding night is disturbed by Cassio’s brawl and some critics have argued that their marriage may not even be consummated. It has been calculated from internal references in the play that the time in Cyprus takes no more than 33 hours – just under a day and a half. On stage, of course, Othello feels much longer, apparently lengthened by Shakespeare’s scattered gestures to more extended time periods. The effect is of a ply at once too long and too short: long enough for Othello and Desdemona’s marriage to appear convincing, yet short enough for it to feel insecure; short enough for Iago’s plot to remain secret, yet long enough for it to work its way to completion. Though he is ignorant of it, Othello himself picks up on this impossible, torturing tension. ‘What sense had I of her stol’n hours of lust?’ he cries,

I saw’t not, thought it not, harmed not me…

He that is robbed, not wanting what is stol’n,

Let him not know’t and he’s not robbed at all


Those ‘stol’n hours’ are, of course, an impossibility; there is simply no time in the action of the play (even if there were reason) for Desdemona to be unfaithful. Shakespeare steals time from us too, just as Iago steals from Othello his mind. Time is just another ingredient of Iago’s plot.
Nor does Shakespeare give us opportunity to draw breath. Just a few minutes after beginning to suspect Desdemona, Othello is racked by doubt; another few minutes after that he is swearing ‘capable and wide revenge’ with Iago’s gleeful help (3.3.462), convinced by the evidence and resolved not to go back. After the handkerchief makes its appearance and Cassio is framed, the effect is devastating (although some of you found it amusing). ‘Lie with her? Lie on her?’ Othello cries desperately.

We say ‘lie on her’ when they belie her. Lie with her? ‘Swounds, that’s fulsome! Handkerchief – confessions – handkerchief. To confess and be hanged for his labour. First to be hanged and then to confess! I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. Is it not words that shakes me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips! Is’t possible? Confess? Handkerchief? O devil!

He falls down in a trance


Though Othello will rapidly recover from the fit, the mental turmoil it represents will stay with him until his death.

In the first half of the play the main conflict is merely incubating; then it bursts into life, and goes storming without intermission or change of direction, to its close. A.C Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904)
But first, the blameless Desdemona must die. Although Iago plants the idea of her infidelity in Othello’s mind, the notion of killing her in revenge is all her husband’s. ‘O blood, blood, blood!’ he rages just moments before his wife appears, as innocent of the knowledge as she is in character. She assumes that state business has distracted Othello, making him unwell, but her attempts to make him feel better do nothing but infuriate him. The terrible cycle of jealousy does its work. After a horrific public shaming during which Othello hits her in front of guests from Venice, the lovers have a tearful final argument. Othello taunts her with his own certainties, refuses to listen to her denials. ‘What, not a whore?’ he cries incredulously.
He will not ‘scar’ her alabaster skin, but he will kill her before the scene is out. This is perhaps the most chilling of Iago’s many malicious victories: as well as robbing Othello of his sanity, he makes him into the villain imagined by crude racist fantasy – a black murderer stealing into a white girl’s bedchamber. Worse still, Othello seems unaware of the fact, drawing attention to her ‘whiter’ complexion rather than his ‘foul’, ‘filthy’ murder. Emila informs Othello what many seventeenth-century audiences would have suspected all along: ‘O, the more angel she, and you the blacker devil!’ (5.2.140).
With that, the play is nearly over – but not quite. A couple more deaths to come! Though it is too late for Desdemona (and indeed for Othello), in the dying moments the truth does come out. Following Emilia’s furious testimony, the real story emerges. She calls him out for his stupidity and lets him in on how the handkerchief really left Desdemona’s hand. Realising that his fictions are collapsing, Iago makes one last attempt to rewrite the conclusion and lunges brutally at his wife, mortally wounding her. Othello, meanwhile, begins the slow and tragic journey to realisation. He, too, is desperate to be understood. ‘When you shall these unlucky deeds relate’ he tells the assembled throng, as it gathers around the corpses on stage,

Speak of me as I am, nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice. 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; of one whose hand,

Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe…

For Iago, however, the storytelling has come to an end. ‘Demand me nothing,’ he sneers. ‘What you know, you know.’ (5.2.309-10). There will be no other answers.
Notes from Garber

(Source: Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All, Anchor, New York, 2004).

• Modern (i.e. 20th and 21st Century) criticism tends to look at certain aspects of text (e.g. race, class, gender etc) as ‘discrete elements’…

• … reflecting the issues of OUR time

• Shakespeare’s plays -400+ years old- “exhibit and record” these issues

• “Shakespeare’s time –like ours- was one of great historical changes and social anomalies”.

Othello “records and responds to a world in crisis, a crisis … in part through emergent categories like race, class, gender –and sexuality.”

• As in many Shakespearean plays, the setting moves from “a civilised place to a wild one.”

• Light and darkness in the staging (common to many of his plays) –light = “a search for control and order”; dark = chaos and evil.

• Venice is the place of reason; Cyprus of passion (Brabantio says “This is Venice. My house is not a grange.8”)

• The play begins with a marriage; Shakespeare’s comedies normally end with a marriage

• Iago’s filth in the night to Brabantio comes “from a moral, as well as a literal, darkness”

• The “dichotomy of light and darkness will mirror the dichotomy of Venice and Cyprus.”

• “Venice and Cyprus. Light and darkness. Black and white.”

• “European languages have loaded the term ‘blackness’ with negativity, in keeping with … ‘light’ as reason and goodness.”

• This has “spilled … into racial stereotypes.”

The key dramatic point of Othello at the same time establishes and critiques a stereotype: Othello looks black, but it is Iago who embodies immorality and evil (conventionally equated with ‘blackness’ of soul) in the play. On the other end of this scale, the play presents both false and true images of ‘whiteness’, since the name of the courtesan, or whore, Bianca means ‘white’ or ‘the white one’. Thus we have “black Othello”, and really (morally) black Iago: ‘white’ Bianca and really (morally) white Desdemona. ‘Black’ and ‘white’ demarcate prevailing cultural, linguistic and symbolic conventions of Christian sin and virtue. It is Desdemona’s purity of spirit that Othello mistakes for sin, just as he mistakes Iago’s malevolence for honesty. The “honest” (that is, chaste and virtuous) Desdemona is accused of dishonesty; the dishonest Iago (insincere, deceitful, lacking in public spirit) is labelled “honest” over and over again in line after line. The word “honesty” becomes for the play a pivot of meaning, an emblem for its many false assumptions.
Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All, Anchor, New York, 2004.p.593.
• “The play has … [a] struggle between two forces, a ‘good angel’ and a ‘bad angel’, for a man’s soul.”

• “But another way of understanding this … tug-of-war with Othello at its centre –is to see both Iago and Desdemona as reflecting aspects of Othello’s own mind.”

• Who is Othello? Where and how does he come from? (“an extravagant and wheeling stranger”?)

• Cassio is what Othello is not (or thinks himself not to be): courteous, courtly, at ease with whatever ‘civilised’ (i.e. not war) situation; women, diplomacy, power. Garber argues (like Bloom) that Cassio was appointed for his diplomatic, not military, skills.

• “Love confines [Othello] rather than sets him free.”

• “There is perhaps an excess of control and rationality in the Othello of the early scenes.”

• Can Othello ever escape his ‘public persona’?

• “The actor James Earl Jones once remarked that Othello was the only Shakespearean warrior we never see in a fight.” Yet Othello is the ultimate warrior.

• This is interesting, given that fighting- and sexual-ability are often synonymous in the plays (although there is a big ‘but’ with Macbeth).

• Othello’s version of how he and Desdemona fell in love casts her as passive (“She loved me for…”) –which is immediately belied by her version of events

• Othello tells wonderful “spellbinding” (Garber) stories –are they TRUE? The magic of the handkerchief?

• “Othello … confuses the personal with the public, the outer with the inner man.”

• “Where Othello speaks of something like [Desdemona’s] hero worship, Desdemona speaks of [a] love … that is frankly sexual as well as romantic.”

• Othello ‘denies’ his sexual appetite (i.e. he’s no longer young and randy) re: doing his job. BUT “how soon the coin will flip the other way, and he will be convinced that Desdemona

could … be unfaithful to him, ‘for I am declined into the vale of years’.”

• Desdemona wants to –and does- act in the public (male) sphere: Othello “prefers a posture of obedience and admiration” –he does not want her to “act like a man in the political sphere”. Iago will later TWIST this as a sign of her deviant disposition.

“Race, class and gender become crisis points when they categorise something, or someone, as different, and also as out of place: out of place, of course, from the point of view of traditional society. A black man marries a white woman, and is chosen by the nation to lead it in time of peril. A soldier, ambitious for preferment, sees his place given to another –given to a courtly, educated snob who believes that “the lieutenant should be saved before the ancient”. A woman asserts herself, making her own choice in marriage against her father’s will, speaking out in public on civic matters, then daring to contradict her husband’s view and offering him advice. These are all signs of transgression, calling boundaries into question. Anxiety, hatred, and desire develop in part out of this sense of destabilisation and displacement, out of the divisions and comparisons that are produced by categories like race, class and gender –and never more than in Othello.” Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All, Anchor, New York, 2004.p.588.


The play’s central theme is love (destruction of love = hate) (love and hate together arouse jealousy).

The central conflict is between men and women and this is presented through a series of parallel and contrasting couples.
Desdemona/Othello, Emilia/Iago, Bianca/Cassio and a number of fantasy couples: Roderigo/Desdemona, Cassio/Desdemona, Othello/Emilia.

  • Sexuality is linked often with vulgarity

“an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe?”

  • Being married is linked to a lack of freedom

“for know, Iago./But that I love the gentle Desdemona”

“I would not my unhoused free condition / Put into circumstance and confine”

  • “love is often mentioned as a physical, sensual act (often by Desdemona, rare in a female character) at the same time it is frequently reduced to lust especially by Iago.

“It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will.”

  • It is claimed that marriage brings together two individuals into one identity i.e. Othello kills Desdemona to restore his identity.

“Our general’s wife is now the general”.

  • Marriage means losing one’s individual power and self-determination.

“His soul is so infetter’d to her love / That she may make, unmake, do what she list”.

  • Love is continually linked with deceit, unfaithfulness and misleading appearances.

“And when she seem’d to shake and fear your looks / She lov’d them most”. 111.111 21-212

  • The state of marriage as an institution is questioned.

“O curse of marriage / That we call these delicate creatures ours / and not their appetites”. 111.111 272 –

  • The nature of being male and female.

“They are all but stomachs and we all but food”.

  • At the end is a rare plea for women to be treated equally in a relationship.

“Let husbands know / Their wives have sense.


“Beware the green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on…”

Jealousy motivates Iago, and destroys Othello in the play. But how far can we believe Othello when he describes himself as; “not easily jealous, but being wrought/perplexed in the extreme” (Act V).

Desdemona agrees, when she answers Emilia.

Emilia: “Is he (Othello) not jealous?

Desdemona: Who he? I think the sun where he was born

Drew all such humours from”. (Act III)
Iago seems to also agree.

“The Moor has a free and open nature too,

That thinks men honest that but seem to be so”. (Act I)

Iago also says

“The Moor, how be it that I endure him no

Is of a constant, noble, loving nature”. (Act II)

Ridley, in the introduction to the Arden edition: Even though he (Othello) is not a jealous man, he is not only dominated but distorted by a barbaric crazed fury of physical jealousy… and part of the very power of jealousy over him is that it is an unfamiliar emotion, which he has no idea how to handle”.
Perhaps the play is about jealousy as an abstract force rather than a play about a jealous man.

Is the play a study of Iago rather than Othello? Is it concerned with Iago as a human being? A man frustrated with personal ambitions looking for revenge? Or is Iago more a symbol of evil – too diabolical to be human? It is difficult to know exactly what motivates Iago, but he emerges as a mortal man consumed by jealousy and hatred of good.

3.Reason versus Passion

Shakespeare saw true human reason as a reflection of the divine reason of God – a rational man was, for Shakespearian England, the best of mankind. Iago believes that man, in his intelligence and rationality, is the sole author of his own fate.

Othello, in contrast, is the natural man who has faith in his instincts. (Thus he is able to love “not wisely but too well”), a simple man who can be irrationally passionate.
Does Shakespeare suggest through Othello’s downfall that reason is the primary human virtue? Or, is he suggesting that the too-rational man lacks the nobility of Othello, with his warmth? (Iago, for example, has never really loved; he is always intellectualising, and only sees love as bestial, irrational behaviour, and therefore inhuman).
4.Othello’s tragic flaw

There is a theory (Aristotle) that tragedy is always about a good man, possibly a great man, who has some weakness in his character, and this is responsible for his downfall; that this tragedy is some sort of divine justice working itself out. Has Othello fallen through his own fault? Through his passionate, easily irrational temperament which make shim too absolute in love? Or, as Ridley suggests, is it credulity rather than innate jealousy which makes Othello such malleable material for Iago to work on? Is Othello too credulous?

5.Othello as an outsider

Is the play concerned with inadequate understanding of his environment displayed by a man from an alien culture? Does Othello fall because he has too simple a trust in a sophisticated world that is full of intrigue, infidelity, ambition and revenge? Does Shakespeare deliberately use a black man as his central character, to make this conflict visually apparent? Is the Moor’s isolate responsible for his ready suspicion, in that he knows Venetian women are strange to him?

Iago to Othello: “In Venice they do let God see the pranks

They dare not show their husbands. Their best conscience is not to leave undone,

but to keep unknown”.
And Othello is even further isolated from social custom by his life till now as a mercenary soldier; he know he lacks: “those soft parts of conversation/That chamberers.” Act III

6.A Tragedy of perverted goodness

It is truly tragic that Othello’s tremendously noble qualities – persisting in him after Iago has tempted him into delusion – increase his suffering and magnify the extent of his tragedy:

His absoluteness --- “She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief must be to loathe her”.

His trusting nature --- (to Iago) “I am bound to thee forever”.

His judicial mind --- “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men”.

His ability to love --- “I kissed thee ere I killed thee no way but this,

Killing myself to die upon a kiss”.

Some thoughts on Iago’s character in Othello.
He is 28, a Venetian soldier, has seen a great deal of service and has a high reputation for courage. He is not of gentile birth or breeding, rather his manner is of a blunt, gruff soldier who speaks his mind freely and plainly and at times crudely, and he will argue with those who disagree or take offence. He has little tolerance of the courtesies of fine society and hence has no conscience in mocking them or in abusing them to his own advantage, such as the duping of Cassio through his refined ambience with Desdemona. Iago is often rough and caustic and disparaging of human nature. Reputation and the cares of one for another in society are ridiculed by him, especially in his conversations with Roderigo and Cassio.
He is highly critical even of the devotions of his wife Emilia. He admits to being fastidious in his criticism and reproach and this earns him the reputation of “honest Iago”, Even his wife Emilia sees no deeper than this. When the very evidence is before her that someone has poisoned Othello’s mind against Desdemona, as once happened to Iago over a rumour of a relationship between her and Othello, she fails to see that the logical person who has been at hand all the time and closest to Othello is Iago.
Iago has prodigious powers of dissimulation and self-control. He finds relief from the discomfort of hypocrisy by means of his cynical comments which, being mis-interpreted, serve to heighten confidence in his honesty.
He is not a man of strong feelings and passion and is decidedly cold in temperament. At his end he is mocking of those who have been deceived by him. He has a superficial goodness or good nature, but gives way to the evil within and is destroyed by it. As a study he can be compared with MacBeth who gives way eventually to a course of evil, or to Lady MacBeth who embraces evil nature readily when chance shows itself. In another sense he tends to be an embodiment of evil to wrought havoc on others, rather like the figures of the witches in MacBeth (an “instrument of darkness”) or the ghost in Hamlet.
Iago has insight into human nature and displays ingenuity in working upon his insight into the weaknesses of others like Roderigo, Cassio and Othello. He is quick and versatile in dealing with complex situations such as the night of the watch when he has Roderigo “murder” Cassio, has Othello believing that it is he who is doing the deed, and accomplishes the death of Roderigo at the same time, and quickly bringing blame upon Bianca who unluckily stumbles onto the scene. He would have taken sensual pleasure by choice and not from what he would call weakness and we have Cassio to compare here. Mastery of the ill is his practice and doctrine and from this stems his despisal of Othello’s love for Desdemona, of Cassio’s concern for lost reputation and for duty, of Roderigo’s generosity, of Desdemona’s purity, fidelity and innocence. He is indifferent to the suffering of others, but any threat to his superiority provokes his enmity and hostility: jealousy over Emilia and Othello. He displays jealousy over Cassio’s promotion and this aspect of his character helps point out the lack of jealousy in Othello when he hears of the supposed adultery of Desdemona and Cassio. Othello wants justice and punishment: Iago wants revenge. He sets about this revenge with a passion and eagerness and delight, but it is more a delight in the cleverness of his plans, than perhaps in the execution of them and the results they bring: a possible reason for his refusal to reveal motives at his end; they are no longer real… lost in the delight of the deceptions…
Some notes on the language and images in Othello
The language of the main character is often referred to as the “music of Othello”. This refers to those grandiloquent speeches he makes such as in the Venetian court where he retells the tales of his youth and war years that were the ‘magic’ that spirited Desdemona away and entranced her to fall in love with him. Grand deeds and exotic locations and figures such as the anthropophagi; another example is the tale he retells to Desdemona about the origin of the handkerchief and the Sybil who spun a magical trance into it.
There is also a kind of disturbing, loud music in the passages of wrath such as ‘be sure thou prove my love a whore’, spoken with precision and deathly threat to Iago. There is a quieter music too, such as that of the final scene where Othello speaks of himself as “one who loved not wisely but too well” and sets down how he would like the Venetian senate to hear of and record his sad, tragic acts in Cyprus.
Othello often refers to or invokes the ancient gods and the heavenly bodies and their intense light as he builds a speech to a climactic crescendo, which is a characteristic of his ‘music’ that build his character to one on a level with the gods themselves. All the positions of office he assumes in the play are of the highest social order: He is a commander of his army, he is a high and mighty judge in his quick dismissal of Cassio, he is an executioner beyond doubt in his suffocation of Desdemona in her corrupted (in his thinking) bed.
There is a further musical element to the play in the scene where Desdemona pleads for Cassio to meet with Othello and he pleads with her to produce the handkerchief: “Cassio”, “the handkerchief” – “Cassio”, “the handkerchief” repeated rhythmically in a kind of verbal counterpoint until reaching a crescendo.

A similar structure is found in the repetition of the word “honest” both throughout the play and in particular when Iago is taunting Othello about the suspicious nature of Cassio “Honest, my lord? Honest… By Heaven he echoes me”. Shakespeare repeatedly uses this crescendo effect to emphasise the quick, rash temperament of Othello.

The elements of Nature accompany this music of the play. Shakespeare frequently has his tragic heroes play out their doomed lives against a stormy weather or a foul and dark night. This play has its powerful descriptions of the storm which sets apart the boats of Othello’s convoy to Cyprus and then delivers them safely to the new country, where away from the confinements of Venice the tragic acts and misunderstandings will be played out. Wild nature has set up a barrier between the ordered rational pace of life in Venice with its senate and its court of the first scene and the island of Cyprus where the characters will be swept away by their private passions.
The sea becomes a frequent image in the play and a point of reference for the characters. Othello would not have married ‘for the sea’s worth’ in act 1.
Iago crudely refers to Othello’s elopement as “boarding a land carack”, Brabanitio’s grief is a “floodgate”, and Roderigo will “drown” himself for his unrequited love for Desdemona. Finally Othello desperately clinging to a belief of Desdemona being unfaithful declares her to be “as false as water”: the sea and water are traditionally seen as unstable and unpredictable and as such form a natural image of the ups and downs of human nature. They are very appropriate images for these characters to be given in their lines since the play is set in two seaports: Venice and Cyrus.
Night also features as the typical setting for acts of evil to occur and Shakespeare has an unruly night described with loud clangings of the alarm bell and loud songs of ribaldry for the botched murder of Cassio to be set against and his subsequent dismissal from Othello’s service. The night has served to remove Cassio and to pave the way for Iago to inveigle his way into Othello’s trust. Roderigo’s further attempt on Cassio takes place at night as does Othello’s ‘execution’ of Desdemona. The evil plotting of Iago, the dark deeds he commissions are all performed at night as if it is natural for night to aid this evil action.
Darkness is also coupled with light in the final speech of Othello to Desdemona where he speaks of her death as of a ‘light’ being put out, be first he must ‘put out’ the physical light to perform such a task: “put out the light, and then, put out the light”. The play in its images and settings of light and dark, day and night, underscores life and death, good and evil.
Animal images pervade Shakespeare’s plays mainly with reference to the loss of reason, to savage acts, to unnatural deeds. It is largely Iago who introduces this train of imagery to the play and frequently the animal references are derogatory or belittling of his associates: “an old back ram is tupping your white ewe” “the beast with two backs” and the famous “goats and monkeys” which refers to the hot lustful passions of Desdemona and Cassio. Cassio is the “fly” that Iago will “ensnare in his web” and the devoted Roderigo is dismissed as “the trash of Venice whom I leash for his hunting” ie. a dog at his master’s beck and call. There is a fitting irony in Roderigo’s dying words when he calls Iago “inhuman dog” and when Lodovico at the end of the play refers to Iago as “Spartan dog”. Othello himself before his suicide also berates himself as a “circumcised dog”. Jealousy, the major driving emotion, of the play is rightly labelled the “green-eyed monster”.
As the tragedy progresses we hear Othello more frequently lapsing into the animal imagery so fondly expressed by Iago. Iago’s animal references to people are a disparaging dismissal of them, but for Othello there is a different purpose and that is to show the gradual lapse of the grandiloquent, reasoned, noble, commanding Othello into a lesser being who is increasingly being commandeered by Iago like a trained animal in its responses. He is virtually no different to Roderigo, but in his final words at his death we see a reversion to the former grand, commanding Othello:

“Soft you, a word or two; I have done the state some service…

… of one whose hand like the base Indian, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe….

…. Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees”

The imagery takes us back to Othello at the plays opening with the speech before the Venetian Council of his ‘magical’ lands with their exotic settings, riches and peoples”.

The imagery reminds of how far the hero has fallen from his former glory.

  1. C. Bradley on ‘Othello.’ Taken from Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) by A.C. Bradley

‘Othello is…by far the most romantic figure among Shakespeare’s heroes; and he is so partly from the strange life of war and adventure which she has lived from childhood.’

At the beginning he is ‘self-controlled, steepled by the experience of countless perils, hardships and vicissitudes, at once simple and stately in bearing and in speech, a great man naturally modest but fully conscious of his worth, proud of his services to the state, unawed by dignitaries and unelated by honours, secure, it would seem, against all dangers with or without and all rebellion from within. And he comes to have his life crowned with the final glory of love…filling his heart with tenderness and his imagination with ecstasy.’
‘In the first place, Othello’s mind, for all it’s poetry, is very simple. He is not observant…Emotion excites his imagination, but it confuses and dulls his intellect…and is ignorant of European women.’
‘…for all his dignity and massive calm, he is by nature full of the most vehement passion.’
‘Lastly, Othello’s nature is all of one piece. His trust, where he trusts, is absolute…He is extremely self-reliant, and decides and acts instantaneously…If such a passion as jealousy seizes him, it will swell into a well-night incontrollable flood.’
‘This character is so noble, Othello’s feelings and actions follow so inevitably from it and the forces brought to bear on it, and his sufferings are so heart-rending, that he stirs, I believe, in most readers a passion of mingled love and pity which they feel for no other hero in Shakespeare…’
‘…but it was no sign of stupidity in Othello. For his opinion of Iago was the opinion of Iago was the opinion of practically everyone who knew him…it would have been quite unnatural in him to be unmoved by the warnings of so honest a friend…Any husband would have been troubled by them.’
‘Iago does not bring these warnings to a husband who had lived with a wife for months and years and knew her like his sister or his bosom-friend…he was newly married.’
‘…any man situated as Othello was would have been disturbed by Iago’s communications, and I add that many men would have been made wildly jealous. But up to this point, where Iago is dismissed, Othello…does not show jealousy. His confidence is shaken, he is confused and deeply troubled…but he is not yet troubled.’
‘The Othello of the Fourth Act is Othello in his fall. His fall is never complete, but he is much changed… “Chaos has come” …and when Othello reappears we see at a glance that he is changed man. He is physically exhausted, and his mind is dazed. He sees everything blurred through a mist of blood and tears. He has actually forgotten the incident of the handkerchief, and has to be reminded of it.’
‘His self-control has wholly deserted him, and he strikes his wife in the presence of the Venetian envoy. He is so lost to all sense of reality that he never asks himself what will follow the deaths of Cassio and his wife. An ineradicable instinct of justice, rather than any last quiver of hope, leads him to question Emilia…’
‘The Othello who enters the bed-chamber is not the man of the Fourth Act. The deed he is bound to do is no murder, but a sacrifice. He is to save Desdemona from herself, not in hate but in honour…and also in love.’
Some thoughts about tragedy

‘We participate in tragedy. At comedy we only look.’ – Aldous Huxley

The romantic poets and later Victorian viewers valued tragedy as an emotional exercise helping viewers learn compassion

The Greeks first introduced the idea of the tragic hero: somebody of great importance who was basically liked or had traits that were admired. Often it is this same trait that causes the hero’s downfall. At some point the hero falls from glory. His own harmatia (tragic flaw) linked to hubris, ensures such a fall.

Tragedy also involves a mix of personal choice (made out of free will) and fate. This choice then results in a chain of unstoppable and unforeseen negative events.

A reversal of fortune usually brings about the hero’s tragedy.

Another important aspect of tragedy is for the hero to realise his mistake and its horrible results. Part of a tragedy is for the character to realise their culpability but too late to change the course of events.

Not only does tragedy effect the hero but also those around them; importantly, the hero knows this and reacts in varied ways – for Othello it is with tears.

The Standard


Achievement with Merit

Achievement with Excellence

  • Develop a critical response to specified aspect(s) of a Shakespearean drama using supporting evidence.

  • Develop a convincing critical response to specified aspect(s) of a Shakespearean drama using supporting evidence.

  • Develop an integrated and perceptive critical response to specified aspect(s) of a Shakespearean drama using supporting evidence.

A critical response to Shakespearean drama may refer to aspects such as theme(s), setting, characterisation, context (social, political, historical, etc), conventions of genre, positioning of reader; ‘methods or procedures used in crafting and shaping text’ (EiNZC glossary), eg structure, method of narration, style, literary features.

Perceptive means with intuitive understanding and insight.

Assessment will require a critical essay that involves:analysis of a passage from a Shakespearean text or

analysis of selected aspect(s) of a Shakespearean text.

The critical essay will include an introduction clearly stating the focus and scope of the argument, a range of points supported by accurate and relevant examples/evidence, and a reasoned conclusion. The essay will be expected to show accurate use and control of writing conventions.

Critical Interpretations of ‘Othello’

Rhymer, Thomas (1693)

  • Out of favour with modern critics as he sees almost no redeeming feature in the play.

  • States that it is impossible that anyone could be so foolish to believe that the match between Othello-Desdemona could work.

Johnson, Samuel (1765)

  • More positive view of the play than Rhymer. Regards Shakespeare’s insight into human nature as his principal merit.

  • Finds (like many subsequent critics) the process by which Iago undermines Othello’s faith in Desdemona to be terrifying and convincing.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1836)

  • First scholar to phrase Iago as having ‘motiveless malignity.’

  • Believes that Shakespeare’s writing expresses the essence of human nature in its rawest state.

  • Like Johnson, is convinced that Iago’s plot to destroy Othello is both authentic and powerful.

Dowden, Edward (1879)

  • Sympathetic to Desdemona and Othello, seeing Shakespeare as the creator as a tragic love story which would elicit the sympathy of the audience.

  • Views Othello as an ‘exotic creature’ (almost like an Indian Prince with a dark side) who captures Desdemona’s heart through his strange nature and his air of adventure.

Bradley, A.C (1918)

  • Helped to create our modern conception of the play. He focuses on the claustrophobic terror created in the play, an element many previous critics underplayed or ignored.

  • Believes that the omission of a sub-plot is what makes the play powerful – we are constantly focused on the tragic action.

Knight, G. Wilson (1930)

  • Tried to steer criticism away from looking at the characters towards a reading of the play’s language, and in particular – metaphors.

  • Notably more sympathetic to Othello than many other critics.

Stoll, E.E. (1940)

  • Rejects the views of A.C. Bradley and others who focus on character in their criticism, believing that is impossible to enter the minds of the protagonists; instead, he believes Shakespeare’s should be viewed as pieces of drama – making the case that this is what mattered most to 16th and 17th century playwrights. His analysis of Iago for example, centres on the character’s effect on the audience and how this is achieved, not the interior life of the character.

Leavis, F.R (1952)

  • Makes the case that Othello was a lesser tragic hero than Shakespeare’s other main protagonists.

Hunter, G.K (1967)

  • Attempts to explore Elizabethan attitudes towards race and establish what this might have meant to a contemporary audience rather than subsequent productions. Argues that Shakespeare was sympathetic to his protagonist and that a black man from North Africa could be as noble and impressive as a white man. Critics have debated this issue ever since.

Newman, Karen and Eagleton, Terry (1980’s)

  • Approach the text from a feminist perspective, examining how the female characters are perceived as ‘monstrous’ in a male dominated world.

  • Also consider the play in light of ‘miscegenation,’ the production of children of mixed race and how this might threaten established orders in society.

McPherson, David (1990)

  • Subjects the play to a historical analysis, stating that Venice was deliberately chosen to reveal one of the plays ideas: the lasciviousness of women.

Jardine, Lisa (1996)

  • Comes from a feminist perspective, using court records from the 1600’s to illuminate attitudes towards women in Shakespeare’s work. Believes Othello should have been punished in the play for defaming Desdemona, instead of Desdemona being labelled a ‘whore.’

Task One: Use your notes to define and explain the concepts of tragedy, the tragic hero and tragic flaw. Find examples and relevant quotations from throughout the play to support these definitions and explanations. Explain how these definitions support your understanding of key actions and key characters within the play.


Explanation of how key characters and key actions support these definitions

Relevant examples and quotations


Tragic Hero

Tragic Flaw

Task Two:

  1. Briefly describe the physical, political and historical settings important to the play. You should cover Venice, Cyprus and Desdemona and Othello’s bed chamber.

Provide at least three reasons to explain why each setting is important to the text as a whole. You should discuss how each setting influences events, characters’ behaviours, interactions and decisions. Complete a separate grid for each of the settings to record your findings in bullet point form.






Reasons / Influence




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