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Table of ContentsGenre Dates of Composition and First Performance First Printing Sources Settings Tone Characters
What Was a Moor? Plot Summary Conflicts Climax and Conclusion Themes Concrete Imagery Irony
Other Figures of Speech Racism in Othello Character Contrasts Othello as a Hero Iago's Soliloquies Planted Evidence
Murder Methods Did Shakespeare Visit Italy? How Shakespeare Prepared His Manuscripts How to Cite This Study Guide
Complete Text With Definitions and Explanations of Difficult Words and Passages
Othello, Moor of Venice (or simply Othello) is a tragedy in which a good man falls to ruin and death after an evil man inflames him with jealousy.
Othello between 1602 and 1604. The first performance probably took place on November 1, 1604, before King James I at Whitehall, the royal residence in London.
Othello was first printed in 1622 in a quarto edition with pages measuring about 7 x 4+ inches. The publisher was Thomas Walkley. A year later, it was printed in the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays. The First Folio version omits oaths and curses that appeared in the quarto edition in compliance with a law passed by Parliament that forbade blasphemous language in stage dramas. A folio page was considerably larger than a quarto page.
Othello was an Italian short story, "The Moorish Captain" ("Un Capitano Moro"). This story appeared in Gli Ecatommiti, (also called Gli Hecatommithi), published in Venice in 1565 or 1566 and written by Giovanni Battista Giraldi (1504-1573), also known as Cinthio. The translation of Gli Ecatommiti is One Hundred Tales. Shakespeare's play is only loosely based on Giraldi's prose story. No English translation of the Giraldi story was available in Shakespeare's time. Therefore, Shakespeare either read it in the original Italian or had someone translate it for him.
Othello takes place in Venice (in northern Italy) and Cyprus (an island in the eastern Mediterranean about forty miles south of present-day Turkey). The time is a period between 1489 and 1571. It is interesting to note that Venice is a setting in both major Shakespeare plays dealing in part with racial prejudice, Othello and The Merchant of Venice.
As one of the world’s leading sea powers, Venice was a center of commercialism and materialism and, therefore, of corruption and conflict arising from avarice, social status, and fierce competition. Cyprus—a strategically located island which yielded rich harvests of olives, grapes and various grains—was much prized throughout its history. Assyrians, Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, and Byzantines all fought over and occupied it. England’s King Richard I, the Lion-Hearted, conquered Cyprus in 1191 but later ceded it to the French. Venice seized the island in 1489 and in 1571 the Ottoman Turks brought Cyprus under their control.
Othello: Black Moor who is the greatest army general in Venice. He is intelligent, courageous, and honorable. His marriage to beautiful Desdemona, the daughter of a prominent Venetian senator, provokes racial slurs against him. But he carries on with nobility and dignity as he commands an army bound for Cyprus on a fleet of ships. After arriving, Othello becomes the governor of Cyprus while continuing as the general of the Venetian forces. His dedication to duty is eclipsed only by his dedication to Desdemona, who follows him to Cyprus. So passionately does he love her that he cannot endure the thought of another man even looking at her. And therein lies his Achilles' heel, jealousy. Othello is the protagonist, or main character.
Iago: Military officer with the rank of ensign or—as the Venetian soldiers often refer to him—ancient. He schemes against Othello because the Moor promoted a younger man, Michael Cassio, to the position of lieutenant, or second-in-command, even though Iago has more combat experience than Cassio. Iago is evil through and through, taking great pleasure in executing his secret campaign to bring down the great Othello and Cassio. Iago is the antagonist, or opponent of the main character.
Desdemona: Daughter of Brabantio, wife of Othello, and victim of Iago's machinations and Othello's jealousy. She is the noblest and most unselfish character in the play.
Michael Cassio: Othello's lieutenant, or second-in-command. His promotion to that rank enrages Iago, who wanted the position for himself. Cassio is a hinge on which the play turns. On the one hand, it is his promotion that arouses Iago's jealousy and causes him to seek revenge against both Othello and Cassio. On the other, it is his alleged (but nonexistent) love affair with Desdemona that arouses Othello's jealousy.
Duke of Venice: Ruler who finds in favor of Othello when Desdemona's father attacks Othello's character, saying the black Moor is unworthy of his daughter.
Brabantio: Venetian senator and father of Desdemona. He is a bigot whose racism Iago exposes when the latter inflames him with a prejudicial rant against Othello. Brabantio falsely accuses Othello of using charms and magic to win his daughter. Brabantio dies in Venice while Othello and Desdemona are in Cyprus.
First Senator, Second Senator
Gratiano: Brabantio's brother.
Lodovico: Brabantio's kinsman, who carries a message from the duke to Othello while the latter is in Cyprus. The message orders Othello to return to Venice.
Roderigo: Venetian gentleman and former suitor of Desdemona. Pledging to help him win Desdemona, Iago tricks Roderigo into giving him his money and ensnares him in a plot that results in Roderigo's death.
Montano: Othello's predecessor as the governor of Cyprus.
Clown: Servant to Othello.
Emilia: Wife of Iago. She is blind to his evil until she discovers that it was he who plotted against Othello and Desdemona.
Bianca: A prostitute who has fallen in love with Cassio during his visits. He tells her he will marry her even though he has no intention of doing so.
Minor Characters: Sailor, messenger, herald, officers, gentlemen, musicians, attendants.
Moors has been used to refer in general to Muslims of North Africa and to Muslim conquerors of Spain. Moor derives from a Latin word, Mauri, used to name the residents of the ancient Roman province of Mauritania in North Africa. To refer to Othello as a black Moor is not to commit a redundancy, for there were white Moors as well as black Moors, the latter mostly of Sudanese origin.
After Othello elopes with Desdemona, daughter of Senator Brabantio, Iago realizes he has the perfect opening to get back at Othello. He enlists Roderigo, a former suitor of Desdemona, to awaken Desdemona’s father late at night. Then Iago, using crude racist metaphors, inflames Brabantio against Othello:
For shame, put on your gown;
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram [Othello]
Is tupping [having sex with] your white ewe [Desdemona]. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you:
Arise, I say. (1.1.92-98)
Outraged, Brabantio complains to the Duke of Venice, claiming Othello used spells and charms to win Desdemona's favor. How else could a vile black man have won her favor?
When a news report reveals that the Turks are are preparing to invade Cyprus, the Venetian Senate decides to send Othello to Cyprus to defend it and become the new governor. During the senate meeting, the duke listens to Brabantio's charges against Othello. But after hearing Othello speak of his love for Desdemona, the duke finds in favor of Othello, and Brabantio relinquishes his daughter to the Moor. She decides to follow him to Cypress. Unaware that Iago was behind Brabantio's earlier protests against the elopement, Othello orders Iago to accompany his wife. Roderigo goes along at the urging of Iago, who tells Roderigo that Desdemona will eventually tire of Othello. However, Iago also tells Roderigo they must first act to discredit Cassio to prevent Desdemona from taking up with him.
Meanwhile, a raging storm devastates the Turkish fleet, upending its attack, although the ships from Venice arrive safely at Cyprus. A celebration follows.
On the evening of the first night in Cyprus, Iago—implementing his plan to discredit Cassio—gets Cassio drunk, then has Roderigo start an argument with him. Montano, the outgoing governor of Cyprus, intervenes, and Cassio wounds him.
After Othello arrives at the scene of the commotion, he asks: “Honest Iago, that look'st dead with grieving / Speak, who began this?” (2.3.135-136). Playing the innocent, Iago replies: “I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth / Than it should do offense to Michael Cassio” (2.3.181-182). Having duly established himself as an unbiased onlooker, Iago then says, ''Yet, I persuade myself, to speak the truth. . .” (3.1.183). After Iago recounts for Othello what happened during the fray, implicating Cassio, Othello tells Cassio that he will never more serve as the Moor’s second-in-command. Lovely Desdemona appears and inquires about the disturbance. Othello tells her all is well, and they go off to bed. Montano is led away for treatment of his injury. Cassio, now alone with Iago, says he regrets his behavior. Iago tells him he can yet regain favor with Othello by having Desdemona intercede on his behalf.
When Cassio presents his case to Desdemona, she agrees to speak with her husband on Cassio’s behalf. When she does so in an innocent attempt to be helpful, she arouses Othello’s jealousy. After all, Cassio is far younger than Othello—and terribly handsome. Is it not reasonable to believe that Desdemona has something going with Cassio?
By and by, Iago’s wife, Emilia, has found a handkerchief dropped by Desdemona. Othello had given it to his wife as a gift. When Emilia shows it to Iago, he sees an opportunity to advance his scheme and snatches it away, saying he has use for it. Iago then plants the handkerchief in Cassio’s room and tells Othello that Cassio has come into possession of it. When Othello asks his wife for the handkerchief and she cannot produce it, he tells her that it was a valued heirloom given to his mother by an Egyptian woman. He says his mother, in turn, gave the handkerchief to him as she lay dying, requesting that he give it to his future wife.
“To lose ’t or give ’t away were such perdition / As nothing else could match” (3.4.69-70), Othello says. When he further presses Desdemona to produce the handkerchief and she cannot, he becomes convinced that she gave it to Cassio and has been having an affair with him. Othello then tells Iago he plans to poison Desdemona, but Iago advises him to “strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated (4.1.182). As for Cassio, Iago says, “Let me be his undertaker” (4.1.184).
Letters from the Duke of Venice arrive with Lodovico, recalling Othello to Venice and naming Cassio the new governor of Cyprus. Kind-hearted Desdemona praises Cassio. Jealous Othello strikes and berates her. To further his plan, Iago again uses the hapless Roderigo, persuading him to kill Cassio for him. On a dark street Roderigo thrusts at Cassio but fails to kill him. Cassio in turn wounds Roderigo. Iago, darting by unseen, wounds Cassio in the leg.
Othello arrives to observe from a distance. Believing Iago has been good to his word, that he has killed Cassio, the Moor goes back to the castle for the awful task of executing his wife. As others are drawn to the scene of the fray between Roderigo and Cassio, Iago steps forward with a lantern as if he is just discovering the melee. At an opportune moment he steals aside and finishes off Roderigo with a dagger thrust. Cassio is taken away for treatment.
Othello, still in love with his wife, kisses her awake, asks her to prepare her soul for death, and—after an exchange of accusations and denials—smothers her with a pillow or chokes her. As Desdemona lies dying, Emilia arrives to report the death of Roderigo. Desdemona cries out, “A guiltless death I die” (5.2.149), then breathes her last. Othello reveals that he killed his wife because she was having an affair with Cassio. Iago, he says, can verify her infidelity. Emilia, shocked, says Desdemona was always “heavenly true” (5.2.165) to Othello. If Iago reported otherwise, she says, he is a liar.
Emilia calls for help. Montano, Iago, and others respond. Emilia immediately impugns Iago: “You told a lie, an odious damned lie; / Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie” (5.2.215-216). Othello, still convinced of Desdemona’s guilt, brings up the matter of the handkerchief, saying Desdemona gave it to Cassio, as Iago can attest. Emilia then discloses that she found the handkerchief and that her husband snatched it from her. At long last, Iago’s whole sordid plot unravels.
Othello now knows everything. Enraged, Othello attacks Iago. But Iago manages to escape after stabbing his wife. Montano and others pursue him. Emilia dies and Montano returns. With him are Lodovico, Cassio (carried on a chair), and Iago (held prisoner). Othello strikes at Iago with a sword and wounds him. When Cassio declares that he never wronged Othello, the Moor says he believes him and asks his pardon. Lodovico presents letters found in Roderigo’s pocket that disclose further details of Iago’s nefarious plot.
Despondent with self-recrimination, Othello stabs himself, falls on the bed, and dies. Iago is held for punishment. “The time, the place, the torture” (5.2.427), Lodovico says, are up to the new governor of Cyprus, Cassio.
The events that follow the murder of Desdemona constitute the denouement, or conclusion.
Jealousy has the power to destroy. It destroys both Iago (jealous that Michael Cassio had received an appointment over him) and Othello (jealous that his wife may have slept with Cassio).
Othello is an honest and noble leader and apparently an outstanding military tactician. Unfortunately, however, he is gullible—at least in his dealings with Iago. Pretending to be a loyal officer, Iago undermines Othello's relationship with his wife. He correctly recognizes Othello as an easy mark, observing,
The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are. (Othello, 3.1.360-363)
So Iago drops hints and suggestions that Michael Cassio has been seeing Desdemona romantically and even plants evidence to support his story. Othello, too willing to believe his nefarious underling, falls victim to his lies and ends up killing his innocent wife.
Racial prejudice is a crucial issue in the play. It isolates Othello, making him feel like a defective and an outcast. Consequently, he wonders whether he is worthy of Desdemona—and whether she has turned her attentions toward a handsome white man, Cassio, as Iago maintains. Brabantio and Iago are the most bigoted characters. Brabantio is horrified that his daughter has eloped with a Moor who will give him dark-skinned children; Iago cannot brook the fact that he must take orders from a black.
All things are not what they seem. At the beginning, Othello appears strong and self-disciplined; the Venetians respect him for his good judgment. Iago, meanwhile, describes himself to others—including Othello—as impeccably loyal and trustworthy. Later, Othello's emotions—particularly his jealousy—overpower him and blind his reason. Iago, we learn early on, is anything but loyal and trustworthy. Wearing the guise of an angel, he lies to and deceives everyone—Othello, Desdemona, Roderigo, Cassio, even his own wife. Iago is among the most evil characters in Shakespeare.
Desdemona marries Othello knowing well that his color, his cultural background, and his advanced age will arouse controversy. But she never wavers in her love for him, even when her own father—a prominent Venetian—speaks out against the Moor; she never allows the bigotry of others to affect her.
Bad Things Happen to Good People
Desdemona is pure and innocent, the ideal wife. Othello is noble, loving, and accomplished, the ideal husband. But he murders Desdemona, then kills himself. In the real world, bad things happen to good people. Chance, character flaws, and the presence of evil—in this case, Iago—often militate against happy endings.
Othello is rich in memorable lines, some of which have become part of the English language. What makes many of the lines so memorable is the concrete imagery. A concrete image is one that appeals to one or more of the five senses. Often, such an image substitutes a material object for an idea. Here is an example of concrete imagery.
I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. (1.1.67-68)
(Iago comments on what he would do if he were like men who make no attempt to hide their feelings. Iago, of course, prides himself on his ability to hide his feelings in order to give false impressions. In presenting this image, Iago uses his heart to represent his feelings and daws [types of crows] to represent those who would mock or criticize his feelings.
Among frequently quoted passages containing concrete imagery are the following:
I will a round unvarnish’d tale deliver. (1.3.104)Othello abounds in irony, in particular situational and dramatic. Here are the definitions of these figures of speech. (1) Situational irony: Situation, result, or ending that is the opposite of what is expected. Example: The people of Millvale were stunned to learn that the murderer was the detective investigating the case. (2) Dramatic irony: Moment or continuing situation when an audience (or reader) knows what a character does not know. Example: In Acts 1-4 of Othello, audiences and readers know that Iago is a truly evil person while Othello other characters believe that Iago is an honest, upstanding man.
(Othello uses a concrete word, unvarnished, when introducing a short tale in which he defends himself against accusations that he abducted Desdemona.)
To mourn a mischief that is past and gone
Is the next way to draw new mischief on. (1.3.226-227)
(Here, the Duke of Venice advises Brabantio not to fret over a lost cause. The duke's use of mourn—rather than a word such as regret—enables the reader or playgoer to picture tearful eyes.)
The robb’d that smiles steals something from the thief. (1.3.230)
(After the Duke of Venice exonerates Othello before the council of Venice, he advises Brabantio in this paradox to accept the verdict in good humor rather than to protest it with petty grumbling. The line presents the image of a robbery victim whose smile nettles the thief.)
Virtue! a fig! (1.3.331)
(In this metaphor, Iago belittles virtue by comparing it to a fig.)
The food that to him now is as luscious as locusts, shall be to him shortly as bitter as coloquintida. (1.3.333)
(In a metaphor, Iago compares current events to food; in a simile, he compares the taste of the food to the delicious taste of locusts. He predicts that the sweetness of Othello’s life will soon turn bitter. Coloquintida is an alternate name for colocynth, a vine that bears a tart fruit resembling a lemon.)
How poor are they that have not patience!
What wound did ever heal but by degrees? (2.3.274-275)
(In a metaphor comparing emotional anguish to an injury to the body, Iago scolds Roderigo for complaining when his plans go awry.)
O! beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. (3.3.191-193)
(In this metaphor, Iago tells Othello that jealousy is a monster with green eyes that mocks the meat it consumes.)
Situational Irony in Othello: Example 1
Centuries of analysis and criticism of this play have focused on Othello as the victim of prejudice. Ironically, though, it is Othello who commits the most heinous act of prejudice in the play—forejudging his innocent wife as, in his own words, a “cunning whore” (4.2.105) who must pay for her transgression with her life. His mulish refusal to consider confuting evidence and his summary execution of his wife demonstrate that prejudice is an equal-opportunity affliction.
Situational Irony in Othello: Example 2
The robb’d that smiles steals something from the thief (1.3.230).
Situational and Dramatic Irony in Othello: Example 1
Othello, a good man, commits a heinous crime. Iago, an evil man, masquerades as an honorable man. In fact, in one of the better known passages in the play, Iago extols honor, saying:
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash . . .
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed. (3.3.180-185)
(The situational irony is that the villain lectures others about the importance of a good name. The dramatic irony is that the audience is aware of Iago's hypocrisy but Othello is not.)
Situational and Dramatic Irony in Othello: Example 2
Iago, in a pretense to make himself seem a friend to Othello, speaks of the danger of jealousy:
O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. . . . . (3.3.191-193)
(The situational irony is that Iago speaks against jealousy even though it is jealousy that motivates him. Othello's promotion of Cassio instead of Iago made Iago extremely jealous of Cassio and caused him to seek revenge against Othello. The dramatic irony is that the audience is aware of Iago's evil intentions but Othello is not.)
Unaware of what the audience knows—that Iago is a villainous liar who hates Othello—the Moor tells Iago:
I know thou art full of love and honesty. (3.3.138)
Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound, as the following examples demonstrate.
If after every tempest come such calms,
May the winds blow till they have waken’d death! (2.1.185-186)
So shall you have a shorter journey to your desires by the means I shall then have to prefer them. (2.1.225)
I have drunk but one cup to-night, and that was craftily qualified too. (2.3.28)
(Note that the first letter of qualified has the same consonant sound as cup and craftily.)
He drinks you with facility your Dane dead drunk. (2.3.57)
Anaphora is the repetition of a word, phrase, or clause in successive groups of words. Here are examples.
You’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans. (1.1.119)
I will a round unvarnish’d tale deliver
Of my whole course of love; what drugs, what charms,
What conjuration, and what mighty magic. (1.3.104-106)
I spake of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hair-breadth ’scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe. (1.3.152-155)
My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs:
She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange;
’twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful. (1.3.176-179)
Hyperbole is a gross exaggeration, as in the following example.
I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip. (4.3.42)
A metaphor is a comparison that does not use like, as, or than to make the comparison. For example, John is a bull is a metaphor. However, John is as strong as a bull, John acts like a bull, and John is angrier than a charging bull are not metaphors. They are similes. Following are examples of metaphors.
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise! (1.1.94-95)
(Comparison of Othello to a black ram and Desdemona to a white ewe)
My services which I have done the signiory
Shall out-tongue his complaints. (1.2.22-23)
(Othello compares the services he has performed for the state to a voice speaking up for him.)
Methinks the wind hath spoke aloud at land;
A fuller blast ne’er shook our battlements;
If it hath ruffian’d so upon the sea,
What ribs of oak, when mountains melt on them,
Can hold the mortise? (2.1.7-11)
(Comparison of the wind to a human speaking aloud and to a ruffian; comparison of gigantic waves to mountains)
A pun is a play on words, as the following example demonstrates.
Put out the light, and then put out the light. (5.2.9)
(Othello is saying he will extinguish the room light, then murder Desdemona, who has been the light of his life.)
An oxymoron is the use of a word that contradicts the word immediately following it. Cowardly lion, little giant, and deafening silence are examples of oxymorons. Here are three examples from Othello.
I will withdraw
To furnish me with some swift means of death
For the fair devil. Now art thou my lieutenant. (3.3.536-538)
There’s many a beast then, in a populous city,
And many a civil monster. (4.1.70-71)
An honourable murderer (5.2.345)
A simile is a comparison that uses like, as, or than to make the comparison, as the following examples indicate.
Still as the grave. (5.2.115)
(Othello, having smothered Desdemona, compares her stillness to that of a grave.)
OTHELLO: She was false as water.
EMILIA: Thou art rash as fire to say
That she was false: O! she was heavenly true. (5.2.163-165)
(Othello, believing that Desdemona was unfaithful to him, compares her seeming falseness to water. Emilia compares Othello's rashness to fire.)
After Iago and Roderigo raise a clamor outside Brabantio’s house late one evening, the senator awakens and comes to a window. Iago then uses vulgar animal imagery to slur Othello, telling Brabantio that the black Moor has seized his greatest treasure, his daughter, and at that very moment is defiling her.
’Zounds! sir, you’re robb’d; for shame, put on your gown;
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you. (1.1.92-97)
When Brabantio reacts with incredulity, Iago replies with a metaphor that this time compares Othello to a horse:
’Zounds! sir, you are one of those that will not serve God if the devil bid you. Because we come to do you service and you think we are ruffians, you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans. (1.1.119)
Roderigo, whom Iago uses as a cat’s-paw, supports Iago’s story. Iago then says, “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you, your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” (1.1.121). Roderigo adds that Desdemona is indeed in the “gross clasps of a lascivious Moor” (1.1.131). Brabantio, now believing the story to be true, tells Roderigo to summon help. Afterward, on a street in another location, Iago meets with Othello to inflame him against Brabantio. The latter had denounced Othello, Iago says, with “scurvy and provoking terms” (1.2.10) after hearing of his and Desdemona’s elopement. Iago also says that
He will divorce you,
Or put upon you what restraint and grievance
The law—with all his might to enforce it on—
Will give him cable. (1.2.17-20)
By and by, Brabantio and others appear. The senator, after denouncing Othello for taking Desdemona to his “sooty bosom” (1.2.87), accuses the Moor of having used “foul charms” (1.2.90) and “drugs or minerals” to weaken Desdemona’s will.
The matter becomes an issue in the Venetian council chamber, where the Duke and other senators are preparing for war against the Turks. After Othello speaks eloquently of his love for Desdemona and she speaks on his behalf, the Duke exonerates Othello. But in doing so, the Duke obliquely denigrates Othello because of his race—apparently unintentionally, in a Freudian slip—telling Brabantio, “Your son-in-law is more fair than black” (1.3.311), implying that fairness is superior to blackness. Brabantio reluctantly accepts the ruling.
Having lost a battle, Iago continues to plot to win the war, still using racism as one of his weapons. Consider that in referring to Othello, he sometimes inserts the word black to remind listeners that the Moor is different, a man apart, a man to be isolated. For example, after referring to Othello in Act 1 as a black ram, he tells Michael Cassio in the second scene of Act 2, “Come, lieutenant, I have a stoup of wine, and here without are a brace of Cyprus gallants that would fain have a measure to the health of black Othello” (25).
The picturesque contrasts of character in this play are almost as remarkable as the depth of the passion. The Moor Othello, the gentle Desdemona, the villain Iago, the good-natured Cassio, the fool Roderigo, present a range and variety of character as striking and palpable as that produced by the opposition of costume in a picture. Their distinguishing qualities stand out to the mind's eye, so that even when we are not thinking of their actions or sentiments, the idea of their persons is still as present to us as ever. These characters and the images they stamp upon the mind are the farthest asunder possible, the distance between them is immense: yet the compass of knowledge and invention which the poet has strewn in embodying these extreme creations of his genius is only greater than the truth and felicity with which he has identified each character with itself, or blended their different qualities together in the same story. What a contrast the character of Othello forms to that of Iago: at the same time, the force of conception with which these two figures are opposed to each other is rendered still more intense by the complete consistency with which the traits of each character are brought out in a state of the highest finishing. The making one black and the other white, the one unprincipled, the other unfortunate in the extreme, would have answered the common purposes of effect, and satisfied the ambition of an ordinary painter of character. Shakespear has laboured the finer shades of difference in both with as much care and skill as if he had had to depend on the execution alone for the success of his design. On the other hand, Desdemona and Aemilia are not meant to be opposed with any thing like strong contrast to each other. Both are, to outward appearance, characters of common life, not more distinguished than women usually are, by difference of rank and situation. The difference of their thoughts and sentiments is however laid as open, their minds are separated from each other by signs as plain and as little to be mistaken as the complexions of their husbands. (Characters of Shakespeare's Plays. London: C. H. Reynell, 1817)
Othello is like a hero of the ancient world in that he is not a man like us, but a man recognized as extraordinary. He seems born to do great deeds and live in legend. He has the obvious heroic qualities of courage and strength, and no actor can attempt the role who is not physically impressive. He has the heroic capacity for passion. But the thing which most sets him apart is his solitariness. He is a stranger, a man of alien race, without ties of nature or natural duties. His value is not in what the world thinks of him, although the world rates him highly, and does not derive in any way from his station. It is inherent. He is, in a sense, a self-made man, the product of a certain kind of life which he has chosen to lead...." (Gardner, Hellen. Quoted in Bender, David, publisher. Readings on the Tragedies of William Shakespeare. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1996 (page 140).
I will in Cassio’s lodging lose this napkin,Lady Windermere's Fan, relies heavily on seemingly incriminating evidence—a fan and a handwritten letter—to implicate an innocent woman. In Othello, the planted evidence is Desdemona's handkerchief. Believing that Desdemona gave it to Michael Cassio as a gift, Othello declares her guilty of infidelity and murders her.
And let him find it; trifles light as air
Are to the jealous confirmations strong
As proofs of holy writ [biblical proofs]; this may do something.
The Moor already changes with my poison [poisonous talk]:
Dangerous conceits [imaginings; assumptions; suspicions] are in their natures poisons,
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
But with a little act upon the blood,
Burn like the mines of sulphur. (3.3.364-371)
stifles Desdemona.) Murder by pillow or strangulation was only one of a remarkable variety of killing tools and methods Shakespeare used to send his characters to the beyond. In Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra commits suicide via the bite of an asp. In Richard III, the title character's henchmen drown Clarence in a barrel of wine. In Macbeth, hired assassins inflict twenty trenched gashes upon Banquo's head. In Titus Andronicus, characters slit throats and impose starvation. In Hamlet, Claudius murders his brother, old King Hamlet, by pouring poison into his ear. In King John, a monk poisons the monarch in the conventional, oral way. The latter murder method has been a favorite of assassins—and writers—since ancient times.
The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, All's Well That Ends Well, Othello, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Winter's Tale all have some or all of their scenes set in Italy. Consider, too, that plays not set in Italy are often populated with people having Italian or ancient Roman names. For example, although The Comedy of Errors takes place in Ephesus, Turkey, the names of several characters end with the Italian -o or -a:—Angelo, Dromio, Adriana, Luciana. Many characters in Timon of Athens bear names ending with -us, a commonplace in ancient Rome. Timon's characters include Lucullus, Flavius, Flaminius, Lucius, Sempronius, Servillius, Titus, Hortensius. In Hamlet's Denmark, we find characters named Marcellus, Bernardo, and Francisco. Of course, it is quite possible that Shakespeare visited Italy only in his imagination.
Writing Tool: Quill Dipped in Ink
A quill was the hollow, rigid shaft of a bird’s feather. The word pen is derived from the Latin name for feather—penna. Shakespeare and other writers of his day used a variety of quills that they dipped in an ink container (inkwell) on a stand (standish). If a writer’s pocket lacked jingle, he invested in a goose quill. If he could afford something better, he invested in a swan quill. Writers or artists who needed quills to produce fine lines purchased crow quills. Quills from ducks, eagles, turkeys, hawks, and owls also served as “word processors,” producing plays, poems, and sometimes revolution. Quills were the writing instruments of choice between AD 500 and 1850.
In the ancient world, writers used a variety of other instruments to write history, literature, announcements, bureaucratic records, and so on. These instruments included shaped twigs or branches that impressed words into clay, mallet-driven chisels that etched words in stone, brushes that wrote on pottery and other smooth surfaces—such as plaster and animal skins—sharpened bone or metal that inscribed words on wax surfaces, and sharpened reed stems dipped in ink that wrote on papyrus, an Egyptian water plant that was dried and pressed to make thin sheets suitable for receiving impressions. The introduction of the quill in the 500s—an event recorded by St. Isidore, a Spanish theologian—greatly eased the task of writers, much as personal computers did when they replaced typewriters in the last half of the twentieth century.
Lighting: Daylight, Candlelight, Oil Lamps
Shakespeare probably tried to do most of his writing during the day, perhaps near a window, because writing at night required lit candles or an oil lamp. Candles were expensive. A writer could easily spend a day's earnings or more on candlelight illuminating the first draft of a poem or a soliloquy in a play. The alternative—oil lamps—gave off smoke and unpleasant odors. And they, too, required a pretty penny to buy, fuel, and maintain.
However, if Shakespeare attempted to confine all of his writing to mornings and afternoons, he probably failed. After all, as a playwright and an actor, he had to appear for the daytime rehearsals and performances of his works. Like people today, he had a "nine-to-five job" that probably forced him to moonlight. Also, passages in his plays suggest that he could have been something of an insomniac addicted to burning the candle at both ends. In his book Shakespeare: the Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2005), Peter Ackroyd speculates that as a result of his various employments in the theatre, "[Shakespeare] was obliged to write at night; there are various references in the plays to 'oil-dried lamps,' to candles, and to 'the smoakie light' that is 'fed with stinking Tallow' (Page 273).
Word Choice and Spelling
No official English dictionaries existed in Shakespeare's time. Therefore, he was free to use spellings and meanings that may not have agreed with accepted spellings and meanings. He could also choose from among words imported from Italy, France, and other countries by seafaring traders, soldiers, tourists, and adventurers.
When words did not exist to express his thoughts, Shakespeare made up his own—hundreds of them. Many of his neologisms are now in common use around the world. Jeffrey McQuain and Stanley Malless, authors of Coined by Shakespeare (Merriam-Webster, 1998), list numerous words originated by Shakespeare, including bedroom, eyeball, generous, investment, madcap, obscene, radiance, torture, unreal, and varied.
Many words used by Shakespeare have changed meanings or connotations over time. One Shakespeare scholar observes, "Fellow, which has friendly overtones for us, was insulting in Shakespeare's day. Phrases that were metaphors to him have often lost their coloring with us: Since we seldom play the game of bowls, we overlook the concrete implications of 'There's the rub' (an impediment on the green)." (Levin, Harry. "General Introduction." The Riverside Shakespeare. G. Blakemore Evans, textual ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, page 9.)
Sources and Settings
To write his plays, Shakespeare borrowed from history, Greek and Roman mythology, and literary works, then used his genius to enliven histories and myths and improve on plots, reworking them and sometimes adding new characters.
Because settings on an Elizabethan stage were spare, Shakespeare had to write descriptions of them into his dialogue. This handicap proved to be a boon, for it motivated Shakespeare to write some of his best descriptions.
Whenever place or time mattered [in a Shakespeare play], some references to them could be introduced into the dialogue, and if special atmospheric or dramatic effects were needed, they could be created by the poet's pen. Hence, it is to the Elizabethan stage that we are indebted in great measure for the exquisite descriptive poetry of Shakespeare. Such conditions, moreover, encouraged a greater imaginative cooperation on the part of the audience in the production of a play, and this active participation was further increased by the informality of the platform stage. With such intimacy, soliloquies, asides, and long set speeches are natural and not absurd as they are in modern theatre.—Watt, Homer A., and Karl J. Holzknecht. Outlines of Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Barnes, 1947 (page 8).
Drafts of Plays and Censorship
Shakespeare's manuscripts had to be submitted for approval. After writing out a manuscript, he (or a professional scribe) made a copy of it in which obvious errors were corrected. An acting company could alter a playwright's manuscript with or without his approval. It is possible that editors improved some of Shakespeare's manuscripts. It is also possible that they weakened manuscripts. The original manuscript was called the foul papers because of the blots and cross-outs on it. The new version was called the fair copy. It was submitted to the Master of Revels, a government censor who examined it for material offensive to the crown. If approved, the fair copy became known as the prompt copy, which the actors used to memorize their lines. The acting company bought the prompt copy, gaining sole possession of it, after paying the writer. The company then wrote in the stage directions (exit, enter, etc.). John Russell Brown, author of Shakespeare and His Theatre (New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1982, page 31) discusses the circumstances under which the censor forbade the staging of one of Shakespeare's plays:
At a time of unrest, when the Earl of Essex was challenging the Queen's [Elizabeth's] authority and armed bands terrorized the streets of London, the Chamberlain's Men [Shakespeare's company] were forbidden to perform Richard II, a play already licensed and performed, because it contained a scene in which a king is compelled to renounce his crown; in 1601, the queen's counsellors believed that this might encourage her enemies and spark off a revolution. The theatre was taken very seriously by the authorities and was allowed to deal with political issues only if they did not refer too obviously to current affairs or seditious ideas, but were set, safely, in an earlier century or, better still, in ancient Rome or foreign countries.
No original copy, or foul papers, of a Shakespeare play has survived to the present day except for a few pages of Sir Thomas More, partly written by Shakespeare. Fredson Bowers explains why the manuscripts were lost:
No Shakespeare manuscript is in existence. This is not surprising: they were not collectors' items. Printers would have thrown them away after setting type from them; almost twenty years passed in the Commonwealth with no public performances of plays, and the manuscripts of the disbanded theatrical companies were completely dispersed; the Great Fire of London must have destroyed some. Indeed, only a relative handful of the hundreds and hundreds of Elizabethan plays have come down to us in manuscript form, and it is our bad luck that so few of these are by major dramatists. None is Shakespeare's if we except the good possibility that one scene in the manuscript of the unacted Sir Thomas More is in his hand.—Bowers, Fredson. ''What Shakespeare Wrote.'' Approaches to Shakespeare, by Norma Rabkin. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964 (page 266).
Writing Format: Verse, Prose, and Poetry
Shakespeare wrote his plays partly in verse and partly in prose, freely alternating between the two in the same acts and scenes. It is not unusual, in fact, for one character to address a second character in verse while the second character responds in prose. Sometimes, the same character speaks in verse in one moment and in prose in another.
Verse is a collection of lines that follow a regular, rhythmic pattern. In Shakespeare, this pattern is usually iambic pentameter, a rhythm scheme in which each line has five pairs of syllables. Each pair consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Verse resembles poetry. Prose, on the other hand, is the everyday language of conversation, letters, lectures, sermons, newspaper articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia articles. Prose has no rhyme or metric scheme.
Why did Shakespeare mix verse (including poetry) and prose in his plays? That is a question that inevitably occupies anyone studying Shakespeare. Before considering that question, the Shakespeare analyst first needs to learn how to identify the verse and prose passages in a play. That task is easy. Here’s why:
In most modern editions of the plays, each line in multi-line verse passages begins with a capital letter, and each line in multi-line prose passages begins with a small letter except the first line or a line beginning with the opening word of a sentence. In addition, verse passages have a shortened right margin, but prose passages have a full right margin. Following are examples of these visual cues in verse and prose passages from Othello:
Verse Passage Spoken by Othello
If thou dost slander her and torture me,
Never pray more; abandon all remorse;
On horror’s head horrors accumulate. (3.3.416-418)
Prose Passage Spoken by Iago
Virtue! a fig! ’tis in ourselves that we are thus, or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions; but we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings [sexual desires], our unbitted lusts, whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect or scion. (1.3.331)
Now, then, what about lines spoken in conversation as questions or replies? They are in prose if one line has no paired rhyming line or if the lines are too abrupt to contain a rhythmic or rhyming pattern. The following exchange between Roderigo and Iago is an example of short lines without rhyme or a rhythmic pattern.
RODERIGO: Where shall we meet i’ the morning?
IAGO: At my lodging.
RODERIGO: I’ll be with thee betimes.
IAGO: Go to; farewell. Do you hear, Roderigo?
RODERIGO: What say you?
IAGO: No more of drowning, do you hear?
Rod. I am changed. I’ll sell all my land.
IAGO: Go to; farewell! put money enough in your purse. (1.2.336-343)
But why in other passages does Shakespeare alternate between verse and prose? The answer some Shakespeare commentators provide—an answer that is simplistic and not wholly accurate—is that Shakespeare reserved verse for noble, highborn characters and prose for common, lowborn characters. It is true that royalty and nobility often speak in verse and that peasants and commoners often speak in prose. But it is also true that noble characters sometimes speak in prose and that lowborn characters sometimes speak in verse. Why, then, does Shakespeare alternate between verse and prose?
Shakespeare used verse to do the following:
(1) Present lines with an elegant format that was a tradition of the times.
(2) Allow a character to disclose his or her inmost thoughts in a soliloquy (recitation by a character alone on the stage) in a measured, rhythmic way with words that grow out of the soul of the character, whether he or she is good or bad. The character speaks as if he is talking to himself. Although no other character can hear what the soliloquist says, the audience hears every word. In the following soliloquy, Iago expresses his hatred for Othello and comments on his use of Roderigo as a pawn.
Thus do I ever make my fool my purse;(3) Present a poem within a play. Here is a poem recited by Iago in the third scene of Act 2, beginning at line 60. Notice the end rhyme in lines 1 and 3; 2, 4, 5, and 7; and 6 and 8.
[Thus . . . purse: I turn fools like Roderigo into sources of income for me.]
For I mine own gain’d knowledge should profane, 345
If I would time expend with such a snipe
But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor,
[For I . . . profit: I would be working against myself if I spent time with an idiot like Roderigo without gaining amusement and profit in the exchange.]
And it is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if ’t be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, 350
Will do as if for surety. He holds me well;
The better shall my purpose work on him.
[And it is . . . work on him: And it is thought in public that between the sheets of my own bed Othello has had sex with my wife. I don't know whether the rumor is true; but, out of suspicion, I will take the rumor as true. Because he thinks well of me, I will be be able to plot against him.]
Cassio’s a proper man; let me see now:
To get his place; and to plume up my will
In double knavery; how, how? Let’s see: 355
After some time to abuse Othello’s ear
That he is too familiar with his wife:
He hath a person and a smooth dispose
To be suspected; framed to make women false.
[Cassio's . . . women false: Cassio's a handsome fellow. I think I can use him to carry out my will against Othello. What I will do is tell Othello that Cassio is being too familiar with Desdemona. Because of Cassio's good looks and smooth-talking manner, it will be easy to cast suspicion on him as a man who can make women unfaithful to their husbands.]
The Moor is of a free and open nature, 360
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are.
I have ’t; it is engender’d: hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light. [Exit. 365
[I have . . . light: So I have plan engendered from my hatred for Othello. The devil and darkness will help me make my plan reality.]
King Stephen was a worthy peer,
His breeches cost him but a crown;
He held them sixpence all too dear, [He said he was overcharged by sixpence,]
With that he call’d the tailor lown [lout].
He was a wight [man] of high renown,
And thou art but of low degree: [But you are of low degree compared to him]
’Tis pride that pulls the country down,
Then take thine auld [old] cloak about thee.
And here is part of a poem sung by Desdemona in the second scene of Act 4, beginning at line 43. Notice the end rhyme in lines 1 and 3; 2, 4, and 6; and 5 and 7.
The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow:
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow:
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften’d the stones.
(4) Suggest order and exactitude. A character who speaks in precise rhythms and patterns is a character with a tidy brain that plans ahead and executes actions on schedule.
Shakespeare used prose to do the following:
(1) Express ordinary, undistinguished observations coming from the surface of the mind rather than its active, ruminating interior, as in the following passage spoken by Roderigo.
I have wasted myself out of my means. The jewels you have had from me to deliver to Desdemona would have half corrupted a votarist [person who has taken a vow to lead a holy life]; you have told me she has received them, and returned me expectations and comforts of sudden respect and acquaintance, but I find none. (4.2.208)
(2) Make quick, one-line questions and replies that are the stuff of day-to-day conversations, as in the following passage.
IAGO: What sayst thou, noble heart?
RODERIGO: What will I do, think’st thou?
IAGO: Why, go to bed, and sleep.
RODERIGO: I will incontinently drown myself [because of my hopeless love for Desdemona].
IAGO: Well, if thou dost, I shall never love thee after. Why, thou silly gentleman!
RODERIGO: It is silliness to live when to live is torment; and then have we a prescription to die when death is our physician. (1.3.323-328)
(3) Present auditory relief for audiences (or visual relief for readers) from the intellectual and connotative density of some verse passages.
(4) Suggest madness, senility, or great distress. Othello speaks in orderly, measured verse in most of the play. But he shifts to prose when deep emotion overcomes him at the thought that Desdemona was unfaithful. He says,
Ay, let her rot, and perish, and be damned to-night; for she shall not live. No, my heart is turned to stone; I strike it, and it hurts my hand. O! the world hath not a sweeter creature; she might lie by an emperor’s side and command him tasks. (4.1.169)
(5) Depict the rambling, desultory path of conversation from a tongue loosened by alcohol.
(6) Poke fun at characters who lack the wit to versify their lines.
(7) Demonstrate that prose can have merits as a literary medium. In Shakespeare’s day, verse (and its elegant cousin, poetry) was the sine qua non of successful writing. As an innovator, Shakespeare may have wanted to tout the merits of prose. Thus, on occasion, he infused his plays with prose passages so graceful and thought-provoking that they equaled, and sometimes even surpassed, the majesty of verse or poetry passages. Such a prose passage is the following, spoken in Hamlet by the title character:
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. (2.2.250)
Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter
Under Writing Format: Verse, Prose, and Poetry, you read that Shakespeare wrote his plays in verse, prose, and poetry and that he used a rhythm format called iambic pentameter. When his verse lines in iambic pentameter do not rhyme, they are said to be in blank verse.
To understand iambic pentameter, you first need to understand the term iamb. An iamb is a unit of rhythm consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Consider the words annoy, fulfill, pretend, regard, and serene. They are all iambs because the first syllable of each word is unstressed (or unaccented) and the second syllable is stressed (or accented): an NOY, ful FILL, pre TEND, re GARD, and ser ENE. Iambs can also consist of one word with a single unstressed (unaccented) syllable followed by another word with a single stressed (accented) syllable (example: the KING). In addition, they may consist of a final unstressed syllable of one word followed by an initial stressed syllable of the next word. The following lines from Othello demonstrate the use of iambs. The stressed words or syllables are boldfaced:
Farewell the plumèd troop and the big wars
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump (trumpet). (3-3-396-398)
When a line has five iambs, it is in iambic pentameter. Each line in the passage above has five iambs. For example, the iambs in the first line are (1) Farewell, (2) the plu, (3) mèd troop, (4) and the, (5) big wars.
The prefix pent- (in pentameter) means five. The suffix -meter refers to the recurrence of a rhythmic unit (also called a foot). Thus, because the above lines contain iambs, they are iambic. Because they contain five iambs (five feet), they are in iambic pentameter. Finally, because the words at the end of each line do not rhyme, the lines are said to be in unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse.
Blank verse was modeled after ancient Greek and Latin verse. It was first used in 1514 in Renaissance Italy by Francesco Maria Molza. In 1539, Italian Giovanni Rucellai was the first poet to label the unrhymed iambic pentameter in his poetry as blank verse (versi sciolti in Italian). Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, first used blank verse in English in his translation of Vergil's epic Latin poem The Aeneid. The first English drama in blank verse was Gorboduc, staged in 1561, by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton. It was about an early British king. Later in the same century, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare turned blank verse into high art when they used it in their plays. Marlowe used the verse form in Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine, and Edward II. Shakespeare used it in all of his plays. In Germany, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) popularized blank verse in his long poem Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise), published in 1779.
Publication of a Play
The publishing industry in Shakespeare's England operated under the control of the Worshipful Company of Stationers, a trade organization which the government established and supervised in order to guard against the publication of subversive books and of books unduly critical of the government. If a play met government standards—that is, if it did not attempt to inflame the people against the crown—a publisher could print and sell the play. Authors of plays often had misgivings about committing their work to print, as the following quotation points out.
The plays of the first professional companies [in Shakespeare's day] were written mainly by actors themselves. . . . The players were reluctant to allow their dramas to be printed. They apparently thought that if a play could be read, few people would wish to see it acted. They may also have feared that their plays, if printed, would be appropriated for acting by rival companies. This reluctance explains the fact that only eighteen of Shakespeare's plays were printed during his lifetime. They were published in small pamphlets called quartos, which sold for only sixpence a piece.—Alden, Raymond MacDonald. A Shakespeare Handbook. Revised and enlarged by Oscar James Campbell. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries, 1970, page 74.