A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2008, 2011, 2013
Type of Work
.......Othello is a stage play in the form of a
tragedy in which a good man falls to ruin after an evil man inflames
him with jealousy.
.......The probable main source for Othello, Moor of Venice is.Ecatommiti, (also called Hecatommithi), published in Venice in 1566 and written by Giovanni Battista Giraldi (1504-1573), also known as Cinthio. Ecatommiti means One Hundred Tales.
.......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 between 1489 and 1571.
It is interesting to note that Venice is the setting for both major
Shakespeare plays dealing in part with racial prejudice, Othello
and The Merchant of Venice.
.......The tone of the play is vengeful and bitter. Iago, the antagonist, sets the tone when he plots revenge against Othello, the protagonist, after the latter promotes another man to the position that Iago wanted. Othello's attitude maintains the tone after he accepts as true the false story that his wife has been unfaithful to him. Bitter, vengeful, and madly jealous, he vows to kill his wife.
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, provokes racial slurs against him.
But he carries on with nobility and dignity as he leads an army bound for Cyprus. 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.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
....... When 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;....... 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 fleet of Turks threatens 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, he 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 officer. 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 Othello’s wife, 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?
.......Meanwhile, 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 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, “[L]et 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. For this seemingly untoward gesture, 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 returns 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. 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, and 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 gave it to her husband at his insistence. At long last, Iago’s whole sordid plot unravels.
.......When Othello lunges at him, Iago stabs his wife and runs off. Montano and others pursue him. Emilia dies and Montano returns. With him are Lodovico, Cassio (carried on a chair), and Iago (held as a 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.
.......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 schemes to undermine Othello's relationship with his wife. He correctly recognizes Othello as an easy mark, observing,
The Moor is of a free and
.......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.
Jealousy....... 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 love Cassio).
.......Racial prejudice is a crucial issue in the play, for it isolates Othello, making him feel like a defective and an outcast. As such, 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.
.......As in Macbeth, all things are not what they seem. At the beginning, Othello appears strong and self-disciplined, and Iago presents himself as loyal and trustworthy. Later, Othello is revealed as a victim of his emotions, and Iago as a disloyal and evil man.
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.
.......The conflicts in the play center on (1) Iago vs Othello, (2) Othello vs racism and ageism, (3) Othello vs Desdemona after Iago poisons him with suspicion that she has been unfaithful, and (4) Othello vs Othello—his emotions war with him and overcome his common sense and better judgment.
Racism in Othello
vilest characters in all of Shakespeare is Iago. Audiences attending
Othello begin learning the extent of his villainy in the opening scene
of the play, when Iago uses racism as a spark to inflame Desdemona’s
father, Senator Brabantio, against Othello. Here is the scene:
’Zounds!4 sir, you’re robb’d; for shame, put on your gown;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 nephews7 neigh to you; you’ll have coursers for cousins and gennets8 for germans.9 (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 convinced of the truth of the story, 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,.......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).
.......Othello is rich in memorable lines, some of which have become part of our language. Although the characters speak in prose as well as verse, the imagery remains vivid throughout the play. Among the most frequently quoted passages are the following:
I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
Use of Irony
Othello’s Prejudice, the Ultimate Irony
.......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.
Iago's "Good Name"
.......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,Iago’s Ironic Warning
.......Ironically, it is the deceitful Iago who, in a pretense to make himself seem a friend to Othello, speaks of the danger of jealousy:
O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;Other Examples of Figures of Speech
.......Among other examples of figures of speech in the play are the following. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
If after every tempest come such calms,Anaphora
You’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you;Hyperbole
I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip. (4.3.42)Irony, Dramatic
I know thou art full of love and honesty. (3.3.138)Irony, Situational
The robb’d that smiles steals something from the thief (1.3.230)
Even now, now, very now, an old black ramMetaphor and Play on Words
Put out the light, and then put out the light. (5.2.9)Oxymoron
I will withdrawSimile
Still as the grave. (5.2.115)
.......Writers often use "planted evidence" as a ploy to
impugn an innocent character and thereby thicken the plot. Knives,
guns, caches of jewels, umbrellas, and cigarette lighters have all been
used by writers to suggest that an innocent character is guilty. The
nineteenth-century playwright Oscar Wilde often resorted to such ploys
to complicate his plots. One of his plays, Lady Windermere's Fan,
fan and a
handwritten letter—to implicate an innocent woman. What was the planted
evidence in Othello that implicated Desdemona? Describe this
evidence and explain its role in convincing Othello that his wife was
.......The climax of a play or another literary work, such as
a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at
which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as
(2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax
of Othello, according to the first definition, occurs in the
third scene of Act III, when Othello becomes convinced that Desdemona
has been unfaithful and resolves to retaliate against her. According to
the second definition, the climax occurs when Othello kills Desdemona
and discovers the horrible mistake he has made.
.......Michael Cassio is a hinge on which the play turns. On
the one hand, it was his promotion that aroused Iago's jealousy. On the
other, it was his alleged (but nonexistent) love affair with Desdemona
that aroused Othello's jealousy.
.......English essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) wrote of the stark character contrasts in Othello.
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)
.......In this play, Othello apparently strangles Desdemona or smothers her with a pillow. (The stage directions say he "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, Clarence is drowned in a barrel of wine. In Macbeth, hired assassins inflict "twenty trenched gashes" upon Banquo's head. In Cymbeline, Guiderius decapitates Clotan. In Titus Andronicus, throats are slit and Aaron the Moor is buried up to his chest, then starved. In Hamlet, Claudius murders his predecessor 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 since ancient times. It is said that the custom of garnishing food with parsley originated in the time of the Caesars. Parsley was a secret sign from a friend in the kitchen that food was uncontaminated.
.......Hellen Gardner observes, "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).
.......Shakespeare's works suggest that he might have
visited Italy. Consider that more than a dozen of his plays—includingThe
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 well
populated with people having Italian or ancient Roman names. For example, although The
Comedy of Errors takes place in Ephesus, Turkey, the names
of many of the characters end with the Italian ''o'' or ''a'':—Angelo,
Luciana. In Hamlet's Denmark, we find characters
named Marcellus, Bernardo and Francisco. Practically
all of the characters in Timon of Athens bear the names of
ancient Romans—Lucullus, Flavius, Flaminius, Lucius, Sempronius,
Servillius, Titus, Hortensius. Of course, it is quite possible that
Shakespeare visited Italy only in his imagination..
.......A Moor was a Muslim of mixed Arab and Berber descent. Berbers were North African natives who eventually accepted Arab customs and Islam after Arabs invaded North Africa in the Seventh Century AD. The term has been used to refer in general to Muslims of North Africa and to Muslim conquerors of Spain. The word 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 are white Moors as well as black Moors, the latter mostly of Sudanese origin.
Moors in Other Shakespeare Plays
.......In Titus Andronicus Shakespeare introduces an
evil Moor named Aaron who displays goodness near the end when he pleads
for his child's life. Othello introduces an upright and
righteous Moor who displays evil near the end when he suspects his wife
of infidelity and kills her.