Othello

Use this page to find resources to support your study of Shakepeare's play Othello

The BBC Bitesize page is a useful link (but it is designed for GCSE). Use the Higher exemplars below to see typical examples for the Higher paper.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/english_literature/dramaothello/

Plot Summary

 

The play opens with Roderigo, a rich gentleman, arguing with Iago, a soldier. Roderigo had been in love with Desdemona, the daughter of a senator, and asked her to marry him. However, he has just found out that she has secretly married Othello, a black army general. Iago is also angry - he serves Othello but has not been promoted by him. Instead, Othello promoted Cassio, a young soldier with no experience. Iago tells Roderigo to wake Desdemona's father, Brabantio, and they shout in the street, telling him about the secret marriage. Iago stays in the background, shouting insults but not saying who he is.

Iago says he is angry because of Cassio but he also suspects an affair between Othello and his wife. However, Iago hides his anger and pretends to be loyal and serve Othello, although we soon see that he is lying to him.

We learn that a Turkish fleet will attack Cyprus and Othello is sent to advise the senate. Brabantio arrives and accuses Othello of using witchcraft to seduce his daughter. However, Othello defends himself and is put in command of the army. He then leaves to sail to Cyprus and there is a terrible storm.

 

The storm destroys the Turkish boats and Othello arrives on Cyprus safely. He joins his wife, Desdemona, Iago, Iago's wife Emilia, Roderigo, Cassio and the rest of his soldiers. Iago starts trying to make Othello jealous of his wife and, as part of the plan, gets Cassio drunk. Othello learns of this and sacks Cassio, saying he'll 'never more' be an officer. Iago then persuades Cassio to speak to Desdemona so that she can convince her husband to reinstate Cassio. At the same time, Iago suggests to Othello that Cassio and Desdemona might be having an affair.

Desdemona loses her handkerchief, which was a present from Othello. Emilia gives it to her husband, Iago, and he plants it as evidence of an affair. Iago also asks Othello to hide and then gets Cassio to talk about love - Cassio is talking about another woman but Othello thinks he's talking about Othello's wife, Desdemona. Othello is so angry he decides to kill his wife and tells Iago to kill Cassio.

However, Iago continues to plot against Othello. He convinces Roderigo, who is still in love with Desdemona, to kill Cassio. Iago hides and watches the attack, then wounds Cassio. Iago then pretends to help Roderigo but secretly kills him and then blames someone else.

Othello talks to Desdemona and then attacks and kills her. However, Emilia, Iago's wife, realises Desdemona is innocent and that her husband is guilty. She starts to tell the guards what has happened but Iago kills her. Othello then attacks Iago but the fight is stopped. Othello is so full of grief that he commits suicide and falls on the bed next to the body of his wife. The play ends with the arrest of Iago and Cassio is left to decide Iago's punishment.

 

Themes in “Othello”

 

Revenge

Perhaps the most obvious subject or theme in Othello is revenge and jealousy. Iago is the key to almost everything that happens. He has been passed over for promotion, so he dislikes Othello and must be jealous of Cassio. He thinks Othello might also have slept with his wife. However, we can never be completely sure what motivates Iago to be so destructive - he manages to get Cassio dismissed but then Iago doesn't seem interested in Cassio's job, only in causing more problems. We also learn that Iago has tried many times in the past to steal the handkerchief that means so much to Othello. This tells us that he was planning against Othello long before his promotion was blocked.

 

Reality and appearance

The contrast between what is reality and the appearance of something is also used by Shakespeare. There are many references to it, with Iago saying that 'Men should be what they seem' (and Iago is clearly not what he seems), to Othello asking for 'ocular proof' or proof that he can see. Of course, what Othello actually sees isn't what he thinks it is. So when he sees and hears Cassio talking about Desdemona, Cassio is actually talking about another woman.

Othello also believes the story about Cassio wiping his beard on the valuable handkerchief. The only 'proof' is Iago's word, which is a lie. Othello is fooled in other ways too - he hears a scream and then assumes Cassio is dead, but he is only injured. However, the most important difference between reality and appearance is that Othello continues to think that Iago is of 'exceeding honesty', but everyone in the audience knows this isn't the case.

 

 

Race

Another major theme is race, and the idea that our ethnic origin affects our behaviour and personality. This belief was very strong in Shakespeare's time and many of his audience would feel a mixed marriage was wrong. They would also be familiar with the racist language used to insult Othello and see nothing wrong with it. However, we shouldn't reject Shakespeare for this - he is reflecting his audience and the time he wrote the play, but he also manages to challenge these racist ideas. His audience would almost inevitably expect the villain to be black and the hero white, but it's the opposite. Secondly the love between Desdemona and Othello is clearly real - they may be from different cultures but it is Iago who forces them apart, not their different ethnic origins.

There may be other topics you can spot, such as the subject of magic - Desdemona's father accuses Othello of using it to seduce his daughter, saying that she wouldn't be in love without 'witchcraft'. Even the handkerchief Othello gave Desdemona has 'magic in the web' of it, and losing it can lead to damnation.

 

Conflict and “Othello”

 

From the opening scene of the play, Othello and Iago are in conflict. Othello is not even on stage as the play opens but the audience can see that there is disagreement between these two from the words spoken by Iago. The audience can see the reasons for this conflict: Othello did not pick Iago to be his lieutenant and Roderigo is annoyed that Iago did not know about the fact that Desdemona and Othello got married.

 

This conflict is troubling for the audience as throughout the play it seems that these two men had been great friends and respected in the military. They worked closely together and had a strong relationship. All this changes and conflict between these two men ensues. Iago cannot trust Othello because he disregarded the rules of the military by promoting Cassio over Iago. If Othello cannot be trusted in this situation, then he cannot be trusted in any situation.

 

Iago takes it upon himself to ruin Othello and point out his flaw: jealousy. He uses this against Othello and it leads to Othello eventually killing Desdemonia and himself.

 

Key Quotations

 

"O, sir, content you. / I follow him to serve my

turn upon him”- Iago

 

“I hate the Moor”- Iago

 

“Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore;
Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof.”- Othello

 

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!”- Iago

 

“Is’t lost? Is’t gone? Speak, is it out o’ the way?”- Othello

 

"Men should be what they seem; / Or those that be not, would they 

might seem none! " - Iago

 

“I am not sorry neither.  I'd have thee live,
For in my sense 'tis happiness to die.” -Othello

”I kissed thee ere I killed thee.  No way but this,
Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.” -Othello

 

Central concern of the text

 

Jealousy: this is Othello’s tragic flaw and can be blamed for his downfall as well as the death of Desdemona. This play warns the audience of what will happen if we allow jealousy to control our thoughts and actions.


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