E432 Shakespeare Questions: Othello

William Shakespeare Questions on Othello for English 432 Shakespeare's Tragedies and Romances, Spring 2009, Alfred J. Drake at Chapman University in Orange, California

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Assigned: The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (1251-88).


Act 1

1. In 1.1, what reasons does Iago give to justify his hatred of Othello? Do they seem sufficient for such deep hatred? Also, to what extent (in this scene and in 1.3), does Iago seem like more than a one-dimensional stage villain?

2. In 1.1 and 1.2, how is Othello's elopement with Desdemona described to her father Brabanzio? That is, what specific racial or cultural terms are used by Iago and Roderigo? How does Brabanzio himself take the news?

3. In 1.3, how does Othello confront the charge leveled against him? What wins over the Duke of Venice (if not Brabanzio)? Consider mainly Othello's performance as a speaker -- what is it about his bearing and his language that makes him attractive in this regard?

Act 2

4. In 2.1 through 2.3, discuss Iago's Machiavellian maneuvering to ruin Cassio and, as becomes increasingly clear, Desdemona? What accidents and events does he perceive and manipulate?

5. In 2.3, to what extent does Othello's treatment of Cassio seem justified? On what principle does he dismiss his formerly esteemed lieutenant?

Act 3

6. In 3.3, discuss Iago's rhetorical strategy in bringing Othello round to condemning his wife for adultery. What images and ideas does Iago plant in Othello's head, and in what order? How does he keep his own base self-interested motives from becoming plain to Othello?

7. In 3.3, what weakness or incapacity of judgment does Othello betray? By the end of 3.3, what deterioration or contraction has taken place in Othello's outlook on his career and his marriage?

8. In 3.4, Othello manifests his famous obsession with the handkerchief he gave Desdemona. Beyond the obvious, what seems to underlie the power of this token -- why does its loss drive Othello nearly mad?

9. In 3.4, Emilia and Desdemona discuss men's treatment of women and in particular their jealousy. In what sense is Emilia a foil to Desdemona's sensibility here and elsewhere in the play? Also, when Desdemona says, "I never gave him {Othello} cause," is her statement entirely accurate? Why or why not?

Act 4

10. Consider how Othello's dialogue with Iago in 4.1 affects his argument with Desdemona in 4.2. How does Iago's cunning help make Othello deaf to Desdemona's self-defense?

11. In 4.2, discuss Desdemona's self-defense both in speaking with Othello and then with Emilia and Iago. What does she rely on to protect her reputation? And in 4.3, how does Desdemona respond to Emilia's spirited assault on men's deceptive ways?

Act 5

12. In a properly Aristotelian tragedy, the protagonist or tragic hero must recognize his or her error and reassert some measure of personal dignity in the face of ruin. By what means does Othello come to understand his error? How does he reassert his dignity?

13. A general question: how well do you think director Oliver Parker's film of Othello captures the movement and thematic significance of Shakespeare's text? What did you like about the film? What, if anything, didn't you like about it, and why?

Edition: Evans, G. Blakemore et al., eds. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Houghton Mifflin, 1997. ISBN: 0-395-75490-9.