Othello Revision


Theme- Love

  • Othello is a domestic tragedy in which love is destroyed by hate.
  • Iago’s false love subverts and replaces Desdemona’s true love.
  • Iago is incapable of love and driven by hate.
  • Emilia’s loving tribute to Desdemona when she dies reaffirms the value of true love.
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Theme- Obsession

  • Iago’s obsession with revenge drives the main plot forward.
  • Othello’s obsession with his masculine honour leads him to destruction.
  • Cassio’s obsession with his reputation leads him to act dishonourably when he asks Desdemona to plead his cause.
  • The female characters are all powerless in the face of male obsession.
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Theme- Jelousy

  • Iago’s professional jealousy of Cassio is the catalyst that triggers the events of the main plot.
  • Sexual jealousy is explored in all the couples’ relationships and is always destructive.
  • The sexual jealousy we see is unfounded but plausible; both Othello and Bianca are deceived by the false proof of the handkerchief.
  • Othello does not give in to jealousy too easily, as some critics have suggested. He takes a lot of convincing that Desdemona is false.
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Theme- Male/Female Relationships

  • The male characters – fathers, husbands, lovers – all expect their women to submit to their authority.
  • Initially Desdemona and Othello share a more equal relationship than the other couples; each was ‘half the wooer’.
  • The female characters are objectified by the men, prized for their beauty or derided as whores.
  • Female fidelity is a key part of masculine honour in the play.
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Theme- revenge

  • Revenge is presented as dishonourable throughout the play.
  • Othello is degraded when he seeks revenge and he begins to act like a violent stereotype from Revenge Tragedy.
  • Iago’s desire for revenge is presented as destructive, unnatural and egotistical.
  • It is disturbing that the revenger, Iago, survives at the end of the play.
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Genre- Tragedy

  • Revenge is presented as dishonourable throughout the play.
  • Othello is degraded when he seeks revenge and he begins to act like a violent stereotype from Revenge Tragedy.
  • Iago’s desire for revenge is presented as destructive, unnatural and egotistical.
  • It is disturbing that the revenger, Iago, survives at the end of the play.
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  • The structure of the play includes important examples of repetition: for example, Iago repeatedly poisons Othello’s mind in long exchanges.
  • The structure of the play relies on mirroring for its dramatic impact: for example, Bianca’s sexual jealousy mirrors Othello’s.
  • Venice frames the action in Cyprus; the play opens and closes with the Venetian state exercising its power and defining Othello’s character.
  • The play is structured so that Iago seems to be stage managing events; his soliloquies give us insight into how he directs what happens.
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Iago's Speech Style

  • Iago speaks over one third of the lines in the play, showing how dominant he is as the villain.
  • Iago adapts his style to suit his purposes: for example, insults to cast suspicion on Bianca, a parody of the language of love to hoodwink Othello.
  • Iago’s soliloquies are characterised by images of evil, poison and infection.
  • Iago’s vulgar and racist use of language to describe Othello in Act I Scene 1 reflects his true character.
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Othello's speech style

  • ‘Valiant’ Othello’s poetic speech style is characterised by his use of measured blank verse.
  • Othello uses military imagery when he talks about losing his love, for example ‘Othello’s occupation’s gone’ (III.3.360).
  • Othello uses disjointed prose and a third person viewpoint when his mind is poisoned by Iago.
  • Othello’s speech is full of violent and bloody imagery when he seeks revenge on Desdemona and Cassio.
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  • The battle between good and evil is dramatised by using images of light and dark.
  • The images of jealousy make it clear that it is an irrational and monstrous force.
  • The imagery used to describe Desdemona often objectifies her as a precious, beautiful possession.
  • The images of animals used throughout the play chart the progress of Iago’s evil and Othello’s downfall.
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Context- Race

  • Usually in Renaissance drama black men and Moors were portrayed negatively; Othello is the first black hero.
  • Othello only behaves as the stereotype of the lustful, murderous black man when he is corrupted by Iago.
  • Othello is a racial ‘outsider’ in Venice but Shakespeare stresses his noble origins and his power and status as a mercenary general.
  • During the Renaissance many believed black people were fit only to be slaves. Shakespeare subverts this view in his depiction of his noble Moor.
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Context- Religion

  • The preoccupation with good and evil underlines the play’s religious context.
  • Desdemona is linked to good through the use of references to heaven. Iago is linked to evil through references to hell and the devil.
  • Othello has converted to Christianity and subscribes to Christian values. He knows he is damned in the final moments of the play.
  • Iago has atheistic attitudes. He says men are in control of their own fates, ‘'tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus’ (I.3.320).
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Context- Setting

  • Venice was associated with power, romance and high culture, an appropriate setting for the Othello–Desdemona love match.
  • Italy was associated with villainy, decadence and corruption, and frequently used as a setting for plays on such themes. The Duchess of Malfi and ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore both explore these themes. Iago personifies these stereotypical Italian vices.
  • The isolation of and threats to the Cyprus setting symbolise the isolation of and threats to Desdemona and Othello.
  • The use of a military setting for a play about marriage underlines the conflict Othello faces when trying to combine love and work.
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Context- Patriarchy

  • Renaissance women were subordinate to men and were ruled by them.
  • Legally, women were the possessions of men, so Renaissance fathers and husbands often treated their daughters and wives as objects to be used as they saw fit.
  • Assertive women were considered a threat to the social order. Desdemona asserts her right to live with Othello, but never challenges his authority over her.
  • Shakespeare’s positive portrayal of Emilia suggests assertiveness in a woman is not always a threat to patriarchy.
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Link to other Shakespeare plays

  • Many Renaissance and Jacobean plays focus on the tragic consequences of doomed love, for example Romeo and Juliet.
  • Marriage is usually a central theme in comedy. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is typical, focusing on courtship and marriage. Marriage provides a ‘happy ending’ in comedy.
  • Villains are often cynical atheists, who use others for their own ends. Ambitious Edmund in King Lear exploits women in the same way as Iago.
  • Dramatists often explore evil through the presentation of sexual corruption. In Hamlet Claudius poisons his brother and marries his widow, Gertrude.
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Key Extracts- Act 1 Scene 2

  • At this point in Act I we see Othello and Iago together for the first time Read from: ‘Iago: Though in the trade of war’, to ‘Othello: What lights come yond?’ (l.2.1–9)
  • WHY is it important? Othello’s attitude and tone suggest he is an honourable man, contrasting with the negative image of him Iago constructed in Act I Scene 1.
  • WHAT themes does it explore? The theme of masculine honour is explored in both Iago’s and Othello’s speeches. The theme of love and marriage is also explored.
  • HOW does it work dramatically? This is a quiet and calm exchange, but we see evidence of Iago’s methods of manipulation. He is already deceiving Othello, acting the part of faithful servant.
  • WHAT language techniques does it employ? There is irony in all of Iago’s speeches. We know he is telling lies. Othello’s poetic description of marriage to ‘gentle Desdemona’ contrasts with Iago’s blunt speaking style.
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Key Extract-Act 1 Scene 3

  • At this point in Act I Roderigo is persuaded to follow Othello and Desdemona to Cyprus. Left alone, Iago outlines his evil motives and plans Read from: ‘Roderigo: Where shall we meet,’ to ‘Iago: Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.’ (I.3.374–403)
  • WHY is it important? We see how Iago’s methods of manipulation influence Roderigo, who is exploited and deceived. We see Iago’s contempt for others and gain insight into his motives.
  • WHAT themes does it explore? Deception, evil and jealousy, all of which are themes associated with Iago throughout the play. The difference between appearance and reality is also explored.
  • HOW does it work dramatically? When Roderigo is on stage the mood is energetic, even comic, as Iago rallies him. When Iago is alone the mood becomes darker, but his evil energy persists.
  • WHAT language techniques does it employ? We see Iago’s facility with words; insults, rhetorical questions, similes, exclamations and images of evil are used. The personal pronouns (I, me, my) in his soliloquy show his egotism.
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Key Extract-Act 2 Scene 3

  • At this point in Act II, Cassio is in disgrace after the drunken brawl. Iago takes on the role of comforter and advisor Read from: ‘Iago: What, are you hurt, lieutenant?’ to ‘Cassio: let us call thee devil!’ (II.3.255–79)
  • WHY is it important? This is a turning point for Iago. When Cassio is dismissed we know his plans are working. Cassio is now in his power because he is led to trust Iago’s judgement.
  • WHAT themes does it explore? The masculine obsession with honour and reputation is explored here. Iago’s evil methods of manipulation are further demonstrated.
  • HOW does it work dramatically? There is a contrast between Cassio’s anguish and Iago’s common sense approach, which creates tension. There is further tension as we watch Cassio being ensnared by Iago’s words of advice.
  • WHAT language techniques does it employ? The repetition of ‘reputation’ and the imagery associated with it creates irony. There is irony in Cassio’s personification of wine as a ‘devil’; the ‘devil’ Iago made him drink it.
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Key Extract- Act 4 Scene 3

  • At this point in Act IV, Desdemona has been publically humiliated and abused by Othello, who has dismissed her and told her to go to bed Read from: ‘Emilia: How goes it now?’ to ‘Desdemona: No, unpin me here.’ (IV.3.9–33)
  • WHY is it important? We see the way in which Desdemona has been cowed by Othello’s verbal and physical violence. Her submissive words foreshadow what she will say when she dies.
  • WHAT themes does it explore? The issues of male–female relationships and power are explored. The willow song introduces the themes of death, madness and forsaken love.
  • HOW does it work dramatically? This is a quiet scene, full of a sense of foreboding. Emilia’s brief outburst, ‘Would you had never seen him!’ prepares us for her defence of Desdemona in Act V.
  • WHAT language techniques does it employ? Foreshadowing and symbolism are used in the references to the ‘sheets’ Desdemona wants to be shrouded in, and in the willow song, which is about ill-fated love.
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Key Extract-Act 5 Scene 2

  • At this point in Act V, Othello has smothered Desdemona. Emilia confronts Othello with the enormity of his crime, which he initially denies committing Read from: ‘Desdemona: O falsely, falsely murdered!’ to ‘Emilia: My husband!’ (V.2.115–44)
  • WHY is it important? We see the depth of Othello’s degradation in his denial of Desdemona’s murder. Emilia’s slow realisation that Iago is a villain is a turning point. The truth starts to come out.
  • WHAT themes does it explore? The issues of guilt and blame are important here. Male-female relationships, power and the theme of reputation are also explored.
  • HOW does it work dramatically? This is a highly charged episode. Outraged, Emilia becomes the voice of the audience. Desdemona’s dying words are full of pathos. Othello‘s defence of himself is painful to witness.
  • WHAT language techniques does it employ? Short lines and exclamations create tension. Emilia and Othello challenge each other repeatedly. Both use powerful similes and metaphors to accuse. Emilia’s repetition of ‘My husband!’ grows increasingly fraught.
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