Study Guide

Othello

by William Shakespeare

Othello Analysis

Historical Background

The primary source for Othello is a short story from Gli Hecatommithi, a collection of tales published in 1565 by Geraldi Cinthio. The story from the collection dealing with “The Unfaithfulness of Husbands and Wives” provides an ideal place for an Elizabethan dramatist to look for a plot. Since no translation of this work is known to have appeared before 1753, scholars believe that Shakespeare either read the work in its original Italian, or that he was familiar with a French translation of Cinthio’s tales, published in 1585 by Gabriel Chappuys.

In Cinthio’s tale, the wife is known as Disdemona, but the other characters are designated by titles only. There are also significant differences in the length of time over which the drama takes place, details of setting, and characters’ actions.

Commentators have also suggested that Pliny’s Natural History provided Shakespeare with details to enhance Othello’s exotic adventures and his alien origins. It has even been suggested by Geoffrey Bullough that Shakespeare consulted John Pory’s translation of Leo Africanus’ A Geographical History of Africa, which distinguishes between Moors of northern and southern Africa and characterizes both groups as candid and unaffected, but prone to jealousy. Shakespeare was also familiar with fifteenth and early sixteenth century accounts of wars between Venice and Turkey, during which time Venice regained temporary control of Cyprus.

It is agreed by most scholars that Shakespeare wrote...

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Othello Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Venice

*Venice. Northeast Italian seaport on the Adriatic that is the setting of the three scenes of the play’s first act. This affluent Renaissance city was greatly admired by Elizabethans, and utilized by William Shakespeare in his earlier play The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596-1597). Ruled by a duke and a senate, Venice was an autonomous, powerful republic at this time, with a flourishing commercial economy. Venetian ships plied the seas from the Adriatic through the Mediterranean, trading wool, furs, leather, and glass. In the play, Iago cynically describes Venice as a place of moneybags, treachery, and promiscuity, and insinuates that a black man can never be other than an outsider. Playing upon Othello’s sense of alienation, he suggests that Desdemona’s choice of him was unnatural and thus temporary.

Before Brabantio’s house, Iago and Roderigo call out with shouts of alarm and obscene insinuations about his daughter Desdemona, which escalate almost into a brawl, until Othello appears to calm the fray. This outdoor setting, dark and noisy, creates a feeling of unrest and tension.

Duke’s council chamber

Duke’s council chamber. Awe-inspiring room to which Othello is summoned before the Duke and the special session of Senate. In this Venetian crisis, with the Turkish fleet now bearing down on the island of Cyprus, a possession of Venice, Othello’s services are necessary. However, he must defend himself first from the accusations of Brabantio, who claims that he has stolen Desdemona by witchcraft. Although alien to Venetian culture as a Moor, Othello has previously proven his worth to the state and he defends himself from Brabantio’s charges persuasively. Into this solemn chamber peopled with the powerful hierarchy of Venice, Desdemona appears to declare her love for Othello, which convinces the Duke to support the marriage and enlist Othello in the war against the Turk.

*Cyprus

*Cyprus. Important island trading post in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and a Venetian possession from 1489 to 1571. It provides the setting for the last four acts of the play and, symbolically, represents the edge of the civilized world; beyond is the Ottoman Empire, the enemy infidels. The second act of Othello opens at an open place near the quay of a Cyprus seaport. The tempest-tossed, Venetian seafarers reach safety. The location emphasizes the distance from their familiar world. Although the Turks have now drowned, Cyprus is a barren military outpost, a citadel, lacking many of the comforts of Venice. It is a masculine world, isolated and contained; Desdemona is at the mercy of the men around her.

Cyprus citadel

Cyprus citadel. Governor’s castle within whose soldiers’ quarters, orchard, and halls the remainder of the play unfolds. This citadel is the spot where civility and barbarity merge. There, Iago is free to advance his plans for Othello’s destruction, first by making Cassio drunk, leading to his dismissal, and then by using lies and insinuations to increase Othello’s jealousy. At a distance, Othello sees the encounter between Cassio and Bianca and his handkerchief pass between them; he is then convinced of the falseness of Desdemona. The isolation of the island from the civilized world contributes to the absolutism of the play.

The setting of Desdemona’s murder in her citadel bedchamber is cruelly appropriate. “Strangle her in her bed,” says Iago. The room brings together the sexual possessiveness of Othello, Desdemona’s innocence, and Iago’s passion for destruction. But it also represents a place in which the truth is revealed, where Venice, in the person of Lodovico, brings civility once more, and where Othello can feel remorse.

Othello Quizzes

Act I, Scenes 1-3 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What reason does Iago give for his hatred of Othello?

2. What information do Roderigo and Iago give to Brabantio regarding Desdemona’s whereabouts?

3. How does Iago make himself look favorable in Othello’s eyes?

4. What news does Michael Cassio bring when he enters?

5. To what does Brabantio attribute Desdemona’s affections for Othello?

6. What is the military issue that the Duke of Venice and his senators discuss?

7. What accusation does Brabantio make against Othello to the duke?

8. What explanation does Othello give as cause for Desdemona’s affection for him?

9. To whom does Desdemona pledge her...

(The entire section is 660 words.)

Act II, Scenes 1-3 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What dramatic function does the conversation between Montano and the two gentlemen serve?

2. Why does Iago carefully observe the way Cassio greets Desdemona?

3. What information does Iago use to spark Roderigo’s interest in his plan to discredit Cassio?

4. What “proof” does Iago use to convince Roderigo that Cassio and Desdemona are lovers?

5. Why does Iago instigate Roderigo to provoke Cassio to a fight?

6. Why does Iago urge Cassio to drink to Othello?

7. What happens when Cassio enters chasing Roderigo?

8. How does Iago plan to bait Othello into doubting Desdemona’s fidelity?

9. What does Iago...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

Act III, Scenes 1-4 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What function do the musicians and clown serve?

2. How does Iago’s duplicity become evident when he speaks to Cassio?

3. What does Emilia’s remark about the rift between Othello and Cassio suggest about their relationship?

4. Identify and explain two examples of irony found in Act III, Scene 3.

5. Explain how Iago manages to arouse Othello’s suspicion in the conversation between Cassio and Desdemona.

6. How does Iago use Othello’s racial differences against him?

7. How is the dropping of the handkerchief ironic?

8. What literary device is used to ease some of the dramatic tension that has been established?...

(The entire section is 726 words.)

Act IV, Scenes 1-3 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How does Othello react to Iago’s images of infidelity?

2. Why does Iago speak to Cassio about Bianca?

3. Explain how the handkerchief has increased in significance.

4. How has Othello changed up to this point in the play?

5. Explain the difference in the relationship between Desdemona and Othello compared to when they first arrived in Cyprus.

6. Why is Emilia’s belief about what is causing Othello’s behavior ironic?

7. What clue does Emilia offer about Iago’s own jealousy?

8. Why is Roderigo annoyed at Iago?

9. What is the dramatic significance of the “willow” song?

10. To what does...

(The entire section is 542 words.)

Act V, Scenes 1-2 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Explain Iago’s attitude toward Roderigo and Cassio.

2. How does Othello come to think that Iago has kept his vow?

3. What function does the presence of Lodovico and Gratiano serve?

4. Why does Iago stab Roderigo?

5. How does Iago cast aside suspicion of his own part in the plot to kill Cassio?

6. When does Othello show a change of heart towards Desdemona?

7. Why does Othello mention the handkerchief so often?

8. Why does Othello kill Desdemona?

9. How are all the plots and schemes revealed at the end of the play?

10. Why does Othello kill himself?

Answers
1. Iago...

(The entire section is 540 words.)