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...
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In this section:
- Shakespeare’s Language
- Shakespeare’s Sentences
- Shakespeare’s Words
- Shakespeare’s Wordplay
- Shakespeare’s Dramatic Verse
- Implied Stage Action
Shakespeare’s language can create a strong pang of intimidation, even fear, in a large number of modern-day readers. Fortunately, however, this need not be the case. All that is needed to master the art of reading Shakespeare is to practice the techniques of unraveling uncommonly structured sentences and to become familiar with the poetic use of uncommon words. We must realize that during the 400-year span between Shakespeare’s time and our own, both the way we live and speak has changed. Although most of his vocabulary is in use today, some of it is obsolete, and what may be most confusing is that some of his words are used today, but with slightly different or totally different meanings. On the stage, actors readily dissolve these language stumbling blocks. They study Shakespeare’s dialogue and express it dramatically in word and in action so that its meaning is graphically enacted. If the reader studies Shakespeare’s lines as an actor does, looking up and...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*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...
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Act I, Scenes 1-3 Questions and Answers
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 duty?
10. In the final speech of Act I, what does Iago plan to do to further his plot against Othello?
1. Iago tells Roderigo that he hates Othello because “Michael Cassio, a Florentine / … that never set a squadron in the field / Nor the division of a battle knows,” has just been chosen by Othello as his lieutenant. His bitterness is evident when he tells Roderigo that “’tis the curse of service” that promotion is made by personal liking not by seniority.
2. After Roderigo calls out in the night that thieves have robbed Brabantio’s household, Iago tells Brabantio, in gross images of animal lust, that “an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe.” When he refers to...
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Act II, Scenes 1-3 Questions and Answers
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 tell Cassio to do to restore the reputation he has sullied in Othello’s eyes?
10. How does Iago plan to intensify Othello’s doubt about Desdemona?
1. The conversation between Montano and the two gentlemen serves several functions. It provides a vivid description of the storm as a substitute for staging which would be difficult to accomplish in the Elizabethan theater. It also makes the news of the destruction of the Turkish fleet more credulous. In addition, it provides a reason for Cassio’s concern for Othello’s safety. Moreover, it points out the irony of Othello’s surviving war and the elements only to be destroyed by one whom he trusts most.
2. Iago’s careful...
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Act III, Scenes 1-4 Questions and Answers
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?
9. How is the conversation about jealousy between Emilia and Desdemona ironic?
10. Explain the significance of the handkerchief to Othello.
1. The musicians and the clown serve as comic relief after the dramatic events of Act II. The musicians’ serenade depicts an Elizabethan custom of awakening people of rank with music on special occasions. The clown’s comment on the musicians’ instruments provides bawdy humor for the audience and commentary on the health conditions of sixteenth century Naples.
2. Iago pretends to be acting on Iago’s behalf when he tells him he will keep Othello away while Cassio and Desdemona speak. His real motive is to set up the circumstance in...
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Act IV, Scenes 1-3 Questions and Answers
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 Emilia attribute the fact that women betray their husbands?
1. When Iago suggests that Desdemona and Cassio “kiss in private” and lie naked together, Othello falls into a trance.
2. Iago carefully contrives to have Othello eavesdrop on a conversation between Cassio and him. When Iago elicits responses from Cassio about Bianca, Othello thinks he is speaking disparagingly about Desdemona. Iago does this to convince Othello more conclusively of their secret love.
3. When Bianca enters, she jealously berates Cassio for having given her “some minx’s token” and instructs him to “give it to your hobbyhorse.” Of course Othello believes the hobbyhorse to be Desdemona and is...
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Act V, Scenes 1-2 Questions and Answers
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?
1. Iago demonstrates a callous attitude toward Roderigo and Cassio. Up to this point, he has used them to achieve his goals, so to him their deaths would be more valuable than their lives. If Roderigo is dead, then Iago would not have to compensate him for the jewels he tricked from him. If Cassio is dead, there is no risk of his being informed about Iago’s plan by Othello.
2. When Othello hears Cassio cry out after being wounded by Iago, he believes that Iago has kept his vow to kill Cassio.
3. Lodovico and Gratiano enter the street at the cries for help. Lodovico’s comment “Let’s think’t unsafe / To come into the cry without more help” suggests the danger that exists. Their presence also provides an “audience”...
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Perhaps the predominant impression created by Othello is that of the terrible destructiveness of jealousy. Othello's suspicions regarding Desdemona's fidelity provoke him to rage and violence, and the collapse of his pride and nobility is swift. The speed and intensity of these changes in the hero have led some critics to question whether Iago's insinuations actually cause Othello's doubts or merely unleash his pre-existing fears. Shakespeare's analysis of the nature of jealousy is not limited only to the character of Othello, however. Both Roderigo and Bianca are torn by jealousy: he desires Desdemona and she yearns for Cassio. More importantly, Iago displays numerous symptoms of jealousy. His bitterness at being passed over for promotion and his suspicions that his wife has had an affair with Othello prompt his desire for revenge and give rise to his malicious schemes. Although various forms of jealousy are displayed by these characters, they are all based on unreasonable fears and lead to equally irrational behavior.
Another significant aspect of Othello, one related to the jealousy theme, is Shakespeare's manipulation of time in the play. For centuries, readers have noted that the play has a dual time scheme: "short" time, in which the action on stage is an unbroken sequence of events taking place over the course of a very few days; and "long" time, in which characters' statements and other indications suggest that a much greater period...
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While there are a number of issues in Othello that twentieth-century audiences can connect with (crimes of passion are not new to today's society; just turn on the evening news), modern audiences often come away from Othello feeling uncomfortable with the racism they see in the treatment Othello receives from the other characters in the play. And just as we are well aware of the racism in our own society, it may be that Shakespeare was writing about the racism in his own society, not just the racism in the Venetian society depicted in the play. Shakespeare's Othello is set in Venice and Cyprus, but the Venetian society's fear of cultural difference, manifested in its racism, may be viewed as an indicator of Elizabethan England's concern to maintain its cultural identity in the face of extensive exploration and initial colonization of the New World. The Turk and the Moor, two traditional symbols of cultural values different from those of Western culture, threaten Venetian society but may be read as the embodiments of Elizabethan England's fear that its cultural values will be lost through colonization and the intermingling of different cultural values. In the same way, the depiction of Desdemona as the flower of Venetian society, the ideal of virtuous fidelity, is perhaps less a description of Venetian gender expectations than it is a depiction of woman designed to allay English fears that miscegenation (procreation between a man and a woman of...
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- Otello, National Video Corporation Ltd., 1982. Performance of Verdi's opera featuring Kiri Te Kanawa, Vladimir Atlantov, and Piero Cappuccil-li. Distributed by Home Vision and HBO Home Video. 135 minutes.
- Otello, Cannon Films, 1986. Highly acclaimed film version of Verdi's opera directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Features Placido Domingo, Katia Ricciarelli, and Justino Diaz. In Italian with English subtitles. Distributed by Media Home Entertainment Inc. 123 minutes.
- Othello, UFA, 1922. Silent version of Shakespeare's tragedy featuring Emil Jannings, Lya de Putti, and Werner Krauss. Distributed by Video Yesteryear and Discount Video Tapes Inc. 81 minutes.
- Othello, United Artists, 1952. Film adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy directed by Orson Welles. The cast featured Welles as Othello, Michael Mac Liammoir as Iago, and Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona 91 minutes.
- Othello, BBC London, Time-Life Films, 1982. Television adaptation of Shakespeare's drama featuring Anthony Hopkins, Bob Hoskins, and Penelope Wilton. Distributed by Time-Life Video. 120 minutes.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Adamson, Jane. "Othello" as Tragedy: Some Problems of Judgment and Feeling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
Booth, Stephen. "King Lear," "Othello": Indefinition and Tragedy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983.
Campell, Lily B. Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1973.
Elliott, George Roy. Flaming Minister: A Study of "Othello" as a Tragedy of Love and Hate. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1953.
Erickson, Peter. Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama. Berekely, CA: University of California Press, 1985.
Evans, Bertrand. Shakespeare's Tragic Practice. Oxford: Clarendon Press,1979.
Heilman, Robert B. Magic in the Web: Action and Language in Othello. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1956.
Holloway, John. The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare's Major Tragedies. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1961.
Kiefer, Frederick. Fortune and Elizabethan Tragedy. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1983.
Kirsch, Arthur. The Passions of Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes. Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press, of Virginia, 1990.
McElroy, Bernard. Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Muir, Kenneth. William...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare’s “Othello.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Seven essays that explore the issues of power and the difference between male and female roles and occupations. Holds that the play is at once tragic and comic. Includes helpful bibliography and Shakespeare chronology.
Calderwood, James L. The Properties of “Othello.” Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. Takes the theme of ownership as a starting point and provides an overview of Elizabethan property lines to set the stage for argument. Stretches the term property to include not only material and territorial possessions but racial, social, and personal identity.
Heilman, Robert B. Magic in the Web: Action and Language in “Othello.” Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1956. Extensive discussion of Iago’s manipulative rhetoric. Argues against Othello as a “victim,” presenting him as responsible, if only in part, for his own actions. A good resource for both general readers and students.
Nevo, Ruth. Tragic Form in Shakespeare. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972. Chapter on Othello describes the two primary ways of looking at the Moor of Venice: as a man blinded by love, and as a man blinded by his tainted vision of that love. Chronicles the events leading to the...
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