One of Shakespeare’s best known tragedies, Othello is perhaps his most intense. With virtually no subplot and very little in the way of comic relief, Othello moves rapidly from its opening lines to its tragic conclusion.
At its simplest, it is a story of love and betrayal. The esteemed Moorish general serving in the army of Venice, Othello has eloped with fair Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator. Iago, Othello’s ensign and confidant who has been passed over for promotion, harbors a deep and insidious hatred for Othello; clever and manipulative, he brings about Othello’s downfall by deceiving him in regard to Desdemona’s virtue. While appearing trustworthy and loyal, the envious Iago carefully crafts a web of lies and false evidence to convince Othello that Desdemona is carrying on an adulterous affair with Michael Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant.
The seeds of jealousy planted by Iago take root quickly and flourish, fed by Othello’s own deep-seated insecurities. His faith in Desdemona—and in himself—cannot stand under the weight of Iago’s malevolent machinations; he soon accepts Iago’s lies as truth. Eventually overcome by grief and the rage of betrayal, Othello smothers Desdemona with a pillow, despite her desperate declarations of innocence. It is a chilling scene, evoking pity and leading to even more tragedy: Othello’s devastation when he realizes that Desdemona had never wavered in her love and her loyalty to him. Discovering Iago’s monstrous villainy, Othello commits suicide, and his destruction is complete.
As in other Shakespearean plays, the setting, the language, and the cultural conventions in Othello may seem foreign or remote, but the themes remain as true and as relevant to a modern audience as they were to Shakespeare’s in the early 1600s. The drama raises questions about human nature that transcend time and place. The naïve and vulnerable often suffer at the hands of the unscrupulous, and jealousy remains as potent an emotional force today as it was in Shakespeare’s time. Moreover, in the dark-skinned Othello’s love for the fair-skinned Desdemona and in her love for him, the nature and the effects of racial prejudice and stereotyping develop a subtext in the tragedy that also speaks to a universal audience.
The relevance and enduring appeal of Othello is demonstrated by its great many artistic adaptations—in film, opera, television productions, and ballet. Audiences continue to be fascinated by Shakespeare’s Moor, watching in dismay as the courageous, noble general and loving husband is transformed into a raving murderer, consumed beyond reason by jealousy. The drama continues to evoke a variety of interpretations, as well. Those familiar with the work, especially literary critics, often disagree about the extent to which Othello is a victim and about the depth of his honor and naïveté. The character of Iago also elicits much literary analysis. The driving force behind his hatred is implied—the desire for revenge fueled by envy—but it is not treated explicitly. Most critics agree that Iago’s essential motivation
remains something of a mystery. He appears to be a pitiless embodiment of evil for its own sake, one whose wickedness cannot be assigned a rational explanation. A playwright who plumbed the depths and complexities of human nature, Shakespeare created in Othello characters that continue to defy definitive interpretation. At the conclusion of the tragedy, much remains for the audience to ponder.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify Othello’s fatal flaw, and explain how Iago exploited it.
2. Identify the primary themes in Othello.
3. Determine what makes Othello such a timeless and popular work.
4. Explain Othello’s status as an outsider and an insider in Venetian society and how that status is central to the plot.
5. Identify examples of deception in the text, and explain their significance.
6. Discuss elements of ambiguity in the play and Shakespeare’s possible intentions regarding them.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
- The Study Guide is organized for an act-by-act study of the play. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
- Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in each act and to acquaint them generally with its content.
- Before Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
- Study Guide vocabulary lists include...
(The entire section is 618 words.)
1. Describe what the audience learns about Othello’s character over the course of the play. How does he change?
2. Discuss Brabantio’s, Iago’s and Desdemona’s feelings about Othello. Whose opinions are based on merit? Whose are not? Do you believe they are judging Othello fairly?
3. Identify the reasons that Iago gives for his hatred of Othello. Do his reasons have any merit? Why, or why not? What do you think might be other reasons he decides to ruin Othello?
4. What does Iago mean when he says, “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong/ As proofs of holy writ”? Describe the techniques Iago uses to manipulate...
(The entire section is 586 words.)
arithmetician: archaic a mathematician
bumbast: archaic bombastic
coursers: archaic horses
deluding: misleading, deceiving
epithites: archaic lazy, worthless vagrants
fadom: a unit of length
forsooth: archaic in truth, certainly
gennets: Spanish horses
kindred: archaic relatives
lascivious: sexual, lewd
nonsuits: archaic rejects, refuses
profess: to admit
provender: archaic feed for domestic animals
(The entire section is 892 words.)
carrack: archaic a merchant ship
circumscription: restriction, restraint
forbear: to hold back, to restrain oneself
iniquity: an injustice
prated: archaic chattered, babbled
provulgate: archaic to promulgate, to make public
scurvy: archaic insulting
sequent: one after another
unbonneted: archaic bare-headed
1. What is your first impression of Othello? How does it compare with how Iago described him in the first scene?
Othello appears to be a calm,...
(The entire section is 506 words.)
accompt: archaic an account, a reporting
assay: archaic an effort
composition: archaic consistency
dilate: to expand
injointed: archaic intersected
mountebanks: archaic charlatans, quacks
overt: explicit, clear
pageant: a show
pliant: archaic suitable, favorable
portance: archaic behavior, personal bearing
unvarnish’d: plain, unembellished
vouch: to declare
(The entire section is 934 words.)
abhor: to loathe
billow: a wave
chidden: archaic scolded
clyster-pipes: archaic enema syringes
counterfeit: to fake
descry: archaic to discern
disrelish: archaic to dislike
enwheel: archaic to surround
incorporate: united in one body
indistinct: vague, hard to see
mortise: a joint
mutiny: a rebellion
paradoxes: contradictions that prove to be true
paragons: those that surpass or transcend; those that represent the ideal
(The entire section is 805 words.)
affin’d: archaic biased
alarum: archaic a call to arms
collied: archaic dirtied
devesting: archaic removing clothing
horologe: a clock or other device that keeps time
ingraft: innate, ingrained
mazzard: archaic head
mince: to soften, to make light of
outsport: archaic to revel without limits
parley: archaic a discussion
rouse: archaic a drink
1. What does Othello mean when he says, “Let’s teach ourselves that honorable stop, / Not to outsport...
(The entire section is 785 words.)
aspics: venomous snakes
compulsive: archaic driving onward
dispraisingly: negatively, critically
dotes: lavishes love or affection on someone
exsufflicate: inflated, swollen
filch: to steal
government: self-control, moral conduct
haply: archaic accidentally, by chance
imputation: a statement suggesting something dishonest
jesses: short straps fastened to a falcon
leets: archaic local courts
mamm’ring: archaic stammering, hesitating
ocular: based on what has been seen, perceived by the...
(The entire section is 1044 words.)
advocation: role as an advocate
castigation: scolding, strong criticism
catechize: archaic to question, to interrogate
compass: archaic range, scope
heraldry: archaic armorial bearings
sequester: to isolate
sufficient: archaic capable
1. When Emilia says, “’Tis a monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself,” to what is she referring? For what other character could it be said to be true?
Emilia is talking about jealousy and how jealousy only breeds more of the same. It cannot be tamed or controlled;...
(The entire section is 659 words.)
atone: to make amends
bauble: a shiny but worthless trinket
beguile: to deceive
beseech: to implore
caitiff: archaic a fool
cope: archaic to have sex with
cuckold: the husband of an adulteress
dotage: excessive displays of affection; senility
entreat: to ask
expostulate: to confront, to protest
fitchew: archaic a skunk, a prostitute
gibes: insulting remarks
spleen: bad temper
unprovide: archaic to weaken, to lose resolve
(The entire section is 606 words.)
bawdy: obscene, lewd
beshrew: archaic to curse, to blame
callet: archaic a prostitute
cestern: archaic a cistern, a water tank
cozening: archaic deceptive
daff’st: archaic deflected, threw off
determinate: conclusive, definitive
forsake: to leave; to refuse
garner’d: gathered into storage
incontinent: archaic immediately
insinuating: causing doubt or distrust in a sly, subtle manner
requite: to return in kind, to repay
strumpet: archaic a...
(The entire section is 498 words.)
foredoes: archaic does one in
gastness: archaic terror, dread
miscarry: archaic to come to harm
restitution: recovery, restoration
1. What happens to Cassio in this scene?
Roderigo tries to kill Cassio, but fails. Cassio wounds Roderigo as he fends off Roderigo’s attack. Iago, coming from behind, wounds Cassio in the leg then runs off before Cassio can identify him.
2. Who kills Roderigo? Why?
Iago returns to the scene and kills Roderigo. He doesn’t want to have to acknowledge that he took all of the jewels that were meant for...
(The entire section is 367 words.)
chrysolite: a kind of mineral
compt: archaic reckoning
coxcomb: a fool
extenuate: archaic to make light of
perjury: false information attested to deliberately
pernicious: malicious, evil
portents: evil omens
relume: archaic to relight
reprobance: archaic disapproval, condemnation
smote: killed or injured someone by striking with a heavy weapon
traduc’d: archaic slandered, dishonored
twain: archaic two
(The entire section is 974 words.)
1. In talking to Roderigo, what reason does Iago give for hating Othello?
A. Othello slept with Iago’s wife.
B. Iago was passed over for a promotion.
C. Othello spoke critically of him to the duke, ruining his reputation.
D. Othello is a foreigner.
E. Othello is a poor soldier.
2. What plan does Iago propose to Roderigo in Act One?
A. That Roderigo try to persuade Desdemona’s father to call off his daughter’s wedding.
B. That Roderigo kill Othello to make way for him to seduce Desdemona.
C. That Roderigo kill Cassio so that Iago may become...
(The entire section is 1585 words.)
1. Explain how the idea of deception is developed as a primary theme in Othello and how it is supported by an important motif in the play. Support your discussion with specific examples.
In the first act, deception is introduced as a primary theme of the play. The first scene opens with Iago’s telling Roderigo that he plans to deceive Othello. Although he does not reveal the details of his plan, Iago states, “I am not what I am.” Shortly thereafter, another discussion of deception ensues; Desdemona has deceived her father by eloping with Othello, which Brabantio denounces as “treason of the blood.” Also in Act One, the duke deliberates over whether the Turks are attempting to deceive the Venetians by...
(The entire section is 2897 words.)