Othello Questions and Answers

William Shakespeare

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Othello questions.

Compare and contrast Desdemona and Emilia.

The contrast between Desdemona and Emilia is an interesting one. Desdemona is the paragon of womanly virtue; she is quiet, submissive, and innocent to the point of naïveté. Desdemona, even to the very end when her husband is literally murdering her, remains loyal and in love. Her optimism and unfailing trust in her marriage shows how pure yet ignorant she is. On the other hand, Emilia is extremely strong-willed and outspoken. She is cynical about human nature and love, often making practical and pessimistic remarks about infidelity in marriage. Desdemona is so innocent that she is hardly able to believe that infidelity could even happen, a lack of understanding that contributes to her tragic end. Emilia speaks uncommonly about men and women having the same amount of lust and weakness, as well as about her eye-for-and-eye viewpoint of unfaithfulness in marriage.

How do we know when Shakespeare wrote Othello?

In Act 1, Scene 3, lines 263-277 of Othello, the titular character adds on to his wife Desdemona’s plea to go with him to war in Cyprus. This speech clearly marks Othello as a play from William Shakespeare’s later works rather than his early works. The main and most important distinctions are in style. Whether earlier or later in his career, all of Shakespeare’s works are brilliant works written in iambic pentameter. However, there are subtle distinctions in the craft. In the speeches of his older plays, the insistent iambic pentameter often interrupts the enjambed line. The last beat of the iambic pentameter would stop the line, despite the continuance of the sentence onto the next line. In his later career, more variation in the iambic pentameter made the speech more conversational, rather than poetic. For instance, Othello says “And heaven defend your good souls that you think/I will your serious and great business scant/When she is with me” (lines 269-71). The speech wraps nicely from line to line with no forced pauses from the meter. Another line that does this is “Nor to comply with heat—the young affects/In me defunct—and proper satisfaction,/But to be free and bounteous to her mind” (lines 266-8). The syntax of the line does not seem broken by the line breaks. If these lines are read out loud, it would be difficult to discern where the line breaks are. This was definitely more of a feature in Shakespeare’s later period plays. Another way he did this was by adding an extra, unaccented syllable at the end of the line. One example is the line “Vouch with me, heaven, I therefor beg it not” (line 264). It has five iambs, and then one last unaccented word. This is the same with the line “In me defunct—and proper satisfaction” (line 267). The last syllable of “satisfaction” is an extra one for iambic pentameter. The effect of this is that the emotion of the speech sounds more authentically conversational, like Othello is engaged in a real-life discussion. The speech is more disconnected, like genuine dialogue would be. It is obviously not formal rhetoric or rehearsed, written poetics. Thus, all the stylistic clues of this speech suggest that Othello is late rather than early Shakespeare.

How is Othello an outsider?

As a character, Othello is so compelling because he demonstrates the fundamental pain of being an outsider. It is evident that Othello has overcome the barriers preclude him from being one with power. He has been "taken in" the ranks of Venice's elite. He has the love of the beautiful Desdemona, reflecting a condition of immersion into the echelon of those with power. For all practical purposes, Othello has transcended the condition that would keep him on the outside looking in.

Yet, as seen in the drama, looks can be deceiving. There is a small part of Othello's consciousness imprinted with the experience of being the outsider. A fractional portion of his being in the world is set with the condition of representing what it means to be separate, on the margins, as opposed to being in the center. This "dual consciousness" is something that nags at Othello. It is for this reason that he cannot really overcome the small doubt that someone like Desdemona would be with someone like him. It is also the portion of him that fails to truly validate that he has earned that which has been given to him. This aspect of what it means to be an outsider has been imprinted on his consciousness. His surrender to jealousy can be rooted as a plea from the depths of insecurity and doubt. From all external appearances, one cannot see it. Yet, Iago does. Iago understands that Othello's weaknesses of being an outsider reside in him being a man of color, a soldier, and one whose narrative is fundamentally different than those who are of established ranks of power. Iago understands this and manipulates it perfectly.

Shakespeare develops a rather intense portrait of what it means to be the outsider. For individuals who are on the outside looking in, there is a part of that experience which remains embedded in their minds and soul. Shakespeare creates Othello as one who never fully rids himself of the condition of marginalization. Through this depiction, Shakespeare's statement is that those who are on the outside must go through some level of personal reflection and self- analysis in order to better understand the psychological effects of marginalization. In this regard, Othello, as a character, speaks to the millions of people who have struggled for acceptance and wrestling with the implications of the experience of having voice silenced. While this experience might be overcome, there is some residual effect that lingers. Being able to understand this condition is part of what it means to live in the modern condition. Othello's struggle in understanding this aspect of himself as one who "loved too well" is critical in his condition and our own.