Sample Othello Essay Questions

  • 1

    How is Othello's race a factor in the play?

    Othello ascends to the rank of the Venetian military, a city - much like Elizabethan England when the play was written - rife with racism. A general in the army, Othello holds a distinguished place in the Duke's court due to his victories in battle, but not an equal one. He suffers barbs and preconceived notions, yet Othello is esteemed and wins the love of the daughter of a nobleman. However, Brabantio is enraged by Othello's marriage to Desdemona and claims Othello used magic to compel her to run to his "sooty bosom". Race is a factor in the tragedy both in those who seek to destroy Othello, and the victims of the schemes - Othello and Desdemona. Perhaps the most pernicious form of race as an instrument of division is Othello's own view of himself as an outsider, which makes him more susceptible to Iago's plan.

  • 2

    How does Shakespeare's use of language reveal character?

    Often Shakespeare uses verse lines written in iambic pentameter to illustrate nobility. It is illustrative of Iago's duplicitous nature that he tends to speak in verse when he is with Othello and in prose for his soliloquies. One way in which Iago is a master in manipulation is his tendency to use Othello's own words to disguise his active role of instigator and make it seem that any dark thought came not from him but Othello's own mind. Othello's speech is very sophisticated at the beginning of the play, and in his soliloquy at the close of Act V, but when he is consumed with jealous rage, his eloquence falters. Shakespeare uses dialogue to convey the innerworkings of his characters.

  • 3

    Othello is often called a tragic hero. Discuss his heroic qualities as well as his flaws which lead to his demise.

    At the beginning of the play Othello is presented as an honorable man of noble stature and high position. In the end it is his misguided attempt to maintain that honor which brings about his, and Desdemona's, demise. However, Othello is not simply the victim of a plot. Iago is able to engineer Othello's downfall in part because of Othello's own insecurities. His pride blinds him to his weaknesses, and he puts his faith in Iago over the word of his love, Desdemona. Othello is obsessed with his reputation, and ends up killing his wife to save face. Only to a flawed man would murder seem like a solution to a problem of reputation. Othello is spurred on by lies and misrepresentations, but he brings about his own undoing.

  • 4

    What motives, stated and implied does Iago have for taking revenge on Othello?

    Iago's stated reason for taking revenge on Othello is that he has been passed over for Cassio's post. But is this enough for him to "hate the Moor"? It is clear that he is jealous of Othello's ascension in the court and successful wooing of Desdemona. Othello's race and status as an outsider also seems to fuel this rage, as well as the rumor that Othello has slept with Iago's wife, Emilia. None of these motivations, however, seem to add up to inspire the violence that unfolds. Iago remains one of the most purely evil of Shakespeare's villains.

  • 5

    Discuss how loyalty is presented as a positive and a negative quality throughout the play.

    Othello's lack of loyalty is what incites Iago's plan for revenge. Iago's ability to fool Othello that he is loyal while secretly plotting his demise is what makes his revenge effective. It is Othello's belief in Desdemona's lack of loyalty that seals their fates. In these ways loyalty, when misconstrued, can be dangerous. However Desdemona's loyalty to Othello even in her death and Othello's loyalty to her once his mistake is revealed are seen as ennobling aspects of their characters.

  • 6

    Compare and contrast the jealousy of Othello to that of Iago.

    One major theme in Othello is revenge - Iago's revenge on Othello and Othello's revenge on Desdemona. They both believe death will bring justice. Iago's revenge is cooler, plotted out over time where Othello's is an act of heartbroken passion. Iago wears his lack of morals as a badge of honor where it is Othello's moral code that leads to his tragic end.

  • 7

    Although Othello is the title character in what way is Iago the main character?

    Often in Shakespeare's plays such as Hamlet or King Lear, the title character is the main character and protagonist. In Othello this is not the case. Iago has almost 20% more lines than Othello, and has more asides with the audience. While it is Othello's decisions and actions that provide the dramatic structure for the play, it is Iago who sets in motion those decisions and spurs him to action. Othello is the tragic figure of the play, along with Desdemona, and it his characteristics that lend itself to most of the themes - jealousy, race, trust. However, Iago is the character who drives the plot.

  • 8

    How does Desdemona's dying assertion that she killed herself effect how you see her character?

    From a modern feminist viewpoint Desdemona may be judged harshly for answering Emilia, when she asked who has mortally attacked her, "nobody; I myself. Farewell." Furthermore, she seemed resigned to her fate at the hands of her husband. While contemporary audiences may interpret these actions as unfathomable, they highlight the goodness of her character. Desdemona is described by others in the play with words that symbolize goodness - light, white, fair, delicate, alabaster. By the end of the play, Desdemona begins to symbolize goodness itself, so her reaction to her murder becomes another element in Othello's tragic end. Desdemona still loves Othello, though he is mistaken, and she goes to her death professing her husband's reputation. A modern audience may wish for a response that is less melodramatic, but that is not the world that Shakespeare has created in this play.

  • 9

    In what ways do Othello's suicide strengthen or undermine his heroism?

    Though suicide is not usually the chosen end for a heroic figure, it is Othello's only escape from the crimes he has committed. Though the victim of Iago's trickery, Othello is still the author of his own demise. For Desdemona's death to be answered by anything less than his own would have felt false.

  • 10

    Describe how Othello's pride leads to his fall.

    At the beginning of the play Othello is proud of himself and his achievements, but when Iago looks to punish Othello for his perceived slight, it is his pride that he preys upon. The belief that Desdemona has tainted his honor ignites Othello's rage, but it is his pride that blinds him to the fact that the evidence of her acts are lies invented not by a loyal friend but an enemy bent on his destruction.

  • Here are the questions that have come up on ‘Othello’ in the past. It is worth examining these to gain a sense of what kind of questions can come up on this complicated text.

    2008
    Question 1
    ‘Othello’s foolishness rather than Iago’s cleverness leads to the tragedy of Shakepeare’s Othello.’
    Discuss this statement supporting your answer with the aid of suitable reference to the text.
    Or
    Question 2
    ‘Shakespeare’s play Othello demonstrates the weakness of human judgement.’
    Discuss this statement supporting your answer with the aid of suitable reference to the text.

    1998
    Question 1
    ‘Irony is a powerful dramatic device used by Shakespeare to heighten the tragic dimension of his play Othello.’
    Discuss this view, with reference to or quotation from the play.
    Or
    Question 2
    ‘Despite the striking portrayals of goodness and nobility, the play Othello leaves the audience with a sense of dismal despair.’
    Discuss this view, with reference to or quotation from the play.

    1994
    Question 1
    ‘Othello is the principal agent of his own downfall.’
    Discuss this view, supporting your answer by reference to or quotation from the play Othello.
    Or
    Question 2
    Discuss the importance of the character Emilia (Iago’s wife) in the play as a whole. Support your answer by quotation from or reference to the play Othello.

    1990
    Question 1
    Othello is essentially a noble character, flawed by insecurity and a nature that is naive and unsophisticated.
    Discuss this view, supporting your answer by reference to or quotation from the play
    Or
    Question 2
    ‘Images of animals, images of storms and images of Heaven and Hell predominate in Othello.’
    Discuss the use of such imagery and the purpose they serve in the play. Support your answer by reference or quotation.

    Other questions:

    1. Compare and contrast Desdemona’s and Emilia’s views on love, sex, marriage and men. Do either Desdemona or Emilia change their viewpoints as a result of their conversations with each other?
    2. In what ways are the marriages of Othello/Desdemona and Iago/Emilia similar and in what ways are they different?
    3. The plot of the play hinges on the loss of a handkerchief Othello gave to Desdemona. Two little deceptions – Emilia’s stealing of the handkerchief and Desdemona’s lie that it is not lost – cement Desdemona’s doom. What does it mean that such a little object has such a huge impact on Othello’s mind? What dramatic effect does this produce? Do you think that, in a situation of jealousy, even a handkerchief could sway someone’s opinion one way or another? Is the importance of the handkerchief in the play believable?
    4. Discuss Othello’s relationship with Desdemona. Does he truly love her?
    5. Why does Othello not investigate Iago’s accusations? Why does Othello not seek his own proof of Desdemona’s betrayal?
    6. ‘Iago was a brilliant opportunist who had plenty of motive to prompt his schemes and heaven-sent human material with which to develop them.’ Discuss.
    7. ‘A credulous husband and a foolish wife.’ Discuss this estimate of Othello and Desdemona.
    8. ‘Othello is a character of extremes. He is no middle range.’ Discuss this view of the character of Othello.
    9. Imagery contributes significantly to the development of the themes of ‘Othello’. To what extent to you agree with this statement?
    10. In ‘Othello’, Shakespeare dramatises a conflict between good and evil. Do you agree with this point of view?
    11. ‘In ‘Othello’, Shakespeare takes a profoundly pessimistic view of human relationships.’ Discuss this statement.
    12. From the beginning of ‘Othello’, one is made to feel that innocence can have no hope in a world given over to the power of evil.
    13. Jealousy is the dominant theme, being a factor in all the major relationships.
    14. Shakespeare’s use of irony is pervasive and painful. Discuss.
    15. ‘Othello’s fall cannot be accounted for simply, or even mainly, in terms of Iago’s devilish cunning. The basic causes are to be found in is weaknesses of character.’ Do you believe this to be a true account of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’?
    Othello

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