Please see this website, which includes the following questions and further resources:
Walter Cohen's introduction to the play in the Norton Shakespeare (2091-98) is especially good, rich in suggestive detail. Please read it.
1.1. What, precisely, is Iago's beef with Othello (8-32)? Like Richard III, Iago is "determined" to play the villain; he does not deny the appellation (119b). Is he determined by his resentment? racism? or simply that he is a "devil"? Look carefully at 41-58. Iago describes two sorts of followers. Does the first description fit Othello in his relationship to the Venetian authorities? What senses can you make out of lines 57-58, then?
The directly racist slurs against Othello begin at line 66. Make a list of them and their speakers and analyze what they signify about each character's racial concerns and anxieties? How do stereotypes of race intersect with stereotypes of gender and class here (135-137, 166-174)?
Does line 80 remind you of Shylock? Why imply a comparison of Brabanzio and Shylock here?
What, according to Iago, will be the Senate's reaction to this elopement (148-154)? What would they like to do? What will they feel obliged to do?
1.2. What is Othello's estimation of himself (20-24, 30-32)? Does race play any part in this self-knowledge? Should it? Can he be ignorant of the Venetians' racist notions? Why has he kept his nobilty a secret so far?
What motivations does Iago ascribe to Othello (50-51)? Does he suggest race plays a part in these motivations? Class?
On exactly what charge does Brabanzio try to arrest Othello (78-80)? Why this charge? Is there no law against miscegenation in Venice? What does such a charge imply about his daughter and her motivations? What is Brabanzio's notion of natural law in such instances? Is Brabanzio correct in thinking the "brothers of the state" (why "brothers"?) will "feel this wrong as 'twere their own"? Why?
1.3. The Turks and Ottomites, it seems, are bound for Cyprus. Remember the Turks and Tartars from MV 4.1.31? Jews, Moors, Turks, and Tartars--all "strangers" by race and religion to the Venetians. (Try searching all of Shakespeare's plays for "Turks" and others.) According to the racist assumptions of Venice, "Valiant Othello" should be more allied to Ottomites and Turks than to the Venetian "signory." Yet Othello calls them his "good masters" (77).
Like a "brother" of the state, the Duke was ready to decide in Brabanzio's favor before he knew the accused was Othello (65-69). But look now at 107-109. What's happened? Has he suddenly lost belief in sorcery? Is Othello's blackness not good evidence to him as it was to Brabanzio?
Brabanzio, it seems, "loved" Othello, and encouraged his rhetorical "sorceries" (127-144). What do you suppose he loved about Othello? What did he love in his stories? What was the color of his affection for Othello?
What is the precise shape of Desdemona's affection for Othello (according to his account, 144b-168)? What did she find attractive? Did she wish to be like him? Did he woo her (150-52) or her him (162b-165)? Was this "such fair question/ As soul to soul affordeth" (113-114)? is there no "withcraft" in this?
What does the Duke refer to as a "broken weapon" in line 173? What's his attitude towards the marriage? Is Desdemona's divided "duty" (180) similar to Brabanzio's divided heart (192-193)? How do the two intersect? Do they resemble the division Iago confessed in the first scene?
Look closely at the Duke's list of proverbs in 201-208. He's going to allow the marriage as what? A "grief" past remedy? A "mischief that is passed"? A robbery not remediable? Does the Duke share Brabanzio's racism?
And what of Branbanzio's bitter response? Should they all apply such proverbial reasoning to the affairs of state and let the Turk take Cyprus? What does Brabanzio imply about the Duke's attitude?
And what does Othello make of all this? Does he not see their ambivalence, their racism? Why does he let the Duke speak of his marriage as "new fortunes" (225), just as Iago has spoken of it (1.2.51), when he has said before that his birth and worth are noble (1.2.20-22)? Why does he let this pass? Is not this a good occasion to reveal himself as descended "From men of royal siege"? Maybe he knows (and somehwat shares) what their estimation of Black nobility is likely to be? Maybe this is not a good time ("We must obey the time" [299b]) to claim to be a royal Moor, seeing that Venice is at war with Turks and Ottomites, and other Moslems? Is this why he bends "most humbly" to their state and conceals his own?
Why does Desdemona want to go with Othello to war? What does she acknowledge about her behavior in this affair (247-248)? Does she acknowledge that her affections are unnatural in the ways Brabanzio believes?
Why does Othello say his sexual appetite is "defunct" (263)? Why is that an issue? What do Brabanzio, Iago, and Roderigo believe about black men's sexual desires? Is Othello responding to, without acknowledging he knows about, their beliefs?
How does Othello prioritize marriage and career (265-274)? Is he just saying this to reassure the signory, or does he believe it? Is he a good judge of other men's characters? Of his wife's character? What clouds his judgment? Why does he put Iago in charge of his new wife? What does he mean by lines 297b-299a?
The Duke's back-handed compliment to Othello--that he's not really black--is just too familiar to bear explication (288-289).
Pay careful attention to all the details of Iago's speeches to Roderigo (316-351). What are his assumptions? How good is his advice? His analysis of human desire (both male and female)? What motivates this speech? Is this an evil version of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew?
2.1. The Cypriots seem to like Othello a great deal. They know of his marriage and make no nasty comments about it. Why not? Are they not like the Venetians? At line 202, Othello says he has found much love amongst the Cypriots. Does he imply that they love him better, more honestly than the Venetians? The first view they have of him (so they think), a view anxiously sought after from the shore, is what (54)? The "sail" turns out to be Desdemona's ship. Is there some subtext of color here?
What strange figures of speech does Cassio employ here (75-83)? On this use of sail imagery, see A Midsummer Nights Dream 2.1.128-134. Does he know what he's saying? Is he just as Iago described him in the last scene?
We are treated to Iago's wisdom about women! What's his estimation of his wife (103-11)? Of women in general (112-115)? Of Desdemona (128-33)? Of various sorts of women (135-161)? Note that even Desdemona defines "black" as not "fair." What does this suggest? Why does she ask these questions?
How does Othello use the word "fair" in line 178? Why does Desdemona respond with "dear" instead of "black," as one might expect from line 132-134?
Othello speaks of his landing in harbor as if he'd just enjoed another kind of harboring (180-196). Does he know what images his speech suggests?
What is the logic of Iago's speech in lines 217-246? How do race and misogyny combine to make a strong-looking case here? In his soliloquy, Iago confesses to jealousy that he likens to "a poisonous mineral" (284). Why this image for jealousy? Why does it recall the charges Brabanzio brought against Othello? Is there any coordinating logic between sexual jealousy, career jealousy, and racism? Can Iago use racist assumptions to use the same poison on Othello that now gnaws at him? Try to figure it out.
2.3. Othello's bedtime words to Desdemona (8-10) are of course meant jokingly, but how different are they from Iago's "guy-talk" to Roderigo (15-28)? Or is this soldier-talk, shared by the likes of Othello and Iago, but "translated" into more courtly terms by the courteous Cassio? Or are Cassio's courteous terms simply a more presentable form of "guy-talk," a kind of code?
Cassio is an alcoholic; that's his "infirmity," his tragic flaw if he were distinguished enough to be a tragic figure. His class rank will not allow him tragic status. (See Aristotle's Poetics for comments on the proper status of tragic characters.) Though he plays the courtier well enough, Iago says he is nothing better than "poor trash of Venice" (2.1.290), so he must be instead simply a fool.
What "we" does Othello include himself among in lines 153-155. Does he consider himself a Christian? And does Christian mean not Turk, not Ottomite, not stranger? Do his masters take him for a Christian? a "brother," not a stranger? Is it possible to be a "brother" to the Christian Venetians simply by saying "we"? Might not the Venetians say, "What you mean 'we'"?
Why does Iago speak of the fight between Venetian (Cassio) and Cypriot (Montano) in terms of a quarrel between bride and groom (162-165)? Does he mean to insinuate something?
Iago has fixed things so that in pleading for his career, Cassio will appear to be courting Othello's wife. Does Iago understand the courtier's language and its effects and defects better than Cassio? Or perhaps courting a woman and courting a career are not so different, even intertwined. After all, does not Iago think Othello has married Desdemona as a career strategy? Doesn't the Duke think so too?
Lots of candidates for "devil" in this play. Othello in the racist minds of the Venetians, wine in the brain of Cassio, and Iago in his own mind (325-327). But all these "devils" are devils according to how they are used, like wine--"a good familiar creature" (287). Othello was a "familar creature" in Brabanzio's house until he attracted his daughter; then he was a devilish sorceror. What makes Iago into a devil? Or Desdemona?
"Thou know'st we work by wit and not by witchcraft" says Iago (345), though he has himself spoken of jealousy as a kind of witchcraft (2.1.284). What kind of witchcraft lies at the center of this plot, of Othello's status in Venetian society?
3.1. Emilia tells Cassio that Othello still likes him and is only waiting for a safe "occasion" to restore him to his office. What would a safe occasion be? What does brave Othello fear? Did he punish Cassio as an "example" so that the Cypriots will not be offended and continue to think well of him? Did he choose the courtier and academy-graduate Cassio over "honest Iago" (a soldier by experience) for much the same sort of reasons? How much does "valiant" Othello "bend" to what he thinks is his "masters'" will, his masters' prejudices?
3.3. Given the situation Iago has managed, and the poison of jealousy he has instilled, the dialogues in this scene are now fraught with double meaning unintended by the speakers (9, 22-28, 71-76). Desdemona stakes the credit of her "judgement in an honest face" (50) upon her suit for Cassio. How might this sound to Othello? Does he already doubt her judgement in choosing himself? Does he begin to agree with the Venetians that Desdemona's love for him was a kind of violent unnaturalness (232-43)? Jealousy depends upon a kind of secret self-loathing (see Emilia 3.4.156-157) that has little to do with the apparent object of jealousy. Othello knows this in a way (191-193), but he, no more than Iago (who thinks Othello has cuckolded him), acknowledges his self-doubt. Indeed he covers it. His jealousy projects deviltry upon Desdemona (481), yet it is himself he really doubts (267-72). He says he loathes her, but it is misdirected self-loathing, and now he heaps on her all the "abuse" he has been charged with, calls her devil and abuser. He has internalized the Venetian racism so thoroughly that he even does what the Venetians wanted to do but couldn't--he fires himself (362).
The psychology of misogyny in this play is similar to the psychology of internalized racism. Othello already shares Iago's opinions about women's appetites (272-74). He now begins to think of Desdemona as no exception to the rule. Like Iago he believes most women are slaves to appetite and disloyal, especially Italian women (205-208). He thought Desdemona was different, that her love for him was not some passing violent appetite but true love. He ignored Brabanzio's misogynistic warning as the sort of thing those Venetians say (1.3.292). He is used to thinking about himself in much the same way, that he's an exception. The Venetians' racist remarks do not disturb him not just because he's patient and unflappable but because, in general he shares their views, but thinks of himself as an exception. He uses the word "black" exactly the way the Venetians do (391-393, 451), as a mark of shame and deviltry. But the racist discourse he has internalized now cathects with its brother discourse of misogyny, and he projects his deepest fears about himself onto her: she's a black devil, a sorceror, a slave to lust, and so on.
Iago helps of course; they are brothers of a sort. After Othello kneels and makes his "sacred vow" to get revenge, Iago evokes the language of sorcery and witchcraft to seal the pact (465-472). Is he making a pact with the devil? Will Othello, as it were, inhabit his body and bend it to his will?
3.4. Why this bizarre story of the handkerchief (53-73)? Does Othello use magic and sorceror's charms after all? But what is this particular magic handkerchief supposed to do? Who is it supposed to charm--women or men? Whose appetite, women's or men's, appears to require such magic to control?
Why does Desdemona believe in this magic instead of jealousy as Emilia (96-102)? Does belief in such magic serve as a cover to hide what she would rather not believe--that Othello's much like all the other men she rejected so stubbornly?
Othello loved being a bachelor soldier (1.2.25-28). He says he married not to please his lust but because Desdemona seemed worth losing his "free condition." Now we find Cassio prefers not to appear "womaned" in his general's presence (189). Why not? Iago is "womaned." Othello himself is "womaned." Is there something about a soldier's life that is diminished by being "womaned"? Is it some kind of shame? Can Desdemona become a soldier like Othello, or must she always be his "woman"? Soldiers can share a bed as did Iago and Cassio (3.3.418-430) and sex never enter their minds except by dreams, but could Othello do so with Desdemona? Are women always "women" and never just human?
4.1. "Naked in bed, Iago, and not mean harm?/ It is hypocrisy against the devil" (5-6). I guess that answers that question! Othello's protestations to the contrary (1.3.260-264), his misogynistic beliefs get the better of him. Will his internalized racism also get the better of him? What's Othello raving about in 38-41? Why does his jealousy bring on headaches and fits in his brain rather than heartaches?
Why does Iago impugn Othello's manhood (58,63,87) repeatedly? Does Iago betray the process of misogynistic projection at line 71? Compare this with Emilia's knowledge of men in 3.4.100-103.
Why does the play arrange that the letter calling Othello home and the appearance of Desedemona coincide here (211-235)? What analogy is implied between Cassio replacing him in Cyprus and Cassio (as Othello believes) replacing him in bed? What ironic meanings might lie in the line, "I kiss the instrument of their pleasures"?
What should we make of Lodovico's surprise at Othello's behavior here (237, 261-64)? We have seen the racist attitudes of both Brabanzio and the Duke in Act 1; would they really be surprised at Othello's behavior, or would they be disappointed but not surprised?
4.2. What does Desdemona mean by lines 110-112? Why does she re-inspect her own behavior looking for some fault? Why is she so certain she is to blame? What name (121-122)--"woman"? whore? "callet"? devil? Are they all equivalent in the lore of misogyny?
Emilia points out that there has hardly been time or place for any hanky-panky (142), a point that Othello seems to have missed.
4.3. Is line 50 in the song or is it Desdemona's own inadvertant addition? Why does Emilia's argument in 91-101 sound so much like Shylock's in Merchant 3.1? What about her argument in 84-91? Why does she suppose that women's infidelities are revenge for men's? Why does the misogynistic lore insist that things are the other way around?
5.2. Othello comes to kill Desdemona. As he approaches why does he use the rhetoric of Petrarchan praise of the beloved--"snow" "alabaster" (4-5, 11, 13)? If he believes her a devil, why would he not kill "her soul" (33-34)? Why does he use the traditional language of deflowering to describe killing (13-14)? Lines 42-44 suggest that Desdemona's "sin" is loving the Moor; why? Is there not some sense by which this is true? Othello was led to suspect her at the first by remembering that she deceived her father in marrying him. Does he think that since she made love to Othello, she'd make love to any man? Is her love for him the very proof that she is a whore? Does he somehow want to love an unattainable woman, even if that means a dead woman (18-19)?
Why does Desdemona blame herself even for her own death (133-34)?
Does Emilia harbor racist sentiments too (140, 143, 164, 168)? Does she think Othello has finally shown what he has been all along?
What images does Othello insist represent him best? "The base Indian" who cannot tell the worth of a pearl (356)? An "Arabian tree"? A man who killed a Turk for beating a Venetian, or the "circumcised dog" who beat the Venetian? (The Norton note suggests that "circumcised" somehow identifies Othello with Jews, but it's worth noting that Moslems also circumcised men, though not as infants). Does Othello think of himself as the dutiful servant of the Venetians who would kill a stranger for beating a Venetian, or as that same stranger who deserves to die for touching a Venetian? What does Graziano mean by "All that is spoke is marred"?
Oddly enough, Othello does wind up in bed with Iago's wife. The bed-tableau, says Lodovico, "poisons sight" and he orders that it be hid. If Emilia were laid by her mistress's side as she requested (244), then indeed the bed is a tableau that suggests adultery, miscegenation, and murder all at once.
Further Reading:
Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare, and Dryden (London: Chatto & Windus, 1962) 16-38
Helen Gardner, "The Noble Moor" Interpretations of Shakepseare: British Academy Shakespeare Lectures, ed. Kenneth Muir (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985).
Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Seneca (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 124-43.
Eldred D. Jones, The Elizabethan Image of Africa (Washington: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1971).
Karen Newman, "'And wash the Ethiop white': Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello" Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean Howard and Marion F. O'Connor (New York: Methuen, 1987), 143-62.
Michael Neill, "Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery and the Hideous in Othello," Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 379-412.
Emily C. Bartels, "Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello and Renaissnace Refashionings of Race," Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 433-54.
Dympna Callaghan, "'Othello was a white man': Properties of Race on Shakespeare's Stage,' Alternative Shakespeares 2, ed. Terence Hawkes (London: Routledge, 1996), 192-95.
Walter S.H. Lim, The Arts of Empire: The Poetics of Colonialism from Ralegh to Milton (London: Associated University Presses, 1998), 104-41.