Study Questions by David Wilbern



1. In a recent story by Salman Rushdie (The New Yorker, July 2001), a character makes the following remarks about Othello:


Othello doesn't love Desdemona. . . . He says he does, but it can't be true. Because if he loves her, the murder makes no sense. For me, Desdemona is Othello's trophy wife, his most valuable and status-giving possession, the physical proof of his risen standing in a white man's world. You see? He loves that about her, but not her. . . . Desdemona's death is an "honor killing." She didn't have to be guilty; the accusation was enough. The attack on her virtue was incompatible with Othello's honor. She's not even a person to him. He has reified her. She's his Oscar-Barbie statuette. His doll.


Do you think this is a valuable commentary on the character? Why or why not?


2. The reason the play moves to Cyprus is to defend against invasion by the Turk. What does "the Turk" represent in the play? Does he actually appear? Where and when?


3. [Discussion Group Topic] The question of Iago's motivation reverberates through the play and the history of its criticism. How do you understand the character's motives? Are his stated explanations sufficient? Here's a related question: Does Iago intend the fatal consequences from the beginning, or is he making it up as he goes along? In the early 19th century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge made a famous remark about "the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity" that you may want to consider: A Note on "The Motive-Hunting of Motiveless Malignity"

The famous phrase, "The motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity," occurs in a note Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in his copy of Shakespeare, as he was preparing a series of lectures delivered in the winter of 1818-1819. The note concerns the end of Act 1, Scene 3 of Othello in which Iago takes leave of Roderigo, saying, "Go to, farewell. Put money enough in your purse," and then delivers the soliloquy beginning "Thus do I ever make my fool my purse." Here is Coleridge's note:


The triumph! again, put money after the effect has been fully produced. -- The last Speech, the motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity -- how awful! In itself fiendish -- while yet he was allowed to bear the divine image, too fiendish for his own steady View. -- A being next to Devil -- only not quite Devil -- & this Shakespeare has attempted -- executed -- without disgust, without Scandal! -(Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature 2: 315)


Coleridge's phrase is often taken to mean that Iago has no real motive and does evil only because he is evil. This is not far from what Coleridge meant, but he almost certainly wasn't using the word "motive" in the same way as it's now used. We use it to mean "an emotion, desire, physiological need, or similar impulse that acts as an incitement to action" ("Motive"). This definition equates "motive" and "impulse"; Coleridge, however, thought the two quite different. He makes this distinction in an entry he wrote for Omniana, a collection of sayings assembled by his friend Robert Southey and published in 1812. Here is what Coleridge wrote:


119.Motives and Impluses.


It is a matter of infinite difficulty, but fortunately of comparative indifference, to determine what a man's motive may have been for this or that particular action. Rather seek to learn what his objects in general are! -- What does he habitually wish? habitually pursue? -- and thence deduce his impulses, which are commonly the true effecient causes of men's conduct; and without which the motive itself would not have become a motive. Let a haunch of venison represent the motive, and the keen appetite of health and exercise the impulse: then place the same or some more favourite dish, before the same man, sick, dyspeptic, and stomach-worn, and we may then weigh the comparative influences of motives and impulses. Without the perception of this truth, it is impossible to understand the character of Iago, who is represented as now assigning one, and then another, and again a third, motive for his conduct, all alike the mere fictions of his own restless nature, distempered by a keen sense of his intellectual superiority, and haunted by the love of exerting power, on those especially who are his superiors in practical and moral excellence. Yet how many among our modern critics have attributed to the profound author this, the appropriate inconsistency of the character itself!   (Shorter Works and Fragments 1: 310)


Thus Coleridge asserts that Iago's motives (in our sense) were his "keen sense of his intellectual superiority" and his "love of exerting power." And so Iago's malignity is "motiveless" because his motives (in Coleridge's sense) -- being passed over for promotion, his suspicion that Othello is having an affair with his wife, and the suspicion that Cassio is also having an affair with Emilia -- are merely rationalizations.


Works Cited


Shorter Works and Fragments. Ed. H. J. Jackson and J. R. de J. Jackson.

Volume 1. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995. (Shorter Works and Fragments is Number 11 in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Colderidge. Ed. Kathleen Coburn. 13 numbers to date. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969--.)


"Motive." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

3rd. ed. 1996.


Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature. Ed. R. A. Foakes.

Volume 2. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987. (Lectures 1808-1819 On Literature is Number 5 in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Colderidge. Ed. Kathleen Coburn. 13 numbers to date. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969--.)


4. In Act Two, Scene One, Iago instructs Roderigo on how to read "courtesy" as "lechery, ... an index and prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts" (2.1.252-258). Do you think Iago has a point here, first in the play, and then in general? If you do, how would you describe the kind of thinking you engage in when you take Iago's point?


5. Do Othello and Desdemona ever consummate their marriage? How do we know or not? Is this an important question? Why or why not?


6. Why does Othello believe Iago? There are many doorways into this question; one of them is at the end, when Iago says, "I told him what I thought, and told no more / Than what he found himself was apt and true" (5.2.178-179).


7. In Act Four, Scene Three, Desdemona and Emilia have a conversation about men and women, marriage, and fidelity. What does this scene indicate about the character of Desdemona? How can you relate this scene to central issues in the play?


8. Various critics have noticed that Desdemona apparently lies more than once in the play: e.g., when Othello asks her about the handkerchief, or when she briefly comes to life at the end to absolve Othello of her murder. Do you consider these moments to be lies, and if so, how do you understand them?


9. Othello's death scene is superbly staged. Shakespeare gives the character a powerful final speech. Reading it (or hearing it), do you think this tragic hero has learned anything from his experience, or is he continuing to sustain his illusions?


1.1.1-6 ("Tush, never tell me!")

play opens with nonverbal sound, unreferenced pronoun, & denial

Iago's technique of denying his thoughts

introduction of "dream" & "abhor"


1.1.80-117 ("What ho, Brabantio!")

"What is the reason?"

base reduction of marriage to bestial copulation


1.1.142-143 ("This accident ...")

"accident ... dream ... belief ..."

- external event coincides with internal fantasy to produce belief & "oppression"

model for Iago's manipulation-seduction of Othello


1.1.169-172 ("O heaven ...")

paternal doubt = disbelief

- vision of daughter similar to Othello's later vision of wife


1.3 (Duke's war council)

question of encountering "the Turk": Study Question 2: Who is the Turk?

last effective use of reason acting upon evidence

= "pageant / To keep us in false gaze" (1.3.17-19)


1.3.94-108 ("A maiden never bold ...)"

a father's patriarchal assumptions & idealizations

problem of "unnatural" attraction

issue of witchcraft & conjuration

Duke notes difference between accusation & proof

- "poor likelihoods of modern seeming"

-- i.e., frailty of superficial assumptions


1.3.127-172 ("Say it, Othello.")

Desdemona won (& lost) by fabulous stories


1.3.318-372 ("Virtue? a fig!")

natural metaphor of garden + will as gardener

- early-modern meanings of "will" as irrational desire (lust) + intention

-- look up "will" (noun) in the OED

"... the balance [beam] of our lives ..." = apply to entire play, esp. Othello

- reason v. sensuality

- love as "lust of blood & permission of will"


1.3.381-402 ("Thus do I ever ...")

Question of Iago's motivation ("I hate the Moor")

- jealousy of Othello & Emilia

- revenge for Cassio's promotion

- envy of Othello & Cassio

- desire for Desdemona

- (unconscious) attraction to Othello? to Cassio?

- "motiveless malignity" (S.T. Coleridge)

See Study Question 3


2.1.77-80 ("Great Jove, Othello guard ...")

note sexual imagery / relate to Cassius?

- instance of tendency to eroticize language (recall Measure for Measure)


2.1.181-192 ("Lo, where he comes!")

extremities of love & idealization


2.1.247-258 ("I cannot believe ...")

ideal undone ("blest")

issue of courtesy v. lechery (see Study Question 4)

3.3 ("The Temptation Scene")


Giotto, Invidia (Envy) ,

Allegories of the Virtues

and Vices (c. 1305)


"Ha! I like not that. ... Nothing, my lord."

- Iago's relentless technique of suggestion + denial



"Be as your fancies teach you ..." (irony)



"When I love thee not, / Chaos is come again."



"... he echoes me ... monster in his thought..."



"Where's that palace ... foul things ..."

- structure of ideal / purity + pollution

- psychology of idealization + denial



Iago's "jealousy" / note initial meaning of word

-- then "the green-eyed monster"



"... once in doubt ... once to be resolved"

- 2 ways of understanding line: rational & irrational

- compare Iago at 1.3.370-372 ("I know not if 't be true ...")



"I do not think but Desdemona's honest."



"Let me be thought too busy ... (As worthy cause I have ...)"



"O curse of marriage ..."

- issue of masculine ownership + feminine appetite

- "a corner in the thing I love" [see 4.2.58-63]

- figures of objectification

- metaphors of architecture + anatomy



"Villain, be sure thou prove ..."

- Othello orders Iago to continue his scheme



"Give me a living reason ..."

- Iago answers request for logic with story of dream ("I lay with Cassio lately...")



kneeling + "sacred vow" + "witness" = "marriage" of Othello + Iago


Lawrence Fishburne

& Kenneth Branagh in 1995 film

3.4.53-73 ("That's a fault ...")

story of handkerchief = Is it true? [See 5.2.217-218]

- indication of Othello's ideas of love + marriage

figure of handkerchief as symbol

-"spotted with strawberries" (3.3.441)


4.1.32-43 ("What hath he said? ...")

dramatic demonstration of irrational passion

"Nature would not invest .. It is not words ..."

- psychology of emotion / "instruction" / story

- generated by versions of word "lie"


4.1.190-205 ("But yet the pity ...")

love + rage / question of Othello's motives


Karen Kiefer, Monkey on Goat (contemporary American)


4.1.255-259 ("Sir, I obey ...")

public duty v. private passion

- "Cassio shall have my place" = irony

- "Goats and monkeys!" = Cyprus in Othello


4.3.59-105 ("O, these men ...")

play of ethical questions about virtue or "honesty"

unusual conversation between "women" (female characters) about gender

- feminine desires & masculine limitations

- "And have we not affections? / Desires for sport?"

Hypothesis: Othello's rejection of idealized Desdemona may be provoked by his confrontation with her desire.

What if woman is not an object, but a subject? & a desiring subject?


"It is the cause ..."

- unreferenced pronoun // legal term

- unnameable to "chaste stars"

"monumental alabaster"

= pedestal for ideal + tomb (fatal idealization / objectification)

deathbed = marriage bed (see 4.2.107-108)

- fear of bloodshed = anxiety about virginity

- wish to preserve ideal: "Be thus when thou art dead ..."

"Nay, had she been true ..."

- metaphors of divine private ownership, idealized object, & trade = perfect property


5.2.339ff ("Soft you, ...") -- Othello's final speech

projection of story as written narrative

"... threw a pearl away ..."

- persistent fantasy of wife as perfect object

discovery of the "Turk" [click here for image]

- Othello as rescuer, criminal, & victim [see link]

"to die upon a kiss" = literalization of common pun in Renaissance poetry

- ("dying" = orgasm)


Alexandre Marie Colin,

Othello and Desdemona (1829)