Alli Machlis (former TA for Engl 345) and Stephan Flores
Study Questions
1. Othello’s heroic qualities and military proficiency allow him partial acceptance into Venetian society. How is this acceptance provisional, and what can it reveal about the sexual and emotional construction of Othello’s undoing?
2. The Duke of Venice tells Brabantio, “Your son in law is far more fair than black” (1.3 289). How does this further one’s understanding of Venetian society’s ambivalent attitude toward Othello?
3. According to Sean McEvoy, the chivalric code fails Othello because he is “living the life of a chivalric warrior in a world run by money and self-interest” (Shakespeare: The Basics, second ed. 217). How does Othello allow himself to be swept up in a code which ultimately betrays him?
4. The events of the play last about three days, and Othello kills Desdemona the day after he arrives in Cyprus. How does the incompatible and compressed time frame both make Desdemona’s adultery impossible and enhance the psychological impact Iago’s lies have on Othello?
5. Brabantio’s comments to Othello regarding Desdemona in 1.3 are a cautionary warning that she may betray her husband, having already betrayed her father. What does this reveal about Venetian society’s attitude toward women and connect to the tragedy at the end of the play?
6. How do the peripheral events, such as the threatened Turkish invasion of Cyprus Othello is meant to prevent, inform the issues of race and religion at stake in play? Specifically, how does the phrase, “He is and is not the Turk,” from the Norton Anthology head notes, place a special importance on the Turkish enemy threatening to invade?
7. Harold Bloom claims Iago’s “passion for destruction is the only creative passion in the play.” Is Bloom correct to suggest that Iago’s machinations are passionate and creative? Where do these machinations appear to originate from?
8. Iago offers many motives for his trickery, and others can be inferred from the text. A few of them are: his suspicions about Emilia and Othello, Othello’s promotion of Cassio instead of Iago, a possible desire for Desdemona, a possible desire for Othello, and what Coleridge calls “motiveless malignity,” which suggests the previous motives are merely rationalizations for manipulating power and creating havoc for sport. Which of these possibilities seems most likely? Each possibility seems to evoke a specific societal critique (as Marjorie Garber puts it, "sexual jealousy, political envy, and reputation" —so where do these different critiques take the major themes of the play?
9. In Othello, Venice is often seen as established home of order and stability, while Cyprus can represent the chaos and inversion of a place outside of a “system.” What role, according to this understanding, does Cyprus play in furthering the action of the play? How might one argue that "Cyprus" already exists within "Venice."
10. While Iago possesses great intellect and wit when he addresses the audience with his plans, he is threatened by Cassio, a gentleman of higher class. How does Shakespeare use language to enhance this divide and reveal the tenets of the military code which values Othello and Cassio over Iago.
11. Iago’s famous lines “I am not what I am” (1.1.65) force an examination of identity and duplicity in this play. Is Iago the only character who could make this statement?
12. Some critics find Iago’s overzealous interest in Othello, and his determination to undo Othello’s marriage and life, to reflect particular homoerotic desires. In performance, Iago’s lines to Othello, “I am your own forever” provide a moment to dramatically reveal such desires. Is this a viable understanding of Iago’s motivation?
13. The Norton Anthology head notes to Othello, as well as most Shakespearean critics, believe Othello to be “internalizing the destructive norms of Christian society,” and anchor his susceptibility to Iago’s machinations in his own feelings of racial and social inferiority. How do you regard this explanation?
14. Does this play reinforce or challenge racial stereotypes? Does this play reinforce or challenge sexist stereotypes?
15. Emilia’s practical understanding of relationships between men and women is often contrasted with Desdemona’s naïve vision of love. Can these opposite understandings be reconciled? Does the outcome of the play suggest one woman’s vision of the world to be more accurate?
16. Shakespeare revised specific parts of Act 4 of Othello, which were then published in the Folio (1623) a year after Othello’s original publication(1622). Those changes make Desdemona more submissive and obedient to Othello, they add the willow song in Act 4.3, and they give Emilia a stronger, more defiant role in identifying her own husband as the mastermind behind the events of the play. How do these changes modify or contribute to the development of major themes in the play?
17. Othello’s language often connects, especially in the death scenes, sex and death. How does this further an understanding of Othello’s uneasiness about desire and his craving for order?
18. How do Othello's and Desdemona's conceptions/understandings of the nature of their 'love' for each others and the bases of this love and attraction, differ, and why?

More Othello Study Questions/Passages

Further Questions and Resources

On two hour library reserve (under English 345 Shakespeare):

Critical Essays on Shakespeare's Othello, ed. Barthelemy (1994)—see especially the essays by Boose, Neely, Bartelemy, Fineman, Newman, Loombia, Neill, or Genster.

Othello: Critical Essays, see especially the last two essays by Snow and Stallybrass--perhaps bypass the rest.

Also see Callaghan's Shakespeare Without Women ("Othello Was a White Man," pp.75-96).

Or look for other, relatively recent (1990s . . . ) essays on Othello (see, for example, the journals Shakespeare Quarterly, Shakespeare Studies, or ELH).

More relatively recent articles that can be found in Shakespeare Quarterly, and also probably online:

"Mulattos," "Blacks," and "Indian Moors": Othello and Early Modern Constructions of Human Difference

Michael Neill

Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 4. (Winter, 1998), pp. 361-374.

Slaves and Subjects in Othello

Camille Wells Slights

Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 4. (Winter, 1997), pp. 377-390.

Iago's Alter Ego: Race as Projection in Othello

Janet Adelman

Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 2. (Summer, 1997), pp. 125-144.

Turning Turk in Othello: The Conversion and Damnation of the Moor

Daniel J. Vitkus

Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 2. (Summer, 1997), pp. 145-176.

"An Essence that's Not Seen": The Primal Scene of Racism in Othello

Arthur L. Little, Jr.

Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 3. (Autumn, 1993), pp. 304-324.

Berry, Edward. "Othello's Alienation." Studies in English Literature 30.2 (1990): 315-34.

Making more of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race

Emily C. Bartels

Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 4. (Winter, 1990), pp. 433-454.

Othello Furens

Robert S. Miola

Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 1. (Spring, 1990), pp. 49-64.

Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello

Michael Neill

Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 4. (Winter, 1989), pp. 383-412.

Vanita, Ruth. "'Proper' Men and 'Fallen' Women: The Unprotectedness of Wives in Othello." Studies in English Literature 34.2 (1994): 341-56.

De Torres, Olivia Delgado. "Reflections on Patriarchy and the Rebellion of Daughters in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and Othello." Interpretation 21.3 (1994): 333-51.

See also

Shakespeare and Race, eds. Catherine M.S. Alexander and Stanley Wells. Cambridge UP, 2000.