Alli Machlis (former TA for Engl 345) and Stephan Flores
1. Othellos 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 Othellos 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 ones understanding of Venetian societys 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 Desdemonas adultery impossible and enhance the psychological impact Iagos lies have on Othello?
5. Brabantios 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 societys 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 Iagos passion for destruction is the only creative passion in the play. Is Bloom correct to suggest that Iagos 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, Othellos 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. Iagos 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 Iagos overzealous interest in Othello, and his determination to undo Othellos marriage and life, to reflect particular homoerotic desires. In performance, Iagos lines to Othello, I am your own forever provide a moment to dramatically reveal such desires. Is this a viable understanding of Iagos 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 Iagos 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. Emilias practical understanding of relationships between men and women is often contrasted with Desdemonas naïve vision of love. Can these opposite understandings be reconciled? Does the outcome of the play suggest one womans 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 Othellos 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. Othellos language often connects, especially in the death scenes, sex and death. How does this further an understanding of Othellos 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
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
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.
Robert S. Miola
Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 1. (Spring, 1990), pp. 49-64.
Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello
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.
Shakespeare and Race, eds. Catherine M.S. Alexander and Stanley Wells. Cambridge UP, 2000.