How in Othello does Shakespeare present themes of love and hate? This guide will help you study the play in terms of its central themes. You should write about the content of the play (what it is about) and Shakespeare’s technique as a dramatist, looking especially at stagecraft (the play in performance) and language (especially word-play and imagery). If you are to achieve the highest grade for reading, you must write about all of these. If this is too hard, attempt those parts of the task which you can understand, or try a different task.
Avoid retelling the story. Make judgements, and support these with reference to the play in detail or by direct (short) quotation. Please note that in standard English usage “quote” is a verb, but you need never, in any case, write it. To see how quotation should be set out, look at examples from the edition of the text which you are studying, or ask your teacher for an explanation. Where the point of your quotation is not obvious, you should explain it, and what it has to do with your argument. As a rule of thumb, your comment should follow the pattern of statement, evidence (direct quotation or reference to detail), explanation of evidence (where needed) and interpretation/ judgement. It is a good idea to keep sentences short (don’t try to make multiple comments). Ensure that you avoid basic spelling errors: get the names right, and remember how to spell “characters”.
Love and hate in Othello: In this part of your essay, you should outline the principal relationships of the play, looking also at the reasons (or absence of reason) for the characters’ attitudes and actions. To keep this part of your work simple, you should look at Othello, Iago and, perhaps, Desdemona only. (All the other characters are important because of their relations with these three). It is interesting to decide which is the more important character, Iago or Othello (scholars and critics over the years have failed to agree about this). What is not in doubt is that in the first part of the play we learn much about Iago’s motives from his soliloquies (speaking alone), while Othello dominates the later scenes of the play.
Iago: Discuss the following
The reasons for Iago’s hatred of Othello and of Cassio
Iago’s attitude to others’ love and happiness
How Iago manipulates those around him (note that he takes chances but is never in control)
His relations with Emilia
Othello: Discuss the following
How Othello is viewed by other characters (including Brabantio, the Duke, Cassio, Montano)
The importance of Othello’s colour
The conflict of Othello’s private life and public duty
The nature of his love for Desdemona
How he is altered by jealousy and how he recovers his dignity at the end of the play
Desdemona: Discuss the following
The nature of Desdemona’s love for Othello
Desdemona’s obedience and loyalty
Desdemona’s relations with Cassio and with Emilia
Shakespeare’s technique - stagecraft and appeal to the audience: In this part of your essay, you should consider how Shakespeare presents the play’s central theme in terms of stage performance. This is fairly difficult to do, but you should have a go. At the very least, it may remind you that Shakespeare did not write books full of notes to bore schoolchildren; his plays were popular entertainment as today good feature films or television drama are.
Shakespeare’s theatre was not naturalistic, and relied on a number of conventions which were no problem for his audience, but might be so today. Costume and props were quite elaborate and realistic, but sets were very basic - there was no scenery and certainly no “scene changes”; dialogue was always used to give indications of place and time (as when in the play’s first scene, Iago lets us know he is at Brabantio’s house). There was no lighting - plays were performed by daylight in the theatre and by lamplight in private houses. Apart from some episodes in late plays like The Tempest there were no special effects. Some features of Shakespeare’s stagecraft in Othello which you might wish to consider are soliloquies, action, contrast, time and place, and the importance of Othello’s colour. This list is not exhaustive and you may wish to discuss other things. You should at this point also write about how the play was performed in any versions you have seen, especially where directors have tried different approaches.
Soliloquies: (These are episodes in which a character - Iago or Othello in this play - speaks while no-one else is present [at the start of Act 5, scene 1, Desdemona is on stage but asleep, so Othello’s speech here qualifies]; the speech is a conventional way of revealing the speaker’s thought). Audiences sometimes think Othello stupid for trusting Iago; it is worth remembering that we have been told by him that he is a villain - if the play were performed without the soliloquies would we think about Iago any differently from those around him? Some things you may consider are:
How Iago’s soliloquies reveal his intentions and his character (if they do)
The nature of Othello’s soliloquies - how do they show us his nature
Whose speeches are the more self-revealing in your view?
Action: This is a play in which persuasive or beautiful speech does much of the work, but some scenes are notable for physical action. You cannot comment on every such scene, but should discuss in detail the action in a few critical scenes, explaining how what we see (as much as what we hear) is important. Among the episodes to discuss are:
Act 1, scene 2: Show (briefly) how Othello responds to the “posse” sent to arrest him
Act 2, scene 3: Look at the drinking bout, Roderigo’s ambush and Montano’s wounding
Act 4, scene 1: Show how Othello’s loss of dignity is depicted here, especially in his “fit”
Act 5, scene 1: How does Shakespeare convey a sense of confusion here?
Act 5, scene 2: Comment on the killing of Desdemona and Emilia, and Othello’s suicide
Contrast: The contrast of love and hate is reflected in a series of other contrasts. Discuss these and show how they help present the central theme of the play. Some contrasts you might wish to discuss are light and dark, honour and dishonour, honesty and deceit and good and evil. Time and place: In this play, events happen in a shorter space of time than is usual with Shakespeare. The classical Greek writer Aristotle recommended that the plays should have what he called unity of time, place and action. He argued that the action of a play should not take longer than twenty-four hours. Excluding the first act (which is like a prologue) Othello comes closer than most Shakespearean plays (only the late comedy The Tempest follows all of Aristotle’s rules). The effect on the audience is to make the tragedy seem more intense. This is especially the case because there is barely any comic relief (Iago’s jokes may be enjoyed by those on stage, but the audience knows too much. We laugh, if at all, uneasily). Another odd consequence is that Othello’s belief in Desdemona’s adultery is literally illogical, as there is no time when it can have occurred: Desdemona and Cassio come to Cyprus on different ships; from this moment there is no time which is not accounted for. This does not make Othello’s jealousy more difficult for us to believe in; it shows it to be more insane - Iago makes him believe what is clearly impossible, but Othello cannot see it!
Cyprus is important to the drama because it is so different from Venice; it is close to the danger of invasion, the people are reputedly hot-headed, and Othello is in absolute command. But the loss of the Turkish fleet gives him time to dwell on his private life rather than attend to his duty. Venice is important in two ways. First, it has a sophisticated and snobbish social hierarchy, according to which Othello is welcome as a visitor but quite unsuitable as a son-in-law. Othello does not really understand the fine points of social conduct (etiquette) and Iago is thus able to tell him various untruths about it (such as that Venetians are all promiscuous). On the other hand, the Venetian army (perhaps like the US Army today) while it may allow some racism, still has opportunities for a very good soldier (which Othello certainly is) to make it to the top. In Act 1, scene 3, Brabantio fails to have Othello punished; Brabantio has not been invited to the meeting of the council, but Othello has - even Iago recognizes that Othello is too important for the state to do without him. In return, Othello is almost fanatically loyal to the state he serves. When he is sure he has been betrayed (Act 3, scene 3) he makes a moving speech bidding farewell to his “occupation”. Before committing suicide he recalls how he once killed a Turk who had dishonoured the state by beating a Venetian.
Othello’s colour: This play depicts racist characters, but in no way supports racism. The two characters whose dislike of Othello are simply racist (Roderigo and Brabantio) are shown to be foolish. It is interesting that in this century some critics have attempted to show that Othello is not meant to be seen as a Negro! Yet the play is full of references to Othello’s colour and appearance which make it quite clear he is a black African. (Roderigo’s racist “thick lips” would not be so hurtful if Othello were not black.) When first performed the part of Othello would have been played by a white actor made up (just as the women’s parts were played by boys). As there are now coloured actors and actresses, there is no reason for modern productions to use blacked-up white actors (although as recently as the 1980s, a BBC production gave the rôle to Anthony Hopkins).
In the play it is accepted (this may trouble some modern audiences) that Othello is not conventionally good-looking; his colour makes him unattractive or frightening (it is often linked with the ideas of bestiality or devilishness). But this point is made to show (by contrast as it were) the great beauty of his speech and the nobility of his character: this point is made most clearly by Desdemona: “I saw Othello’s visage (face) in his mind”. The play does not support the view that mixed marriages cannot work - the marriage is destroyed by the extreme wickedness of Iago. The RSC’s 1989 casting of Willard White (an opera singer) in the title rôle seems exactly right; the actor is tall and powerfully-built, mature (Othello is an experienced soldier) but above all gifted with a deep and resonant voice. Oliver Parker’s 1995 choice of Laurence Fishburne gives us a handsome, more youthful and athletic (and sexy) Othello.
The Language of the Play Although we can spot features of the play's language on the page, remember the play was written (never published) by Shakespeare for theatrical performance, and that effects of language are meant to be heard, as by an attentive audience they would be. Moreover, few of these effects are merely decorative; most help interpret the action on stage. In discussing the play's language, you should not merely list matters of interest, but should structure your comments according to categories or some other arrangement. The headings under which this section of commentary has been arranged may help. Be aware of the form of dialogue which Shakespeare writes at various points. This will usually be blank verse (which is always fairly formal), prose (informal) or rhymed verse (little used in this play, save in Iago’s songs and improvised jokes). Some things you may wish to discuss are language and theatre, the language of Othello and Iago, the importance in this play of the single word “honest” and animal images. As this section is so difficult, you have been given more extensive notes. You should try to understand the important ideas here, and write about the language of the play under these headings or others you may have found elsewhere (e.g., in your edition of the play or published study guides).
Language and Theatre: In the play we hear dialogue used to convey the immediate action, for narration (storytelling) of "past" events, for description, and for comment. Dialogue is used sometimes to advance the plot (as when Bianca appears with Desdemona's handkerchief, letting us know that Iago's use of it has succeeded). Narration is used effectively in Act 1, scene 3, where Othello explains his courtship of Desdemona, though his narrative is liberally embellished with descriptive detail; Othello's descriptions of the handkerchief (Act 3, scene 4, 52-72) and of himself (5, 2, 335-353) include narration of events in his past; Iago narrates events in the play. He appears to defend Cassio, to satisfy Montano's desire for impartiality, yet still secures Cassio's demotion. Comment is extensive in the play: in the first part, Iago not only explains his plans, but goes some way to telling us about his motives; in the later scenes his comments are merely about the success or failure of his scheming and the danger of discovery. Othello, in the early part of the play, explains much about himself and the beginnings of his love for Desdemona; he reflects on his own life, but in a very outward-looking way, speaking not of his emotions but of the places he has visited, the things he has seen: he is somehow both self-possessed and self-effacing; deceived by Iago, he becomes much more introspective: this leads him at first into near-madness, then a determination to execute justice on his supposed betrayer; finally, he comes to a more complete self-knowledge before death. But the latter part of the play is far more concerned with the portrayal of Othello than of Iago.
The language of Othello and Iago:The contrast in the characters of these two is reflected in their language. Othello is noted for the beauty of his speaking, about which he makes falsely-modest jokes, claiming to be "rude" in his speech and (being black) not to have "those soft parts of conversation" which "chamberers have". Audiences have felt the beauty of Othello's speeches, but we should note that within the play, characters are aware of it (the Duke suggests that Othello's "tale would win" his daughter, too). It is a quality which Othello has doubtless developed and found useful, as a commander, for its inspiring effect on his men; that a woman with a thirst for adventure should also be inspired by it is not surprising to us. It has not occurred to Brabantio that this would move Desdemona to love, and it may at first have surprised Othello, but, given a hint by Desdemona, "upon this hint" he "spake", and won her. Othello's rhetoric is presented somewhat ambiguously. There is no doubt that he really does love using his gifts of composition, of poetic comparison, and of oratory (=art of public speaking; it is made clear that the tone of his voice is as musical as what he says) to achieve beauty in his speaking, and that, allowing for some imaginative colouring of things recalled, he uses these gifts to speak truth.
On the other hand, we have a sense of Othello's self-consciousness, of knowing he is adopting a rôle, just as his controlled display of anger at the brawl in Act 3, scene 3 is something of a pose. The language of Venice and the manners of the Venetian army will have been learned by one who uses them with evident awareness of what he is doing. Thus, Othello's final speech in Act 5, scene 2, though it is an honest confession in its detail, is delivered with an eye (or ear, rather) to effect: he knows it is his epitaph, and does his best to make it as resonant and moving in manner, as it is poignant but dignified in content. We can see this in, say, the deliberate understatement which qualifies his boast of duty done: "I have done the state some service, and they know it", and his immediate closing of the subject which he has introduced: "No more of that..."
Warning: This section is very advanced, but if you can use it, you are encouraged to do so! Iago is as skilled as Othello in manipulating language; if he had (but he does not) an idea of beauty, he would find the words for it no less than Othello. As he kneels by Othello (end of Act 3, scene 3) to pledge his help, Iago exactly mimics the solemn rhetoric he has just heard; we might be moved by it if we did not know it to be bogus. This identifies a problem of which we should be aware in noting others' response to Iago: we are forewarned (by him) of his wickedness, and can see, with critical detachment, how it works. If the part is well played (i.e., if Iago is not a "pantomime" villain, showing his evil in appearance and tone of voice) we should find it plausible (believable) that Iago should be thought "honest". If, for Othello, speech is to be used to create beauty or convey the idea of beauty, nobility or goodness, for Iago, speech is just another thing or tool, to be used to manipulate the world to his own advantage. The device of the soliloquy lets us see this at once, and in these speeches, early on in the play, Iago gives us his motives, his modus operandi ("Thus do I ever make my fool my purse") and his intentions: the master of deception is open to the scrutiny of the audience, that we may admire, horrified, the progress of his scheming.
In his soliloquies, Iago uses a level of eloquence rarely present in his public utterances, speaking in fluent blank verse, marked by occasional, homely imagery. His bluff "honest" public persona shows in the informal prose of his advice to Cassio about reputation, or the crude, comic rhyming of his description of the ideal woman in Act 2, scene 1. The long speech describing Cassio's attack on Montano is worth studying: the language seems to have a simple, neutral quality, with simple, everyday vocabulary fluently arranged (he speaks in verse, to indicate the formality of the situation: he is giving evidence, in public, to his commander). The account of what happened is accurate, though the parenthesis: "as it so fell out", is skilfully inserted to remind Othello of the result of the fight; but the attempt to clear Cassio with which Iago opens and closes his account, his truthful suggestion of the "strange indignity" received from "him that fled" (a description which seems to rule out the possibility of identifying the unknown assailant), this ensures the result Iago has wished for. It is curious that it is the plainness of his speech, the clarity of meaning at the level of grammar, that supports Iago's reputation for honesty. The idea that the plain speaker tells the truth, while the more eloquent person is not to be trusted, is a commonplace: Shakespeare, through Iago and Othello, shows the error in this belief: plain speaking does not merely accompany (accidentally, as it were) Iago's malice, but is the very medium in which it operates.
Iago's "honesty": The words "honest" and "honesty" have changed meaning since the play was written. In Othello, as applied to Iago, "honest" implies what we might now call "down to earth". An "honest" person is one who makes no pretension to live by principle, but is plain-spoken and straightforward. The term suggests transparency or lack of subtlety. As we say now: "What you see is what you get". The terms also imply low social status; a gentleman is expected to live by principle and is rebuked if he fails, but an "honest" fellow lives by a lower standard. Thus, the term implies, as it does now, a measure of truthfulness or integrity, but is also a (perhaps, to him, painful) reminder of Iago's social class. It is quite clear that Iago knows that others see him as "honest" and exploits it: thus, he plays up to others' belief in his plain-speaking in his denunciations of virtue and love (above), of reputation (Act 2, scene 3, 258 ff.) and in the ironic conclusion of his mock praise of a good woman.
On the other hand, Iago is upset that others see him as typical of his social class: he suspects that Cassio's promotion has been due to his social position (since this gives Cassio the qualities he needs for the job, this is probably a true judgement). Cassio, drunk, is guilty of snobbery to Iago ("the lieutenant is to be saved before the ancient"; Act 2, scene 3, 103,4). The audience (especially the orally attentive early 17th century audience) soon learns to attend to this word "honest" (or "honesty") which becomes charged with our awareness of how Iago feels about the term, our understanding that Iago is the opposite of "honest" in being exceptionally subtle and deceitful (save, in his soliloquies when he is more or less "honest" with himself and us) but that this very error is one he encourages, for the opportunities it gives him; and, finally, that this reputation for "honesty" is one of Iago's motives for seeking revenge on Othello and, especially, on Cassio. Theatrically, the gradual loading of the word with significance allows Shakespeare to achieve a particularly powerful effect in Act 5, scene 2, 152: Emilia's discovery of the real depths of Iago's wickedness, and its terrible result occurs simultaneously with Othello's discovery of his error. The nature of their misunderstandings is embodied for the audience in the reiteration of the word "husband": with each repetition the speakers move nearer to sharing true knowledge with the audience
Othello's last desperate assertion of his understanding of events: "My friend, thy husband, honest, honest Iago" horrifies the audience as we understand from it the whole course and cause of Othello's deception, and as we see Emilia's terrible refutation almost before she delivers it. When Othello repeats "honest" we are moved by a complex of ideas: of what Iago really is, of how others have seen him, of the enormous trust Othello has reposed in that "honesty", of its history up to this moment in the play, and of its certain results.
Animal images:There are far too many images in the play for you to study them all, but one very interesting source of images is animals. Early in the play, we hear Othello described in animal terms (a feature of racist speech, then as now; Iago call him an “old black ram...tupping [a] white ewe”). Later in the play, he will also use comparisons to animals to express his horror of what he believes Desdemona to have done. See how many such images you can find, and discuss what they mean in their context (where they appear) and what they contribute to our understanding of the whole play.
The outline above is only a rough guide. Anything you may wish to discuss for yourself, or which you have discovered from other sources is more than welcome!
In conclusion, you should make a personal judgement both about the play and about the version(s) of it which you have seen. It helps if you can be positive without being obviously gushing and over the top in your compliments!