Othelloby William Shakespeare
Othello, like all of Shakespeare's plays, particularly the tragedies, is complex and subtly nuanced. Through its complexities and subtleties, Shakespeare makes us care about the characters who people this story. We understand their weaknesses and their strengths, their passions and their nobility. In our engagement in their lives and our pondering over what has gone wrong and why, we are given the opportunity to analyze human life both in the abstract and in the particular of our own lives. Shakespeare's ability to involve us in the lives and fortunes of his characters is one of the best reasons for reading, rereading, and teaching Othello.
Othello has particular gifts to offer to teenagers. It is a play about passion and reason. Intense feelings are exhibited here: love, hate, jealousy, envy, even lust. Teenagers struggling with their own passions can empathize with both Roderigo's and Othello's plight. It is also a play that examines, as do Shakespeare's other works, human relationships and interactions. For teenagers in the first rush of attempting to understand how romantic relationships work and when and why they might fail, this text provides much to ponder. In addition, studying the play gives young people a rich literary vehicle for developing their critical thinking and analytical reading skills. The closer they examine this work, the richer they find it.
This teacher's guide is intended to assist you by providing a variety of ideas and activities to serve as a springboard to enrich student learning. It is divided into several parts: (1) a brief literary overview, including a synopsis and a commentary on the play; (2) suggestions for teaching the play, including activities, discussion questions, and essay topics to be used before, during, and after reading the play; (3) ideas to extend the students' learning beyond the play, including ways to address its themes, ideas for teaching literary analysis, techniques for using the play as a bridge to other works, and ways to use the play as part of interdisciplinary study and; (4) bibliographies and other resources.
Throughout this guide activities are suggested for students of varying ability levels. You will need to select those that are most appropriate for your classroom.
The play is set primarily in Cyprus. However, the opening act takes place in Venice, providing us with an understanding of the authoritarian government controlled by the Venetian senators. Also, we begin to understand Othello's tenuous standing in Venice, as well as Desdemona's privileged background.
The first scenes introduce the primary plot, beginning outside Brabantio's house with Iago already intent upon manipulation and trouble-making. He encourages Roderigo to rouse Brabantio, Desdamona's father, and tell him of her elopement with Othello. Iago makes the announcement as alarming and disruptive as possible. Both Iago and Roderigo reveal their motivation: Roderigo's passion for Desdemona and Iago's appetite for revenge on Othello for choosing Michael Cassio over him as his second in command. Although Brabantio and Othello had been friends, or at least amiable acquaintances, Brabantio's first thought is that his daughter would never have done this of her own free will – Othello must have used witchcraft and potions.
The secondary plot, introduced in the following scene, is that the Turks have taken a fleet to Cyprus, and the senators want to send Othello as the best and most experienced general to defend it. The Turks' threat to Venetian civilization echoes Brabantio's concerns about what he interprets as Othello's barbarian threat to his civilized daughter; he wants the powerful senators to condemn Othello for wooing her. However, Desdemona declares that her love for the Moor is free of any external influence.
After Desdemona's declaration all attention is returned to the attack on Cyprus. Othello is ordered to leave Venice immediately. Ironically, he commends Desdemona into Iago's keeping and requests that she be allowed to come to him in Cyprus. Brabantio warns Othello that if Desdemona deceived her father she could also be false to her husband. At the end of the act, Iago persuades Roderigo to abandon his plans to kill himself over Desdemona and come to Cypress disguised and ready seek revenge on Cassio and Othello.
The next act opens with a conversation that tells of the Turks' drowning in a storm, thus ending their threat to Cyprus. Cassio arrives, and we learn that Othello's ship is still at sea. Desdemona and her entourage, including Iago, appear shortly thereafter; all await news of Othello. Othello appears and a tender moment of reunion with Desdemona ensues. Iago is ordered to take over the watch of the city. He seeks Roderigo's help in his plot to undo Cassio. The plan works smoothly – Cassio gets drunk and fights with Roderigo and one of the Cypriot leaders. The fight arouses Othello. Based on Iago's explanation, Othello dismisses Cassio and names Iago his replacement. Iago, encouraging Cassio to seek Desdemona's assistance in returning to Othello's favor, begins slowly poisoning Othello's mind by making him think that Desdemona is illicitly involved with Cassio.
In Act III Iago's plot progresses. Cassio asks Desdemona to plead his case to Othello. She freely and happily accepts his suit and pledges herself to urge his case relentlessly. In the meantime Iago continues to poison Othello's mind. Othello demands visual proof:
Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore
Be sure of it; give me ocular proof;
Or, by the worth of mine eternal soul,
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my naked wrath.
(III, iii, 356-360)
Iago quickly seizes the opportunity. Othello has given Desdemona a special handkerchief, a family heirloom passed down from his mother to his bride. Iago gets the handkerchief from Emilia, his wife and Desdemona's attendant. Emilia is unaware of her husband's intent. Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio's rooms. At Iago's urging Othello asks Desdemona for it. Worried because it seems to mean so much to her husband, Desdemona lies and says she doesn't have it at the moment. This arouses Othello's doubt and distrust.
The next act opens with Iago plotting with Roderigo to kill Cassio. Iago continues to manipulate both Othello and Roderigo, pushing each of them to murder - even persuading Othello to strangle rather than poison Desdemona. An overwrought Othello has a seizure that Cassio witnesses. Iago uses this as an opportunity to call Othello's reason into question with visitors from Venice, one of whom is Desdemona's relative. Othello can no longer contain his passionate anger towards Desdemona and publicly chides her and strikes her. Unable to get an admission of guilt from his wife, he turns to her attendant. When Othello questions Emilia about her mistress's habits, she staunchly defends Desdemona's virtue, but Othello will not accept her testimony.
The final act climaxes in the revelation of Iago's multifaceted scheme. Emilia, Roderigo, and Desdemona are its early casualties. Cassio, though intended to die, survives. Othello finally confronts the truth about Iago's manipulation and Desdemona's innocence and kills himself. The story ends with the witnesses contemplating the tragic tale they must tell the Venetian court.
Because Othello is considered by many to be one of Shakespeare's major tragedies, criticism of it is as complex as the play itself. Some call it a modernized Morality play in which the characters are primarily symbolic. This criticism centers on the characters' fall from innocence - the snake fouling the Garden - caused by Iago's manipulation of Othello. Other critics examine the play in terms of the clash of cultures: military vs. civilian, Moorish vs. Venetian, barbaric vs. civil. Likewise, the themes of prejudice and of unbridled jealousy are the focus of commentary about the play. Others view the play as a story of human frailty - the story of the fall of a man of noble bearing and sincere passion and the destruction of an innocent and real love.
Othello is equally, however, a story of malevolence and manipulation. One of the most intriguing characters in Shakespeare's roll call of villains is Iago. From the beginning of the play until the final scenes, Iago plots and maneuvers to bring the people around him, especially Othello, to doom and destruction. Iago's tactics are revealed in the opening scene as he draws first Roderigo and then Brabantio into his service. By presenting the relationship between Othello and Desdemona in the crudest sexual terms, he rouses Brabantio and Roderigo to become willing workers in his scheme to revenge himself on the Moor. Just as clearly he enjoys each man's alarm and anguish. His subsequent conversations with Roderigo, in which he draws him ever deeper into his plot, prepare us for the cunning with which he begins his cruel work on Othello.
By contrast, Othello is clearly not a dissembler. He is forthright with the senators when asked about his relationship with Desdemona. Instead of claiming that she was attracted by his noble bearing and grace, he tells them that she was first caught by his stories of the true adventures of his life and then drawn on to love through her pity for the trials he had endured. He is not a man who plays games. He accurately sums up his own character:
...Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe.
Othello and Iago, then, are the two characters at the crux of the play. The major action of the play is the tightening of Iago's net around the noble Moor and the decay of the Moor's nobility. It is this clash and the vulnerabilities of the humans involved that many critics agree provide the basis for the continuing interest and compelling attraction of Othello.