Areas of study

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Areas of study

Jealousy is one of the play's central themes, and integral to the progress of the tragedy. An enormously powerful, destructive and irrational emotion, it is often described as a monster consuming those who suffer from it. There are numerous examples of jealousy in Othello, from Bianca's perhaps comic suspicions of Cassio, through Iago's professional and sexual jealousy (which seem to inspire his cruelty) to Othello's own overwhelming and disastrous affliction.

How many descriptions of jealousy can you find in the play?

How is jealousy characterised?

Are some forms of jealousy nobler than others?

Are any of the instances of jealousy in the play founded on reality?

Look out for the many references in the play which link the way that characters look at the world with how they evaluate or judge it. Being able to judge well, to see the truth of things, is often a difficult task in Othello, because of the constant presence of bias and prejudice of different kinds. Iago in particular knows how easily other characters are persuaded to see what they wish or fear to see rather than what is, not least when they are under the influences of love or jealousy, and uses this to his own ends.

Look out for instances where seeing and judgement are linked. Who speaks the lines and in what context?

Does jealousy necessarily impair rather than improve judgement?

Does love necessarily improve rather than impair judgement?

How often in the play, besides in the scenes between Othello and Iago, do we see characters who are blind to things, or who misread situations?

Though we are uncertain whether Shakespeare intended Othello to be a Negro, an Arabian, or some other race, the play is littered with references - many of them derogatory (negative) - to his dark skin colour and distinctive facial features. We know that he is an outsider, who is marked out as different from the mainstream of Venetian society, and need to consider how this is relevant to the action of the play. Compare the different attitudes displayed by Roderigo, Brabantio, The Duke and Desdemona, for instance, and consider how they might affect Othello's sensibility.

How many different attitudes to skin colour do we see displayed in Othello?

Othello is full of the words white (or "fair") and black, which are meant to denote good, and bad. How are these relevant to a consideration of race in the play?

How far do you think Othello's downfall can be seen as a result of his status as a black man in a white society?

Do you think a black actor should necessarily play the part of Othello?

Consider the different female characters, what they contribute to its action and what kinds of attitudes to women we see demonstrated in the play - there are plenty of examples of stereotypical misogynist (anti-female) sentiment in the speeches of Iago, Roderigo and Cassio. Look also at the social environment: Venice is a traditional patriarchal (male-dominated) society. Desdemona's decision to marry Othello against her father's will, for instance, is on one level an act of rebellion, but look at how tactfully she has to describe her switching of allegiance from Brabantio to Othello to satisfy the Duke and senate....

What places do women have in Venetian society?

What do the exchanges between Desdemona and Emilia tell us about their differing attitudes to men and women?

Is Bianca purely a comic figure or are we meant to see her as more poignant?

How sympathetic do you find Desdemona's passivity in the final scenes of the play?

The different language used by characters (e.g. prose or blank verse)

Iago as Machiavellian villain

Beast and animal imagery

Metaphors of eating and poison

The "double timescale" of the play

Performance history