Tag Archives: shakespeare




I love that if you type ‘jealousy” into wikipedia, it says “Green-Eyed Monster re-directs here“! This is the phrase Shakespeare used – and quite possibly coined – in Othello, to describe the destructive nature of jealousy.

Jealousy refers to the fear & anxiety we experience when we feel that something or someone we value risks being taken away from us. It used to be distinct from ‘envy’ (desiring what someone else has), but now the two meanings are inter-changeable.

So a jealous person wants to keep what’s theirs and to have what’s yours, but you’d better keep your hands off their stuff or they will lash out at you like a flaming minister of hell!

Sexual jealousy

Othello is mainly concerned with sexual jealousy, which emerges when Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful and is actively pursuing a sexual relationship with one “of her own clime, complexion and degree” – Cassio! However, we also witness Roderigo‘s jealousy & envy of Othello’s relationship with Desdemona; Iago‘s professional jealousy of Cassio; his jealousy of Desdemona & Othello’s happy marriage and suspicions that his wife Emilia has been unfaithful; and Bianca‘s jealousy provoked by Cassio’s neglect and her suspicion that he is secretly wooing another woman. You’ll notice I’ve used the word ‘suspicion’ a lot – that’s because 90% of the time, these characters have nothing to be jealous of and the wrongs they perceive exist only in their heads!

It doesn’t seem to matter whether the supposed source of a person’s jealous thoughts is real or fictional: Iago has every reason to be jealous of Cassio’s promotion, but it seems there is no logic to his sexual jealousy (he comments of Othello “it is thought that twixt my sheets he has done my office” & “I fear Cassio with my night cap too“). His wife Emilia later scoffs at his willingness to believe these rumours remarking “some such squire he was that turned your wit the seamy side out and made you to suspect me with the Moor“.

Various metaphors are used to capture the essence of jealousy – it is described as a poison, a monster, a provoker of madness and insomnia and a trap.

It is Iago who describes jealousy as a poison that consumes you, eating away at you and filling you with a passionate desire for revenge:

I do suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leaped into my seat. The thought whereof
Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards,
And nothing can or shall content my soul
Till I am evened with him, wife for wife.
Or, failing so, yet that I put the Moor
At least into a jealousy so strong
That judgment cannot cure“.

Interestingly, he sees it as an emotion which is immune to reason or logic, thus making it a wild and dangerous creature. In fact, he goes further, advising Othello:

Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.

Emilia, Iago’s wife, echoes this description of jealousy as a monster which feeds only on itself, growing bigger and stronger and spinning out of control completely. When Desdemona defends herself, saying “I never gave him cause” Emilia replies with an observation similar to what her husband stated previously, that jealousy is a fundamentally illogical emotion which morphs and grows without ever needing a real reason for existing:

jealous souls will not be answer’d so; 
They are not ever jealous for the cause, 
But jealous for they are jealous: ’tis a monster 
Begot upon itself, born on itself”.

This idea that little proof is necessary is woven into the plot of the play and skilfully exploited by Iago who realises that “trifles light as air are to the jealous confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ“.

Jealousy is also associated with madness and insomnia. Iago intends

“making [Othello] egregiously an ass
And practicing upon his peace and quiet
Even to madness”

and delights in the misery that Othello’s feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy and rejection will create:

“The Moor already changes with my poison:
Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons.
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
But with a little act upon the blood
Burn like the mines of Sulphur. I did say so:

Look, where he comes!

Re-enter OTHELLO

Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou owedst yesterday”.

Othello, on learning the truth, sees the jealous web of lies he was duped into believing as a trap“Demand that demi-devil why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?” but he never really takes responsibility for his actions, seeing the murder of Desdemona as an unfortunate but necessary punishment for her supposed betrayal of their marriage vows. I guess there are sadly still women in some parts of the world who get stoned to death for committing adultery, so we needn’t necessarily view it as an attitude from another era!

It’s interesting that both Othello and Desdemona see jealousy as a base emotion that is beneath them. Othello is amused at Iago warning him about the green-eyed monster jealousy, replying disbelievingly “think’st thou I’d make a life of jealousy?”. He sees Desdemona’s free spirited attitude as something to be proud of, not something that needs to be toned down:

Tis not to make me jealous
To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company,
Is free of speech, sings, plays and dances well;
Where virtue is, these are more virtuous

Ultimately, if she enjoys herself when they’re in company and is the centre of attention, that’s something that will make him proud of being her man “for she had eyes and chose me“. Desdemona later agrees with this assessment of Othello, proudly stating “My noble Moor is true of mind and made of no such baseness as jealous creatures are

There’s no doubt that jealousy is a destructive emotion, but it effects different characters in different ways. Iago, for example, admits that he’s prone to negative thoughts about those he envies:

“it is my nature’s plague
To spy into abuses, and oft my jealousy
Shapes faults that are not”

Yet from the very opening scene of the play, where Iago memorably describes his utter disgust that he lost out on promotion to an inexperienced theorist like Cassio (“mere prattle without practice is all his soldiership“), it’s clear that Iago will channel his jealousy into revenge: “I hate the Moor” “I follow him to serve my turn upon him. We cannot all be masters, nor all masters cannot be truly followed“. His jealousy is certainly linked to wounded pride, as he complains “I know my price, I am worth no worse a place“.

Othello, on the other hand, experiences a great deal of intense emotional suffering “Avaunt! Be gone! thous hast set me on the rack” he storms at Iago.”I had been happy if the general camp, pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body, so I had nothing known. O! now, for ever, farewell the tranquil mind; farewell content! Farewell the plumed troop and the big wars“. He also becomes possessive, an emotion often provoked by jealousy: “I’d rather be a toad and live upon the vapour of a dungeon, than keep a corner in the thing that’s mine for other’s uses“. For Othello, once the seed of jealousy is planted, it creates pain before it creates a desire for revenge, and even then, Othello remains a reluctant avenger. He may claim “my heart is turned to stone…” but in the very next breath he proclaims “O! the world hath not a sweeter creature“.  He kisses Desdemona when he enters the chamber to kill her;  weeps at the prospect of killing her; attempts to save her immortal soul and immediately after killing her is filled with regret “O insupportable! O heavy hour!“. Jealousy causes him great suffering, leads him to destroy the best thing in his life, his relationship with his wife and when the foolishness of his suspicions are revealed, the guilt drives him to suicide. So I guess, even though jealousy also leads to Iago’s downfall, it is experienced as a much more painful and destructive emotion by Othello. It’s also frightening how much jealousy transforms his personality and behaviour. Even his language changes: “I’ll tear her all to pieces” “Impudent strumpet” “Are you not a whore?” “Oh that the slave had 40,000 lives, one is too poor, too weak for my revenge”.

Bianca is interesting because she’s the only character who confronts her jealousy head-on and immediately. Like Iago and Othello, her suspicions are baseless, in the sense that no-body is cheating on anybody in this play. However, her willingness to keep this emotion on the surface, to recognise it, articulate it and demand answer as to whether her jealousy is justified or baseless seems a much healthier way of dealing with this emotion than the underhanded schemes and murderous plots created by Iago and Othello.

The play also makes it clear that jealous people do very foolish things, particularly in the case of romantic and sexual jealousy. We don’t just see violence and rage, we also see profound stupidity. Take Roderigo, for example.  He is jealous of Othello’s success in winning Desdemona’s heart, even though he himself has many times been rejected by her and has no hope of ever establishing any kind of emotional or sexual connection to her. Yet obsession, desire and jealousy make him behave recklessly and foolishly throughout the play: waking Brabantio in the middle of the night, encouraging him to send out a search party that almost causes a riot in the middle of the night; pouring his fortune into Iago’s hands in the hope that he’ll win Desdemona; moving to Cyprus on the promise that he’ll get to sleep with Desdemona somehow, even if it means raping her (?!? – this is Iago’s idea); picking a fight with Cassio – twice!; eventually attempting to murder Cassio and losing his life in the process! And all of this because he wants Desdemona and is jealous that any other man should have her!

The dramatic irony which permeates the entire play is explicitly evident in Shakespeare’s exploration of the theme of jealousy. It is ironic that almost all of the characters feel jealous about things that never actually happened – baseless jealousy for the most part provokes their outbursts.

So it’s clear that jealousy is presented by Shakespeare as a powerful and destructive emotion that devours those who allow it to dominate their lives. We get a frightening picture in this play of the extreme and illogical lengths people will go to, to get revenge on those they envy and those who arouse their jealousy through their fictional unfaithfulness.






Iago – flaws & virtues?



Iago’s evil nature is immediately evident – he is a liar and a cheat who delights in inflicting pain and suffering on others. He is also (in no particular order) selfish, disloyal, jealous, vengeful, paranoid, cynical, over-confident and unrepentant.

Liar: our first impression of Othello comes from Iago, who claims he is arrogant and selfish “loving his own pride and purposes”. Yet it soon becomes clear that this view of Othello is an outright lie. Iago later admits as much when he acknowledges that Othello “is of a constant loving noble nature“. Nothing he says can be trusted, for as Iago admits himself “I am not what I am“. He even swears “by Janus“, the God of liars.

Cheat: Iago has cheated the gullible Roderigo out of his wealth (“put money in thy purse“) and delights in making him look like an idiot (“thus do I ever make my fool my purse“).

Disloyal: he pretends to help every character in the play at one point or another but at all times he is merely loving his own pride and purposes / suiting himself. As he admits to Roderigo “I follow him to serve my turn upon him”. He tries to convince Othello to hide from Brabantio’s search party “you were best go in” knowing full well that this would just make Othello seem guilty and as though he has something to hide. Having engineered Cassio’s downfall, he comforts him and manipulates Cassio into trusting his advice to confide in Desdemona promising “she’ll put you in your place again“. He destroys Othello’s peace of mind yet still manages to make Othello feel that he owes Iago a great debt for his loyalty. Othello at one point proclaims “I am bound to thee forever“. Even Desdemona eventually turns to Iago in distress after Othello calls her a whore, asking pitifully “Oh good Iago, what shall I do to win my lord again?” and he immediately pretends to comfort her “Do not weep, do not weep. Alas the day!” reassuring her that it is just some business of the state that troubles her husband. Despite causing nothing but misery and suffering for Roderigo, Iago manages to convince him to attack Cassio. So, as I said already, every character is manipulated and hurt by Iago’s schemes but all the time he’s pretending to help them.

Jealous: Iago is jealous of the promotion Cassio received commenting bitterly “mere prattle without practice is all his soldiership“. He is also quite possibly jealous of the power and influence Othello has in Venice; of the loving relationship which exists between Desdemona & Othello, which is in stark contrast to his own marriage and of the seductive effect Othello and Cassio both seem to have on women.

Paranoid: he suspects Othello of sleeping with his wife Emilia, even though he has absolutely no proof “it is thought abroad that twixt my sheets he has done my office“. Later he admits “I fear Cassio with my night cap too“. Either his wife is a total slut or Iago is completely paranoid…

Amoral sadist: Iago delights in the suffering of others. Of Brabantio he says “rouse him, make after him, poison his delight…plague him with flies“. Of Othello he says “if thou canst cuckold him, thou dost thyself a pleasure, me a sport“. He gets a sick thrill at the thought of using people’s virtues against them, commenting of Othello “the Moor is of a free and open nature and will as tenderly be led by the nose as asses are“. He relishes the thought of using Cassio’s good looks and courteous manner against him, thus destroying both his reputation and Othello’s marriage “with as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio“. Even though he has no reason to dislike or hurt Desdemona, he is excited by the prospect of destroying someone so pure of heart “so will I turn her virtue into pitch and out of her own goodness make the net that shall enmesh them all“. He freely admits that his plan is evil and twisted proclaiming “hell and night must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light” and the thought of wrecking the happiness of those who he feels have wronged him (Othello & Cassio) fills him with glee “oh you are well tuned now, but I’ll set down the pegs that make this music“. When Othello decides to kill Desdemona for her ‘betrayal’, Iago relishes being the one to choose the method of execution “do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated“. He revels in the power and control he now exerts over his boss. He never loses his thirst for inflicting pain on others, commenting snidely when he sees Bianca with the handkerchief “see how he prizes the foolish woman your wife! she gave it him and he hath given it his whore“. He enjoys twisting the knife in further and observing Othello’s torment. The thought that both Roderigo and Cassio may die fills him with satisfaction and when the plan backfires he wounds Cassio and kills Roderigo without the slightest hesitation. Nor does he feel any guilt about casting suspicion on poor Bianca, whom he claims is angry with Cassio for having jilted her.

Cynical: Iago values intellect above emotion, prizing the fact that “we have reason to cool our raging motions” and viewing love as nothing more than “a lust of the blood and a permission of the will“.

Selfish: Iago believes that free will gives us the power to decide how we behave “Virtue! A fig! ’tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus“. He puts himself first at all times and mocks those who behave otherwise “I never found a man who knew how to love himself“.

Vengeful: Iago obsesses over the idea that his wife Emilia has slept with Othello “I do suspect the lusty Moor hath leap’d into my seat” and is intent on revenge (despite the lack of proof that this ever occurred) “nothing can or will content my soul until I am evened with him wife for wife“.

Over-confident: Iago seriously underestimates his wife and treats her with contempt commenting dismissively “you are a fool, go to” when she suggests that some “eternal villain” has been slandering Desdemona and spreading rumours to hurt Othello “Fie! There is no such man; it is impossible“. Iago’s not-quite-fatal flaw is that he fails to see the threat she represents, even though she is the first person (following Othello’s outburst) to figure out what’s really going on. At the beginning of Act 5, Iago kills Roderigo but he fails to dispose of the one man who can expose his plot as a mountain of lies: Cassio! In the final scene of the play when Emilia discovers Iago’s evil plot, he is once again over-confident that he can quieten his wife. When she refuses to be silenced he effectively exposes his guilt by stabbing her to shut her up and running away.

Unrepentant: Iago shows no remorse and refuses to offer any explanation for his behaviour. When Othello fumes “demand that demi-devil why he hath thus ensnared my soul” Iago replies arrogantly “demand me nothing; what you know you know. From this time forth I never will speak word“.

Even though he will be punished for his crimes, Iago’s plan to destroy Othello and Desdemona was ultimately successful – they both lie dead, alongside Iago’s wife Emilia – and no punishment can equal the wrongdoing of this “hellish villain“.


Iago is essentially an evil man. Yet he is also charming, witty and extremely intelligent and the audience finds it hard to resist this mysterious villain.

Charming: Iago manages to convince Roderigo that there is still hope when all hope seems lost “no more of drowning, do you hear?“. Yet moments later he manages to convince Othello that he could barely contain himself when he heard Roderigo speak rudely about his master “nine or ten times I had thought to have jerked him her under the ribs“. Iago delights in the irony of the situation and at times the audience (who unlike the characters on stage know exactly what Iago is up to) almost expect him to wink at them! For example, at the end of the temptation scene, with a completely straight face, Iago proclaims “witness you ever burning lights above… that here Iago doth give up the execution of his wit, heads, heart to wronged Othello’s service“. The sheer brazen cheek of this villain seduces us and we are unwittingly drawn into his despicable schemes because he confides in us throughout in his many soliloquies and asides. He makes us feel intelligent, unlike those who are duped on stage, because we know what’s really going on, and this makes us like him despite ourselves.

Witty: Iago is a master of sexual innuendo. His outrageous explicit descriptions of Desdemona and Othello’s sexual exploits are completely inappropriate but also quite funny: “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe!” “you’ll have your daughter covered with a barbary horse” “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs“. Few people would have the nerve to talk to a man about his daughter in such explicitly sexual terms. Iago is also openly misogynistic in front of his wife and Desdemona, describing women in colourful terms: “you are pictures out of doors, bells in your parlours, wild cats in your kitchens, saints in your injuries, devils being offended, players in your housewifery and housewives in your beds“. His happy-go-lucky demeanour allows him to get away with being extremely cheeky in his comments, slagging them off for seeing sex as a chore: “you rise to play and go to bed to work“. He tries to make everything about sex once again when on night duty with Cassio, trying to draw him into a lecherous conversation about how good Desdemona must be in bed “she is sport for love” “I’ll warrant her full of game“. “What an eye she has! Methinks it sounds a parley to provocation“.

Lucky: All the cleverness in the world couldn’t guarantee success for Iago’s Machiavellian plan; he also needed a dose of pure old-fashioned good luck! This occurs in the temptation scene when Emilia picks up the handkerchief Desdemona dropped and gives it to her husband. He also gets a lucky break which helps his plan along after Othello overhears Cassio speaking about his lover (Iago designs this so Othello mistakenly thinks Cassio is talking about Desdemona when he’s actually referring to Bianca) and then Bianca enters and waves it about, scolding Cassio for gifting her some other woman’s love token.

Popular: perhaps one of the most confusing things about Iago’s character is his immense popularity. Perhaps up to this moment he was actually a nice guy! He has an excel end reputation and is repeatedly referred to as “honest Iago” by all of the other characters. Nobody seems to realise until the very end of the play that he is in fact a “demo-devil”. When Othello has to leave his new wife Desdemona, he entrusts her to Iago offering high praise (“a man he is of honesty and trust“) and when he is forced to choose between trusting Iago and trusting Desdemona, he chooses his ‘friend’ above his wife.

Unhappy: Perhaps we feel sorry for Iago on some level because his life is so miserable. He is stuck in a job he hates, filled with resentment because he missed out on a promotion and now has to watch a young lad take what he considers to be his rightful place. He is stuck in a marriage to a wife he despises and has an utterly cynical view of life and of love. Yet he must once have been ambitious, or else why is he so disappointed when he doesn’t get the promotion? And we can assume he once loved his wife; after all, the thought of her with another man drives him crazy (“the thought whereof doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw at my innards“) although this may have more to do with wounded pride than genuine love and affection! Perhaps he simply resents having a black man as his boss and dislikes the thought of his wife sleeping with his boss because it makes him look like a fool.

Thrill seeker: Iago’s plan is risky from the very beginning. All it would take for his entire scheme to unravel is some honest communication between the main characters. Furthermore, he has little to gain, other than revenge for some ill-proven wrongs, if he succeeds. So why does he do it? Iago seems fearless, seems to thrive on danger, on testing himself to the limits of his manipulative skill, quite consciously proclaiming “this is the night that either makes me or for does me quite” yet nonetheless proceeding, despite the very real possibility that he might get caught and punished.

Intelligent: signs of Iago’s intelligence are almost too numerous to document. Having informed Brabantio of Desdemona’s elopement, he cleverly disappears so that he cannot be accused of disloyalty to Othello. We also quickly discover that Iago is an opportunist who is resourceful at turning any situation to his advantage. For example, he challenges his secret ally Roderigo to a duel when the search party arrives looking for Othello, ensuring that neither he nor his ‘purse’ will be injured if a brawl ensues. His plan to use Cassio’s courteous manners to imply that Desdemona is being unfaithful is ingenious and simultaneously takes advantage of Othello’s outsider status, insecurity and desire for certainty and decisive action when he feels he has been wronged. He cleverly convinces Roderigo that his main love rival is Cassio, then uses Roderigo as a puppet in his schemes (Roderigo is the one who provokes the brawl that leads to Cassio’s dismissal) to ensure that no-one suspects him, Iago, of any wrongdoing. In fact he gets others to do his dirty work whenever possible thus keeping his hands clean and his reputation unsullied. He pretends that the valiant soldiers of Cyprus will be insulted if Cassio will not drink with them, then feigns loyalty to Cassio when Othello demands an explanation “I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth than it should do offence to Michael Cassio“. Yet he still gets his way. Cassio is fired and Othello begins to doubt his own judgement of character.

However, Iago’s true genius is most vividly evident in the temptation scene. He preys upon each character’s weaknesses to manipulate and bamboozle them. He uses Cassio’s shame and reluctance to face his former employer to his advantage, using reverse psychology to slyly suggest that Cassio has something more to hide “I cannot think that he would steal away so guilty like“. He subtly implies that both Cassio and Othello’s reputations may be in jeopardy “good name in man and woman… is the immediate jewel of their souls” and then uses the derogatory term cuckold, warning Othello dramatically “O! beware my lord of jealousy“. Here Iago shows remarkable psycholological insight, cleverly manipulating key facets of Othello’s personality. Firstly, he senses that Othello is insecure and subtly suggests that it is strange that Desdemona chose Othello as a husband, rejecting marriage proposals from those of “her own clime, complexion and degree“. Secondly, he exploits the fact that Othello is an outsider to Venetian society and is thus socially inexperienced. Iago insinuates that Venetian women frequently cheat on their husbands yet are experts at hiding their deception. After all, Desdemona “did deceive her father” in marrying Othello. Thirdly, Iago knows that Othello is very trusting so he implies that unfortunately not all men are like this: “men should be what they seem“. Fourthly, he knows that Othello has a vivid imagination (after all, his storytelling skills are what won Desdemona’s heart) and thus claims that Cassio has been talking explicitly about Desdemona in his sleep. Iago knows that Othello won’t be able to cope with the intense jealousy and anguish which floods over him when presented with vivid images of how Cassio “laid his leg over my thigh, and sighed and kissed” even going so far as to describe Cassio as “with her, on her, what you will” to further provoke Othello’s rage. Iago knows that Othello’s pride will not let him allow such betrayal to go unpunished. Fifthly, he knows Othello’s handkerchief was given to him by his mother and is thus of great sentimental value. In claiming that Desdemona has callously given away this symbol of love “such a handkerchief did I today see Cassio wipe his beard with” Iago is indirectly suggesting that she has not just disrespected him, their love and their marriage, but also his mother, his family, his past and his culture and traditions. Finally, Iago uses the fact that Othello is a man of action who is used to making decisions quickly and acting on them immediately (“would I were satisfied“) to provoke him into rushing to judgement without too much investigation. He even uses reverse psychology, pleading with Othello to “let her live” knowing full well that Othello’s anger and inner turmoil are too powerful in this moment (“damn her lewd minx“) for him to be capable of mercy. Thus Iago corrupts Othello’s feelings for Desdemona and transforms him into a jealous monster hell-bent on revenge.

Iago turns subsequent events to his advantage, confirming Othello’s suspicions. He claims that Cassio has been bragging about his conquest of Desdemona. He convinces Othello to hide behind a curtain and spy on him and Cassio – this shows how deeply Othello is now under Iago’s control, for at the beginning of the play he refused to hide! Iago then proceeds to talk in lewd and disrespectful terms about Bianca, all the while pretending to Othello that they are talking about Desdemona. He convinces Roderigo to attack Cassio, which allows him to keep his hands clean and gives him the opportunity to dispose of Roderigo, who has started to demand his money back now that’s he’s broke. He cleverly casts suspicion on Bianca for the attack on Cassio; after all, who’s going to believe a prostitiute when she professes her innocence? Iago’s main failure is over-confidence and under-estimating his own wife. Ultimately, despite his ingenious scheme, he does get caught, but not before he has achieved the destruction he set out to achieve.




Othello – virtues & flaws



Othello is essentially a good man. From early in the play we learn that he is a trusted soldier and a loving husband who remains calm under pressure and is held in high regard in Venice.

  1. Trusted soldier – he is asked to lead the army against the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. He is described as “valiant” by the Duke, and “brave” by Montano. He has led many successful campaigns in the past “My services which I have outdone the signiory shall out-tongue his complaints

  2. Loving husband – he defends his actions in eloping, maintaining that their relationship is sincere “I love the gentle Desdemona”. He treats her as an equal, and respects her right to offer her own opinions “let her speak of me before her father”. His first concern is for her when he agrees to go to Cyprus “I crave fit disposition for my wife”. He trusts her implicitly “My life upon her faith” despite Brabantio’s warning and his love for her gives his life meaning “But I do love thee! And when I love thee not chaos is come again

  3. Calm under pressure – he honourably & confidently refuses to hide from Brabantio, as he knows his conscience is clear “I must be found: my parts, my title and my perfect soul shall manifest me rightly”. He refuses to use violence unnecessarily “Keep up your bright swords for the dew will rust them” and skilfully quietens a dangerous situation. When Brabantio accuses him of drugging his daughter, Othello agrees to answer the charges laid against him “where will you that I go?”

  4. Respected – the Duke admires Othello so much that he tries to convince Brabantio to lay aside his racism and accept his new son-in-law: “I think this tale would win my daughter too your son-in-law is far more fair than black

Despite having many suitors, Desdemona chose Othello as her husband “to his honours and his valiant parts did I my soul and fortunes consecrate”

Even Iago, who claims to “hate the Moor” admits that he is a good man “The Moor…is of a constant loving noble nature and I dare think that he’ll prove to Desdemona a most dear husband


Othello is not without flaws however. He is too proud, too trusting, too impulsive and extremely insecure despite his outward show of arrogance.

  1. Pride & vanity – Othello is the first to suggest that Othello is self-centered and arrogant “loving his own pride and purposes”. This impression is strengthened when Othello boasts “I fetch my life and being from men of royal siege”. Even his love for Desdemona could be interpreted as extremely vain “She loved me for the dangers I had passed, and I loved her that she did pity them”. Is it possible that he loves her simply because she flatters his ego? {OR is their love deeper – does she understand him and accept him in a way that no other woman ever has?} His later behaviour towards Cassio & Desdemona is partially motivated by wounded pride: “I’d rather be a toad and live upon the vapour of a dungeon, than keep a corner in the thing I love for other’s uses”

  1. Trusting – Iago uses Othello’s blind faith in other human beings to his advantage “The Moor is of a free and open nature, that thinks men honest that but seem to be so, & will as tenderly be led by the nose as asses are”. Othello frequently mistakes appearance for reality, never delving beneath the surface to seek a deeper, more complex truth. He only briefly suspects Iago (“If thou dost slander her and torture me, never pray more, abandon all remorse, on horror’s head horrors accumulate”) and when Iago pretends to be offended Othello immediately back-pedals. Once he decides that he was wrong to trust Cassio and Desdemona, he is filled with a desire for revenge because they have taken away his faith in the essential goodness and integrity of human nature.

  2. Impulsive – As a soldier, Othello must be decisive. He must establish the facts on the battlefield and quickly decide on his next course of action. This trait works against him here. Although he insisted on being given the opportunity to defend himself against Brabantio’s accusations, he does not give Cassio the same fair trial: “Cassio I love thee; but never more be officer of mine”. {Does this make Othello a hypocrite? Or simply a man who values his reputation/cannot be seen to condone this behaviour?} Othello’s impatience to know the truth and act on it is also evident when he begins to doubt Desdemona “To be once in doubt is once to be resolved…” “I’ll have some proof”. Yet he accepts Iago’s insinuations about Cassio and Desdemona (asking “Why did I marry?”) even before Iago offers his ‘proofs’ of the handkerchief & Cassio’s sleep talking. Othello cannot bear uncertainty, and has a very simplistic view of human emotions – either he loves her with all his heart or he hates her with an equally passionate intensity “She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief must be to loathe her”

  1. Insecure – despite seeming confident, even arrogant on the outside, Othello is actually quite insecure. He accepts Iago’s suggestion that Desdemona was somehow abnormal or strange when she chose him as a husband: “Not to affect many proposed matches of her own clime, complexion and degree…one may smell in such a will most rank” Bizarrely, Othello behaves in a racist manner against himself when he accepts this as proof of Desdemona’s degeneracy, and instructs Iago “set on thy wife to observe”. He is also insecure because he is an outsider in Venetian society. He lacks experience and local knowledge when it comes to Venetian women and so believes Iago’s assertion that they secretly cheat on their husbands: “In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks they dare not show their husbands”. Othello’s greatest insecurity is a fear that his rich, white, beautiful, aristocratic wife doesn’t truly love him. Perhaps he all too quickly believes the lies Iago tells him about his wife because he secretly believes that the racist majority in Venice are right: maybe a black man is an unattractive creature, not quite human, unworthy of love.


Unforgivable behaviour:

  1. He asks Iago to have Emilia spy on Desdemona “set on thy wife to observe”

  2. He knows that either Iago is lying, or Desdemona is. Yet he never offers his wife the benefit of the doubt, even though he claims to love & trust her “my life upon her faith”

  3. Othello does not demand justice. A fair hearing for the accused (which he himself got after eloping with Desdemona) is never considered. He craves revenge (“arise black vengeance from the hollow hell”), a less noble, more volatile emotion.

  4. Othello tests his wife’s loyalty secretly (“fetch me the handkerchief, my mind misgives”) instead of openly confronting her and attempting real communication.

  5. He spies on Cassio (prompted by Iago) instead of openly confronting him.

  6. Othello publicly insults & strikes his wife “subtle whore” “impudent strumpet” “devil”

  7. He refuses to accept Emilia’s reassurances that nothing is going on “if she be not honest, chaste and true, there’s no man happy”. He has already closed his mind to the possibility of her innocence.

  8. When he finally accuses his wife “are you not a strumpet?” he ignores her genuine protestations “no as I am a Christian”. He won’t tell her what it is exactly she’s supposed to have done (it would be too humiliating to repeat) and as a result she never gets the opportunity to prove her innocence.

  9. He orders the murder of a trusted loyal general (Cassio) and fools himself into believing that he is the instrument of divine justice when he kills Desdemona.

  10. Othello absolves himself of blame, describing himself as an “honourable murderer”. He is full of self-pity “demand that demi-devil why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body” rather than self-loathing.

Othello’s suicide? For Cassio & a Shakespearean audience, this was a brave noble deed (“this did I fear for he was great of heart”) because he will writhe in the torments of hell forever paying for his crime. However a modern audience may feel suicide is the easy way out. It allows him to escape the consequences of his actions. As Othello says to Iago “I’d have thee live, for in my sense tis happiness to die”.


A tragic hero?

There are many reasons why an audience might feel great sympathy for Othello:

  1. Othello is essentially a good man – see list above.

  2. For no good reason and through no fault of his own, Othello has made an enemy whose mission in life is to destroy Othello and everything he holds dear: “O! you are well tuned now, but I’ll set down the pegs that make this music”. This enemy is highly intelligent, extremely manipulative, a master of deception, a skilled opportunist and worst of all, a trusted friend. It is extremely perverse that Othello should confide in this traitor every step of the way, and turn to him for advice. Each time he defends Iago (“an honest man he is, and hates the slime that sticks on filthy deeds” “O brave Iago, honest and just! That hast such noble sense of thy friend’s wrong”) we feel sick to our stomachs. Yet every character in the play is taken in by Iago (even his wife) and it is fair to say that without Iago, this tragedy would not have occurred. For some people, however, it is Othello’s very trusting nature that makes them dislike him. Perhaps some audiences like to (probably unfairly) view Othello as a fool, because the thought that we could be so taken in and corrupted by another human being is too much to bear.

  3. Othello’s behaviour makes sense psychologically:

(a)When he fires Cassio, although this is a rash decision, it is understandable. After all, Cassio has injured one of Cyprus’ greatest generals; has caused a brawl whilst on guard duty in a city just recovering from war; has interrupted Othello’s first night with his new bride; and does not deny the charges made against him – because they are true. Othello cannot be seen to condone this behaviour & must protect both his reputation & Cyprus’ fragile peace.

(b) At the beginning of the temptation scene, Othello is a devoted husband: “Perdition catch my soul but I do love thee! And when I love thee not, chaos is come again”. By the end of the scene, he is consumed by a desire for revenge “Arise black vengeance from the hollow hell”. Yet at many points during this scene we feel sorry for him. He is filled with confusion, torn between grief (“she’s gone, I am abused”), anger (“…and my relief must be to loathe her”) and disbelief (“if she be false, O! then heaven mocks itself. I’ll not believe it”)

After all, the more you love and trust someone, the more it will hurt if they betray you. Furthermore, Iago is cleverly manipulating key facets of Othello’s personality. Firstly, he is insecure. He has begun to doubt his own judgement of character – after all, it seems he was wrong about Cassio (drunken lout!). He finds it hard to understand why Desdemona chose him, rejecting those of “her own clime, complexion and degree”. Deep down he feels unworthy of her love, & Iago seems to sense this. Secondly, he is an outsider to Venetian society. He feels socially (and possibly sexually) inexperienced & therefore accepts Iago’s insinuations that Venetian women frequently cheat on their husbands yet are experts at hiding their deception. After all “she did deceive her father” in marrying Othello. Thirdly, he is very trusting. He places great sentimental value on his mother’s handkerchief & thus sees it as the ultimate betrayal to give it away. Fourthly, he has a vivid imagination, and cannot cope with the intense jealousy and anguish which floods over him when Iago presents him with vivid images of his wife with another man “then laid his leg over my thigh, and sighed and kissed” “with her, on her, what you will”. Fifthly, he is proud of his achievements on the battlefield & of the fact that Desdemona married him “for she had eyes and she chose me”. His wounded pride (understandably) cannot accept the idea of sharing her “I’d rather be a toad and live upon the vapour of a dungeon than keep a corner in the thing I love for other’s uses”. Finally, he is a man of action who is used to making decisions quickly & acting on them. He craves certainty “would I were satisfied” which partially explains why he rushes to judgement without investigating further.

  1. Once Iago corrupts Othello’s feelings for Desdemona and transforms him into a jealous monster hell-bent on revenge, Othello suffers terribly. He is desperate to prove Iago wrong and is tormented when Desdemona cannot produce it “fetch me the handkerchief, my mind misgives”. He is so distraught by the thought of Cassio and Desdemona together “Lie with her! Lie on her!…Is it possible? – Confess – Handkerchief – O devil!” that he has an epileptic fit. When he thinks he overhears Cassio speaking disrespectfully about Desdemona (he was actually talking about Bianca) and sees Bianca giving Cassio the handkerchief, any remaining doubt about their guilt is washed away. Yet he still loves Desdemona, and is torn between these tender feelings “a fine woman! a fair woman! a sweet woman! …”the pity of it Iago” and a deep inner pain, manifested as rage, at her betrayal “let her rot, and perish, and be damned tonight; for she shall not live”. When he strikes Desdemona our sympathy is at it’s lowest ebb yet, but we can still understand his actions: he overheard and misinterpreted her when she said “I would do much to atone them for the love I bear to Cassio”. He lists all of the hardships he would have been willing to endure for his beloved wife – sores, shames, poverty, captivity, scorn – but the one thing he cannot endure is having his heart so cruelly broken, his love so cruelly discarded (Act 4, scene 2). When the time comes to kill Desdemona, Othello almost changes his mind. It is heartbreaking to watch him kissing her “O balmy breath, that dost almost persuade justice to break her sword!” because we the audience know that all of this suffering is in vain. His desire to save her immortal soul is touching “have you prayed tonight?” Although we despise him for killing an innocent, he is in the grip of passionate, uncontrollable emotions: Desdemona describes how his whole body shakes as he gnaws his lip and rolls his eyes. He feels no satisfaction once the deed is done “O insupportable! O heavy hour”. When the truth finally emerges, Othello is filled with horror and shame: “this look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven, and fiends will snatch at it” “wash me down in steep down gulfs of liquid fire! O Desdemona! Desdemona! dead!”.

Our final assessment of Othello’s character is largely coloured by the final scene:

  • We despise him for killing Desdemona, and for glorifying his vigilante behaviour as some kind of divine justice YET we admire his efforts to save her eternal soul & the anguish he feels whilst carrying out this gruesome task.

  • We disapprove of his arrogance in describing himself as an “honourable murderer” as this suggests that he doesn’t fully accept responsibility for his actions YET we empathise with his overwhelming grief “cold, cold, my girl

  • We understand his rage at Iago “demand that demi-devil why he hath thus ensnared my soulYET this strengthens our impression that he is looking to lay the blame entirely at someone else’s feet.

  • His final speech is self-indulgent and self-pitying in the extreme “one that loved not wisely but too well, of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought, perplexed in the extreme” YET his grief (his subdued eyes “drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees”) and awareness of what he has lost “threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe” are truly tragic to behold.

  • Othello’s suicide: A brave noble deed (“this did I fear for he was great of heart”) or the easy way out? (“I’d have thee live, for in my sense tis happiness to die”). You decide.                         

Lady Macbeth Jigsaw

Recently, I decided there were 3 things I’d really like all of my students (not just those who always get A’s) to understand about essay writing. They were

STANCE – you have to take up a position, interpret events, offer an opinion. The same facts can lead to different conclusions for different people (mostly agree, balanced view, mostly disagree)

STRUCTURE – you must create tightly woven paragraphs, with depth, flow and sophistication. See the “perfect paragraph project” for a simplified version of this idea.

SEQUENCE – for character and theme essays you’ll probably follow the chronological order of the play. You don’t have to, but it probably helps to follow the order in which events unfold. Also, starting with the murder of Lady Macduff, then jumping back to Duncan’s murder, then hopping to the sleepwalking scene and then back to the Banquet scene wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense, now would it? The danger here is that you need to avoid telling the story. ONLY include details relevant to answering the question.

(WARNING: certain questions require a non-chronological response, for example “Relevance to a Modern Audience” or “Shakespeare’s play offers a dark and pessimistic view of human nature” because each paragraph will most likely focus on a different character or theme or scene).

To teach these concepts, I came up with the following lesson, designed for a double class period:

Below you’ll find 15 paragraphs on Lady Macbeth all mixed up in no particular order. 

5 of them, arranged in the correct sequence, create an essay which takes a very positive interpretation of her motivations and behaviour.

5 of them, arranged in the correct sequence, create an essay which takes a balanced view of her motivations and behaviour.

5 of them, arranged in the correct sequence, create an essay which basically slates her! 

I didn’t include introductions or conclusions – I felt that would makes the ‘jigsaw‘ too easy.

I gave the fifteen paragraphs, out of sequence, to my Leaving Certs. I asked them to decide which 5 paragraphs belonged in the positive essay; the balanced essay; and the negative essay. (Thus they were reading for a specific purpose)

Then they had to arrange them in the correct order. As they completed the exercise, I gave them a photocopy of each essay in the correct sequence so they could check the correct order and see how they’d done.

Next I asked them to highlight any words/phrases or ideas they didn’t understand and I explained what they meant. (Again, reading for a specific purpose)

Their next challenge was to figure out what the essay title was!

Finally, I gave them 3 essay titles. For homework they had to select one and write an essay as a response.

Here are the essay titles I gave them:

Lady Macbeth is the architect of her own downfall” – Discuss

We feel little pity for Lady Macbeth in the early stages of the play, but as her remorse grows, so does our sympathy for her” – Discuss

Lady Macbeth is motivated by selfish ambition and lacks a moral conscience” – To what extent do you agree with this assessment of her character?

Below you’ll find the paragraphs in mixed up sequence:


Lady Macbeth did not make a positive first impression on me. She sees nagging as a form of bravery, vowing to “chastise [Macbeth] with the valour of [her] tongue” and views kindness as a weakness, criticising her husband for being “too full of the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way”. This moral confusion and inability to distinguish between right and wrong makes her in some ways similar to the witches who claim that “fair is foul and foul is fair”. However, unlike them, evil does not come easily to her – she knows she will need help to behave in an immoral way, hence her demand “come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts…. fill me from the crown to the toe top full of direst cruelty”. Furthermore, she may be doing the wrong thing but she’s doing it for the right reasons: she is utterly devoted to her husband. She knows he wants to be King but may not be willing to do what she feels is necessary to realise this goal (“thou wouldst be great, art not without ambition but without the illness should attend it”)  and hates the thought that he might live to regret his inaction in the face of the prophecy. Thus, although I don’t approve morally of Lady Macbeth’s behaviour I found it easy to understand her, to empathise with her motivation and thus to like her somewhat despite her flaws.


From the very first moment she appeared on stage, Lady Macbeth struck me as a manipulative, domineering wife with zero moral conscience. She immediately jumps to the conclusion that they will have to engage in acts of “direst cruelty” in order for Macbeth to become King, despite the fact that her husband never suggests that they use violence to achieve “what greatness is promised”.  This evil streak is further evident in her commentary on her husbands’ personality: she views his humanity and empathy as negative traits, describing that fact that he is “too full of the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way” as a weakness. Her eagerness to “pour my spirits in [Macbeth’s] ear”, her willingness to be possessed by evil spirits (“come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here…”) and her delight in embracing the darkness (“come thick night and pall thee in the funnest smoke of hell”) are all to me strong evidence of her fundamentally immoral outlook and domineering personality. I certainly would not like to be married to her. 


Lady Macbeth’s reaction to Macbeth’s letter about the witches prophesy introduced me to a devoted wife who will go to any lengths to help her husband achieve his potential. Her belief that her husband is “too full of the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way” and lacks the ruthlessness necessary to fulfil his ambitions is what drives her on. She is determined to “chastise [him] with the valour of [her] tongue” because she hates the idea that her husband will one day look back on his life and feel as if he let opportunities for greatness pass him by. It’s also clear that Lady Macbeth in not inherently evil – she in no ways relishes the idea of committing the sin of regicide. In fact, she knows she will need to be possessed in order to see it through, hence she proclaims “come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe top full of direst cruelty”. Thus, my initial reaction to Lady Macbeth was quite positive: here was a woman willing to do whatever it took to support her husband in achieving his dream of one day becoming King.


Whilst some critics point to Lady Macbeth’s failure to carry out the actual murder, this does not endear her to me. Duncan’s coincidental similarity to her father (“Hath he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t”) is not enough to make her re-consider their plan. She fakes comforting words (“these deeds must not be thought of after these ways; so, it will make us mad”) to try and snap Macbeth out of his reverie but in my opinion she is motivated entirely by self-interest here – she doesn’t want them to get caught. Her lack of compassion reappears as she lambasts her husband for bringing the murder weapon from the crime scene (”infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers”) and without hesitation, she returns to Duncan’s chamber to “gild the faces of the grooms” with blood, thus framing them for the murder. She will do whatever it takes to get away with murder, including her false fainting spell, designed to draw attention away from Macbeth. She is a selfish, ruthless, immoral individual whose lack of empathy or remorse is best summed up in her flippant remark “a little water clears us of this deed”. As you can see, I do not like this woman, nor do I buy into the notion that she is guiltless simply because she did not “bear the knife [herself]”.  


However, ultimately I found myself devastated to witness her intense suffering during the sleepwalking scene, and this I took as proof that despite her significant flaws, I had grown fond of her. I found her horror as she relived their crimes (“the Thane of Fife had a wife, where is she now?”) and her devastating realisation she would never again be free of this guilt (“All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”) truly heartbreaking. She made a mistake and this mistake destroyed her, her marriage, her happiness and her future. Thus I liked her despite her flaws, yet I could nonetheless understand why Malcolm described her as a “fiend-like queen” given the havoc and destruction wrought upon Scotland by her and Macbeth’s crimes.


This devotion to her husband is again evident when she convinces him to murder Duncan. Although her tactics are quite manipulative (suggesting he doesn’t truly love her if he doesn’t keep his promise) Lady Macbeth is once again concerned only for the regret he will feel if he backs out now. She warns him that he will have to “live a coward in thine own esteem” forever and worries about the negative impact this would have on his self-esteem. Her obsession with Macbeth’s future happiness is actually quite easy to understand. Firstly, she loves her husband. Secondly, she knows that he is deeply ambitious. Thirdly, it’s possible that she feels guilty that she has not provided him with a living heir; after all, a woman’s role in this era was primarily to get married and produce children. We know they have had at least one child (“I have given suck and know how tender tis to love the babe that milks me”) who, for reasons unknown, has died. It is possible that she feels guilty that she has failed to fulfil his dream to be a father and this in turn has made her doubly determined to see him achieve his other life’s goal, which is to be King. She may be convincing him to do the wrong thing, but she is doing it for good reasons and as a result I could not help but like her. 


The sleepwalking scene is generally highlighted as the moment of greatest empathy and connection between the audience and Lady Macbeth but I personally found myself unmoved by her suffering. Yes, she is reliving their crimes, which is no doubt unpleasant, but she also reminds us here of her part in convincing Macbeth to kill Duncan (“Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier and afeard?”) and of her filthy smearing of his royal blood on the chamberlains (“Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”). In this context, is it any surprise that she asks the question “what will these hands ne’er be clean?In my opinion, it is about time that the horror of her crimes registered with her properly, but it stretches the bounds of human empathy too far to expect me to feel pity for this “fiend-like queen”.



My fondness for Lady Macbeth increased tenfold when her intense remorse finally surfaced. She learns too late that “a little water” will be wholly inadequate to clear them of this deed as she realises that “noughts had, all’s spent, where our desire is got without content”. I empathised with her deep suffering as she began to envy Duncan’s peaceful sleep of death, observing sadly “tis safer to be that which we destroy than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy”. Yet she conceals her inner turmoil from her husband, pretending that everything’s fine so that he won’t worry about her. Her desire to comfort and protect him never wanes as she advises him that “things without all remedy should be without regard”. Even as he pushes her away (“Be innocent of the knowledge dearest chuck”) she continues to protect him, both during the banquet (“Sit worthy friends, my lord is often thus and hath been since his youth”) and afterwards (“You lack the season of all natures, sleep”). Her humanity has never been more evident and my sense of her as an essentially good, if misguided woman, was strengthened even further here.


Lady Macbeth’s humanity is briefly evident when she finds herself unable to murder Duncan and this glimpse of a conscience (“Hath he not resembled my father as he slept I had done’t”) made me like her a lot more. Her desire to help her husband (“these deeds must not be thought of after these ways; so, it will make us mad”) and save him from insanity is touching, as is her naive belief that they will be able to simply forget their crime (“a little water clears us of this deed”) and move on with their new life as King and Queen. However, just as I was starting to like her, she lambasted her husband for bringing the murder weapon from the scene of the crime (”infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers”) and without hesitation, she returned to Duncan’s chamber to “gild the faces of the grooms” with blood, thus framing them for the murder. Once again I found myself on a roller-coaster, unsure how to feel about the Machiavellian yet vulnerable Lady Macbeth.



Immediately prior to Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth’s behaviour is bullying, manipulative and quite shocking, making it difficult for us to like her. She mocks her husband, demanding dismissively “Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?”; emotionally blackmailing him by suggesting that he doesn’t really love her if he backs out; painting a horrific picture of a future filled with self-loathing (“and live a coward in thine one esteem”) if he passes up this opportunity; calling his manliness into question (“when you durst do it, then you were a man”) and most disturbingly of all, describing in vivid detail how she would commit infanticide – would pluck her nipple from her beloved child’s suckling mouth and dash his brains out on the floor – rather than break a promise to her husband. However, all of this is motivated by her love for her husband and her awareness of his ‘vaulting ambition’. I also found myself feeling very sorry for her when I discovered that she had given birth to and lost a child. Hence, almost despite myself, I found myself quite liking this determined forceful woman who would let nothing get in the way of her husband achieving his ambition.



Lady Macbeth finally begins to realise that evil actions have very real consequences (“nought’s had, all’s spent, where our desire is got without content”) but this was not sufficient to make me actually like her. Yet again her focus was entirely on her own happiness, and I found it particularly twisted that she would have the cheek to ‘envy’ Duncan (“tis safer to be that which we destroy than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy”) because he is ‘safe’ in death. I’m sure given the choice he would have swapped death for life in a heartbeat – but Lady Macbeth did not give him the option to live and now she has the gall to suggest that he’s better off dead! Her utterly selfish desire to protect her own power and position is again evident in the Banquet scene. She first blames Macbeth’s erratic behaviour on epilepsy and when it becomes clear that this is an inadequate explanation, she dismisses their guests unceremoniously “stand not upon the order of your going but go at once”. Combined with her sarcastic mockery of Macbeth (“Why do you make such faces? You look but on a chair”), I found Lady Macbeth an utterly contemptible character with few, if any, redeeming characteristics.


Even in the moment where Duncan is murdered, Lady Macbeth’s humanity is in evidence. She gets the chamberlains drunk, yet when it comes to committing a truly evil deed, she does not have what it takes to murder an old man in his bed, commenting sadly that Duncan “resembled [her] father as he slept”. Once there is no going back, yet again her wifely concern surfaces as she tries to shake Macbeth out of his trance insisting “these deeds must not be thought after these ways; so, it will make us mad”. She is naive in believing that “a little water clears us of this deed” but naivety is not a trait I normally associate with evil people and her fainting spell may well have been genuine shock when faced with the reality of their crime. Alternatively, even if her faint was fake, it was nonetheless inspired by a desire to protect her husband, lest anyone get suspicious following his admission that he killed the chamberlains. Thus, despite her immoral scheming, I continue to see her humanity and like her as a person. 


The ultimate testament to Lady Macbeth’s character comes in the moments before her suicide. In the sleepwalking scene, I found her guilt as she relives their crimes (“The Thane of Fife had a wife, where is she now?”) and ultimately recognises that she will never again view herself as anything but a killer (“All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”) truly heartbreaking. She made a mistake and this mistake destroyed her, her marriage, her happiness and her future. I liked her despite her flaws,  was devastated to hear that she “by self and violent hands took off her life” and could never see her as Malcolm did, as nothing more than a “fiend-like queen”


My negative impression of her was further strengthened when she bullied Macbeth into agreeing to murder Duncan. She mocked her husband, demanding dismissively “Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?”; emotionally blackmailing him, suggesting that he doesn’t really love her if he backs out; painting a horrific picture of a future filled with self-loathing (“and live a coward in thine one esteem”) if he passes up this opportunity; calling his manliness into question (“when you durst do it, then you were a man”) and most disturbingly of all, describing in vivid detail how she would commit infanticide (would pluck her nipple from her beloved child’s suckling mouth and dash his brains out on the floor) rather than break a promise to her husband. Her manipulation of him was so profound, so morally bankrupt and so effective that within minutes she had transformed him saying “we shall proceed no further in this business” to moments later agreeing to kill Duncan “I am settled and bend up each corporal agent to this terrible feat”. How anyone could like this woman or defend her behaviour is absolutely baffling to me.


Lady Macbeth’s remorse, when it surfaces, does help us to like her, yet her failure to confide her doubts and fears in her husband is a frustrating aspect of her personality that lessens our fondness for her. She admits to us that “nought’s had, all’s spent where our desire is got without content” and that she would rather be dead like Duncan (“tis safer to be that which we destroy”) than living the hellish uncertainty she now inhabits (“than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy”), terrified at any moment that they will get caught. However, her pretence that everything is fine (“what’s done is done”) and later, during the banquet, her scorn for her husband’s suffering (“this is the very painting of your fear”…. “Shame itself! Why do you make such faces? You look but on a chair”) made me waver in my affection for her. Every time I find a reason to like her, she provides me with a very good reason not to.



Remember, there are no introductions or conclusions but you MUST include both.

Finally, the essay title was the very simple “Lady Macbeth is not a likeable character” – Discuss.

Tragic Hero?

Just what is a tragic hero? Obviously someone who is ‘tragic’ has suffered a great deal and we feel sorry for them. Someone who is a ‘hero’ is someone we admire and respect. The definition of the tragic hero in literature is only slightly more complex. You need to look for the following three elements.

The tragic hero

  1. commands our respect and sympathy
  2. possesses some human flaw in character or judgement which partially brings about his downfall
  3. recognises that he is somewhat to blame

Two other elements are worth mentioning. The first is that the consequences far outweigh the fault – in simple terms, he suffers far more than he deserves to. The second is that his suffering provokes an emotional response in the reader – the ‘tragedy’ is created because we are filled with grief & sympathy at the unfairness of what he has to endure.

If we apply this definition to Hamlet you’ll see that he

  1. Immediately commands our respect & sympathy. He obeys his mother despite his disgust at her behaviour. He values honesty “I have that within which passes show”. He is grieving his dead father & attempts to come to terms with his mother’s betrayal which evokes our sympathy. He is suicidal but moral “o that the everlasting had not fixed his cannon against self-slaughter” and aware of his duty to obey the King “it is not nor it cannot come to good but break my heart for I must hold my tongue”. He is described by Ophelia as ‘honourable’ and treats Horatio as a friend rather than as a subject (proving that he has no sense of being ‘better’ than others despite his royal blood).  You then need to look at how our sympathy for him ebbs and flows however. There are moments when we struggle to accept his behaviour – for example his reaction to killing Polonius, his decision to send R&G to their deaths and his treatment of Laertes in the graveyard. However, he regains his nobility somewhat when he exchanges forgiveness with Laertes, when he finally kills Claudius, when he saves Horatio, and in the tributes paid to him by Horatio & Fortinbras. (THIS IS A SUMMARY – YOU MUST OFFER A MORE IN DEPTH ANALYSIS WITH QUOTES)
  2. Possesses some human flaw in character or judgement which partially brings about his downfall. His ‘flaw’ is his procrastination, although this is a flaw we can admire. He is determined to establish Claudius’ guilt before he kills him, showing that he is a person who believes in doing the right thing. The deaths of many characters – Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Laertes, even R&G can be either directly or indirectly viewed as a consequence of Hamlet’s ‘delay’, his rage at his own inability to act and then his impulsive ‘rash and bloody deed’ in killing Polonius, thinking it was Claudius behind the arras. (THIS IS A SUMMARY – YOU MUST OFFER A MORE IN DEPTH ANALYSIS WITH QUOTES)
  3. Recognises that he is somewhat to blame. Throughout the play Hamlet makes reference to his tendency to think rather than act. Almost all of his seven soliloquies involve deeply self-critical commentary. He cannot explain, justify, or even understand “why yet I live to say this thing’s to do”. He is filled with shame when he compares himself to Fortinbras & Laertes. Thus Hamlet absolutely recognises his flaw. (THIS IS A SUMMARY – YOU MUST OFFER A MORE IN DEPTH ANALYSIS WITH QUOTES)

The entire play dramatically presents a battle between rage & despair in Hamlet’s soul as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that he must carry out a deed which is anathema to his personality “the time is out of joint o cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right”. Thus we respect him, feel sympathy for him, recognise (as he does) his flaws and experience his death as deeply tragic yet in some ways inevitable. He ticks all the boxes so a question asking you to discuss whether or not Hamlet is a tragic hero could be fairly straightforward if you just keep these three things in mind!

You could complicate it further IF YOU WANTED TO make your answer more original.

Let’s think for a second about the idea of the anti-hero. This is a character who we ‘admire and feel sympathy for’ so that box is still ticked. What makes the antihero different is their personality – something in their character is different to our usual definition of a ‘hero’. In Hamlet’s case he doesn’t behave the way we expect the hero to behave in a revenge tragedy – we expect him to carry out his revenge quickly and unequivocally, without hesitation. Instead he examines the morality of what he must do, gets sidetracked into arguments with the women in his life, thinks long and hard about killing himself (but as with everything else he talks about, he doesn’t do it!), gives a lecture on good acting to some actors, fails to kill Claudius because he wants him to burn in hell forever, kills Polonius by accident, is sent away, makes a deal with some pirates, comes back and again gets sidetracked – this time into a fencing match which will prove fatal for all of the major characters who aren’t already dead. So his ‘flaw’ (procrastination) is also the thing which makes him more antihero than hero. If you wanted to you could describe him as a tragic antihero rather than as a typical tragic hero. Or you can stick with the simpler definition above.

Now think about this for a second. Do you like him? I find myself torn between sympathy (your mom’s a bitch) and frustration (just do it already!). Psychologists say the traits you most dislike in others are often the things you most dislike about yourself. Let’s apply that to Hamlet for a second – he annoys me because he talks about doing things instead of just doing them. Then I think about myself – I talked about doing this website for well over a year before I actually did anything about it. I keep talking about going to NY but I’ve never been. Right now I should be finalising things for the short story competition but I’m putting it off. Now think about yourself for a minute. Think about all the time you waste talking about and thinking about studying but not actually doing it! If Hamlet irritates you maybe that’s because he is so goddamned HUMAN. So weak, so flawed and so like all of us. Maybe we want our ‘heroes’ on telly, in the movies, in plays, to be more heroic and less real. Paradoxically however, the fact that he is so real, so ordinary, so flawed, so weak, so impulsive and so insecure is what makes him so fascinating, so compelling and so tragic.