Category Archives: Othello

Reading Shakespeare (Othello)

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent Written Word supplement on Tuesday, 27th January 2015.IMG_0304

Plays are meant to be performed on a stage, not dissected in a classroom! Right?

Well, wrong actually. An either/or debate with performance on one side and close reading of the text on the other is completely pointless. Plays are meant to be studied and performed.

Let’s imagine a bunch of actors are preparing to put on a performance of Othello. They will both study the play and perform the play and crucially, they could not perform it well without studying it closely. For this reason, in rehearsal, they will treat the play script like their bible.

A close reading of the text will assist them in figuring out:

  • Othello, Iago and Desdemona’s motivations [perhaps a quest for respect, revenge and freedom respectively?] and state of mind.
  • the relationships between them and how they change and evolve
  • the themes which dominate [jealousy, revenge, deception, betrayal and corrupted love?]
  • the key moments which best embody these themes
  • setting and cultural context [Venice as civilised but sexist, Cyprus as a volatile unruly hothouse, the complex issue of racism and attitudes towards adultery, honour and justice]
  • how the beginning grabs the audience [Iago’s secret scheme]; where the most compelling moments of drama occur [the temptation scene]; the dramatic climax [Othello murders Desdemona]; and the impact of the ending [horror, shock, disgust…].
  • the flow of the plot and the speed at which events unfold [Shakespeare’s text contains contradictions but it’s most likely that Othello murdered Desdemona within a few days of and possibly as little as a day and a half after, his arrival in Cyprus]
  • the impact of the dramatic and literary devices used. [For example, Iago’s soliloquies make us feel complicit in his crimes; foreshadowing is created through recurring imagery, particularly jealousy as a monster; the symbolism of the handkerchief as a sign of loyalty and the foreboding we feel as this symbol comes to represent ‘proof’ of Desdemona’s betrayal; and dramatic irony drips from every page as the gulf between appearance and reality gets wider and wider and wider, all thanks to Iago’s machiavellian scheme].

We tend to think that these features come to life more fully embodied in the flesh, rather than read on a page, and so they do, for an audience. But the actors job works in both directions, moving from the page to the stage and back again; engaging in a constant interplay between the two until what is on the page becomes so fully a part of the performer that he no longer needs to script.

Will actors look at other performances of the play as they prepare? Perhaps, but always in a comparative way. There is no ‘correct’ interpretation of Othello. Examining the differences in the interpretations various actors have taken might help, but an actor won’t copy and paste a performance. They wouldn’t get much praise or admiration for a ‘karaoke’ version; an actor needs to put their own stamp on the character!

You may well say ‘this is all quite fascinating but bottom line, as a student in a classroom, where should my focus be? Am I the actor figuring out how to perform the role? Am I the audience member, swept up in the emotion of the drama? Or am I the theatre critic, analysing how the various elements all hang together?

The truth is, you are expected to be all three!

You’ll need to think like an actor, constantly interrogating the play script to figure out all of the same things as the actor listed above – characters, themes, setting, plot, dramatic devices etc. The complicating factor is that you need to do this for all of the characters, not just one, so perhaps your role is closer to that of director than actor.

You’ll also need to think like an audience member. Your experience of watching a play undoubtedly matters and the emotions you feel should not be ignored or discarded or dismissed. In fact, one of the most common examination questions on the Shakespearean play asks you to trace your fluctuating levels of sympathy for the central characters, so tune in to your human visceral response as the play unfolds.

And finally, you need to think like a critic. How well put together is this play? What devices are used and how do they impact on the audience? What ‘version’ of each character is being presented to you in each performance you watch?

This is all very abstract so let’s try and make it real.


Imagine you’re an actor playing the role of Iago.  Will you play Iago as a vindictive twisted little man who’s throwing all the toys out of the pram because he didn’t get what he wanted (promotion and the social status that goes along with it)? If that’s the version of him that makes the most sense to you, you’ll create a performance akin to Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder. Sneaky, sly, manipulative and ultimately dislikable. But if you take Iago more seriously and see him as a dangerous sociopath, utterly devoid of conscience, then your version of Iago will more closely resemble Tom Vaughan Lawlor as Nidge in Love/Hate. A remorseless, ruthless, single-minded psycho with an indefinable charm. The kind of person who will smile in your face even as he stabs you in the back.


These two versions will in turn have very different impacts on the audience. We’ll be amused by the Blackadder-esque Iago but we’ll also view him as somewhat pathetic. His vindictiveness will disgust us and we’ll want him to get caught. But if we’re viewing a Nidge-esque portrayal of Iago, we’ll be constantly on the edge of our seats, terrified by yet weirdly drawn to this magnetic psycho. We’ll know he deserves to get caught but we’ll feel conflicted about whether or not we want that to happen.


What is it about the way Shakespeare has written the part of Iago that makes us wonder why the play’s not named after him? He is not the eponymous hero of the title and yet, without Iago, there is no play. How does he drive forward the plot? What language and imagery emerges from his mouth? How does the irony at the centre of the play hinge almost entirely on his contradictory words and actions? How does his behaviour at the end effect the atmosphere in the theatre as the play ends and the curtain comes down?

So should you study the play or see it performed?

The answer is not either or, but both!




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.






Othello Exam Questions

First of all let’s look at the broad categories questions usually fall into:

  2. THEME
  3. OPEN
  4. STYLE


You must be able to discuss the following when it comes to characters:


  • a tragic hero? (does he recognise his flaws and gain self-knowledge?)
  • his nobility (is he a good man?) / strengths & weaknesses / virtues & flaws
  • his relationship with Desdemona & treatment of her
  • his manipulation by Iago and transformation into a jealous brute
  • the extent to which he is responsible for the tragedy which occurs at the end of the play
  • our level of sympathy for him


  • the real ‘hero’ of the action?
  • flaws and virtues?
  • his motivation
  • how he controls & manipulates all of the action/characters


  • too good to be true or a believable character?
  • dramatic function in the play?

Emilia / Bianca:

  • Emilia’s dramatic function in the play
  • foils to Desdemona – worldly and cynical rather than pure and innocent
  • add variety to Shakespeare’s presentation of women & his exploration of their position in society


  • symbol of goodness
  • extent to which he contributes to the tragedy

All characters:

  • contrast the extremes of good and evil presented in the characters in the play
  • the play is very pessimistic about human nature
  • the play is very pessimistic about human relationships


The major themes in the play are:

  • Jealousy
  • Revenge / Power
  • Good vs Evil
  • Appearance vs Reality (Deception/Manipulation)
  • Love & Hate / Loyalty & Betrayal
  • Racism
  • Women’s position in society

For each theme – no matter what the wording – ask yourself

  1. WHO does this theme apply to?
  2. HOW / WHY does this character have to deal with this issue?
  3. Do they CHANGE over the course of the play?
  4. Are there any SCENES which highlight this theme specifically?
  5. What are our FINAL IMPRESSIONS of this issue?


  • Relevance to a modern audience
  • Pessimistic play


  • Language & Imagery
  • Dramatic Irony
  • Compelling Drama – scene or scenes


Othello & Iago:

 “Othello’s foolishness, rather than Iago’s cleverness, leads to the tragedy of Shakespeare’s Othello” (2008)

It is Othello’s egotism and lack of self-knowledge, and not Iago’s evil schemes, which ultimately bring about the tragedy at the end of the play

Othello is arrogant, impulsive and violent. While Iago sets up the conditions for tragedy to occur, it is Othello, ultimately, who we must hold responsible for the tragic events which unfold

A combination of Iago’s skill, Othello’s weakness and a measure of good luck, bring about the tragedy in Othello

Iago cannot be blamed for the deaths of Desdemona and Othello

We cannot blame Othello for being fooled by Iago. Everyone else in the play, including Iago’s wife, believes that he is honest and true

Othello and Iago are both egotists, obsessed with proving how clever and capable they are, and hell bent on revenge when they feel they have been wronged


“Othello is the principal agent of his own downfall” (1994)

Othello is essentially a noble character, flawed by insecurity & a nature that is naive & unsophisticated” (1990)

Othello is a good man who is skilfully manipulated by Iago. For this reason, despite his credulousness, we continue to feel sorry for him

Iago’s schemes succeed, not because Othello is weak, but because he is so noble

Othello is a noble hero who loses, but ultimately regains our sympathy

We do not approve of Othello’s behaviour, yet we nonetheless pity him

Othello is not a tragic hero; he is a gullible fool

Othello is not a tragic hero. He never really takes responsibility for his errors of character and judgement”

Despite his suffering, Othello learns little of himself or of human relationships

To what extent do you agree with Othello’s assessment of himself as an “honourable murderer” who “loved not wisely but too well“?

The collapse of Othello and Desdemona’s marriage is the real tragedy of this play


Iago is the real hero of Shakespeare’s play Othello

Iago is a likable villain

Iago is motivated by jealousy of others good fortune and by a lust for power

“Iago is a charming villain, but it is difficult to understand his motivation”

Iago is an evil villain with no redeeming qualities

While we are repulsed by Iago’s evil, we are fascinated by his ingenuity

Iago is the most evil but also the most fascinating character in the play Othello”


Desdemona is not a credible character, she is an unrealistic saint who does nothing to try and prevent her fate

Desdemona is a woman, not an angel; she lives and loves with her whole person, both body and soul

Desdemona’s dramatic function in the play is to act as a symbol of purity, innocence and goodness but this means that her behaviour is not always entirely believable

Desdemona and Iago are at opposite poles in the play, Othello, the one representing pure love, the other hate incarnate“. (1986)

Emilia / Bianca: 

Discuss the importance of the character Emilia in the play as a whole. (1994)

Women are not presented in a very positive light in Shakespeare’s Othello


Cassio may be a ‘proper man’ but he is also an honest fool whose weakness plays no small part in the tragic death of Desdemona

All characters:

Shakespeare’s play Othello demonstrates the weakness of human judgement” (2008)

Shakespeare’s Othello presents the very best and the very worst in human nature

Shakespeare’s Othello presents us with a dark and pessimistic view of human nature”

“Shakespeare’s Othello presents us with a dark and pessimistic view of human relationships”

In the play Othello, naive, innocent characters are no match for the evil machinations of the world weary Iago


The destructive power of jealousy is dramatically presented in Shakespeare’s play Othello

Shakespeare’s Othello is concerned not so much with jealousy, as with misunderstanding

Shakespeare’s play Othello powerfully portrays a world dominated by jealousy and revenge”

Evil ultimately conquers good in Shakespeare’s play Othello

“In Shakespeare’s play Othello, we witness a profound inability to distinguish between appearances and reality”

Appearances do not mask a sinister reality in this play, yet Iago manages to convince every character that there is more going on than meets the eye”

Love and hate are presented as opposite sides of the same coin in Shakespeare’s play Othello

Shakespeare’s Othello initially questions, but then confirms racist stereotypes

The role and status of women is dramatically explored in Shakespeare’s Othello”

Open questions:

“Shakespeare’s Othello remains relevant for a modern audience”

Despite the striking portrayals of goodness and nobility, the play Othello leaves the audience with a sense of dismal despair

Style questions:

Image of animals, images of storm and images of heaven and hell predominate in Othello” (1990)

 “Irony is a powerful dramatic device used by Shakespeare to heighten the tragic dimension of his play Othello” (1998)

Othello contains many scenes of compelling drama. Choose one scene which you found particularly compelling and discuss why you found it so.

Desdemona – a saint?

Desdemona has been criticised as a two dimensional character who is simply too good to be true; a paragon of virtue who embodies everything that is pure and true in humanity. Personally, I think this portrayal doesn’t do her justice.

Let’s have a look at her main appearances in the play and attempt to establish if there might be a psychological complexity lurking beneath the surface of her squeaky clean exterior. Here’s everything you never wanted to know about her. It’s 4,500 words long – an exam length essay is between 1000 and 1200 words so bear in mind that this is four times more detailed than any discussion of Desdemona you need to offer!


  • Her reputation: before we ever meet Desdemona we learn that she is desirable yet rebellious. Roderigo, who is in love with her, is horrified that against her father she “hath made a gross revolt, tying her beauty, wit and fortunes in an extravagant and wheeling stranger“. Her father is even more horrified and finds it impossible to believe that “a maid so tender, fair and happy, so opposite to marriage that she shunned the wealthy curled darlings of our nation” would choose Othello as a husband. She is immediately associated with lust in our minds, but only because of Iago’s vivid descriptions of her and Othello having sex (“an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” “you daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs“) and these descriptions (from Iago, who we cannot trust) suggest that she is an innocent being taken advantage of by an older, domineering beast of a man. Brabantio accuses Othello of having drugged her (“she is abused, stol’n from me and corrupted by spells and medicines“); this is the only explanation in his mind which can explain how “a maiden never bold, of spirit so still and quiet, that her motion blush’d at herself” could “fall in love with what she fear’d to look at“.  There is a contradiction going on here between the idealised version of Desdemona that her father and stalker offer to us, and the fact that she has secretly married a dark-skinned soldier who is ‘beneath’ her socially. She knows her father won’t approve of him but she falls in love with him anyway. Evidently, she’s not racist, despite her father’s assertion that Othello’s very skin colour would frighten her so he doesn’t know his daughter as well as he thinks he does. There’s obviously more to her than meets the eye and we look forward to meeting her so we can judge for ourselves.
  • Othello and Desdemona’s love: Othello proclaims “I love the gentle Desdemona” and says he would otherwise never have given up his bachelor lifestyle. He clearly sees her as a calming presence in his life. However, unlike Brabantio, who only sees a meek obedient child, Othello sees another side to Desdemona. He sees her desire for adventure, her dissatisfaction with her dull uneventful existence  (as an aristocratic lady, she was expected to marry well and live out her days bearing children, pleasing her husband and most likely never stepping outside the four walls of her city of birth) evident in her obsession with Othello’s dramatic tales of his travels, battles, sieges, floods, being sold into slavery and multiple hair breath escapes from danger. The fact that she arranges for him to tell her these tales in full (without telling her father what she was up to) and her reaction to his stories reveals the dual nature of her personality. She is deeply compassionate and is obviously a very good listener (“she loved me for the dangers I had passed and I loved her that she did pity them“) but she also wants more from life: “My story being done, she gave me for my pains a world of sighs: she swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange, ’twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful: she wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d that heaven had made her such a man; she thank’d me, and bade me, if I had a friend that loved her, I should but teach him how to tell my story, and that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake…“. In other words, she was the one who first suggested that a relationship between them might be a possibility. She made the first move as it were, albeit a very tentative one. This, along with all the time they spent together secretly in order to fall in love, conflicts with her father’s sense of her as “a maiden never bold“.
  • Desdemona speaks to the Senate: Othello treats Desdemona as an equal. Rather than speaking for her, he asks that she be given the opportunity to speak for herself “I do beseech you, send for the lady”… “Let her speak of me before her father” (however, he may also just be saving his own skin here because he’s being accused of quite a serious crime here, yet he knows that they’re truly in love and that he hasn’t tricked her into anything: “If you do find me foul in her report…let your sentence even fall upon my life“). When she arrives, her speech reveals a deep respect for her father, a profound intelligence and a beautiful way with words “My noble father, I do perceive here a divided duty; to you I am bound for life and education… but here’s my husband: and so much duty as my mother show’d to you, preferring you before her father, so much I challenge that I may profess due to the Moor my lord”. We also see a determination to shape her own future, to control her own destiny. When the question arises of where she will go now that Othello is off to Cyprus, she respectfully refuses to go back to her father’s house “I would not there reside to put my father in impatient thoughts by being in his eye“. The life of adventure she dreamt of is now at her fingertips and she is not about to be prevented from going with Othello to Cyprus, boldly stating “I did love the Moor to live with him…I saw Othello’s visage in his mind and to his honours and his valiant parts did I my soul and fortunes consecrate. So that, dear lords, if I be left behind…I a heavy interim shall support by his dear absence. Let me go with him”. At the end of this scene, we hear Iago associate Desdemona with fickleness (“it cannot be that Desdemona should long continue her love to the Moor“) and insatiable lust (“when she is sated with her body she will find the error of her choice“) but there is no truth in Iago’s assessment of her character, a fact which Iago himself later admits. He’s simply telling lies to convince Roderigo that there’s still a possibility of Roderigo hooking up with Desdemona.


  • Desdemona arrives in Cyprus & awaits news of her husband: As soon as their ship lands, Cassio associates their survival to nature’s reluctance to in any way hurt such a beautiful creature as “the divine Desdemona“, so we see yet another man worships her purity and has her on a pedestal so high, she’s sure to get vertigo! Desdemona’s main concern is for her husband; she immediately asks Cassio “what tidings can you tell me of my lord?“. They then hear another ship has landed and although anxious (she asks if someone has gone to the harbour to see if it’s Othello’s ship) she distracts herself by challenging Iago to describe her: “I am not merry, but I do beguile the thing I am by seeming otherwise. Come how wouldst thou praise me?” as she has just listened to him criticise his wife Emilia as a chatterbox and all women as vain, false, lazy and disinterested in sex (“You rise to play and go to bed to work“). Some people criticise Desdemona here for not acting suitably panicked about her husband’s welfare. Personally, I think it shows spirit that she challenges Iago’s misogyny (“fie upon thee slanderer“) and defends Emilia (“Alas! She has no speech“) and a calm faith that all will be well. Othello & Desdemona’s reunion testifies to the depth of their love and passion – Othello exclaims “O my fair warrior” to which she replies “My dear Othello!“. He fears that his content is so absolute that he cannot possibly get any happier; while she predicts that their “loves and comforts shall increase even as our days do grow!“. Sadly, she’s not right. This scene ends with some more character assassination from Iago, who tells Roderigo that Desdemona’s motivated purely by lust (he claims when her blood is made dull with sport, she’ll have a fresh appetite for someone more like her “in year, manners and beauties; all of which the Moor is defective in“) and tells Roderigo she’s in love with Cassio. When Roderigo struggles to accept this (“I cannot believe that in her; she is full of most blessed condition“) Iago replies “if she had been blessed she would never have loved the Moor“. Again, we can pretty much ignore everything Iago says about her as a pack of lies. She’s a pawn in Iago’s plot for revenge but it’s clear that her love for Othello is deep and sincere.
  • Desdemona as the object of men’s lust & a puppet in Iago’s scheme: early that night, following a party to celebrate the destruction of the Turkish fleet in the storm, Othello whisks Dedemona away and implies that they are about to have sex for the first time “Come, my dear love, the purchase made, the fruits are to ensue, that profit’s yet to come twixt me and you“. She doesn’t speak, and after she leaves, Iago attempts to involve Cassio in a discussion of what a hot sexy dirt bird she is “she is sport for love“…”I’ll warrant her full of game“….”What an eye she has! methinks it sounds a parley of provocation“. We could conclude that this is a society that views women as little more than sex objects, but that’s not a fair assessment of what happens here. If you love someone (as Othello clearly loves Desdemona) it’s pretty normal to be excited about having sex with them for the first time and Cassio refuses to be drawn into disrespectful banter about their bosses wife, instead replying “An inviting eye and yet methinks right modest” “she is a fresh and most delicate creature” “she is indeed perfection”. She’s not completely passive however. Rather than wait for Othello to return to bed, she gets dressed, rouses an attendant and arrives on the scene to see “what’s the matter?“, which only infuriates Othello further that she’s had her sleep disturbed “Look! if my gentle love be not rais’d up“. Personally I think it’s really cute how protective he is of her. The only other comment on her character in this scene comes, yet again, from Iago. However, this time he’s speaking honestly about her to Cassio, as opposed to blackening her good reputation. He wants Cassio to get closer to Desdemona so he implies that she’s now wearing the trousers in the marriage “Our general’s wife is now the general” and advises Cassio to “confess yourself freely to her; importune her, she’ll help to put you in your place again. She is of so free, so kind, so apt, so blessed a disposition, that she holds it a vice in her goodness not to do more than she is requested”.  In soliloquy, Iago then admits to us that this is her true character and that he will use his knowledge of her compulsively helpful nature as a way of destroying her relationship with her husband. The more she presses for Cassio’s reinstatement, the more he will imply that “she repeals him for her body’s lust” and this will serve his plan perfectly “so will I turn her virtue into pitch and out of her own goodness make the net that shall enmesh them all


  • Desdemona destroyed: Act three begins with Emilia reassuring Cassio that he is sure to get his job back. Without any prompting or interference from Iago “the general and his wife are talking of it and she speaks stoutly for you“. It appears that Desdemona is already on Cassio’s side and the main thing preventing Othello from reinstating Cassio immediately is the fact that the man Cassio stabbed is “of great fame in Cyprus“.  (Politically it would look as if Othello has no respect for the locals and that he plays favourites, if he allowed Cassio to get away with this offence unpunished). Nonetheless, Cassio asks Emilia to arrange a meeting between him and Desdemona and at the beginning of the Temptation Scene (Act 3, scene 3), Desdemona assures Cassio that she will not rest until he regains his former position. Her devotion to helping Cassio does seem extreme: in her own words, she says “if I do vow a friendship, I’ll perform it to the last article” and she even states “thy solicitor shall rather die than give thy cause away”. True to her word, when Othello enters she tries to cajole him into calling Cassio back and when he refuses saying “some other time“, she continues pressing the matter, questioning repeatedly “shall it be soon?” “shall it be tonight at supper?” “Tomorrow dinner then?” “Why then tomorrow night; or Tuesday morn; or Tuesday noon, or night; or Wednesday morn”. While she recognises when speaking to Cassio, the need for her husband to keep a “politic distance” but she refuses to allow this to deter her when attempting to influence him. This is undoubtedly Desdemona at her most irritating, yet Othello finds her behaviour cute, not nagging. [Immediately after she leaves, he looks after her fondly, claiming that he loves her deeply and that without her his world would be in tatters “Perdition catch my soul but I do love thee! And when I love thee not, chaos is come again“. However, by the end of this scene, Othello is plotting her death!] It’s vital to understand Desdemona’s motivation here, otherwise she’s just an annoying goody-two-shoes who doesn’t know when to let something drop. So why does she fight so doggedly and repeatedly on Cassio’s behalf? First of all she helps because she likes Cassio and possibly feels she owes him for helping her and Othello get together. Secondly, she feels Othello would be better off with Cassio, a trusted friend, by his side. Thirdly, she helps because she’s asked for help and she’s a good person. She likes feeling useful! Fourthly, she feels his punishment far outweighs his ‘crime’. Finally, and this is speculation on my part, she helps because she knows what it feels like to make one mistake and then be cut off from someone you really love and respect. This is what happened to her when she married Othello – her father disowned her! Desdemona needs to believe that it’s possible to gain forgiveness and be given a second chance. Perhaps getting Cassio his job back becomes symbolic. If he can be granted forgiveness for his disobedience, perhaps this will give her hope that one day her father will forgive her disobedience and their relationship can be restored. If this is her motivation, then we can view Desdemona as a complex and interesting character, not just some dumb naive girl who interferes in her husband’s decisions when it’s not really her place to. Also, there is a section in this scene where Othello basically says that he’s not the jealous type and his description of Desdemona is quite interesting here. He paints her as beautiful, sociable, a great singer, dancer and conversationalist (“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 there are more virtuous“) and views all of these as positive and desirable traits which reflect well on him “for she had eyes and she chose me”   The next time she enters, Othello has just uttered the words “I do not but think that Desdemona’s honest” but he also orders Iago to “set on thy wife to observe” and laments giving up his single status “why did I marry?” When Desdemona enters, full of concern for her beloved “Are you not well?“, he says he has a  headache and she is gentle and loving “Let me but bind it hard, within this hour it will be well again” despite his coldness. This is the moment when she drops her handkerchief & by the end of the scene, her husband is plotting her murder!
  • Desdemona lies: the scene following the Temptation Scene is very distressing to watch, as the complete and utter breakdown in communication in their marriage is scarily evident. She keeps demanding that Othello speak to Cassio; Othello keeps demanding the handkerchief. The first and only lie Desdemona tells occurs here: when he demands if the handkerchief is lost, having already established that it was a dying gift from his mother, she behaves like a child, trying to see how much trouble she’ll be in before she admits anything “It is not lost: but what an if it were?” and then shrinking before his rage claiming “I say it is not lost“.
  • Desdemona defends Othello: when Cassio reappears, asking if there’s any progress, she replies “my lord is not my lord” “you must awhile be patient, What I can do I will“. She then blames his erratic behaviour on work stress saying “something sure of state…. hath puddled his clear spirit” and she even goes so far as to feel guilty for being angry at him, saying that her expectations were unfairly high and she cannot expect him to be attentive to her and in a good mood all the time “Nay, we must think men are not gods, nor of them look for such observance as fits the bridal“. Again, many people take this as proof that she is a walkover. I think it’s more complicated than this. Yes, she’s incredibly forgiving but she’s also desperate to find an explanation for his sudden mood swings. She admits “I never saw this before”  and maintains her innocence “I never gave him cause” then promises Cassio “I will go seek him“. She’s so utterly besotted by him and so convinced both of his love and her purity, that she cannot conceive of another explanation for his behaviour. Furthermore, admitting that he has serious flaws means acknowledging her own error of judgement and having given up everything to marry him, this is not something she can even contemplate.


  • Desdemona’s public humiliation: Iago stages a conversation, supposedly about Desdemona, between himself and Cassio, with Othello listening in the shadows. Torn between love, despair and rage, Othello describes her as “a fine woman! a fair woman! a sweet woman!”, then curses her “Ay, let her rot and perish and be damned tonight, for she shall not live”. He proclaims that “the world hath not a sweeter creature; she might lie by an emperors side and command him tasks’ and then lists her talents “So delicate with her needle! An admirable musician! O, she will sing the savageness out of a bear. Of so high and plenteous wit and invention”…”And then, so gentle a condition!“… “But yet the pity of it Iago. O! Iago, the pity of it, Iago!“.  Just as she finds it hard to think ill of her true love, so he finds it hard to think ill of her, despite all of the ‘evidence’ Iago has just provided that she’s being unfaithful. It is in the context of this emotional turmoil and rage that Lodovico arrives with a letter ordering that Othello return to Venice and Cassio take over in Cyprus. Desdemona’s is telling Lodovico about their falling out and says “I would do much to atone them, for the love I bear to Cassio“. This is the point where Othello completely loses it, shouts out the word “Devil” and strikes Desdemona, presumably a back-handed slap across the face. Desdemona barely reacts. She simply states “I have not deserved this“, weeps and then says “I will not stay to offend you“. Again, lots of critics take issue with her passivity here, believing she is too meek, too accepting in the face of this very public humiliation, but I see her response here as quite dignified. She is utterly baffled and so she withdraws to gather her thoughts and to hide her shame (I’m not saying she should feel ashamed, she’s done nothing wrong, but she will no doubt feel embarrassed, disappointed, distraught, that the man she believed was a perfect gentleman has turned out to be abusive). When Othello calls her back, she probably returns expecting an apology, but instead he spins her around and mocks her as she weeps “she can turn and turn and yet go on and turn again“. She says nothing, what can she say in the face of this cruelty? Then she exits, commanded by Othello “Get you away, I’ll send for you anon“.
  • Desdemona’s private trial: Othello questions first Emilia, who claims “if she be not honest, chase and true, there’s no man happy“, then Desdemona. By now, she’s frightened and confused and determined not to provoke her husband, so she greets him with the words “My lord, what is your will?“. She is determined to get to the bottom of his anger, and begs him to explain what’s going on in his heart and mind “Upon my knees, what doth your speech import? I understand a fury in your words, but not the words“. He accuses her of being a liar “Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell” but she again directly challenges him to explain “To whom, my lord? with whom? how am I false?“. She knows it is impossible to defend herself if she does not know what it is she’s being accused of but her major concern is still for his happiness: “Why do you weep? Am I the motive of these tears, my lord?” She again seems convinced that it’s something work related that’s bothering him, asking Othello not to blame her if he suspects her father has had some part in Othello being summoned back to Venice. Again, he refuses to answer, this time offering a long list of all the things he could happily endure, but claiming that a broken heart is too cruel for anyone to survive. And again, for the fourth time, she asks “Alas, what ignorant sin have I committed?” and this time he replies, accusing her of being a whore. She replies, in a dignified manner, that she is not a whore, saying “if to preserve this vessel for my lord from any other foul unlawful touch be not to be a strumpet, I am none“. Once he storms out, she asks Emilia to lay her wedding sheets on her bad, then asks for Iago to see if he can cast any light on Othello’s bizarre behaviour. In fact, it is Emilia who figures out that “some eternal villain…hath devised this slander” but Desdemona finds it hard to believe that one so wilfully cruel could exist “If any such there be, heaven pardon him“. The scene concludes with her determination to fix whatever’s gone wrong between them “What shall I do to win my lord again?” she asks Iago, “I know not how I lost him“. She weirdly anticipates the danger she’s in (“his unkindness may defeat my life but never taint my love“) but like all good horror movie heroines, instead of going out the door and as far away from the danger as possible, she goes up the metaphorical stairs, directly into the danger! I suppose, at least in Desdemona’s case, it’s fair to ask, where the hell else can she go?
  • Desdemona the doormat: Othello orders her to go to bed and dismiss Emilia and at this point, there is little trace of any rebelliousness left in her character. She is 100% obedient event though she again seems to instinctively sense that she’s not safe alone with him, telling Emilia “If I do die before thee, prithee, shroud me in one of those same sheets“. Her love is constant and unconditional. When Emilia comments “I would you had never seen him” Desdemona replies “So would not I“. However, a brief flicker of doubt about her choice of husband does seem to cross her mind as she remarks to Emilia “This Lodovico is a proper man” and they briefly discuss how handsome and eligible he is. Her song “willow, willow, willow” makes it clear that she knows Othello is not in his right mind yet she stays. Her purity is underscored is her disbelief “that there be women do abuse their husbands in such gross kind” and is her repeated assertion that she would not cheat on her husband “for all the world“. She really seems too good to be true in this scene as she calls on heaven to help her not complain about what has just occurred but to learn from it!


  • Desdemona’s death: She’s sleeping as he arrives, so she can’t have been too terrified or she’d surely still be awake! Once he wakes her and starts telling her to repent her sins before she dies, she reacts with fear, asks heaven to have mercy on her twice, tells Othello to send for Cassio, reacts with horror when she’s told he’s dead because now she feels there is no way to prove her innocence (“Alas! He is betrayed and I undone“), then pitifully begs for her life “O! banish me my lord but kill me not!” “Kill me tomorrow; let me live tonight!” “But half an hour” presumably all this time struggling to escape. The demands of realism are then stretched to breaking point here, as Desdemona almost dies from suffocation – and then does! For a modern audience, this is just absurd! You can’t almost die of strangulation, speak a bit and then die – you either die or you don’t! Sadly, Shakespeare’s medical knowledge (or the medical knowledge of the era) lets him down badly here but if we lay aside our disbelief for a moment, Desdemona’s dying words are hugely significant. She tries to protect her husband, her murderer claiming “a guiltless death I die” and replying to Emilia’s question “Who hath done this deed” with a claim that she commit suicide “Nobody; I myself; farewell. Commend me to my kind lord. O! farewell!”. Claiming you had commit suicide was a pretty big deal back then. It meant you could not be buried on hallowed ground, which for many believers meant you could not go to heaven. It also meant destroying your reputation after your death, as suicide was seen as a shameful crime against God. So why does she do it? Perhaps she realises that Emilia’s earlier hunch was correct – she does realise that Cassio has been betrayed by someone. Obviously her love for Othello is so unbelievably unconditional that she’ll even forgive him for killing her. And finally, it would seem that even in death she wants to protect him which would be cute if it weren’t so unbelievably unrealistic…


Othello: from love to hate!

Bros before hoes

My class labelled the temptation scene “BROs B4 HOEs”. Basically, faced with the choice of trusting Iago or trusting Desdemona, Othello trusts his longterm friend over his new wife, hence the bros before hoes reference!

However, that doesn’t answer the question of how the hell Othello transforms from trusting his wife completely to deciding to murder her, in the space of a single scene?

At the beginning of the Temptation Scene (Act 3, scene 3), Desdemona assures Cassio that she will not rest until he regains his former position. In her own words, she says “if I do vow a friendship, I’ll perform it to the last article” and she even states “thy solicitor shall rather die than give thy cause away“. True to her word, when Othello enters she tries to cajole him into calling Cassio back and when he refuses saying “some other time“, she continues pressing the matter, questioning repeatedly “shall it be soon?” “shall it be tonight at supper?” “Tomorrow dinner then?” “Why then tomorrow night; or Tuesday morn; or Tuesday noon, or night; or Wednesday morn”. This is undoubtedly Desdemona at her most irritating, yet Othello finds her behaviour cute, not nagging. Immediately after she leaves, he looks after her fondly, claiming that he loves her deeply and that without her his world would be in tatters “Perdition catch my soul but I do love thee! And when I love thee not, chaos is come again“. However, by the end of this scene, Othello is plotting her death!

Here are the tactics Iago uses to convince Othello that Desdemona is cheating on him:

  1. Hah! I like not that!There’s something really bothering me but I’d rather not say. “Utter my thoughts? Why say, they are vile and false?
  2. Why is your wife so obsessed with Cassio getting his job back?
  3. Didn’t ye all hang out together when you were wooing her? I’m not sure you can trust him…
  4. You don’t know this because you’re not from around here, but Venetian women cheat on their husbands all the time! They’re just really good at hiding it!
  5. Didn’t Desdemona “deceive her father, marrying you? And when she seem’d to shake and fear your looks, she loved them most” In other words, she’s a pretty good actress you know!
  6. Isn’t it a bit weird that she married you, a black man? She rejected “many proposed matches of her own clime, complexion and degree” for no good reason. “One may smell in such, a will most rank, foul disproportion, thoughts unnatural”.  [At this point Othello claims “I do not but think that Desdemona’s honest” but he also orders Iago to “set on thy wife to observe“, laments giving up his single status “why did I marry?” and concludes “She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief must be to loathe her. O curse of marriage! That we can call these delicate creatures ours and not their appetites. I had rather be a toad and live upon the vapour of a dungeon, than keep a corner in the thing I love for others uses“.  He keeps contradicting himself; as he sees her approach he says “If she be false, O! then heaven mocks itself. I’ll not believe it“. Desdemona is full of concern for her beloved “Are you not well?” and accidentally drops her handkerchief as she attempts to bind his sore head. Emilia picks it up, gives it to Iago. Then Othello returns and threatens Iago “If thou dost slander her and torture me, never pray more; abandon all remorse; on horror’s head horrors accumulate” who fakes disgust at his ‘mistreatment‘ claiming “to be direct and honest is not safe“. Iago then mocks the idea that Othello will ever get absolute proof commenting sarcastically “would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on; behold her tupp’d?”… “It is impossible you should see this” but instead he promises circumstantial evidence of Desdemona’s betrayal. So, let’s keep going with Iago’s ‘proofs’]
  7. Oh yeah, by the way Othello, Cassio was moaning about Desdemona in his sleep, and he laid his leg over my      thigh and sighed and kissed me and said “Cursed fate, that gave thee to the Moor!” so he must be shagging your wife if he’s moaning things and groping her in his sleep.
  8. Also, you know that handkerchief you gave Desdemona?Such a handkerchief – I am sure it was your wife’s – did I to-day see Cassio wipe his beard with“.

At this point Othello says “Now do I see tis true“, then he falls to his knees proclaiming “All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven: ‘Tis gone. Arise black vengeance from the hollow hell! Yield up, O love! thy crown and hearted throne to tyrannous hate“. Iago also swears a solemn vow “Witness you ever burning lights above!…that here Iago doth give up the execution of his wit, hands, heart, to wrong’d Othello’s service!” and at this point Othello swings into battle mode, ordering Iago to kill Cassio, planing a “swift means of death for the fair devil” Desdemona and finally giving Iago the promotion he wanted all along “Now art thou my Lieutenant“.