Category Archives: Othello

Iago’s motivation


One of the most baffling things about this play is why Iago goes to such lengths to destroy Othello & Desdemona. He has little to gain from his evil scheme, so why does he do it? Jealousy, a desire for power, sadism, racism and frustrated love are some possible explanations.


It’s possible that Iago is jealous of Othello and to a lesser extent Cassio. He may be

(a) Jealous of their happiness in love: Othello is newly & happily married to an aristocratic Venetian lady and Cassio has a reputation for being very popular with the ladies. Meanwhile, if we believe Iago’s comments, he is stuck in a loveless marriage to a woman who frequently nags him (“would she give you so much of her lips as of her tongue she oft bestows on me, you’d have enough“) and views sex with her husband as a chore (“you rise to play and go to bed to work“). He suspects that she has been unfaithful to him (“I do suspect the lusty Moor hath leap’d into my seat” … “I fear Cassio with my night cap too“) and the thought drives him crazy (“the thought whereof doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw at my innards“).  Even though there is little evidence in the play to support either his suspicions or his very unflattering portrait of his wife, it is nonetheless clear that his marriage is not a happy one.

(b) Jealous of the respect Othello receives from his peers: Othello is immediately sent for by the Duke to solve the problem of the Turkish invasion. Meanwhile, Iago has been passed over for promotion. The contrast in their career paths could not be more stark – Othello is in demand, Iago is going no-where. Cassio recently became Othello’s new Lieutenant, a decision which infuriates Iago (“I know my price, I am worth no less a place“). Instead he must be content with the job of Ensign, or flag-bearer, no doubt a humiliating job for a man who considers himself intellectually superior to everyone around him. He feels aggrieved because he is older and more experienced than Cassio and had gone to great lengths to secure personal references from “three great ones of the city“, all of whom had spoken to Othello recommending Iago for the promotion. However, one of Iago’s complaints is that he believes Cassio only got the job due to favouritism, yet he himself had no problem trying to influence Othello’s decision through political means so he’s certainly a hypocrite and is probably just bitter that his tactics didn’t work.

(c) Jealous of their essential goodness: He speaks of Cassio having “a daily beauty in his life” which makes Iago’s life “ugly” by comparison. He recognises Othello’s “constant, loving, noble nature” and predicts that a happy marriage lies in store for these newlyweds “I dare think he’ll prove to Desdemona a most dear husband” . He is fully aware of Desdemona’s generous caring nature commenting “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“. Yet he determines to destroy them all “O! You are well tuned now, but I’ll set down the pegs that make this music“.  He seems to find their virtue irritating. Perhaps he wishes to prove that even a good man can be corrupted by evil if the situation leads him in that direction.

At one point during the temptation scene, Iago feigns reluctance to confess his fears about Cassio and Desdemona to Othello saying “I confess it is my nature’s plague to spy into abuses and oft my jealousy shapes faults that are not“. Ironically, this may be the closest we get in the entire play to an honest assessment of Iago’s true personality – after all, he certainly criticises and misjudges Othello, Cassio, Emilia and Desdemona at various stages in the play so it seems irrefutably true that he “shapes faults that are not” and it’s interesting that Iago himself puts this down to jealousy.

Desire for Power

Iago does not have a powerful job. He is well respected, but he’s treated on occasion like an errand boy – for example, he must make sure that Desdemona makes it safely to Cyprus while Othello leaves for battle immediately. When they arrive, Cassio greets Iago as “good ancient” and when Desdemona dislikes the punchline to one of Iago’s jokes, Cassio suggests that Iago’s not the brightest, telling Desdemona “you may relish him more in the soldier than in the scholar“.  Cassio may be joking, but Iago views himself as an unrecognised genius, so it’s unlikely he would take too kindly to this slagging. He is viewed as honest and trustworthy, as a good listener and as someone who gives good advice freely but they all see him as kind of harmless when ironically he’s the complete opposite! Iago evidently has a high opinion of himself, joking about how easy it is to con Roderigo out of his fortune (“thus do I ever make my fool my purse“) and making constant references to the “web” he has woven to ensnare them all. Acting as puppet master with their lives makes him feel powerful and important. Perhaps it is this feeling of being in complete control that he’s addicted to. After all, when his plan starts to unravel and suddenly he’s no longer in control of the situation, he freaks out, viciously stabs his wife and runs away! It’s as if he was so pumped full of adrenaline that even though he recognises the possibility of failure (“this is the night that either makes me or foredoes me quite“) he doesn’t take it seriously and has no back up plan when the truth finally emerges. Even at the bitter end, he relishes the tiny bit of control he can cling on to by refusing to explain either his scheme or his motivations, taunting Othello who says “demand that demi-devil why he hath thus ensnared my soul” with the retort “demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word“.


Iago frequently fixates on Othello’s colour but it’s not clear if Iago himself is racist. He certainly uses the racist tendencies of other characters to turn them against Othello. For example, he creates vivid images of black on white (“an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” “you’ll have your daughter covered with a barbary horse“) to torture Brabantio, who is extremely racist. He knows Roderigo hates Othello for winning Desdemona’s heart and tries to convince Roderigo that she’ll soon tire of Othello “what delight shall she have to look on the devil?” using Othello’s skin colour as a signifier of his physical and moral ugliness. He repeats racist stereotypes “these Moors are changeable in their wills” “luscious as locusts” “an erring barbarian” and describes Othello as boastful, arrogant and lacking in manners. However, let us not forget that Iago is NEVER racist when he is alone on stage. He uses racism to turn people against Othello but confides in us the audience that Othello is of a “constant, loving, noble nature“, so it’s likely that his racism is a means to an end rather than a genuine reflection of prejudice.

Sadism / Personality Disorder

There is absolutely no question about it – Iago is a sadist. For some people, debating why Iago did what he did is a waste of time, effort and energy. He’s a sick puppy. He delights in the misery of others. He commits evil deeds because he’s evil – not cause he’s jealous or power hungry or racist but because he’s evil. In fact, he’s quite possibly a sociopath  – this article on 10 ways to spot a sociopath ticks a lot of boxes in terms of Iago’s behaviour.

I’ll copy and paste a section below from my post on Iago’s flaws and virtues for detailed evidence that he’s a sadist and is completely lacking a normal moral conscience. Perhaps the key to his motivation lies here.

[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].

Frustrated love: 

We’ve debated in class the fact that Iago is completely obsessed with Othello and examined possible explanations for this obsession. My students aren’t the first to point out that perhaps Iago has a man crush on Othello. After all, he does put quite a bit of effort into picturing Othello and Desdemona having sex… and each of the images he presents to Brabantio involve Othello behind rather than on top of his lover… and Iago does vividly describe Cassio kissing him and laying his leg across his thigh… why doesn’t he push him away? Of course, none of this really happened, but then it does beg the question what does Iago spend his time imagining? and why?… he is unhappily married but envies those who are happy in their relationships… perhaps he’s a repressed homosexual?

Personally, I think this is pulling the very thin ‘evidence’ so taut it simply tears apart. It makes more sense to me that Iago is a sociopath, rather than a closet gay who’s in love with Othello. After all, if he really cared about Othello, he wouldn’t destroy him. Well… unless he was uncomfortable with his own sexuality and destroying the object of his affection was his way of destroying the evidence of his own gayness. I dunno. Sounds like a bit of a stretch to me!

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.                         

Othello – the Plot


I’ve arbitrarily divided the plot into 7 stages:

  1. Venice  
  2. Cyprus  
  3. Temptation 
  4. Proof
  5. Degradation 
  6. Accusation  
  7. Death







Othello is established as the hero & gains our admiration.

Iago’s deceitful nature & his scheme to wreck Othello’s marriage are revealed. 

Desdemona’s outspoken defence of her marriage gains our admiration.   







Iago’s negative view of women & belief he has been cuckolded are revealed.

Depth of Othello and Desdemona’s mutual love is emphasised.

Iago’s plan evolves as he uses Roderigo to get Cassio fired.

Iago’s skills of opportunism, innuendo & false loyalty are evident. 

Iago shows remarkable psychological insight in plan to get D to ‘help’!











Iago’s step by step manipulation of Othello is frightening to behold.

Skills – innuendo, exploitation of victims’ insecurities, reverse psychology, opportunistic use of circumstantial evidence, ability to improvise believable lies.

Othello’s character flaws are exposed and exploited.

Desdemona’s innocent attempts to ‘help’ gain audience’s pity.

Good luck plays a role in the unfolding tragedy.

Othello’s transformation and degradation are almost complete.







Handkerchief comes to symbolise loyalty & betrayal.

Emilia & Desdemona’s only lies in the play prove fatal.








Misunderstandings dominate. Othello is not thinking straight because of his anger and emotional torment.

Othello’s further degradation of character and control by Iago are evident.








Desdemona’s passivity and Othello’s irrationality highlighted.

Contrast between Emilia and Desdemona evident.

Iago underestimates his wife.

Sense of inevitable impending doom pervades the play.













Tragic climax as Desdemona is wrongfully murdered.

Emilia behaves heroically but is killed by her husband.

Iago reduced to foolish coward; remains a defiant mystery at the end.

Othello must confront the terrible truth about himself & his deeds.

Othello’s death means Iago’s plan succeeded even though he got caught out!

Audiences may feel conflicted about Othello’s character at the end.













Compelling Drama 3

Following a double class today, and in anticipation of a class tomorrow on Othello in which we’ll be examining what makes the play such “compelling drama”, it became clear to me that a more in depth analysis of what exactly my “10 features of compelling drama” mean might be helpful, before asking students to apply these concepts to a specific example.

So here goes:

1. Atmosphere – tension – suspense – foreshadowing

Definition = the atmosphere is the prevailing mood, the feelings which exist on the stage, between the characters. Any kind of conflict between them will create tension. Wondering what will happen next creates suspense. Dropping hints about what may lie in the future is foreshadowing – we can’t see it clearly, it is but a shadow, but we do have a feeling of foreboding, of dread.

Example = most horror movies begin with a tense, foreboding atmosphere, usually at nighttime, often aided by eerie silence, creaky sound effects or bad weather – rain, thunder, lightening – anything that makes it hard to see clearly which freaks most people out!

Effect = the mood on stage will have a strong impact on the audience. If it’s tense, we’ll feel tense. If it’s awkward, we’ll feel that awkwardness sitting in the audience. If something funny happens, we’ll join in with laughter.

2. Momentum. Sense of inevitability as the plot unfolds

Definition – momentum refers to the idea that the pace of events gathers speed as the plot unfolds, somewhat like a snowball getting bigger and moving faster as it rolls down a hill. It can start to feel like there is no going back, no way of slowing or stopping the chain of events which has been set in motion. When this happens, the audience get caught up in the action and can feel simultaneously frustrated and exhilarated by the seeming inevitability of the events. This is particularly true of tragedy where the downfall of the tragic hero appears almost impossible to avert.

Example: In Love/Hate, which opens with the murder of Darren’s brother, as each of his scumbag mates gets gunned down, it seems inevitable that he is heading inexorably towards his own annihilation and that this downfall is in many ways unavoidable.

Effect: A lively pace holds our attention, sweeps us up in the action and keeps the adrenaline pumping. It also provides a contrast for the quieter, more reflective moments, often reserved for the delivery of soliloquies.

3. High stakes – characters stand to win & lose a lot

Definition: If I stroll into the kitchen and  feel torn between apple pie and crisps, this is not a high stakes choice. There will be no consequences so it doesn’t matter what I decide. But imagine if I was a super model (yup, the world’s shortest, stumpiest super model!) then this decision would suddenly be more significant, particularly if I had recently lost out on a job because I had gained a few pounds. Of course, there are some decisions that are inherently high stakes no matter who’s making them – the decision to lie is a high stakes decision, particularly if there’s a strong possibility that I’ll get caught. The bigger the lie, the higher the stakes. Ultimately there is no higher stakes decision than the decision to kill a person and the consequences are permanent. In almost all of Shakespeare’s great tragedies – Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet (but notKing Lear) the central character grapples with the decision of whether or not to kill another human being. High stakes choices indeed!

Example: Macbeth decides to kill the King and his crime (regicide) has horrific consequences for himself, his marriage, his country and his future. Hamlet hesitates whether or not to avenge his father’s murder and his procrastination leads to the unnecessary deaths of his true love, her father, Hamlet’s mother and a few more along the way! Othello, torn between his love for his wife and his faith in Iago’s loyalty, chooses wrongly and is led blindly down an evil path of revenge on those who have done no wrong. The consequences, as we shall see, are horrific.

Effect: In life, we all fear making the wrong choices, taking the wrong path and then suffering the consequences forever. We fear remorse, regret, despair, yet these is no guarantee in any decision we make that we are making the right one. Seeing the effect, for good or ill, of major life choices on the central characters of any drama, often reminds us that we are all flawed and human and that what they are going through we might one day end up going through ourselves.

4. Honestly from the central characters. Confiding darkest secrets in us

Definition: the absolute definition of honesty in a play are the moments when we get to see the inner workings of the central characters heart and mind. It’s not until we know what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling that we come to really know and understand them.

Example: In Shakespeare, soliloquies are used to give us this privileged insight into their innermost thoughts and emotions. In “Philadelphia, Here I Come”, the two sides of the one character, Public Gar and Private Gar are used to help us get closer to the inner workings of his psyche. In “Dancing At Lughnasa”, the narrator, Michael as an adult, provides a commentary on his childhood that offers an insight into his character whilst all the while reminding us that how he saw things was not necessarily how others experienced that summer.

Effect: Because we have a direct line to the central characters brain, we understand their motivations, we sympathise with them and feel a connection to them, often despite their bad behaviour. However, this connection can be problematic. Often we feel like shouting out panto-style at them to STOP! And we feel implicated in their bad behaviour, even though we have nothing to do with it, we’ve also done nothing to stop it (I know, I know, what are we going to do, stand up and start shouting at the actors on the stage? Lol!). The best way I can explain this is as follows: imagine a student of mine – let’s call her Jane – takes a dislike to me (I know! Inconceivable right?) and decides to slash the tires on my car. Her friend, Tarzan, quite likes me as a teacher and knows that I have an important hospital appointment after school, but is afraid to get Jane in trouble so says nothing. If Jane then goes ahead and slashes my tires, even though Tarzan didn’t plan this evil deed, or have anything to do with carrying it out, he will feel implicated in the crime because he knew about it and did nothing to stop it! Hopefully that makes sense!

5. Emotional & psychological conflict & complexity 

Definition: The characters must seem like real people and real people are complex. We experience floods of conflicting emotions simultaneously and are often torn between two courses of action, which in turn causes conflict in our minds, in our psyche. If things get really bad, this mental and emotional conflict may drive us to madness or despair.

Example: as I eat chocolate cake, I feel satisfied, smug, content, greedy, guilty and gluttonous all at once – making me emotionally complex. There is a psychological conflict going on inside me as I indulge in my deep desire for chocolate but also feel shame and possibly frustration at my inability to control my impulses, particularly if it’s January and I’m trying to lose the weight I put on over Christmas. The ironic thing about this psychological conflict is that I may then go much further down this dodgy path, binging on the entire cake, instead of backing off for my own good. You see this in Shakespeare’s characters all the time, where they make one mistake and then they just keep making it again and again. That’s because human beings are complex (aka dopey!) and do not necessarily learn from their mistakes, or at least often by the time they do it’s too late!

Effect: We find complex characters believable and fascinating, which in turn helps us to buy into their story. You’ll often hear plays, films and novels criticised for having “one dimensional characters” which means they are flat and unrealistic and dull.

6. Battle between good & evil (internal as well as external)

Definition: Seeing a battle between good & evil unfold never goes out of fashion but audiences are weird. Sometimes we root for the villain (Walter White in Breaking Bad) because they are more interesting and compelling than the ‘good’ characters. This is why really good writers ensure that this battle often occurs within the central character, rather than between superheroes and ‘baddies’.

Example: Internally a character is often torn between doing what is right and doing what they want – think for a moment of those cartoons where a good angel perches on one shoulder offering advice, and an evil little devil sits on the other shoulder tempting the host to ignore his conscience and follow his desires. We find this endlessly fascinating because we too are often torn between doing what is right and what is enjoyable (often doing the wrong thing is fun and doing the right thing is dull dull dull!)

Effect: similar to one of the examples given above, a battle between good and evil often reminds us that we must decide whether we are a force for good or evil in the world. The internal battle reminds us that we are all flawed and human and that what they are going through we might one day end up going through ourselves. But it also reminds us that it’s ok to feel torn, that nobody’s perfect, which is nice to be reminded of every now and again!

7. Audience in privileged position – we know more than other characters

Definition: If I’m sitting in the audience, and I know something that one or more of the characters on stage doesn’t know, then I’m in a privileged position. If I could jump up on stage (but breaking the fourth wall – the illusion of this being ‘reality’ – is frowned upon so don’t so it!) I’d be able to tell them vital information which might completely change their behaviour and ultimately, their life!

Example:  We know in Othello that Iago is a sick, twisted, sadistic little monkey who cannot be trusted but crucially no-one else in the play knows this!

Effect: We feel knowledgable and powerful. We understand what’s going on on a much deeper level than most of the characters and this makes us feel superior to them. However, we often nonetheless avoid judgement because we have seen the central character’s innermost thoughts and feelings to arrive at this position of superior knowledge, so we sympathise with them and recognise that the other characters couldn’t possibly have arrived at the same depth of knowledge without this opportunity to spy on the inner workings of the central characters’ brain.

8. Dramatic irony

Definition 1: Irony can be created when we, the audience, know something that the characters do not and they say something ‘ironic’ but only we can see the irony

Example: Characters in Othello keep commenting how honest and trustworthy Iago is.

Definition 2: Irony can be created when the opposite of what characters expect to happen, happens. This reversal of expectations is ironic because it’s so far from what they thought would be the case.

Example: Lady Macbeth at the start of the play believes that “a little water clears us of this deed” – that they can wash the blood off and that will be that. Ironically, later on, we see her obsessively washing her hands, saying “what will these hands n’er be clean”. It’s ironic that the physical blood is gone but her conscience is so fraught that she’s hallucinating blood stains that aren’t there. This situation is the exact opposite of what she predicted / expected.

Effect: we feel smart when we identify irony! We may also feel sympathy for the characters who are stuck in the ironic situation, but it depends whether or not we feel they caused it themselves (in which case they deserve their dose of situational or dramtic irony. If it’s not their fault though, we;ll probably feel sorry for them – and also perhaps frustrated that they can’t SEE the irony!

9. Poetic justice

Definition: Justice is where evil is punished. The punishment should fit the crime. Poetic justice is where the punishment is so fitting and so appropriate that we get an intense feeling of satisfaction out of the situation.

Example: If I steal your lunch and eat it, and then I get food poisoning from the very lunch I stole, that’s poetic justice. If I cheat on my husband and catch a sexually transmitted disease, that’s poetic justice.

Effect: The audience get a smug satisfaction out of seeing someone get what they deserve in a way which kind of makes it their own fault. It reassures us that the universe is on the side of good. In truth though, it’s called poetic justice, becuase you see it in stories far more often than you see it in real life! I hate to break it to you but in the real world the baddies often get away with their crime!


Definition: Have you ever wondered why you like horror movies? Or violent video games (even though you’re not a violent person in real life)? Or Eastenders (it’s so bloody miserable and depressing all the time)? Or books that make you cry (I’m not a fan of “PS I Love You” but many of my – female – students love it)?

Some people suggest that we like all of these things because they’re not real. We can experience scary things in a fantasy way without putting our ‘real’ self in danger -the fear/rage/depression/sadness leave us as soon as we switch our brains off from the movie/video game/telly/book.

This process of temporarily experiencing negative emotions and then ‘cleansing’ them is known as catharsis.

Example: I was horrified watching the final scene of Breaking Bad but I was also relieved that evil had been defeated and I was glad I hadn’t ever had to make the terrible decisions Walter White did to protect his family.

Effect: We enjoy this process because it helps us to lose ourselves in someone else’s life for a while (if our own life sucks) or to appreciate how good we have it (if our own life is better than what we’ve just watched) when the movie/video game/telly/book ends.

[This list is not exhaustive. After I’d written it I began to think about other reasons we might find the play fascinating and dramatic. So my no.11 = relevance (e.g. Macbeth’s a tyrant. We’ve still got a few of them in the modern world; we’re still seeing innocents murdered in Syria & back in 2011 we witnessed the toppling of the Egyptian dictator Mubarak in the Arab Spring, thanks to a popular uprising – not unlike the events described in Macbeth, except Mubarak is still alive – not in prison but under house arrest. They didn’t chop his head off! So, watching a drama but connecting what’s happening on stage to what’s happening in the real world – or personally in your own life – is a really powerful reason a person might find a play compelling/fascinating & dramatic).

My no. 12 = emotional resonance (often with a character we connect to what they are going through. This resonance creates empathy – a much stronger emotion than sympathy – and we feel compelled to continue watching as events unfold because we are now invested in their emotional journey. I guess a weaker version of this explains why we often keep watching ‘the X-factor’, or ‘I’m a Celebrity’ long after it’s even remotely interesting, because we feel we’ve gotten to know the ‘characters’ on the show and want to see how it all works out for them). Anyway, my point is, my list of 10 features of Compelling Drama could easily be 12, and there are probably more I haven’t even thought of!]