Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Othello. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 425-507).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, what reasons does Iago give to justify his hatred of Othello? Do they seem sufficient grounds for such animosity? Also, to what extent (in this scene and in 1.3), does Iago seem like more than a one-dimensional stage villain?

2. In Act 1, Scenes 1-2, how is Othello’s elopement with Desdemona described to her father Brabanzio? That is, what specific racial or cultural terms do Iago and Roderigo use to urge Brabanzio to act against Othello? How does Brabanzio himself take the news?

3. In Act 1, Scene 3, how does Othello confront the charge leveled against him? What wins over the Duke of Venice (if not Brabanzio)? Consider mainly Othello’s performance as a speaker — what is it about his bearing and his language that makes him attractive in this regard?

4. In Act 1, Scene 3, Othello stakes his life on Desdemona’s faithful recounting of their love’s development. How does Desdemona explain and defend her love for this stranger to Venetian ways? What strengths does she show at this early point in the play, when we get our first look at her?

5. In Act 1, Scene 3, Iago counsels Desdemona’s admirer, Roderigo. What grounds for hope does Iago give Roderigo: how, that is, does he explain the nature of Desdemona’s affection for Othello and why does he claim that their love can’t last? To what vision of love does Roderigo himself subscribe? (2.1.213-85 is also relevant to this question if you are presenting on it or developing a paper topic.)


6. In Act 2, Scene 1, Desdemona banters with both Michael Cassio and Iago. What topics do they discuss, and in what manner do they talk about them? What in these innocent conversations might be said to signal trouble for Desdemona and Cassio, and opportunity for Iago? Why so?

7. In Act 2, Scene 3, how does Iago contrive Cassio’s ruin? What role does Roderigo play in the plot, and what weaknesses does Cassio show in this scene?

8. In Act 2, Scene 3, Othello dismisses Cassio from his service. What is the basis for his judgment? Characterize the process whereby he arrives at and then conveys this judgment. To what extent does Othello’s treatment of Cassio seem justified? Explain the rationale for your response to this last question.


9. In Act 3, Scene 3, discuss Iago’s rhetorical strategy in bringing Othello round to condemning his wife for adultery. What images and ideas does Iago plant in Othello’s head, and in what order? How does he keep his own base, self-interested motives from becoming plain to Othello?

10. In Act 3, Scene 3, what weakness or incapacity of judgment does Othello betray? By the end of 3.3, what deterioration or contraction has taken place in Othello’s outlook on his career and his marriage?

11. In Act 3, Scene 4, Othello manifests his famous obsession with the handkerchief he gave Desdemona. What underlies the power of this token — what history and qualities does Othello attribute to it, and why does its loss drive him nearly mad?

12. In Act 3, Scene 4, Emilia and Desdemona discuss men’s treatment of women and, in particular, men’s jealousy. In what sense is Emilia a foil to Desdemona’s sensibility here and elsewhere in the play? Also, when Desdemona says, “I never gave him {Othello} cause,” is her statement entirely accurate? Why or why not?


13. In Act 4, Scenes 1-2, consider how Othello’s dialogue with Iago affects his argument with Desdemona in 4.2. How does Iago’s cunning help make Othello deaf to Desdemona’s self-defense?

14. In Act 4, Scene 2, discuss Desdemona’s self-defense both in speaking with Othello and then with Emilia and Iago. What does she rely on to protect her reputation? And in 4.3, how does Desdemona respond to Emilia’s spirited assault on men’s deceptive ways?


15. In Act 5, Scenes 1-2, how does Iago try to secure the final success of his wicked plan? What circumstances prove to be his undoing, and how does his fall help to cap off the play’s tragic ending in relation to Othello?

16. In Aristotelian tragedy, the protagonist must recognize his or her error and reassert some measure of personal dignity in the face of ruin. In Act 5, Scene 2, by what means does Othello come to understand his error? How does he reassert his dignity? To what extent do others recognize any such accomplishment? Do you find it sufficient? Why or why not?

17. General question: if you have seen Oliver Parker’s film of Othello (starring Laurence Fishburne), how well do you think it captures the movement and thematic significance of Shakespeare’s text? What did you like about the film? What, if anything, didn’t you like about it, and why?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake