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Othello Notes Essay Sample

Othello Notes Pages
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Assessment Objectives:

AO1: A consistently fluent, precise writing, using critical terminology to present a coherent and detailed argument in which the question is well understood and answered.

AO2: Well developed, analytical and consistently detailed discussion of effects of language, form and structure and ways in which it affects the audience.

AO3: Well informed and detailed discussion of different readings of the text by various audiences, as well as different critical approaches.

AO4: Well detailed and consistently developed understanding of the significance of context of the text.

Critical Approaches:

A C Bradley (1904):
Othello’s nature is all of one piece. His trust where he trust is absolute. If such passion as jealous seizes him, it will swell into a well night incontrollable flood.

F R Leavis (1952):
Othello has a propensity to jealousy and possess a weak character.

William Hazlitt (1827):
Iago is an example of the typical stage Machiavel who is an amoral artist who seeks to fashion the world in his own interest.

Kenneth Burke:
Desdemona is the an object of possession, while the possessor is himself possessed by his very engrossment

Thorell Tsomondo:
Othello’s initial introduction to the audience takes place in his absence and in the form of gossip. This gossip may be linked to the third person narrative point of view which creates the character it describes.

Kenneth Tyan:
The minute he suspects, or thinks he has the smallest grounds for suspecting, Desdemona, he wishes to think her guilty.

Judgement on the pay as a whole:

Dr Johnson (1765):
The gradual progress which Iago makes in the Moor’s conviction, and the circumstance which he employs to inflame him, are so artfully natural, that we cannot but pity him when at last we find him perplexed in the extreme.

WIlson Knight (1930):
Othello’s poetry hold a rich music of its own, and possesses a unique solidity and precision of picturesque phrase and serenity of thought.

Poetic metaphor:

Othello is structured around a cultural aporia a miscegenation (interbreeding between different racial types of people). Othello’s poetry holds a rich music all of its own, and possesses a unique solidity and precision of picturesque phrase or image, a serenity (calmness) of thought, which can be clearly distinguished from other Shakespearean plays.

Feminist Interpretation:

“In the Elizabethan and Jacobean culture the link between blackness and the devil, the myth of black sexuality, the problem of black subjection to authority, go against the obedience owed to the father and the God”-George Best-Discourse 1578

“Look at her, Moor, have a quick eye to see: She has deceived her father, may do thee” Fathers had the right to dispose their daughters as they see fit, and disobedience against the fathers law is a descent into hell and blackness the play enacts. “Desdemona’s desire threatens the patriarchal privilege of disposing daughters and in the play world signals sexual duplicity (Deceitfulness) and lust.”

The irony of course is that Othello himself is the instrument of punishment. As Wirithrop Jordan points out the meaning of black including ‘deeply stained, having dark or deadly purposes, involving disastrous death and indicating disgrace and punishment.” The play could serve as a warning to young white women from wealthy families not to run off with foreigners, as the consequence will be deadly.

The emphasis in Othello, on Desdemona’s fairness and purity “that whiter skin of hers than snow and smooth as monumental alabaster”, implies the idealization of female beauty and Petrachainism (unattainable love as seen in Romeo and Juliet) is usually said to point out the contrast between Othello and Desdemona.

For her transgression (going beyond the social norms), her desire of difference, she is punished not only in a loss of status, but even of life. The woman’s desire is punished, and ultimately its monstrous inspiration as well. As the object of Desdemona’s illegitimate (not authorized by law) passion, Othello figures monstrosity. Rymer and Clinthio

Psychological Interpretation:

The structure of Othello develops in a series of improvised undeclared playlets in which Iago organizes roles for his victims. The degree of control he maintains over the characters allows him to induce a psychological alienation and separation between some of them. As A C Bradley points out “Any man situated as Othello was, would have been disturbed by Iago’s communications.” Iago is helped over all the weak points in his plot by his victims themselves. Some characters are even used as plot devices to help Iago’s plan to become a success. Even the mere random contingency of events for a while allows all the accidents to knit up the design it could unravel and expose Iago’s villainy.

The play’s success depends on arousing our impulsive wish to stop the action and that the more, as civilized playgoers, we stifle that impulse the more the play achieves its ascendancy over us. It is not simply that we lack the release valve provided in pantomime, but rather that we are confronted again and again by our helplessness. We have no access to a hero who needs our help, rather we have access to the villain sharing his plans through his soliloquies’ and explaining to us why the characters must fall into the roles he has shaped for them. “For most audiences, he stirs a passion of mingled love and pity that they feel for no other character in any other Shakespeare play.”-A C Bradley

Political Interpretation

Shakespeare was writing at a time of rapid change socially, politically and economically. Feudalism was giving way to capitalism; there were attacks on the Crown.

Aristotle’s Poetics:

Othello follows the classical approach to tragedy set out in Aristotle’s Poetics. The play imitates actions which excite pity and fear. The character between two extremes that of a man who is not eminently (respectfully) good and just, yet some error or frailty (conditions of being wear or delicate). He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous-a personage like Oedipus of the Greek Myth, or other illustrious men of such families. A well-constructed plot should therefore be single in its issue, rather than double as some maintain. The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but reversely, from good to bad. It should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty in character either such as we described, or better rather than worse.

Iago’s plot is Iago’s character in action:

Iago is a being who hates good simply because it is good, and loves evil purely for itself. His action is not prompted by any plain motive like revenge, jealousy or ambition. It springs from a “motiveless malignity” or a disinterested delight in the pain of others. Iago is a perfect examples of how evil naturally arises within the human nature. As Ecclesiastes says “the hearts of the children or men are full of evil.” The organic way “I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear” in which Iago’s plots consume the other characters and determine their behavior makes his conniving, human evil seem like a force of nature. That organic growth also indicates that the minds of the other characters are fertile ground for Iago’s efforts.

Critics disagree about the motivation behind Iago’ actions. Stephen Greenblatt’s suggest ‘Shakespeare makes the motivation opaque. He substitutes questions rather than answers.’ There may be three main reasons for Iago’s jealousy; sexual, personal and professional jealousy. The only reason which Iago gives for his actions in his first soliloquy, is a vague rumour that Othello has ‘twixt my sheets…He’s done my office.” It could be a compelling drive, if Iago’s harm of good reputation of ‘fair Desdemona’ actions are seen not simply as a mechanical revenge for Othello’s wrong-doings, but part of his general distrust of women. Tim McInnery’s performance in the recent Globe production of Othello seemed to emphasize this aspect, as if by ruining Desdemona’s reputation, Iago could somehow be proved that his paranoid view of womankind was correct.

Iago is a genius at deception and a master at control. He is surely the most trusted character within the play. He is the only one who everyone believes see as ‘honest Iago.’ Iago can be seen as Malcontent, which highlights his character division amongst itself. On one hand he is the ‘honest, honest Iago’, but on the other he is a vicious and self-seeking villain. Iago can be seen as a Machiavellian is a term used to describe someone whose sole purpose is to manipulate and corrupt others for the individual’s personal gain.

Iago and Kind Lear’s Edmund:

One can find itself compelled to compare Iago with Kinda Lear’s Edmund. The soliloquies of both characters show what their plans are, and both try to hide and disguise themselves. Moreover, both Edmund and Iago are completely aware of their actions, which they carry out of their own free will. Iago says ‘Our bodies are gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners”, adding particular emphasis on the fact that we are the ones who make things happen in our lives. Similarly Edmund argues “I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.” Edmund also recognises his own evil nature and decides to use it to his advantage. However, the main difference between the two is that the cause of Edmund’s evil can be traced to the injustices made towards him by society due to being an illegitimate son, there is no injustice made towards Iago.

Iago and Hamlet:

The audience cannot help but like the brutal honestly by which Iago expresses himself in his soliloquies, something that they also experience concerning Hamlet. They are both men of thought, but the substance of their arguments differ drastically. Unlike Hamlet, Iago plots actions. He thinks for a pragmatic reason, whereas Hamlet delays actions the more he engages in thought. Iago notes “Dull not device by coldness and delay”, which serves as a direct criticism to Hamlet’s procrastination.

“The skill of Iago was extra ordinary, but so was his good fortune”- F R Leavis

It may be assumed that Iago’s intellect and his good fortune belong, like Napoleon and his, to history, may be taken as showing that Shakespeare succeeded in making him reasonable enough for the purpose of the drama, to perform his function as a dramatic machinery of invincibly cunning devilry.


They way in which women behave and conduct themselves is undeniably linked to the idealogical expectations of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan society and to the patriarchal Venetian society that he creates. Society weights heavily on the shoulders of women; they feel that they must support the men, even if the actions of the men are questionable.

The Senator hopes that Othello ‘use Desdemona well’ may mean to look after her, but the Venetian expectations may suggest, that the women are to bow to their husbands who may treat them as they wish.

Desdemona is treated as Othello’s possession “assign my wife.” He implies that she is a commodity to be guarded and transported.

Marriage: Marriage is described as an act of a purchase. “Come, my dear love…The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue”. A woman is brought by her husband, effectively as a favour and is expected to fulfil his sexual desires in return for the privilege.

Women appearing powerful: Emilia suggests that men are brutish and simplistic, unable to control their desire with logical thought. It is perhaps ironic that the actions of Iago and Othello confirm her argument. She argues that women are the same as men, but the only difference is that men are mentally weaker “frailty that thus errs.” Emilia also portrays feminism when noting “Nay, we must think men are not Gods.” However, Emilia’s opinions are given to Desdemona in privacy, so the patriarchal control of women is still present, and their freedom of speech and ideas is still limited.

Desdemona first appears strong minded in front of the Duke, when she expresses her love and duty towards Othello. She gains her freedom and gains recognition of her marriage by Brabantio. However, she appears more stereotypical when she is struck; “I have not deserved this, I will not stay to offend you.”


It could be said that it is a mixture of naivety, innocence and passion that causes Othello’s downfall. Arguably, it is the innocence of love that makes the tragedy of the play all the more profound.

Othello is described as a man of royal lineage. position and power. These may contrast with the imagery presented at the start of the play, where Othello is described as an ‘old black ram’, ‘thick lips’ and ‘devil.’

Othello stays extremely calm, even when he is accused of witchcraft, which in Elizabethan England, was considered a serious threat and a punishment by death. Othello demands to ‘keep your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.’ Shakespeare highlights the real and honorable man that Othello is, contrasting within the images presents at the start.

Othello explains himself in a poetic manner and clarity which is almost hypnotic. Shakespeare uses the accusation of enchantment to its advantage. Brabantio let Desdemona meet him, and they both fell in love. His speech pains an image of an incredibly romantic image, as A C Bradley suggested Othello being ‘the most romantic figure.’ However, Othello’s anti-critics, such as T S Elliot, ‘Othello is extremely self centered.’

Some productions of Othello, performed at the national theatre, staring Laurence Olivier as Othello, made Othello’s religious decline visible. Olivier rips a prominent cross, always worn by Othello, during Scene three. It may highlight Othello rejection religion, as Christianity and the cross suggest self control and rationality. Once Othello starts believing Iago, as the seeds of doubt start growing, Othello almost sells his soul to the metaphorical devil-Iago.

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