Othello was written by Shakespeare in the year 1603. It was first performed in court, but not published until 1622.
William Shakespeare took ideas from Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecca Tommithi – an Italian collection of 100 stories which were popular at the time, and studied by many playwrights and scholars.The play is about love, jealousy, deceit, racism and lies, and is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies.Othello is set in two places- the first act in Venice and the rest of the play at a sea port in Cypress. Venice was a powerful city, with a wealthy, law-abiding and formal society.
In contrast, Cypress was rowdy, not law-abiding, and constantly fighting. It is an island, which was attacked in 1570 by the Turks, having belonged to Italy for more than 100 years.Women were thought of as stupid, silly, and objects only for having children, doing as they were told, and less intelligent. A wife was bought for a dowry, and parents would sell off their daughters to gain influence or money.
Desdemona was Othello’s wife – they have been secretly married before the beginning of the play. She is the daughter of Venetian senator Barbanzio, and typically pure and meek, while being determined and self possessed. Othello believes her to be perfect and devoted to him, until Iago tricks him into thinking that she had been unfaithful. Distraught, Othello murders her.
Emilia was Iago’s wife, and Desdemona’s assistant. She is very attached to her mistress, and distrustful of her husband. She is a very cynical character.Act 2 Scene 1Shakespeare has used many exclamation marks (!) to show the characters’ strong emotions.
“O my fair warrior!My dear Othello”This stagecraft allows the actor to express the character’s strong emotions and emphasise stronger words by speaking loudly and strongly. They show the character’s feelings, and how happy Othello and Desdemona are to see each other. Shakespeare has also repetitively used the word “my”, which shows Othello and Desdemona’s possessiveness of each other, and how they feel they belong to each other.Repetition is used throughout the scene, with the frequently used word “content” showing how happy Othello is with his life at the time.
“Great is my content… content so absolute.
.. enough of this content”He is showing how happy with his life and his love for Desdemona. He says that his “content” is “great”, and “so absolute” that he cannot imagine “another comfort like this”.
However he also says that he “cannot speak enough of this content; it stops me here; it is too much of joy.” Here he says that he feels so happy to be re-united with Desdemona that he cannot put his feelings into words.Then “[They kiss]”. Here Othello is showing how happy he is with his love for his wife, and that he is not afraid to show it in public.
Everyone can see this display of emotion, and Othello seems proud of his love, not ashamed; likewise with Desdemona.Othello and Desdemona forget that other people are around them, showing how much they love each other.”I prattle out of fashion..
. my old acquaintance”Othello and Desdemona do not acknowledge the presence of the other characters in the scene until after their reunion, showing that they are deeply in love and only see each other.Othello says a lot about his love for Desdemona, going over the top to praise her. He repeatedly says how much Desdemona makes him happy, showing how strong his feelings of love are for her.
Act 3 Scene 3Iago has started placing suspicion in Othello’s mind, and Othello is unsure if Desdemona is faithful or not.”This fellow’s of exceeding honesty, and knows all qualities, with a learned spirit, of human dealings. If I do prove her haggard, though that her jesses were my dear heart-strings, I’d whistle her off, and let her down the wind to prey at fortune”Othello says that Iago is honest, and is beginning to believe him. He compares Desdemona to a wild, untrained hawk – “haggard” – and extends this metaphor to go to say that his “dear heart-strings” were “jesses” – the straps which secure the hawk’s legs.
He attempts to control her, and thinks that she is trapped in love for him, but in truth he thinks her wild and untrained – and believes Iago that she is unfaithful. Finally he says that he’d “whistle her off, and let her down the wind”, which means that he would cast her off – an unfaithful wife was not to be tolerated – and let her go. A hawk that was “let down the wind” rarely returned to the hunter’s fist.Othello hates the idea that she is unfaithful, and refuses to share her with another man.
“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 says that he would rather be a toad in a dungeon than share her. Dungeons were often the sewers of a castle, a very unpleasant place. He calls Desdemona a “thing”, showing that he has not only begun to doubt her faithfulness, but hates and despises her. In the first scene, he calls her his “fair warrior” and “my souls joy”, “honey” and “my sweet”, but now he calls her a “thing” and has lost that endearment for her.
However, he still feels that she belongs to him, but is now possessive and controlling, rather than loving. She is becoming more of an object to him than a soul mate, as many wives were considered at the time.Next, he says:”If she be false, O then heaven mocks itself! I’ll not believe’t”Despite Iago’s words, he refuses to believe that she is unfaithful. However, he says that he will not ‘believe’ it, rather than ‘it isn’t true’ – he is no longer sure of himself and worries that he is being short-sighted with his belief that Desdemona loved only him.
He is confused and does not know what to believe – he always thought that Desdemona loved him, but also trusts Iago and is worried that he is refusing to believe the obvious.There are many religious references in the play, and Othello often uses the words “heaven”, “soul”, “hell” and “devil”. This shows how deep his love for Desdemona was, and how important it is to him. It also shows how religious people were at the time, and could suggest that what Othello believes is like religious beliefs – hard to prove and sometimes easy to forget.
Shakespeare often uses actors words as stage directions.”Why do you speak so faintly?”I have a pain upon my forehead here”These tell the actors what to do, and tell the audience what they are doing and why. Shakespeare’s plays were often performed in front of large audiences, and people at the back would not have had binoculars to see what the actors were doing. By telling the audience what is going on, they can all understand, and this also tells us that Othello and the other characters had noticed too, allowing us to understand their thoughts and actions.
When Othello says that he has a headache, he isn’t referring to physical pain, but the worry and stress in his mind. Desdemona then offers to bind his head with her handkerchief, but it is too small. “She drops it”Later, Othello is talking to Iago, and discusses Desdemona.”I had been happy, if the general camp, Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body, so I had nothing known.
“He says that he would not mind if he had been sharing her with the whole camp, if he had not known. He also suggests that he now believes Iago, and thinks that Desdemona is cheating on him. However, he still retains some affection for her, as he describes her as ‘sweet’. He speaks in short phrases, showing how his thoughts are moving, and that he is angry and worried.
He then goes on to discuss in detail how his mind is in turmoil – “farewell the tranquil mind” – repeatedly using the word “farewell”, saying goodbye to his happiness. He is still confused about the truth and his emotions, so asks Iago to give him “the ocular proof” – show him proof he can see with his own eyes – showing that he still holds on to the hope that she is true to him, and may no longer trust Iago.Iago later uses the word “honest” – saying that he didn’t know whether to tell the truth, which leads Othello on to the topic of his wife again. He says:”I think my wife be honest, and I think she is not; I think thou art just, and think thou art not.
I’ll have some proof.”He again demands proof, but admits he cannot be sure who is right and who to trust. He needs to see proof. Iago says that the only proof he could see would be to:”Grossly gape on.
.. behold her topped”He asks if he really wants to see proof, if it would be watching Desdemona with Cassio on top of her. But Iago then gives him proof – that he heard Cassio talking in his sleep about Desdemona, and saw him use her special handkerchief – the one she had been given as a first gift from Othello and had dropped earlier – to wipe his beard with.
Othello goes mad, and curses her, calling for revenge. Then, he makes Iago his lieutenant.Act 5, Scene 2This is the “death scene” – where Othello kills Desdemona. It is the end of their relationship, and Othello has decided that she is unfaithful, and this is his revenge.
In a soliloquy at the beginning of the scene, Othello says”I’ll not shed her blood nor sear that whiter skin of hers than snow”He still loves her, and thinks her beautiful. He doesn’t want to spoil her perfection – he still wants her to look the same, showing that he still loves her, or he may just not want her to change from the Desdemona he loved to what he could think of as Cassio’s Desdemona – ruined. If she still looks the same, he could still think of her as the same as she was before, and not be tortured by memories of her ruined body.”If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, I can again thy former light restore.
.. I cannot give it vital growth again”He says that while he can easily relight a candle – the metaphor “thou flaming minister” – he cannot restore Desdemona once he has killed her. This could also refer to his love, which he held for Desdemona, but, after believing that she has cheated on him, he no longer has, hence his fire has been ‘quenched’.
He is having second thoughts about killing Desdemona, as he is not sure that he could ever love another as much as he loved her, and still holds some affection for her. He extends the candle metaphor by saying “that Promethean heat” – referring to his love. He calls it Promethean – after Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and used it to animate clay figures of people, thus giving them life, in Greek myths. He calls it stolen, because his love has been stolen by Cassio.
He could also be suggesting that he was the one who had stolen it, not thinking that Desdemona may want to give her love to someone else.Then “He kisses her”. She is still asleep, and so is not kissing him back. He still loves her, but it is no longer a two- way thing.
It can be compared to a ‘good-bye’ kiss that many couples give each other when one of them leaves – as Othello prepares to kill her. He could also want to be the last one to kiss her – knowing that it was not Cassio who left his love on her dead lips. In Act 2, scene 1 he kisses her, unashamed of their love, speaking of how happy he is to see her, and how he wouldn’t mind if he died then, his soul was so content.Now however, he believes that she has been cheating on him, with Cassio, who he had trusted.
He feels betrayed and yet still loves her, but, as she is unable to kiss him back, being asleep, he feels that she no longer loves him, and perhaps doesn’t want her to kiss him back, thinking that she had once been kissing Cassio. If her kiss had felt no different than normal, how would he know whether she had ever loved him, and if it felt different, he would be sure that she wished she were kissing Cassio. He is afraid of what she might say, and no longer trusts her enough to know that she would never love Cassio, or any other man than him.He says that he still loves her”I will kill thee, And love thee after”He knows that he still loves her, and wants to kill her now, before she tells him that she no longer feels the same way.
He doesn’t want her to reject him, or say that she loves Cassio, not him. He is also confused about his feelings – shouldn’t he hate her for loving Cassio, yet he loves her. He doesn’t want to hurt her, but at the same time plans to kill her. One part of him mind is telling him to kill her, yet his heart still loves her.
Throughout this paragraph, he speaks using many monosyllabic words for emphasis – ‘dead’, ‘kill’, ‘love’.These words are about strong, conflicting emotions, showing that Othello is confused and angry – with Desdemona and himself. He can’t bring himself to hate her or spoil her perfection, yet feels that he ought to, as she was having an affair with Cassio behind his back. He shows that he still cares about her by asking is she had prayed tonight, because he wants her to go to heaven.
He wants her to confess to her crimes for the same reason, and possibly to confirm what Iago had told him. He continues to try and persuade himself that he is doing the right thing – by giving her the opportunity to confess, and thinking of her soul going to heaven rather that her being dead – she would look as if she were sleeping if he strangled her, so she doesn’t look so dead.”I would not kill thy unprepared spirit;No-heaven forfend!- I would not kill thy soul.”He refuses to kill her without her confession, showing his Catholic beliefs, so her soul would be saved.
Throughout the play, the characters refer to religious beliefs, and in this scene, Othello tries to tell himself that by giving her the opportunity to confess her sins, he is being good by giving her a second chance, and she has the chance of going to heaven. He feels that he isn’t really killing her if her soul goes to heaven. Desdemona asks for heaven to have ‘mercy’ on her, to which Othello replies ‘Amen with all my heart’ – he wants her to go to heaven. Desdemona, obviously confused by Othello’s words, wonders why he plans to kill her if not to punish her, and Othello again asks her to confess.
The only sin Desdemona can think of is her love for Othello, against her father’s will, and Othello then finally accuses her of giving his handkerchief to Cassio, which Desdemona vehemently opposes.”Send for the man and ask him.”She doesn’t know why he would accuse her of such a crime, and why he is so angry. She wants to prove her innocence to him, but Othello does not give her the chance.
This shows that his love for her has been overcome by his anger at her denial, and he is determined that he is right, instead of discussing it and getting more proof he continues to accuse her, refusing to listen to her explanations. She asks if Cassio had confessed, and he replies:”He hath confessed”This sentence is very short, showing how heavily Othello is breathing and how strong his emotions are. He is angry and does not think about the fact that he had not Cassio outright, but listened in to his conversation with Iago and made his own assumptions about who they were talking about. He is angry that Desdemona is insisting that she had not given the handkerchief to Cassio when he believes he has proof.
She wants him to check with Cassio again, but when she hears that he is dead says that he has been betrayed and she ‘undone’.Othello calls her a ‘strumpet’, and accuses her of showing her feeling for Cassio openly by crying at the news of his death. She, resigned to her fate, asks to be allowed to say one prayer, but he refuses, now wanting to lose his nerve or give her time to change his mind. He says ‘it is too late’ – too late for her to admit to what she did, having denied it so, and too late for him to stop, as he could no longer live with Desdemona after this scene, and he is convinced of her disloyalty.
Then, he ‘Smothers her’.At the beginning of the play, Othello and Desdemona’s love is strong and emotional – they are recently wed, and still feel a passionate and strong love for each other. By scene three, Othello is beginning to doubt Desdemona’s love and faithfulness, having begun to believe Iago’s claims that she is unchaste and loves Cassio. In the last scene, when Othello kills Desdemona, he believes Iago, but still feels some love for his wife.
He sees her death as a necessity, but also a sacrifice, showing that he no longer believes their love can continue, nor that his love was ever returned. Only after he kills her does he realise his mistake and how Iago was controlling him and his emotions, and kills himself. Strong, emotive language is used to show his feelings towards Desdemona – first of love, then confusion.His feelings were always strong, and moments of strong emotions were often shown by shortening sentences, short and sharp words, and punctuation such as exclamation marks, which showed Othello’s shortness of breath and passion, and builds up tension and excitement.
It also showed the actor how to emphasise certain words or emotions, and told the audience what the character was feeling. When Othello speaks to other characters in the play, he speaks in calm, measured blank verse; but when he speaks to or about Desdemona near the beginning of the play, he often uses more poetic, rhyming speech, which shows his love for her. However, when he is angry, for example in Act 5, scene 2, he switches to a rougher voice, which would often be used by Shakespeare for less educated or lower characters in plays. This shows how Iago has been affecting him – making him more the angry, possessive lover than the clear-thinking General.
Throughout the play, Shakespeare uses strong, emotive language, and stagecraft such as exclamation marks and other punctuation and a variety of sentence lengths and speech styles. This helps to show Othello’s feelings towards Desdemona and how they change throughout the play, from loving to possessive and angry.