Othello Essay Prompts Common

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

  1. CHARACTER
  2. THEME
  3. OPEN
  4. STYLE

CHARACTERS

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

Othello:

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

Iago:

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

Desdemona:

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

Emilia / Bianca:

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

Cassio:

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

All characters:

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

THEMES:

The major themes in the play are:

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

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

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

OPEN QUESTIONS:

  • Relevance to a modern audience
  • Pessimistic play

STYLE QUESTIONS:

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

SAMPLE QUESTIONS

Othello & Iago:

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

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

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

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

Iago cannot be blamed for the deaths of Desdemona and Othello

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

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

Othello:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iago:

Iago is the real hero of Shakespeare’s play Othello

Iago is a likable villain

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

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

Iago is an evil villain with no redeeming qualities

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

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

Desdemona:

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

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

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

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

Emilia / Bianca: 

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

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

Cassio:

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

All characters:

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

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

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

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

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

Themes:

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

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

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

Evil ultimately conquers good in Shakespeare’s play Othello

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

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

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

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

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

Open questions:

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

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

Style questions:

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

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

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

Sample essay questions on Othello

1. In another play by Shakespeare a tragic hero described himself as ‘more sinned against than sinning.’ In your opinion, could this also be true of Othello? In the course of your answer:

  • Explain clearly in what ways Othello might seem to be a victim
  • Comment on what the play suggests about Shakespeare’s view of tragedy. (OCR 2002)

2. ‘The tragedy of a handkerchief.’ Is the play Othello as trivial as this comment implies?  (OCR 1999)

3. How far are you convinced by Iago’s reasons for the causes of action that he pursues in the play?  (UCLES 1998)

 

4. Othello can be regarded as a foolishly gullible man; yet early on Iago acknowledges his ‘constant, loving, noble nature’ and at the end of the play Cassio describes him as ‘great of heart.’ Discuss your own response to Othello in the light of these judgements. (UCLES 1998)

 

5. How convincing does Shakespeare make Iago’s ability to trick Othello with such apparent ease? (UCLES 1998)

 

6. Othello, Iago and Cassio are soldiers. How important are military values and attitudes in the play? (UCLES 1998)

 

7. The relationship between Iago and Roderigo offers an ironic parallel to the main action of Othello.’ By considering the dramatic presentation of their relationship, evaluate this view. (OCR 2011)

 

8. ‘The women in Othello are articulate, but frustratingly unable to save themselves from the cruelty of men.’ Evaluate this view by exploring the presentation of women and their situations in the play.  (OCR 2011)

 

9. ‘Despite his apparent good nature, Cassio plays a significant part in Othello’s downfall.’ By exploring the presentation of Cassio in Othello, evaluate this view. (OCR 2011)

 

10. By considering the dramatic presentation of Othello, evaluate the view that ‘the power of the play lies in its central paradox: that Othello is shown to be both a hero and a fool.’  (OCR 2013)

 

11. ‘For a hero, Othello is too easy to pity, too hard to like.’ By considering the dramatic presentation of Othello, evaluate this view.  (OCR 2012)

 

12. By considering the dramatic effects of the play, evaluate the view that ‘Iago does not destroy Othello; he provokes Othello to destroy himself.’  (OCR 2012)

 

13. How far do you agree that Desdemona is both ‘brave and touchingly naïve in her character and actions’? In the course of your answer:

Explain clearly your own understanding of Desdemona’s character

Comment on what the play suggests about her relationships with other characters.  (OCR 2004)

 

14. In what ways do you think reputation and honour are significant concerns in the play Othello? In the course of your answer:

  •  Explain clearly how characters in the play regard reputation and honour
  •  Comment on the importance of these concerns in the world of the play. (OCR 2004)

15. Is it adequate to say that Othello’s tragedy is caused by his jealousy? In the course of your answer:

  • Discuss the part played by jealousy in Othello’s downfall
  • Comment on other factors that you think contribute to his ruin.   (OCR 2004)

16. ‘Emilia’s character deserves to be considered as one of the major characters of the play.’ How far do you agree? In the course of your answer:

  • Explain clearly how Shakespeare presents the character of Emilia
  • Comment on Emilia’s contribution to the action and concerns of the play. (OCR 2003)

17. Read Act 2 Scene 3 from ‘Now, by heaven, / My blood begins my safer guides to rule’  to ‘But never more be officer of mine.’ What does the passage add to your understanding of the relationship between Othello and Iago? In the course of your answer:

  • Look closely at the language and tone of the speeches
  • Comment on what the play suggests about honesty. (OCR 2003)

18. Read Act 2 Scene 3 from ‘I remember a mass of things,’ to ‘I protest, in the sincerity of love and honest kindness.’ What does the passage contribute to your understanding of Cassio and Iago in their relationship? In the course of your answer:

  • Look closely at the language, imagery and tone of the passage
  • Comment on what the passage suggests about the contrast between Cassio and Iago in the context of the whole play.  (OCR 2004)

19. Read Act 3 Scene 3 from Iago (returning) ‘My lord, I would I might entreat your honour’ to ‘I am very sorry that you are not well.’ In what ways does this passage help to prepare us for Othello’s turning against Desdemona? (OCR 1999)

 

20. Read Act 4 Scene 3 from ‘”The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree”’ to ‘their husbands’ faults/If wives do fall.’ How does this dialogue develop your response to Desdemona? In the course of your answer:

  • Look closely at the language, imagery and tone of the passage
  • Comment on what the passage suggests about the role of women in the play.  (OCR 2002)
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