GCSE Othello

Play Analysis – Othello by William Shakespeare


William Shakespeare’s Othello is one of Shakespeare’s popular tragedies. The story of Othello and his wife Desdemona is loved amongst exam boards. When getting to grips with one of the most iconic plays, it is important to have a good understanding of how the effectively analyse the play. This article will show how to analyse Othello in a manner that will ensure GCSE success. 

Studying Shakespeare can be overwhelming. Understanding Elizabethan language is one f the key challenges when studying Shakespeare, there is also the importance of the key themes to remember and important quotations to memorise. So, if you find you’re struggling with Othello then don’t panic, you are not the only one.  

When it comes to revising for Othello, we suggest that students make sure they understand the key characters of the play. The characters and their attitudes always play a key part in the exam questions. It also helps to revisit the plot of the play before the exam. When analysing Othello it is very important to understand the key themes of the play, this will help to interpret the play in the correct way. 

Othello Play Analysis - Othello and Desdemona hugging

What is the plot of Othello?  

Othello, full title: Othello, The Moor of Venice, was written in 1603 by English playwright William Shakespeare. The play begins in the northern Italian city of Venice, where an argument between a wealthy man named Roderigo and Iago is taking place. Roderigo has been paying Iago to help him win the love, and hand in the marriage of the beautiful Desdemona. Unfortunately, Roderigo has discovered that Iago has failed at his job as Desdemona goes against her father’s wishes and marries Othello, a black military general whom Iago serves as ensign. Upset that his promotion has been given to the younger rival Cassio, Iago bears a grudge against Othello and decides to take his revenge on him, manipulating his relationship with Desdemona in order to do so. Iago arranges for Cassio to lose his position as lieutenant, and gradually insinuates to Othello that Desdemona is being unfaithful. He plants Desdemona’s handkerchief in Cassio’s room and arranged a meeting with him, forcing Othello to watch the conversation in order to witness the “proof” of infidelity. Iago unsuccessfully attempts to kill Cassio, and Othello smothers Desdemona with a pillow, killing her. Emilia, Iago’s wife, exposes his deceptions, causing Othello to kill himself. The play ends with Iago being taken away to be tortured for his deceptive crimes.  

The main themes of Othello: 

Jealousy:  

The theme of jealousy is central to the conflicts of Othello: for example, Iago’s resentment of Othello, or Othello’s growing suspicion of Desdemona. Shakespeare depicts Iago to be a jealous character from the beginning of the play, where he instantly complains that Cassio has been promoted instead of himself. His hatred for Othello can also be linked to his deep-rooted jealousy for him, since he has a higher military status and there have been rumours of Othello sleeping with Iago’s wife, Emilia. Othello, on the other hand, becomes a jealous character throughout the play due to the intervention of others; his jealousy of his wife Desdemona becomes a form of physiological torture that ends up tormenting Othello as the play progresses.  

Important jealousy quotes:  

  • I know not if’t be true / But I for mere suspicion in that kind / Will do as if for surety (Act 1, Scene 3) 
  • Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy! / It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on. (Act 3, Scene 3) 
  • Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmation strong / As proofs of holy writ. (Act 3, Scene 3) 
  • But jealous souls will not be answered so. / They are not ever jealous for the cause. / But jealous for they’re jealous. It is a monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself. (Act 3, Scene 4) 

Deception: 

Deception is important within Othello, because it shows that not all the characters are what they present themselves to be. Othello believes he is being deceived by the characters who are honest but fails to see the deceit of the characters who are pretending to be honest and loyal to him. Throughout the play, Othello refers to Iago as “honest”, showing that he is blind to Iago’s trickery and manipulation. Contrastingly, Othello is stubbornly convinced that Desdemona is the one deceiving him, when, she is being completely honest and transparent. Once Othello becomes obsessed with the idea that Desdemona is deceiving him, all her claims and pleas only drive him further into his disillusion. Othello’s inability to correctly identify who is being truthful and who is being deceitful makes him act without reason and ultimately leads him to violent acts and tragedy.   

Important Deception quotes

  • Thus do I ever make my fool my purse. / For I mine own gained knowledge should profane / If I would time expend with such a snipe / But for my spot and profit. (Act 1, Scene 3) 
  • So will I turn her virtue into pitch / And out of her own goodness make the net / That shall enmesh them all. (Act 2, Scene 2) 
  • I know thou’rt full of love and honesty / And weigh’st thy words before thou giv’st them breath. (Act 3, Scene 3) 
  • this is a subtle whore / A closet lock and key of villainous secrets (Act 4, Scene 2) 

Justice:  

Shakespeare uses the theme justice in order to show how the characters justify their actions on the basis of deserving justice. The play begins with Brabantio seeking juice because he opposes the marriage between his daughter Desdemona and a man of a different race. In order to justify his rage and racism, he decides that Othello has “bewitched” his daughter; Brabantio’s demand of justice is rooted in his racial prejudice and gender superiority. Shakespeare’s vision of Brabantio’s definition of justice is the reassertion of racial and gender dominance over others. Due to Othello’s belief that Desdemona is being unfaithful, he also feels entitled to justice, albeit a violent form of justice. At the time, there would have been legal measures in place for spouses to bring charges against their adulterous partners, but Othello ignores this and instead decides to take the law into his own hands – he is not interested in official forms of justice, he wants justice for the emotional pain his wife has caused him by cheating. The justice that Othello wants to carry out is rooted in his sense of ownership over Desdemona; he decides whether she lives or dies. This type of justice over women is wrong, leaving them vulnerable to false accusations and violent actions due to their gender – a sentiment shared by Elizabethan audiences. 

Important justice quotes: 

  • my bloody thoughts with violent pace / Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love / Till that a capable and wide revenge / Swallow them up (Act 3, Scene 3) 
  • Villian, be sure thou prove my love a whore; / Be sure of it. Give me the ocular proof. / Or, by the worth of mine eternal soul / Thou hadst been better have been born a dog / Than answer my waked wrath! (Scene 3, Act 3) 
  • Good, good—the justice of it pleases! (Act 4, Scene 1) 
  • It is the cause; it is the cause, my soul. / Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars; / It is the cause. (Act 5, Scene 2) 

Othello sample exam questions:  

  1. Jealousy is at the core of all the tragic events that occur in Othello.’ In the light of this statement, explore the dramatic function of jealousy in Shakespeare’s play.  
  1. ‘Despite his suffering, Othello learns nothing.’ In the light of this statement, explore Shakespeare’s presentation of Othello in the play. 
  1. ‘Othello depicts a world riddled with corruption and prejudice’. In the light of this statement, explore Shakespeare’s presentation of the values of the world in which the play is set. 
  1. ‘Irony is a powerful device that Shakespeare uses to heighten the tragedy of Othello.’ In the light of this statement, discuss Shakespeare’s use of irony in the play.  
  1. ‘Othello’s foolishness, as much as Iago’s cleverness, is responsible for the tragedy that unfolds.’ In the light of this statement, explore where responsibility for the tragedy might lie. 

More Othello Revision Resources:  

What the examiners want to see for AO1, AO2, AO3, and AO4:  

AO1:  

  • Use relevant quotes from both the extract and the rest of the play to support your points.  
  • Use quotes from other characters to show how quotes can be interpreted.  
  • Relationship between the characters in extracts and rest of the play. 
  • General overview of the character(s) that the question is asking you to focus on.  

AO2: 

  • Analyse the language, form, and structure used by Shakespeare and the characters in Othello 
  • How do these examples of language, form, and structure create meanings and different effects throughout the play? 
  • How does the use of language and form change between characters? How does the use of language change as the play progresses?  
  • Use relevant subject terminology when you can in order to show the examiners you are able to identify the techniques you are describing.   
  • What theme does the question ask you to consider? Are there any other themes that are relevant to the question? 
  • Comment on the bond between characters.  

AO3:  

  • Show the examiner your understanding of the relationships between the text and the contexts in which it was written. 
  • Understand Elizabethan views on the black and outsider communities and how this was different to their views on the white community. Why did they have these views? 
  • How have these views changed for modern audiences?  
  • Understand the genre of the play: Othello is a tragedy, why? What do the characters do to make it tragical? 
  • What would Elizabethan audiences have thought about the subject of adultery?   
  • How do the characters present themselves to the audience? Does this change throughout the play? If so, why?  

AO4:  

  • Remember to use a range of vocabulary and sentence structures.  
  • Make sure to check that your spelling and punctuation is accurate.  

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