English Othello Essays

Writing an introduction

For this exercise, I first got students to tell me what they found confusing about introductions. We listed their “things we want to know” about introductions on the board first. I can’t remember the exact list but it was something like this:

How should it begin? (Re-phrase the question and respond with your opinion)

How do we avoid just repeating the question word for word? (divide and conquer! Separate out the ideas. Use synonyms). 

Should we include quotes? / how much detail goes into the intro ? (no quotes, unless you begin with one for dramatic effect. A list of topic sentences outlining what you will discuss but keep the detailed discussion for the essay itself)

Do we list the things we’ll discuss? (Yes, see above! But don’t be a baby about it! NEVER write “In this essay I will discuss… blah blah blah“. [This is like a little kid telling their parents exactly what they are going to do before they do it “Mammy, I’m going to do a wee-wee now!“] We’re not thick. If it’s in your introduction we assume that’s because you intend to discuss it!)

How long should it be? (Anywhere between a third of a page and hall a page. Three-quarters of a page is probably too long. An introduction is supported to be brief and to the point! Long-winded is irritating)

Think of your introduction as a road map. You have been given a destination (the question) and there are lots of perfectly acceptable ways of getting there. In your introduction you lay out clearly what directions you’ll take in your essay. MAKE SURE TO USE THE WORDS FROM THE Q – but don’t begin by simply parroting back the question word for word. There is nothing worse than “I agree 100% that…..”.

Instead

  1. Re-phrase the question in your own words to prove that you have understood it.
  2. Divide the question into manageable chunks and discuss each part of the Q.
  3. List the things your essay will discuss to answer the question asked.

Let’s take an example:

Iago has a very low opinion of human nature and this colours his interpretation of every person in his life

Begin with part of the question:I re-phrase it in my own words. (Give an example)

Iago certainly feels superior to many of the people in his life. In the opening scene he criticises Othello & Cassio and he delights in creating pain and suffering for Brabantio. He does not respect other human beings, nor does he have a high opinion of anyone but himself.

Now I turn my attention to the other part of the question & list the things I’ll discuss in the body of my essay

He takes the most negative possible interpretation of human behaviour in every situation, accusing Othello of being a lustful gold-digger; accusing Cassio of being a naïve ladies-man with little battlefield experience; accusing Dedemona of being fickle and motivated only by lust; and finally, confiding to both Roderigo and to us the audience his general outlook on human beings, which is that they are selfish and self-serving. 

Body Paragraphs

Next, I got students to list the things they found confusing about writing paragraphs. We came up with this set of questions they wanted answers to:

When do you begin a new paragraph? (When you’ve got a new idea to discuss)

What should your first sentence do? (Respond to the Q with one relevant idea)

(NOT TELL THE STORY was actually my first response to this question!)

How long should it be? Do all paragraphs need to be the same length? How long is too long? (Depends how much you have to say about that idea. Paragraphs can vary in length. More than 3/4 of a page is too long.)

How many quotes and examples should you include? (Hard to answer this one. Depends on the point you’re making. At least 3 quotes, no more than 7? Quotes can be two or three words – e.g. “honest Iago” or half a speech! Don’t include really long quotes – it’s irritating and unnecessary). 

When do you quote? Can you begin with a quote or should you always begin with a statement (Quote to prove a point. Always begin with a statement? Yes, yes, yes – remember PQE from First Year English!)

How do you end a paragraph? (Show how what you’ve just said is relevant to the Q. You may want to flow into your next point – this can be done in the final sentence of this paragraph or at the beginning of the topic sentence in the next paragraph. FLOW MATTERS so make sure you use connectives in your writing)

Here’s the advice and example I came up with to answer their questions in a concrete and specific way:

Each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence. This first sentence indicates what your paragraph will be about. For example:

Despite having fought side by side with Othello for many years, Iago has a very negative opinion of his employer.(this is your topic sentence)

The rest of the paragraph provides specific examples which illustrate that the topic sentence is true (either quotes or paraphrasing or RELEVANT plot details – but don’t fall into the trap of telling the story)

His bitterness at not getting promoted to lieutenant leads him to believe that Othello was “loving his own pride and purposes” when he gave the job to Cassio. Iago sees his decision as a personal slight and an insult, because Iago has a very high opinion of himself “I know my price, I am worth no less a place”. His bitterness leads him on a quest for revenge and he begins to see people as simply pawns in a game of chess; each one will either help or hinder him in his quest. For example, rather than search for a new job, Iago decides to do everything in his power to destroy Othello. He takes a very negative interpretation of Othello’s decision to marry Desdemona, telling Cassio that Othello was motivated purely by her money and is satisfied now because he has “boarded a land-carrick” or treasure ship and is now guaranteed wealth (through his wife’s fortune) for the rest of his life.

If you want to continue discussing the same basic idea (eg Iago’s low opinion of Othello) but your paragraph is getting too long, then break it into two paragraphs. You’ll still need a topic sentence, but this one will just introduce a related idea. For example:

Iago is also very quick to believe the rumour that Othello has slept with his wife. He comments that“it is thought abroad that twixt my sheets he has done my officeand refuses to even bother checking if this rumour is true or not. This is hardly surprising given how certain he was that Othello was motivated by lust rather than love (“even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe”) – it’s as if Iago refuses to even consider the idea that human beings might be motivated by a noble emotion like love rather than by their base animalistic desires. Iago allows for the fact that human beings might be essentially ‘good’ when he describes Othello as being “of a free and open nature that thinks men honest that but seem to be so” but he sees this as naïve and stupid.

Finish your paragraph (or if the same basic idea stretches to two paragraphs, finish the second paragraph) by stating clearly how what you’ve just discussed is relevant to the question asked.

Thus, it is clear that Iago thinks very little of Othello, seeing him as motivated by lust and greed and interpreting his trusting nature as a weakness rather than a virtue.  (this is the final sentence of this paragraph/section on Iago’s interpretation of Othello’s behaviour).

I used the analogy of a paragraph being a bit like a sandwich. The top slice of bread is the topic sentence. The meat in the middle is basically the quotes and examples you use to develop your discussion and prove your point. The final sentence is like the bottom slice of bread in the sandwich – it holds everything together, connecting the meat (the quotes & examples) back to the top slice (the question asked).

Without the meat the sandwich wouldn’t be a sandwich but without one of the two slices of bread it would also not be a sandwich! You need both slices of bread and lots of filling. If you have lots to say for one idea and it stretches into two paragraphs, this is basically a double-decker sandwich. It’s fine but too many double-deckers in one essay might mean you run out of space (or time!) so don’t fill up that essay too much with double-deckers!!!

Alternative ways of structuring this essay:

You could go through the play chronologically –

par 1 could discuss his failure to get promoted;

par 2 could discuss breaking the news to Brabantio;

par 3 could discuss his interpretation of Othello & Desdemona’s marriage;

par 4 could discuss the speech he makes to Roderigo about reason being superior to emotion;

par 5 could discuss his plan for revenge.

There is not ONE PERFECT WAY to structure any essay – the important thing is that each paragraph has a clear focus and that each paragraph clearly responds to the question. If you just tell the story, you will NOT do well.

NOTE: This example only deals with Act 1 because this is an essay we did when we finished that act. Obviously in the exam you’d be expected to draw from the events of the entire play, not just Act 1.

Use this page to find resources to support your study of Shakepeare's play Othello

The BBC Bitesize page is a useful link (but it is designed for GCSE). Use the Higher exemplars below to see typical examples for the Higher paper.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/english_literature/dramaothello/

Plot Summary

 

The play opens with Roderigo, a rich gentleman, arguing with Iago, a soldier. Roderigo had been in love with Desdemona, the daughter of a senator, and asked her to marry him. However, he has just found out that she has secretly married Othello, a black army general. Iago is also angry - he serves Othello but has not been promoted by him. Instead, Othello promoted Cassio, a young soldier with no experience. Iago tells Roderigo to wake Desdemona's father, Brabantio, and they shout in the street, telling him about the secret marriage. Iago stays in the background, shouting insults but not saying who he is.

Iago says he is angry because of Cassio but he also suspects an affair between Othello and his wife. However, Iago hides his anger and pretends to be loyal and serve Othello, although we soon see that he is lying to him.

We learn that a Turkish fleet will attack Cyprus and Othello is sent to advise the senate. Brabantio arrives and accuses Othello of using witchcraft to seduce his daughter. However, Othello defends himself and is put in command of the army. He then leaves to sail to Cyprus and there is a terrible storm.

 

The storm destroys the Turkish boats and Othello arrives on Cyprus safely. He joins his wife, Desdemona, Iago, Iago's wife Emilia, Roderigo, Cassio and the rest of his soldiers. Iago starts trying to make Othello jealous of his wife and, as part of the plan, gets Cassio drunk. Othello learns of this and sacks Cassio, saying he'll 'never more' be an officer. Iago then persuades Cassio to speak to Desdemona so that she can convince her husband to reinstate Cassio. At the same time, Iago suggests to Othello that Cassio and Desdemona might be having an affair.

Desdemona loses her handkerchief, which was a present from Othello. Emilia gives it to her husband, Iago, and he plants it as evidence of an affair. Iago also asks Othello to hide and then gets Cassio to talk about love - Cassio is talking about another woman but Othello thinks he's talking about Othello's wife, Desdemona. Othello is so angry he decides to kill his wife and tells Iago to kill Cassio.

However, Iago continues to plot against Othello. He convinces Roderigo, who is still in love with Desdemona, to kill Cassio. Iago hides and watches the attack, then wounds Cassio. Iago then pretends to help Roderigo but secretly kills him and then blames someone else.

Othello talks to Desdemona and then attacks and kills her. However, Emilia, Iago's wife, realises Desdemona is innocent and that her husband is guilty. She starts to tell the guards what has happened but Iago kills her. Othello then attacks Iago but the fight is stopped. Othello is so full of grief that he commits suicide and falls on the bed next to the body of his wife. The play ends with the arrest of Iago and Cassio is left to decide Iago's punishment.

 

Themes in “Othello”

 

Revenge

Perhaps the most obvious subject or theme in Othello is revenge and jealousy. Iago is the key to almost everything that happens. He has been passed over for promotion, so he dislikes Othello and must be jealous of Cassio. He thinks Othello might also have slept with his wife. However, we can never be completely sure what motivates Iago to be so destructive - he manages to get Cassio dismissed but then Iago doesn't seem interested in Cassio's job, only in causing more problems. We also learn that Iago has tried many times in the past to steal the handkerchief that means so much to Othello. This tells us that he was planning against Othello long before his promotion was blocked.

 

Reality and appearance

The contrast between what is reality and the appearance of something is also used by Shakespeare. There are many references to it, with Iago saying that 'Men should be what they seem' (and Iago is clearly not what he seems), to Othello asking for 'ocular proof' or proof that he can see. Of course, what Othello actually sees isn't what he thinks it is. So when he sees and hears Cassio talking about Desdemona, Cassio is actually talking about another woman.

Othello also believes the story about Cassio wiping his beard on the valuable handkerchief. The only 'proof' is Iago's word, which is a lie. Othello is fooled in other ways too - he hears a scream and then assumes Cassio is dead, but he is only injured. However, the most important difference between reality and appearance is that Othello continues to think that Iago is of 'exceeding honesty', but everyone in the audience knows this isn't the case.

 

 

Race

Another major theme is race, and the idea that our ethnic origin affects our behaviour and personality. This belief was very strong in Shakespeare's time and many of his audience would feel a mixed marriage was wrong. They would also be familiar with the racist language used to insult Othello and see nothing wrong with it. However, we shouldn't reject Shakespeare for this - he is reflecting his audience and the time he wrote the play, but he also manages to challenge these racist ideas. His audience would almost inevitably expect the villain to be black and the hero white, but it's the opposite. Secondly the love between Desdemona and Othello is clearly real - they may be from different cultures but it is Iago who forces them apart, not their different ethnic origins.

There may be other topics you can spot, such as the subject of magic - Desdemona's father accuses Othello of using it to seduce his daughter, saying that she wouldn't be in love without 'witchcraft'. Even the handkerchief Othello gave Desdemona has 'magic in the web' of it, and losing it can lead to damnation.

 

Conflict and “Othello”

 

From the opening scene of the play, Othello and Iago are in conflict. Othello is not even on stage as the play opens but the audience can see that there is disagreement between these two from the words spoken by Iago. The audience can see the reasons for this conflict: Othello did not pick Iago to be his lieutenant and Roderigo is annoyed that Iago did not know about the fact that Desdemona and Othello got married.

 

This conflict is troubling for the audience as throughout the play it seems that these two men had been great friends and respected in the military. They worked closely together and had a strong relationship. All this changes and conflict between these two men ensues. Iago cannot trust Othello because he disregarded the rules of the military by promoting Cassio over Iago. If Othello cannot be trusted in this situation, then he cannot be trusted in any situation.

 

Iago takes it upon himself to ruin Othello and point out his flaw: jealousy. He uses this against Othello and it leads to Othello eventually killing Desdemonia and himself.

 

Key Quotations

 

"O, sir, content you. / I follow him to serve my

turn upon him”- Iago

 

“I hate the Moor”- Iago

 

“Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore;
Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof.”- Othello

 

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!”- Iago

 

“Is’t lost? Is’t gone? Speak, is it out o’ the way?”- Othello

 

"Men should be what they seem; / Or those that be not, would they

might seem none! " - Iago

 

“I am not sorry neither.  I'd have thee live,
For in my sense 'tis happiness to die.” -Othello

”I kissed thee ere I killed thee.  No way but this,
Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.” -Othello

 

Central concern of the text

 

Jealousy: this is Othello’s tragic flaw and can be blamed for his downfall as well as the death of Desdemona. This play warns the audience of what will happen if we allow jealousy to control our thoughts and actions.


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