In this lesson, our instructor Rebekah Hendershot teaches Othello. Youll go over the complete background of the play, the setting, and the characters. Rebekah explains each character in detail, including Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, Iago, Brabantio, Emilia, Bianca and everyone in between. Youll learn each element of the plot from Othellos secret marriage to the tragic finale. Themes, major passages, and essay topic jumping-off points are also discussed. With Rebekah youll discuss topics such as race, sex, and the dual roles of men. The lesson concludes with a few secrets to make understanding Shakespeare a lot easier.
This lesson will teach you how to read and understand a play by William Shakespeare, one of the greatest playwrights in the history of the English language (and the man who invented quite a lot of it).
These videos are not a substitute for reading Shakespeare, listening to Shakespeare, or watching Shakespeare performed.
Seriously. Don’t be that guy.
Written in 1603
Taken from a 1565 short story (“A Moorish Captain”) by Cinthio, a follower of Boccaccio
Original story was not available in English during Shakespeare’s lifetime
“Moor” and “black” could have meant just about anything—Morocco, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa …
Venice and Cyprus
War with the Turks
Othello—Moorish general working for Venice; friend of Brabantio and Cassio, husband of Desdemona
Desdemona—Venetian-born wife of Othello; daughter of Brabantio
Michael Cassio—Lieutenant, proxy wooer and friend of Othello
Iago—Ensign serving under Othello, champion manipulator
Brabantio—Nobleman of Venice, father of Desdemona, friend of Othello
Emilia—Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maidservant
Roderigo—A Venetian in love with Desdemona
Duke of Venice—Doge, or leader of the city
Montano—Othello’s Venetian predecessor in Cyprus
Roderigo and Iago: Othello’s secret marriage, Iago’s plot
Othello’s trial and the explanation of “witchcraft”
The army goes to Cyprus; Iago plots some more
The feast at Cyprus
Cassio drunk, disgraced, fired
Iago sends Cassio to Desdemona, plays the reluctant tattletale to Othello
Cassio entreats Desdemona for help
Iago suggests to Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful
His charges: Cassio’s sleep behavior and the handkerchief token
The handkerchief is stolen
Iago goads Othello even more
Iago gets Cassio to laugh and Bianca gets Othello to believe
Othello rages at Desdemona; wedding sheets on the bed
Emilia questions Iago
Othello goes for a walk; Emilia and Desdemona prepare for bed
Roderigo and Iago attack Cassio; Iago kills Roderigo
Othello “kills” his wife
Iago is revealed; Emilia dies
Othello kills himself
Deception and manipulation
Racial and cultural “otherness”
Love, sex, and fidelity
Warrior vs. husband
“Were I the Moor I would not be Iago. In following him I follow but myself; Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty, But seeming so for my peculiar end…”
-Act I, Scene 1, 57-65
“My noble father, I do perceive here a divided duty …”
-Act I, Scene 3, 179-188
“Haply for I am black, And have not those soft parts of conversation That chamberers have; or for I am declined Into the vale of years—yet that’s not much— She’s gone …”
-Act III, Scene 3, 267-279
“Then must you speak Of one that loved not wisely but too well, Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought, Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand, Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes, …And say besides that in Aleppo once, Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk Beat a Venetian and traduced the state, I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog And smote him thus …”
-Act V, Scene 2, 341-354
How does race play out in this play? How do different characters portray Othello as an “other”, or defend him as an “insider” ally of Venice, at different points in the story? How does Othello perceive his own insider/outsider status?
Examine the role of sex in this play—the repeated interruptions of the wedding night between Othello and Desdemona, the virgins’ blood on the handkerchief, the accusations of infidelity. How does sex alter the plot?
How does Emilia change? To whom is she loyal, and when? What causes her to turn against Iago at the end?
Iago plays constantly with the audience’s sympathies, first holding them and then spurning them. Dissect one of his soliloquies to see this effect.
How does Othello play with its male characters’ dual roles as military men and as lovers? Compare the pairings of Othello and Desdemona, Cassio and Bianca, and Iago and Emilia. Who is most comfortable in which role?
Some of the most important moments in the play happen when characters are alone, or alone with Iago. How does physical and emotional isolation change the course of Othello?
This play is called Othello, but Iago gets more lines, and better ones. How is this Iago’s story? How is it Othello’s?
The Secret of Understanding Shakespeare
Watch it performed (or on film if you can’t get to a theatrical production). All of Shakespeare makes more sense when it’s spoken by actors who have lived his words and know, bone-deep, what he’s talking about. Never underestimate the power of performance. Remember that this is how Shakespeare meant his work to be seen …
Lecture Slides are screen-captured images of important points in the lecture. Students can download and print out these lecture slide images to do practice problems as well as take notes while watching the lecture.
Grammarly is the world's leading software suite for perfecting written English. It checks for more than 250 types of spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors, enhances vocabulary usage, and suggests citations.