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  • First Things First
    • 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.
  • Background
    • 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 …
  • Setting
    • Venice and Cyprus
    • War with the Turks
    • Racism
  • Major Characters
    • 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
    • Bianca—Cassio’s lover
    • Roderigo—A Venetian in love with Desdemona
    • Duke of Venice—Doge, or leader of the city
    • Gratiano—Brabantio’s brother
    • Lodovico—Desdemona’s cousin
    • Montano—Othello’s Venetian predecessor in Cyprus
    • Clown—A servant
  • Plot
    • 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
    • Othello’s self-doubt
    • The handkerchief is stolen
    • Iago goads Othello even more
      • Othello’s trance
    • 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
      • Emilia enters
      • Desdemona’s “suicide”
    • Iago is revealed; Emilia dies
    • Othello kills himself
  • Themes
    • Deception and manipulation
    • Racial and cultural “otherness”
    • Love, sex, and fidelity
    • Warrior vs. husband
    • Isolation
  • Major Passages
    • “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

  • Jumping-Off Points
    • 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.

  • Intro 0:00
  • First Things First 0:08
  • Lesson Overview 0:30
  • Background 1:04
  • Setting 2:58
  • Major Characters 3:54
    • Othello
    • Desdemona
    • Michael Cassio
    • Iago
    • Brabantio
    • Emilia
    • Bianca
    • Roderigo
    • Duke of Venice
    • Gratiano
    • Lodovico
    • Montano
    • Clown
  • Plot 5:58
    • Roderigo and Iago; Othello's secret marriage; Iago's plot
    • Othello's trail
    • The army goes to Cyprus
    • The feast of Cyprus
    • Iago sends Cassio to Desdemona
  • Plot, cont. 9:30
    • Cassio asks Desdemona for help
    • Iago suggests to Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful
    • Othello's self-doubt
    • Handkerchief stolen
    • Iago goads Othello even more
    • Iago gets Cassio to laugh and Biana gets Othello to believe
  • Plot, cont. 12:48
    • Othello rages at Desdemona
    • Othello goes for a walk
    • Roderigo and Iago attack Cassio; Iago kills Roderigo
    • Othello “kills” his wife
    • Iago is revealed; Emilia dies
    • Othello kills himself
  • Themes 16:18
  • Major Passages 18:14
    • Act I, scene 1, 57-65
    • Act I, scene 3, 179-188
    • Act III, scene 3, 267-279
    • Act V, scene 2, 341-354
  • Jumping-off Points 22:00
    • How does race play out in this play?
    • Examine the role of sex in this play
    • How does Emilia change?
    • How does Iago play with the audience's sympathies?
    • Male characters' dual roles as military men and lovers
    • Physical and emotional isolation
    • How is this Iago's story? How is it Othello's?
  • The Secret of Understanding Shakespeare 23:50