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)
A tragic hero is of noble status and greatness. The tragic hero possesses a human tendency to make error in judgment. The tragic hero has a tragic flaw. Othello is noble and quite capable as a leader. He is chosen to lead in the military effort against the Turkish invasion against Cyprus. Although he is of high stature and greatness, he makes an error in his judgment against his wife, Desdemona.
Othello is a tragic hero in that he allowed his jealously to overcome him. It is one thing to be jealous, but Othello acted on his jealousy and murdered his wife, Desdemona. Because Iago planted seeds of jealousy, Othello was taken into a snare. Othello should have trusted his wife. He trusted the wrong man and his life ended in tragedy.
Although Iago planted seeds of jealousy, Othello lacked self control. He could not control his rage. This was a tragic flaw. He allowed his jealousy to consume him. He was totally overwhelmed with jealousy. Rather than trusting his beloved wife, he smothered her out of jealousy. In the end, he takes his own life out of utter hopelessness.
These characteristics fit Othello:
The following is a summary of [Aristotle's] basic ideas regarding the tragic hero:
1. The tragic hero is a character of noble stature and has greatness. This should be readily evident in the play. The character must occupy a "high" status position but must ALSO embody nobility and virtue as part of his/her innate character.
2. Though the tragic hero is pre-eminently great, he/she is not perfect. Otherwise, the rest of us--mere mortals--would be unable to identify with the tragic hero. We should see in him or her someone who is essentially like us, although perhaps elevated to a higher position in society.
3. The hero's downfall, therefore, is partially her/his own fault, the result of free choice, not of accident or villainy or some overriding, malignant fate. In fact, the tragedy is usually triggered by some error of judgment or some character flaw that contributes to the hero's lack of perfection noted above. This error of judgment or character flaw is known as hamartia and is usually translated as "tragic flaw" (although some scholars argue that this is a mistranslation). Often the character's hamartiainvolves hubris (which is defined as a sort of arrogant pride or over-confidence).
4. The hero's misfortunate is not wholly deserved. The punishment exceeds the crime.
5. The fall is not pure loss. There is some increase in awareness, some gain in self-knowledge, some discovery on the part of the tragic hero..
6. Though it arouses solemn emotion, tragedy does not leave its audience in a state of depression. Aristotle argues that one function of tragedy is to arouse the "unhealthy" emotions of pity and fear and through a catharsis (which comes from watching the tragic hero's terrible fate) cleanse us of those emotions. It might be worth noting here that Greek drama was not considered "entertainment," pure and simple; it had a communal function--to contribute to the good health of the community. This is why dramatic performances were a part of religious festivals and community celebrations.