Below you will find an exemplar student response to a Section B question in the specimen assessment materials, followed by an examiner commentary on the response.
Paper 1A, Section B - Othello
'Othello's virtue and valour ultimately make him admirable.'
To what extent do you agree with this view?
Remember to include in your answer relevant comment on Shakespeare's dramatic methods.
Band 5 response
It is true that in Act 1 of the play, Othello's actions and behaviour, his virtue and valour can be seen as admirable. He is after all a tragic hero, and his position in the tragedy demands that he begins in a position of greatness before he suffers his tragic fall. Shakespeare establishes Othello's greatness through focusing on his military prowess and his valour at the start of the play before charting his hero's descent as he tumbles into chaos. Othello is a soldier for whom the 'big wars' make 'ambition virtue'. By Act 3, however, there is little in him to admire: his valour belongs to a seemingly different world and there is nothing virtuous about a husband who colludes in a plot to destroy his wife.
Although Iago is used by Shakespeare at the start of the play to cast doubt on the magnificence of Othello and to test his virtue, when Othello appears he is impressive. Iago tries to persuade him to run away from the raised father whose daughter Othello has married, but Othello has full confidence in himself and the virtue of his actions. In rhythmic and controlled language he tells Iago he must be found: 'My parts, my title, and my perfect soul/ Shall manifest me rightly'. Although it could be claimed that this smacks of arrogance, Othello commands the stage and perhaps the audience's admiration. When Brabantio comes with bad intent, accusing Othello of theft and witchcraft, Othello is unperturbed; he tells his pursuers and accusers to put up their swords for the dew will rust them; they shall command more with their years than their weapons. His measured language is a sign of his confidence, self-discipline and virtue.
When Othello appears before the Duke he is equally impressive. Shakespeare uses the senators to counteract Iago's attempts to defame Othello, by having them refer to the general as 'valiant' (reminding us of his exploits in the field) and the Duke anyway has more interest to employ Othello against the general enemy Ottoman than listen to Brabantio's claims of sorcery. Even so, Othello's virtuous defence of himself and his love for Desdemona is all the more admirable (and certainly from a feminist perspective) because he asks that Desdemona be called to speak for herself. If Othello is found foul in her report, he says, the Duke should not only take away his trust and office but that sentence should fall upon his life. By twenty first century standards, Othello's affording Desdemona a voice and showing her unwavering respect, is virtuous indeed. There is also perhaps something if not admirable then at least mesmerising in his declaration of love and his story of how he wooed her:
She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
However, when Shakespeare shifts the scene to Cyprus and the influence of the Venetian state diminishes, Iago, the tragic villain, is able to work his poison on Othello and expose his weaknesses, those aspects of his character that are far from virtuous. Othello's trust in Iago, the ancient he overlooked for lieutenant, shows a terrible lack of judgement. Iago persuades him that Cassio is unworthy and then that Desdemona is unfaithful and from the point that Iago says 'I like not that', Othello's insecurities, raging jealousy and barbaric inclinations are exposed. Having swallowed Iago's poison, Othello damns Desdemona, threatening to 'tear her all to pieces'. It is interesting here to note the dramatic contrast Shakespeare sets up between Othello and the Duke. In Act 1, in Venice, when the Duke is called upon to exercise judgement, he listens to both the accounts of Brabantio and Othello. Here in Cyprus at the outpost of civilization, Othello listens only to the lies of Iago.
There is dramatic contrast too in the different ways Othello speaks. Othello's earlier speeches which contain so much gravitas are now worn down. His love, 'the fountain from the which [his] current runs' is degraded into a 'cistern for foul toads/ to knot and gender in'. He falls under Iago's spell, pulled into the orbit of Iago's filthy linguistic energies and there is not much that is virtuous about his behaviour from now onwards and not much to admire.
His humiliation and public striking of Desemona and his cruel murder of her are all too terrible to forget in the final judgement of him. It is true that when he strikes her there are reminders of his valour and virtue in Lodovico's surprise that he could have misjudged Othello's character so greatly in thinking him good, but these reminders simply intensify the repugnance felt at Othello's actions. It is also impossible to admire the man who strangles his wife believing that he is an honourable murderer. His pride at enacting the hand of Justice makes him detestable – at a point when he hesitiates, he blames her balmy breath for almost persuading Justice to break its sword.
His final speech, when he perhaps understands the appalling consequences of his folly, is seen by some critics as cathartic, a return of the virtuous and valiant Othello of Act 1. Interestingly, in this speech when he judges himself (and tries to shape how others might think), Othello seems to underplay the significance of his valour and contribution to the state. Though he reminds his stage audience that he has done the state some service, he quickly says 'no more of that'. However, it is clear that as the speech goes on, his assessment of himself is ultimately coloured by his pride and his highly developed sense of self worth and, although he has some dignity, there is not ultimately much honour. His concern at the end is for his public image and, as he has done from the start, he uses language to construct an artifice of his own identity. He speaks of himself as if he were legendary or part of a defined myth. The use of the definite article is instrumental in achieving this effect – 'the base Indian', 'the Arabian trees'; only fragments of detail are supplied here but he conveys the idea that these images are huge and famous. His final speech is calm and controlled, but it reaches a crescendo of dramatic impact when he does the most dramatic thing he can do, transferring his construction of his identity of himself into the here and now, and suddenly and climactically ends his life. This is the self dramatizing that Leavis so condemns.
So, while it is true that from the moment Othello first appears he is attractive, by ever increasing degrees as the plot develops, he becomes repellent. As we stand back to make our final judgement on whether his valour and virtue ultimately make him admirable, it is surely not possible to overlook his despicable behaviour. What perhaps should be done in the final evaluation is to reconsider the nature of his virtue and valour at the start of the play and question whether it was always founded on sand. From his words early on 'I fetch my life and bearing/ from men of royal siege' to his final words of the play, 'to die upon a kiss' his sense of his own significance is overwhelming. Othello is certainly not 'ultimately' admirable and the question must be asked, is he ever?
It is also important to note that even when he is most glorious – and apparently admirable, there are many who cannot countenance his 'pride, pomp and circumstance'.
This is a very confident and accomplished response, and although the ideas are a bit overpacked at times and the argument a little overdone, the candidate writes in an assured way.
The response is well structured and the task is always in the candidate's mind. The candidate argues perceptively with a strong and assured personal voice. There is a confident use of literary critical concepts and terminology and the written expression is very secure. Quotation is neatly woven into the argument.
There is perceptive understanding that Shakespeare has constructed this drama to shape meanings. Comment here is often implicit, but there is valid discussion of the structure of the play in relation to the task and on language choices.
Contextual understanding is clear with a sharp focus on military and gender contexts. These are well linked to the tragic genre.
As the candidate fully engages with the task and valour and virtue, there is perceptive exploration of the tragic genre thereby implicitly establishing connections across literary texts.
There is perceptive and confident engagement with the debate here and the candidate clearly knows the text well and selects appropriate material for the argument. The candidate is really thinking about the task and offers some complexity in the answer, well aware of the ambiguities that the play and task set up.
This response seems consistent with the band 5 descriptors.
This resource is part of the Aspects of tragedy resource package.
How is Othello's race a factor in the play?
Othello ascends to the rank of the Venetian military, a city - much like Elizabethan England when the play was written - rife with racism. A general in the army, Othello holds a distinguished place in the Duke's court due to his victories in battle, but not an equal one. He suffers barbs and preconceived notions, yet Othello is esteemed and wins the love of the daughter of a nobleman. However, Brabantio is enraged by Othello's marriage to Desdemona and claims Othello used magic to compel her to run to his "sooty bosom". Race is a factor in the tragedy both in those who seek to destroy Othello, and the victims of the schemes - Othello and Desdemona. Perhaps the most pernicious form of race as an instrument of division is Othello's own view of himself as an outsider, which makes him more susceptible to Iago's plan.
How does Shakespeare's use of language reveal character?
Often Shakespeare uses verse lines written in iambic pentameter to illustrate nobility. It is illustrative of Iago's duplicitous nature that he tends to speak in verse when he is with Othello and in prose for his soliloquies. One way in which Iago is a master in manipulation is his tendency to use Othello's own words to disguise his active role of instigator and make it seem that any dark thought came not from him but Othello's own mind. Othello's speech is very sophisticated at the beginning of the play, and in his soliloquy at the close of Act V, but when he is consumed with jealous rage, his eloquence falters. Shakespeare uses dialogue to convey the innerworkings of his characters.
Othello is often called a tragic hero. Discuss his heroic qualities as well as his flaws which lead to his demise.
At the beginning of the play Othello is presented as an honorable man of noble stature and high position. In the end it is his misguided attempt to maintain that honor which brings about his, and Desdemona's, demise. However, Othello is not simply the victim of a plot. Iago is able to engineer Othello's downfall in part because of Othello's own insecurities. His pride blinds him to his weaknesses, and he puts his faith in Iago over the word of his love, Desdemona. Othello is obsessed with his reputation, and ends up killing his wife to save face. Only to a flawed man would murder seem like a solution to a problem of reputation. Othello is spurred on by lies and misrepresentations, but he brings about his own undoing.
What motives, stated and implied does Iago have for taking revenge on Othello?
Iago's stated reason for taking revenge on Othello is that he has been passed over for Cassio's post. But is this enough for him to "hate the Moor"? It is clear that he is jealous of Othello's ascension in the court and successful wooing of Desdemona. Othello's race and status as an outsider also seems to fuel this rage, as well as the rumor that Othello has slept with Iago's wife, Emilia. None of these motivations, however, seem to add up to inspire the violence that unfolds. Iago remains one of the most purely evil of Shakespeare's villains.
Discuss how loyalty is presented as a positive and a negative quality throughout the play.
Othello's lack of loyalty is what incites Iago's plan for revenge. Iago's ability to fool Othello that he is loyal while secretly plotting his demise is what makes his revenge effective. It is Othello's belief in Desdemona's lack of loyalty that seals their fates. In these ways loyalty, when misconstrued, can be dangerous. However Desdemona's loyalty to Othello even in her death and Othello's loyalty to her once his mistake is revealed are seen as ennobling aspects of their characters.
Compare and contrast the jealousy of Othello to that of Iago.
One major theme in Othello is revenge - Iago's revenge on Othello and Othello's revenge on Desdemona. They both believe death will bring justice. Iago's revenge is cooler, plotted out over time where Othello's is an act of heartbroken passion. Iago wears his lack of morals as a badge of honor where it is Othello's moral code that leads to his tragic end.
Although Othello is the title character in what way is Iago the main character?
Often in Shakespeare's plays such as Hamlet or King Lear, the title character is the main character and protagonist. In Othello this is not the case. Iago has almost 20% more lines than Othello, and has more asides with the audience. While it is Othello's decisions and actions that provide the dramatic structure for the play, it is Iago who sets in motion those decisions and spurs him to action. Othello is the tragic figure of the play, along with Desdemona, and it his characteristics that lend itself to most of the themes - jealousy, race, trust. However, Iago is the character who drives the plot.
How does Desdemona's dying assertion that she killed herself effect how you see her character?
From a modern feminist viewpoint Desdemona may be judged harshly for answering Emilia, when she asked who has mortally attacked her, "nobody; I myself. Farewell." Furthermore, she seemed resigned to her fate at the hands of her husband. While contemporary audiences may interpret these actions as unfathomable, they highlight the goodness of her character. Desdemona is described by others in the play with words that symbolize goodness - light, white, fair, delicate, alabaster. By the end of the play, Desdemona begins to symbolize goodness itself, so her reaction to her murder becomes another element in Othello's tragic end. Desdemona still loves Othello, though he is mistaken, and she goes to her death professing her husband's reputation. A modern audience may wish for a response that is less melodramatic, but that is not the world that Shakespeare has created in this play.
In what ways do Othello's suicide strengthen or undermine his heroism?
Though suicide is not usually the chosen end for a heroic figure, it is Othello's only escape from the crimes he has committed. Though the victim of Iago's trickery, Othello is still the author of his own demise. For Desdemona's death to be answered by anything less than his own would have felt false.
Describe how Othello's pride leads to his fall.
At the beginning of the play Othello is proud of himself and his achievements, but when Iago looks to punish Othello for his perceived slight, it is his pride that he preys upon. The belief that Desdemona has tainted his honor ignites Othello's rage, but it is his pride that blinds him to the fact that the evidence of her acts are lies invented not by a loyal friend but an enemy bent on his destruction.