Othello: Q & A
Dr. Johnson said that Othello would have been better if the first act had been omitted. What is the relevance of the first act of Othello, and what purpose does it serve?
The first act in Othello is vital to the character development of Iago, Othello, and Desdemona. Here we are told the motive behind Iago's hatred of the Moor, and we receive our first impression of Othello as a noble, rational, and intelligent leader. Similarly, through the dialogue in the first act we come to understand that Desdemona will not be parted from Othello under any circumstances, and that her love for him is stronger than even her love for her father. Without this act, the horrible events that follow would make much less of an impact.
In the play Othello, Iago derides Cassio and says that he is "damned in a fair wife." What does he mean?
This line has been the subject of much debate. It could be that Cassio was going to be married (this is the case in Shakespeare's source by Cinthio). Another hypothesis comes from Tucker Brooke. In his edition of the play he gives the following explanation of the line: "Cassio, says Iago, is a fellow of such effeminate quality that the like could hardly be endured in a fine lady. Here 'in' means 'in the person of' and 'wife' means women in general. In this description of Cassio, Iago is again lying in order to build up Roderigo's belief that Othello has misused him. The obscure feeling called inferiority complex drives him in the same direction" (Yale Shakespeare, 1947 ).
Can you tell me about the themes of appearance and reality in Othello?
In Othello, the outward appearance of evil masks an inward nobility. In Shakespeare's time, black was considered the color of the devil and an outward representation of evil and lechery (horrible I know!). Othello appears black, but in reality is white, ie. virtuous and honest. Iago, outwardly white and pure, is inwardly rotten and black and thus appearance and reality are not the same thing.
What is the difference between Quarto 2 and Quarto 3 of Othello?
The second Quarto, printed in 1630, was produced from a copy of the first Quarto, corrected by reference to the First Folio. The third Quarto, printed in 1655, is just a reprint of the second Quarto.
In Act 4, scene 3, Desdemona converses with Emilia about Lodovico and calls him a "proper man." She also insists that Emilia "unpin" her where she stands. Why do you think she behaves this way? Is it not out of character?
I would not take Desdemona's reference to Lodovico to mean that she is straying from Othello, especially given what occurs after the line is said. Lodovico and Othello are out of the room at the moment, but they are likely not very far, and Desdemona would be visible if they decided at any time to come back into the room. Most scholars agree on one of three possibilities: 1) Desdemona talks idly of Lodovico to keep her mind off of her troubles (assuming that the word 'proper' in this particular content means handsome); 2) the line does not belong to Desdemona at all but to Emilia and our version of the play is corrupt; 3) the line is proof of her innocence as previously stated.
In 5.2, Othello says that he, "like the base Indian threw a pearl away/Richer than all his tribe" (347). What does he mean?
The meaning behind Othello's comparison has been much debated, primarily because in the First Folio "Indian" is spelled "Iudean" or "Judean" (modernized). Now, if Shakespeare intended the word to be "Indian" then Othello would be referring to the Indians of the New World, commonly known as "savages" in Renaissance England. The famous Shakespeare editor George Lyman Kittredge wrote that "the supposed ignorance of savages with regard to the value of precious stones had become proverbial." Thus Othello, in his treatment of Desdemona, would be comparing himself to the savage who throws away a precious stone because he cannot realize its worth. However, if Shakespeare intended the word to be "Judean", then Othello is likely comparing himself to Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus. It was common in Shakespeare's day to refer to one's soul as his "eternal jewell" (see Macbeth III.i.64), and "pearl" in this case could mean Othello's soul. Thus Othello, like Judas, not only murdered his beloved, but also lost his own soul.
In Othello's final speech his mentions Aleppo and how he killed "a circumcised dog." What does this mean?
Othello knows that all his valiant deeds will be soon forgotten, utterly overshadowed by the death of Desdemona, but he nonetheless implores the Venetians to remember him as a great soldier who risked his life repeatedly for Venice. He says "When you shall these unlucky deeds relate/Speak of me as I am" (5.2.340-1). One deed in particular Othello wants the Venetians to remember. When he was in the Turkish city, Aleppo, where Venetians were allowed to trade freely with the Turkish citizens, Othello found a "malignant Turk" beating a Venetian. Othello saved the Venetian by killing the Turk or, as Othello calls him, the "circumcised dog", even though striking a Turk in Aleppo was punishable by death. Note that Othello refers to the Turk as a "circumcised dog" because the Turk was Muslim, and Muslim men must be circumcised.