Essay-style Questions: Othello

1. How appropriate is the opening scene of Othello to the drama that unfolds from it?

Answer

What follows is the outline of an examination answer, together with full introduction
and conclusion. In the left column is what you are trying to achieve in each
part of the essay; in the right are the details that you might look to include
for the particular question set.

Bear in mind, however, that there is no such thing as a "right" answer to exam
questions in English Literature: what you are being tested on is the ability
to use your knowledge of the set text to construct a coherent and plausible
argument. Be prepared to think on your feet rather than relying on others' opinions,
and be certain to answer the question fully.

Tip: Allow yourself up to 10 minutes to "brainstorm" an answer to the
question, a further five to plan the order in which you will offer the points
you have to make. Don't hurry to begin the essay itself - get all your thoughts
onto paper first, select and group them appropriately, then begin....

Introduction:

Responds to the question directly, picking out - and paraphrasing - the
key words, showing an understanding of what's being asked.

Establishes a brief overview of the scene and sets out the main areas
that the essay will cover.

Beginning as it does in darkness, and with conflict and confusion, Act
I Scene I provides a fitting opening to the tragedy of Othello that proceeds
from it. In the back streets of Venice, the Machiavel Iago gulls Roderigo
into continued pursuit of Desdemona, and the two rouse and torment Brabantio,
persuading him that his daughter has absconded with the Moor. The scene
provides important early insights into the character and duplicitous techniques
of the inscrutable villain, Iago, and introduces the audience for the first
time to some of the play's principal themes and concerns: deception, judgement
and prejudice. In Iago and Roderigo's malicious conversion of Brabantio
from trusting father to ranting seeker of "justice", we also see
Othello's own transformation from loving husband to wife-murderer subtly
foreshadowed.
The Malcontent:

Present the first element of your argument, suggesting what the scene
reveals about Iago and how this typifies the role he is to play hereafter.

List and briefly analyse other characteristics that are evident here
and later in the play.

In the opening scene, Iago displays many of the characteristics that are
to epitomise his pivotal role in the progress of the tragedy. Perhaps his
most revealing declaration at this early point is his proud boast "I
am not what I am". Though Roderigo is evidently meant to take this
as reassurance that Iago only feigns allegiance to Othello for his own ends,
the deeper implications of Iago's words are soon to become apparent to the
audience, for Iago is a self-serving malcontent who practises deceit whenever
it is expedient...

Iago is also revealed as manipulative, amoral and cruel in the extreme,
relishing the suffering that he and Roderigo inflict on Brabantio...

Themes and Concerns:

Present the second element of your answer, linking it to the previous
point and referring back to the question set to underline the relevance
of the analysis you are offering.

Present succinctly the other themes and concerns, giving brief examples
of how each is present in this scene.

Iago's skilful manipulation of Roderigo in Act I Scene I introduces one
of a number of inter-linking concerns and themes that are prominent both
in the opening scene and in the play as a whole: deception, prejudice and
judgement. Iago deceives Roderigo; both talk of deceiving Othello; Brabantio
feels bitterly deceived by his daughter...

Iago and Roderigo's abrasive, racist language is a startling indicator
of the prejudice that exists in Venetian society...

The scene's opening exchange means that before we have met either character,
both Othello and Cassio have been pre-judged by the report Iago gives
of them. This is one of a number of ways in which Shakespeare cleverly
introduces the idea of reputation, and the theme of judgement...

Foreshadowing:

Present the final element of your answer, drawing a parallel between
the events of this scene in particular and those of the drama as a whole.
In doing so, you are also linking thematic and character considerations.

By the close of the first scene, Brabantio is referring to the man who
has raised him from his bed as "good Roderigo" and, in his distracted
frame of mind, insisting that he wishes he had been his son-in-law. Yet
previously he had accused him of being drunk and crazed and of plotting
"malicious knavery". In Brabantio's transformation from hatred
and suspicion to affection and trust we see an ironic mirroring of the central
dramatic action of the play as a whole, both metamorphoses occurring under
the insidious influence of the treacherous Iago...


Conclusion:

Sum up how you have approached and answered the question set and close
the argument.

You may want to throw in an additional thought or quotation, to round
off your essay.

The opening scene provides an entirely appropriate beginning to Othello,
offering as it does an intriguing first encounter with Iago, and an early
exploration of the themes of deception, prejudice and judgement, which have
a prominent place in the rest of the play.

Towards the close of the action+, Brabantio's servants enter with torches.
It is perhaps ironic that a scene, which features so much deceit, should
begin in darkness yet end in light, for Brabantio's assessment of Desdemona's
absence (based as it is on the misleading language of Iago and Roderigo)
proves to be mistaken. In the context of a play where black and white
do not necessarily denote good and evil, however, this seems entirely
appropriate.