Key scenes

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Key scenes

Below you will find brief commentaries on and questions about two key scenes, designed to guide you in your reading of the text and your revision. Be careful, though! Exam questions will often be designed to test your knowledge of less prominent scenes and characters, so you should make yourself as familiar as possible with the play as a whole.

This long scene divides into three main parts, each being thematically connected.

In the first part we see the Duke and senators attempting to establish the movements and intentions of the Turkish fleet, to decide whether they are going to invade Cyprus or Rhodes. Different messengers give conflicting information and the Turkish enemy may be attempting to deceive the Venetians, so the senate has to weigh up the evidence and be shrewd in its judgement.

In the second, Brabantio and Othello offer conflicting accounts of the Moor's relationship with Desdemona, each trying to persuade the Duke that his version of events is more truthful. Having originally promised Brabantio that the man who has bewitched his daughter will be punished, the Duke changes his mind and instead takes Othello's part. Desdemona's speech makes it apparent that her father has been deceived.

In the third, Iago first continues to gull Roderigo into believing he can cuckold Othello, then reveals to the audience that he is stringing him along for money alone. He relishes deceiving Roderigo, and plans to do the same with Othello, whom he says naively believes others honest just because they seem to be so.

Notice how, in each of the three parts and on a number of different levels, Shakespeare makes central the question of judgement - making characters (and the audience) use their skill and understanding to decide between opposing points of view, differing opinions. Look, too, at the part that deception plays in all this, and at how important and difficult it is not to be fooled by what only seems to be true. The Turks try to fool the Venetians; Desdemona seemed to be afraid of Othello but was in love with him; Othello thinks his ancient an honest man; Roderigo is taken in by Iago's lies.

How are the following key words used in the scene? judgement, error, bewitch, beguile, abuse, proof, report, see, seem.

How far do you think the Duke sees things from Othello's point of view because he needs him for the war against the Turks?

Do you find Othello's description of his love for Desdemona, and her account of the same, entirely consistent and persuasive?

Look at Iago's speech about virtue (lines 319f). What do his words tell us about his attitude to human behaviour?

This is Othello's central scene, both structurally - it falls in the middle of the five acts - and dramatically.

During its course we see the Moor utterly transformed from a loving and noble husband, declaring undying love for Desdemona, to an embittered, vengeful and ferocious man who is vowing allegiance to the duplicitous Iago and plotting his wife's murder. Notice how this rapid moral descent is reflected in the transformation of Othello's language from the often lyrical, poised verse of previous scenes to crude, disjointed outbursts.

We also witness the subtlety, opportunism and relentless insistence of Iago as he takes advantage of the trust Othello has placed in him. At first, planting the seeds of doubt in the Moor's mind, Iago brilliantly adopts the role of concerned friend, reluctantly divulging others' deceit. Notice how he withholds information, pricking Othello's curiosity, and plays shrewdly on Othello's feeling that, as a military man and an outsider, he knows little of Venetian women and their subtle ways. Besides being skilful in his treachery, Iago is also lucky, the handkerchief falling into his possession at just the right moment.

Left to himself, Othello turns Iago's insinuations and suggestions into unpalatable realities. Though he talks of needing proof before he can act, Iago requires only to mention the treasured handkerchief, and to invent a story about Cassio dreaming of making love to Desdemona, before Othello is convinced beyond recall.

What are the different tactics Iago uses to hoodwink Othello?

Why does Othello not confront his wife with his suspicions at this point?

How much time do you think elapses between the beginning and end of the scene?

In light of this, what are we to make of Othello's claim that he is not easily made jealous?

How convincing do you find the reasons Emilia offers for giving Iago the handkerchief?