Don’t know where to begin with your study of Othello for AS & A2? Or worried you’re running out of time? Fear not – we’ve come up with a great tip sheet to help you get your bearings. There’s lots more tips and advice for studying Othello at A Level in the York Notes Othello study notes.
Below are some of the most useful and important things to consider when studying this text. From language to context; themes to essay writing skills, we’ve got it covered to help you get the best grade for you!
As with any text, it is necessary to read Othello, in the first instance. It’s simple: the better you know the text, the easier you will find it to quote from, reference and remember.
Remember, though, that Othello was written to be performed! So, another great way to ‘bring the play to life’ is to watch it. Shakespeare can be demanding, but nothing will help more than seeing the play acted in front of you.
Whether it’s in the West End or a local performance, try and see at least one production live on stage. It will aid your understanding and may even transform your view of certain characters, key themes or the plot.
Shakespeare’s language can be daunting! Knowing the plot and the characters inside out is an important step towards cracking the language.
When tackling a difficult piece of language it can be helpful to think about who is saying it and why. Luckily, Othello is full of famous sayings that we still use today! Learn a few of these to enhance your understanding of the text.
REMEMBER: You don’t need to understand absolutely everything you read, so focusing on key passages and the way that the play is written will help you to unlock it.
Students often describe events rather than comment on why they are important/significant/relevant to the essay title and the point they are making.
Avoid re-telling the story at all costs – it won’t get you any extra marks and will take the punch out of your essay! Make your essay as easy to follow and engaging as possible by signposting your ideas. There are many phrases that you can use to guide the examiner through your argument, such as: ‘On the other hand …’; ‘This idea is explored by …’; ‘It is important to remember that …’; ‘There is one other factor to consider …’; ‘Conversely …’; ‘One could argue that …’
REMEMBER: Always keep the essay title in mind! After each paragraph, ask yourself, ‘Does this answer the question?’
Othello, arguably, fits the mould of Greek tragedy in a number of ways. If you want to discuss this, make sure you use the correct technical terms, derived from the Greek language:
✓ Othello is descended from a line of kings, as is typical of tragic protagonists.
✓ Othello’s hamartia is trusting and confiding in Iago, his antagonist.
✓ Does Othello suffer from hubris? Think about his marriage to Desdemona – could this be conceived of as ambitious? What other evidence of his hubris is there?
✓ Does Othello’s downfall emulate those of Greek tragic heroes? Is pathos created at the end? How?
However, remember also to look at the ways in which Othello is atypical, both in relation to Shakespearean tragedy and Greek tragedy.
Demonstrate your knowledge of key dramatic devices and language by using carefully-chosen quotations and close textual references. The wonderful thing about Shakespeare’s language is that just one line can contain layers of meaning ripe for analysis.
Do not make sweeping statements such as, ‘Shakespeare uses imagery that relates to evil and jealousy and therefore …’ , without evidence to back this up!
Instead, learn some key quotations and practise unpicking them to analyse what’s going on, making sure you use the correct terminology. Close reading is key to a more sophisticated and focused answer!
Othello is brimming with imagery, with a recurrence of certain images linked to specific characters. For example, what images are associated with Iago?
Does the imagery associated with him correspond to Elizabethan expectations of a man in his position, or reflect the other characters’ conception of his true nature? What about Othello? Does the imagery associated with Othello change in the second half of the play? What role does the imagery of animals and insects play in charting Othello’s downfall?
REMEMBER: To get a high grade, consider the way in which images are used to evoke particular audience responses – do they repel or inspire pity?
Whether you use postcolonial theory or you apply a feminist reading to the play, make sure you are aware of the critical debates that surround Othello.
Try and group together different critical perspectives on the play – perhaps using a spider-diagram to organise the different opinions for each school of thought!
REMEMBER: Literary criticism can be used to bolster your argument as well as providing something to argue against! Be brave and argue well!
Do not forget that Othello is a play, and therefore designed to be witnessed by an audience. Theatre reviews and critics are crucial when examining the play in performance.
Articles, reviews and interviews with actors and directors are readily available on the internet. Don’t just opt for the big West End performances – why not scour local or regional newspapers for reviews of fringe productions?
This approach should give you an idea of how twenty-first-century audiences have reacted to Othello, and reveal any trends in how tragedies, including Shakespeare’s, are being staged today!
Understanding contemporary perspectives on race will help you with this key issue in the play. Think about the anxieties of many Elizabethans in England at this time, including the paranoia surrounding foreigners, and how these anxieties become conflated with other issues within the play.
Where does the animosity come from? Clue: look at conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and the maritime states of Europe. As a Moor, does Othello embody a threat that goes far beyond his race and the prospect of interracial marriage?
For an extra layer of interpretation, think about why might a postcolonial reading of the play be relevant here. Or, try researching the way race is explored in Shakespeare’s other plays. Titus Andronicus also presents a Moor – Aaron – for example.
Context can be literary too. Here are some ideas for literary perspectives to explore:
✓ Aside from Greek tragedy, ensure you can discuss Othello alongside other Revenge Tragedies, both by Shakespeare (e.g. Hamlet, Macbeth) and his contemporaries (e.g. Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi).
✓ Can you discuss Machiavellian villains in Renaissance drama? Who mirrors Iago’s cynicism and cruelty in both Shakespearean drama (e.g. Richard III from Richard III; Edmund from King Lear) and other dramatists (e.g. Barabas from Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta; Lorenzo from Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy; Flamineo from Webster’s The White Devil)?
✓ Look at the way the themes of jealousy / corruption / human nature are portrayed in different plays from the period.
REMEMBER: Don’t shoehorn contextual references in to an argument – only mention them if they are relevant to your essay title!