Evaluation of the themes and characters in Act II Scene 1

1. How will Cassio’s treatment of Desdemona work against him?

i. Shakespeare often presents characters as unknowingly writing their own fate, which occurs quite frequently in Othello. Iago’s skill lies not just in coercing characters to perform certain actions to deceive Othello, but also in letting them seal their own fate while watching from the sidelines. In this way, Iago takes advantage of Cassio’s extravagant, flamboyant nature and love of “excellent courtesy” to “gyve thee in thine own courtship”. He picks out the very features of the lieutenant’s chivalry such as kissing “your three fingers so oft”, and of Desdemona’s tactile nature, such as stroking “the palm of his hand”, which could well be completely innocent, and brings Roderigo’s attention to them in such a way that the latter leaves convinced of the “affair” between them, foreshadowing the same fate for Othello.

2. How is Cassio presented to the audience?

i. Shakespeare presents Cassio from the start as a noble yet rather effusive character in his praise of Desdemona, describing her as a woman who “paragons description and wild fame”. This would at first arouse the audience’s suspicions but for his constant praise of Othello too, likening him to “Great Jove” or another deity as being able to “bless this bay” and “Give renewed fire to our extincted spirits”, demonstrating the extent of Cassio’s idol worship of his hero. Although Cassio initially offers a prayer to “Jove” to “guard” Othello, he soon appears to merge the two personas into one, as his use of the infinite verb “bless” and the figurative mention of “fire” are both attributes of the Roman god Jupiter, but here refer to Othello, suggesting that Cassio views Othello in the same light.

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3. Why does Iago have reason to dislike Cassio? How does Iago betray himself?

i. Cassio treats Iago with disdain and contempt, proud and satisfied in his assumption that he is more intellectually capable than the latter, whom he describes as better fitting the role of “soldier” than of “scholar”, although Iago has just engaged in clever and biting wordplay with the intelligent Desdemona, even speaking in heroic couplets to accentuate his puns about women. Cassio also implies that he has better “breeding” than Iago, simply because he enjoys “bold shows of courtesy” in greeting and conversing with women, leading the audience to agree with Iago in his judgement of Cassio as arrogant. Iago then betrays his anger by taking it out on Emilia, the recipient of Cassio’s kiss, by criticising “her tongue” and behaviour, before that of women in general.

Iago’s anger or dissatisfaction is often communicated by Shakespeare’s use of prose, in this case abruptly switched from blank verse. Nouns with a secondary semantic field of anger, such as “wild-cats” and “devils” also reveal his mindset. His speech then however changes to rhyming couplets when he begins his repartee with Desdemona (lines 114-115), at first seeming constrained and forced, much like his struggle to keep calm, but then softens as he addresses Desdemona as “gentle lady”, before becoming a sign of his pleasure in talking to her.

4. Is Iago in love with Desdemona?

i. Iago admits to the audience at the end of the scene that he loves Desdemona, but not “out of absolute lust”. Naturally it is always difficult for the audience to know when Iago is telling the truth, but Shakespeare has hinted at this revelation throughout the scene. His refusal to “praise” her for reasons of being too “critical” is simply a method to hide his real feelings for her, and when pressed, he avoids the question and simply begins to describe his “muse”, meaning women in general. Shakespeare’s use of heroic couplets to emphasise the pleasure Iago takes when talking to Desdemona lies in sharp contrast with the plain prose he often resorts to when angry or bitter, implying that Iago himself becomes more and more refined and attractive as a person when he is around Desdemona. Iago describes his jealousy of Othello “like a poisonous mineral” that gnaws at “my inwards”, much like the jealousy which he will later inflict on Othello to exact his revenge.

5. In what way is Desdemona’s attitude inappropriate?

i. Desdemona does not appear to worry about her husband, merely enquiring if someone had “gone to the harbour” to check for his arrival, and then proceeding to engage in witty repartee with Iago and appear to be flirting with Cassio. Her attitude is inappropriate in that, already under suspicion having eloped with Othello, it may have been more fitting for her to remain the model of decorum until mistrust of her marriage had died away. As it is, the audience are aware that she is “not merry” in the absence of her husband as she seems to be, but the rest of the characters do not, which then leads her to her own downfall.