Hey again! We’ve got our mock exams coming up and I’m sure that a lot of other people do. To prep for our exams, we’ve been told to work on essay plans, and so we thought we could take you on this less than riveting journey with us.
So this is an essay I got set by my teacher. The most common question we get via email is “how do I approach a exam question like this?” The way I’m going to doing it is just one possible route. There are loads and loads more, and I’m sure the other two bloggers would do this completely differently.
Explore Shakespeare’s presentation of virtue in “Othello.” You must relate your discussion to relevant contextual factors and ideas from your critical anthology.
What is the key word here? Obviously in an exam situation you won’t have a dictionary to hand, but I find that when I’m working at home, it’s useful to write out a definition. Here’s one for virtue. Virtue: behaviour showing high moral standards.
So now we have a definition, we can think in detail about how this is displayed in the play. I start by asking myself a series of questions: Who displays virtue? What does virtue mean to our characters? What does virtue mean to Shakespeare?
In an essay, you’ll probably be making three or four points, so I won’t bore you with more than one. Let’s look at Desdemona. Desdemona is seen as virtuous for preserving her virginity. In the 1600s this was a mark of a woman’s worth and purity, and while an entirely patriarchal concept, a measure of her virtue. By reserving her body for Othello alone, she conforms to the moral standards of her era, demonstrating herself as a paragon of subservience and meekness. Later in the play, we know that this image of her is deconstructed by Iago, and her virtuous image is destroyed…
Find your evidence. I’ve chosen this line from Act Four Scene Two. “Oh thou weed who art so lovely fair”. This juxtaposing phrase of Othello’s in act four scene two demonstrates the conflict between the virtuous image of Desdemona, and the corrupt one created by Iago. The imagery of the “weed” is much like the lexical choice of the garden that Shakespeare makes in Iago’s speech (Act One, Scene Three), where he ridicules virtue itself – “virtue, a fig.”
(Now I won’t lie, I spent about twenty minutes just staring at this fig line and wondering what it meant. I figured I couldn’t be writing an essay on virtue, and totally ignoring a line which literally defines it. After typing “fig symbolism” and “figs what do they mean” into google multiple times, I came up with my idea of what I thought it meant. If you have your own interpretation, please email us so I can sleep soundly at night)
In the Bible, figs grow in the garden of Eden, and are used by Adam and Eve to cover themselves when they realise their nakedness. Perhaps Iago perceives virtue as having the same use as figs, an exterior image or “convenient mask” ( EAJ Honigmann) which ultimately is no more than a disguise for sin. Alternatively, the line may be read as ironic: Iago compares virtue to something which is cursed by Jesus in the Bible, suggesting it is essentially worthless and easily destroyed, like the image of Desdemona.
So we know that Iago doesn’t think highly of virtue. What happens when his language starts to seep into Othello’s speeches? Well, in Othello’s speech to Desdemona, we are effectively listening to Iago. While he may lambast virtue so keenly, he is also aware of its importance to the other characters. By deconstructing the image of the virtuous Desdemona, he essentially devalues her in Othello’s eyes.
So what does this teach us about virtue? It is both highly prized in a woman, and easily manipulated by a man. It is a measure of Desdemona’s worth, but as a concept it is incredibly fickle. Now is the moment to decide your opinion on what Shakespeare is trying to tell us…and that’s your first point complete.
I hope this was at least a bit useful, and that everyone isn’t getting too stressed about their exams. We’d also like to apologise for not replying to all of your comments straight away! If you’ve got a burning question, drop us an email and we’ll always make time 🙂