Example Shakespeare Essay – Examining Desdemona

Hi there! Someone asked for an idea of how to structure a Shakespeare essay for the Edexcel exam. Here’s one I wrote this morning – it hasn’t been marked by anyone and I certainly can’t promise it’s perfect! I’ll highlight it according to assessment objectives.

Explore Shakespeare’s presentation of Desdemona in Othello.  You must relate your discussion to relevant contextual factors and ideas from your critical reading.

A01 A02 A03 A05

In his 1604 tragedy “Othello”, Shakespeare explores the roles of men and women, relationships, and gender dichotomy in his contemporary society. Through the character of Desdemona, the audience is introduced to both stereotypes of female subservience and conflicting ideas of power and autonomy, revealing the ultimate complexity of Jacobean womanhood and its relationship to class. Through Desdemona’s decidedly multifaceted character, Shakespeare twists the prescribed notion of woman, instead suggesting that her power lies most in her social background and reputation.

While we might anticipate Desdemona to be entirely submissive, Shakespeare initially constructs her character to be held in high esteem by her male peers.  In the second act of the play, Shakespeare presents an unusual power division in the relationship between Desdemona and Othello through his use of epithet and shared lines. Describing her partner as “my dear Othello”, Desdemona not only employs a possessive pronoun to establish her bond with Othello, but fluidly completes the missing syllables in his previous line: “O my fair warrior!”. This smooth interchange between the two characters stresses their untouched bond and synchronous relationship, elevating Desdemona to the same position as her husband. By describing her as a “warrior”, Shakespeare applies a typically masculine attribute to her character, allowing her to mirror the strength of her partner.

Though this may imply a balanced relationship between the two, it also reveals the powerful weight of Desdemona’s social status as an upper class woman when compared to that of a black man. While Jacobean society typically perceived a woman as lesser than her partner, this dynamic is complicated by Othello and Desdemona’s racial difference, which instead would have dictated Desdemona to be more worthy for her whiteness. While Kenneth Burke describes Othello’s relationship to Desdemona as “ownership in the profoundest sense”, we might dispute that this is instead applicable to Desdemona, who possesses her husband as a exotic treasure, with a love founded on a fascination for his “otherness.” When Othello notes that she loved “[him] for the dangers [he] had passed”,  Shakespeare constructs his character to appear like a trophy in the eyes of Desdemona, allowing her to view him as “hers” as opposed to his possession. While Brabantio and the other Venetians may perceive Desdemona as “subdued and poisoned” by Othello, we might argue that she actually exercises a degree of control over Othello in the first two acts of the play, being free to “devour his discourse” and in turn to fetishise his strength and accomplishments.

As the play progresses, we note how the presentation of Desdemona’s character shifts in accordance with her changing reputation. While in the first two acts of the play she is respected on account of her chastity and noble background, her image is distorted by her suspected infidelity. In act four, Othello labels Desdemona as “that cunning whore of Venice”, equating her position to her sexuality, and that in turn to her Venetian background. As described by Loomba in her essay “Othello, Race and Society”, the “openness of Venice could be seen as dangerous”, hence it appears possible to Othello that his wife is predisposed to sexual promiscuity. This image of an liberal Venice was often employed by English writers as a symbol of sexual deviance among women, corrupting the “virtuous” nature of Desdemona to make her a “strumpet”, “whore” and “devil.” These adjectives strip Desdemona of her high status, instead likening her to a prostitute, which would have been extremely ill-viewed. Shakespeare here reveals the expected feminine weakness of Desdemona, who internalises her husband’s accusations in her own language. Lamenting that she does “abhor” the word “whore”,  Shakespeare uses two homonyms to directly equate whoredom with abhorrence, Desdemona expressing a disgust for herself despite never being unfaithful. The defiling of Desdemona’s sexual purity exemplifies the fragility of Jacobean womanhood and its explicit link to reputation and social position.

In the final act, when Desdemona is smothered, critic David Blamires describes her death as a “tragicomic parody of an erotic death”, the act of extinguishing Desdemona’s “promethean heat” acting as a dark metaphor for her first orgasm. Desdemona, initially presented as the embodiment of a “tender, fair and happy maid”, ultimately epitomises a Jacobean woman’s struggle for agency in a society which values her virginity above all else. While we may anticipate that she be rewarded for her honest nature and unwavering fidelity, it is the irony of her death that encapsulates the tragedy of “Othello”, “killed for being a whore, she dies a virgin.” (Blamires.)

The character of Desdemona emphasises the value placed on a woman’s chastity, and how liable her position in society was to collapse. While she may be privileged for her racial background, she does not exercise any freedoms beyond this, and is ultimately punished for marrying outside of her race and class. Through her doomed relationship with Othello, Shakespeare deconstructs a “fantasy of social tolerance” (Loomba), revealing a society corrupted by sexism, racism, and immorality.

Maria x

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Essay Planning – how do I do it?

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 🙂

Maria x

 

Alternative Critical Interpretations of A Streetcar Named Desire

Speech

One of the Assessment Objectives for A Streetcar Named Desire in the AS Drama and Poetry exam is AO5 – alternative critical interpretations. This AO does not exist for A Streetcar Named Desire in the A2 Drama exam but it can still count as AO3 (context). The following is a list of critics and critical perspectives that I have collected over the last year. While it is not necessary to know the names of specific critics or perspectives, it is helpful — but I know it is easy to forget, so you can replace their names with stock phrases, such as “Critics say…” or “Some have interpreted this as…”.

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How much is Desdemona to blame for the tragedy of Othello?

 

How much is Desdemona to blame for the tragedy of Othello?

  • Desdemona is a defiant character who displays duality.
  • Her duality of being assertive and submissive has enabled her to reconcile conflicts e.g. her marriage to Othello.
  • This duality brings the theme of appearance and reality into play – Iago exploits this and depicts her as being untrustworthy and unfaithful, knowing that this would anger Othello because his greatest weakness is jealousy.
  • Act III, scene III is crucial in portraying her insistent nature – it marks the moment where Iago’s machinations begin fully.

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Historic Setting Use – Othello

How and why has Shakespeare used the historic setting of Venice and Cyprus in 1570-1?

Shakespeare had used the dramatic technique of a split geography with the first act taking place in Venice and the rest, in Cyprus. Othello explores what it means to live in a dynamic city like Venice, during times of high power and wealth as an independent republic. Stereotypes of hedonism fascinated the English, with Venice’s courtesans demonstrating the cities more relaxed view of sexual and promiscuous behaviour – something that Iago has anxieties about in Scene 1 when he tells Brabantio “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs”. In contrast, Cyprus – an ideal area for economic success – yet an area of tension. Venice had owned Cyprus and had wanted to maintain it but the Ottoman Empire was looking to expand their territory. With Othello as leader of the Venetian mercenary army, he would have had authority but not status or respect as the army was not official. This is made clear when Cassio, a scholar “that never set a squadron in the field” could be promoted over Iago. It would create opportunities to move the plot along and introduce themes of jealousy which concludes the play to a tragedy.

Ella

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‘The Moor’ AO3 – Othello

The Moor AO3

  • Arab, Berber people of North Africa who inhabited Northern Spain
  • ‘Barbary’ – famous horse from the Arab world but when Iago says “your daughter covered with a Barbary horse” he is also playing the the term ‘barbarian’ meaning savagery
  • Genetic – moor, black African referred to as ‘blackamoor’
    Queen Elizabeth wanted to rid England of Spanish ‘negors’ and ‘blackamoors’ in 1601
  • Othello’s race sets him apart
    – he is a high noble, in charge of the Venetian army
    – racial tensions/sexual tensions
    – intermarriage anxieties
  • Moors were often the villains in literature of the time – early 17th century

Act I Scene II

“Let him do his spite;
My services, which I have done the signiory,
Shall out-tongue his complaints”
(MODERN TRANSLATION)
Let him do his worst,
What I have done has been approved by the governing body

Who will get the better of him
(ANALYSIS)
Othello is noble and honest – opposite to Iago

“I shall promulgate”
(MODERN TRANSLATION)
I shall make publicly know

(ANALYSIS)
More evidence that he is honest

“My parts, my title and my perfect soul
Shall manifest me rightly”
(MODERN TRANSLATION)
My qualities, my legal right and flawless soul
Shall reveal me correctly as I am
(ANALYSIS)
He is not hiding anything, appearance vs. reality

“Holla, stand there!”
“Keep up your bright swords”
“Hold up your hands”
(MODERN TRANSLATION)
Stop! Don’t move!

(ANALYSIS)
His use of imperatives shows his high status

“Good signor, you shall move command with years
Than with your weapons”
(MODERN TRANSLATION)
We don’t need to fight. Use your aged wisdom not violence.

(ANALYSIS)
He appears moral and peaceful, a type of pacifist (but not in war)

“Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it
Without a prompter”
(MODERN TRANSLATION)
If it was my turn to fight, I would know it without having to be provoked

(ANALYSIS)
He is sharp, clear – worthy of his role, nobility

Ella

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Act 1 Scene III – Othello

A key theme in the novel is stories and tales. This helps with characterisation too.

How does Othello and Brabantio say Desdemona fell in love?

Brabantio:

  • “She is abused, stolen from me”
  • “corrupted by spells and medicines”
  • “witchcraft”
  • “most imperfect/That will confess perfection so could err/Against all rules of nature”
  • “praises of cunning hell” – adjectives
  • “same mixtures powerful o’er the blood” – blood is linked to sexual passion
  • “some dram conjured to this effect/He wrought upon her”
  • She is “never bold” according to Brabantio – He puts no blame on Desdemona and says their relationship goes against nature

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Key Terms – Othello

Iambic Pentameter
Blank Verse
Caesura
Rhyme
Hyper syllabic lines
Alliteration
Consonance
Assonance
Prose
Shared line
Soliloquy
Antithesis
Paradox
Literary allusion

It is an extensive list but if you are unsure of any of the meanings you should really try and learn the definitions. This way you will be to refer to them in essays – it may also help to annotate in your text whenever you see them! Shakespeare uses them for a reason!

Ella

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