Help With Othello Essay Prompts

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Sample essay questions on Othello

1. In another play by Shakespeare a tragic hero described himself as ‘more sinned against than sinning.’ In your opinion, could this also be true of Othello? In the course of your answer:

  • Explain clearly in what ways Othello might seem to be a victim
  • Comment on what the play suggests about Shakespeare’s view of tragedy. (OCR 2002)

2. ‘The tragedy of a handkerchief.’ Is the play Othello as trivial as this comment implies?  (OCR 1999)

3. How far are you convinced by Iago’s reasons for the causes of action that he pursues in the play?  (UCLES 1998)


4. Othello can be regarded as a foolishly gullible man; yet early on Iago acknowledges his ‘constant, loving, noble nature’ and at the end of the play Cassio describes him as ‘great of heart.’ Discuss your own response to Othello in the light of these judgements. (UCLES 1998)


5. How convincing does Shakespeare make Iago’s ability to trick Othello with such apparent ease? (UCLES 1998)


6. Othello, Iago and Cassio are soldiers. How important are military values and attitudes in the play? (UCLES 1998)


7. The relationship between Iago and Roderigo offers an ironic parallel to the main action of Othello.’ By considering the dramatic presentation of their relationship, evaluate this view. (OCR 2011)


8. ‘The women in Othello are articulate, but frustratingly unable to save themselves from the cruelty of men.’ Evaluate this view by exploring the presentation of women and their situations in the play.  (OCR 2011)


9. ‘Despite his apparent good nature, Cassio plays a significant part in Othello’s downfall.’ By exploring the presentation of Cassio in Othello, evaluate this view. (OCR 2011)


10. By considering the dramatic presentation of Othello, evaluate the view that ‘the power of the play lies in its central paradox: that Othello is shown to be both a hero and a fool.’  (OCR 2013)


11. ‘For a hero, Othello is too easy to pity, too hard to like.’ By considering the dramatic presentation of Othello, evaluate this view.  (OCR 2012)


12. By considering the dramatic effects of the play, evaluate the view that ‘Iago does not destroy Othello; he provokes Othello to destroy himself.’  (OCR 2012)


13. How far do you agree that Desdemona is both ‘brave and touchingly naïve in her character and actions’? In the course of your answer:

Explain clearly your own understanding of Desdemona’s character

Comment on what the play suggests about her relationships with other characters.  (OCR 2004)


14. In what ways do you think reputation and honour are significant concerns in the play Othello? In the course of your answer:

  •  Explain clearly how characters in the play regard reputation and honour
  •  Comment on the importance of these concerns in the world of the play. (OCR 2004)

15. Is it adequate to say that Othello’s tragedy is caused by his jealousy? In the course of your answer:

  • Discuss the part played by jealousy in Othello’s downfall
  • Comment on other factors that you think contribute to his ruin.   (OCR 2004)

16. ‘Emilia’s character deserves to be considered as one of the major characters of the play.’ How far do you agree? In the course of your answer:

  • Explain clearly how Shakespeare presents the character of Emilia
  • Comment on Emilia’s contribution to the action and concerns of the play. (OCR 2003)

17. Read Act 2 Scene 3 from ‘Now, by heaven, / My blood begins my safer guides to rule’  to ‘But never more be officer of mine.’ What does the passage add to your understanding of the relationship between Othello and Iago? In the course of your answer:

  • Look closely at the language and tone of the speeches
  • Comment on what the play suggests about honesty. (OCR 2003)

18. Read Act 2 Scene 3 from ‘I remember a mass of things,’ to ‘I protest, in the sincerity of love and honest kindness.’ What does the passage contribute to your understanding of Cassio and Iago in their relationship? In the course of your answer:

  • Look closely at the language, imagery and tone of the passage
  • Comment on what the passage suggests about the contrast between Cassio and Iago in the context of the whole play.  (OCR 2004)

19. Read Act 3 Scene 3 from Iago (returning) ‘My lord, I would I might entreat your honour’ to ‘I am very sorry that you are not well.’ In what ways does this passage help to prepare us for Othello’s turning against Desdemona? (OCR 1999)


20. Read Act 4 Scene 3 from ‘”The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree”’ to ‘their husbands’ faults/If wives do fall.’ How does this dialogue develop your response to Desdemona? In the course of your answer:

  • Look closely at the language, imagery and tone of the passage
  • Comment on what the passage suggests about the role of women in the play.  (OCR 2002)

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s most powerful plays and it is helpful for an AP English Literature student to know it when preparing for their exam. Othello was written in 1604 during Shakespeare’s great tragic period between (1600-16007), when he also wrote Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Othello is often cited in the Free Response Question and is considered one of Shakespeare’s most complex and compelling tragedies.

It is helpful to put this play into context before writing about it in your AP English Literature Essay. The play’s protagonist, Othello, is called a Moor. The term Moor refers to Othello’s race and is the subject of some controversy. Moor now refers to Islamic Arabic occupants of Northern Africa who conquered Spain. In Shakespeare’s time, this term was used more broadly and often applied to Africans from other regions. The imagery of black and white between Othello and his European peers runs throughout the play, but anyone darker than a brunette was often described as dark in Elizabethan times. This does not negate the importance of race in Othello, but the context is different than our modern conceptions of race.

While other Moorish characters appear in Elizabethan literature, and indeed in Shakespeare (Aaron in Titus Andronicus), Othello is the most complex and heroic. No other Moor appears as the protagonist of an Elizabethan play, and nowhere do we see a Moor give so much character development and background. This context is important to consider when you are analyzing Othello if you want to write a well-developed AP English Literature essay.

Othello AP English Lit Essay Themes


Have you ever heard jealousy referred to as the ‘green-eyed monster?’ That expression comes from Othello. Jealousy is one of the most prevalent themes and one of the biggest drivers of our antagonist and protagonist’s actions. Iago is driven to conspire against Othello because of his jealousy, for his position and because Iago believes Othello slept with his wife. Othello is driven to murder his wife because he is jealous of her alleged affair with Cassio. Iago pretends that jealousy is a quality all men have by feigning the emotion with his wife. But he stirs up genuine jealousy in Othello when he claims Desdemona has been unfaithful. Othello is driven to obsession. He sees nothing but Desdemona’s supposed betrayal and reason is not able to penetrate this jealousy. This theme jealousy drives the action in this play, motivating our characters to act and react. It ultimately brings about the demise of both main characters.

Racial Prejudice

Plays a key role in Othello’s downfall. Othello begins the play blind to any prejudice against him; he knows that Desdemona chose him and this gives him the confidence that he is equal in the eyes of the Venetians. Othello is a respected general and war hero but does come under scrutiny by some who envy his position – notably Iago. Iago begins to manipulate Othello into believing that his wife is cheating on his because of his race. Othello begins to feel that it is inherently in Desdemona’s nature to be attracted to men of her race. Though Othello begins the play believing himself to be against any racial prejudice, he is susceptible to believing in its existence in others and that he is somehow deficient because of his race.


Allowed Othello to rise to prominence in Venetian society and win the heart of Desdemona. Othello is happiest when he is engaging in military conflict with Desdemona beside him. Desdemona appears to enjoy Othello’s rough military life, and it was his tales of military battles that wooed her. Othello’s identity rests on being a soldier, but after Act III there is little military action to preoccupy him. Once this happens he begins to doubt his manhood, and this is when jealousy creeps in. There is a kind of warfare within Othello himself, to regain control of his emotions and stamp out this jealousy. Unbeknownst to himself, he’s also engaged in a war with Iago, who wants to bring about his demise. Finally, there is a war brewing between Othello and Desdemona which culminates in a final fatal battle ending in our heroine’s death and the hands of the only man she’s loved.

Appearance versus Reality

Plays a critical role in our understanding of Othello. In Othello’s mind to see is to believe; he needs visual proof to back up any claim. When Iago alleges Desdemona’s infidelity, Othello says “give me ocular proof.” Iago cannot prove his claim, so he provides an alternate reality. By giving Othello the appearance of truth, he can manipulate him into rash action and bring about his ultimate demise. Since Othello does not look beyond what he sees, he trusts this ocular proof provided by the villainous Iago. Shakespeare shows us in Othello that appearances do not always equal reality, and that appearance can be manipulated to give a false sense of reality.

Sexuality and Womanhood

Critical themes to help us understand Othello. There are two kinds of women in Othello: the whore and the madonna. Othello and Iago believe in these archetypes. The loyal and virtuous one we see embodied by Desdemona and the unfaithful most closely represents the character of Bianca. The male characters proceed to fit the women around them into one of these two categories, but by the end of the play, it is clear that these are simply male fantasies projected onto women. The madonna and the whore are simply roles that men want women to play for them and that the women, in turn, are forced to portray. Iago’s wife Emilia betrays her husband, which would put her in the category of the whore, but she does this to defend her Desdemona’s virtue and the truth. Emilia proves that women are not defined by the standards of men, their sexuality or their virtue, but something more complex.

How to use King Lear for the 2016 AP English Literature Free Response Questions

In some Free Response Questions, you will be asked to use a character as a means to analyze a particular theme. In the following question the act of deception is explored.

“Choose a novel or play in which a character deceives others. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the motives for that character’s deception and discuss how the deception contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.”

Iago, Othello’s antagonist, commits multiple deceptions to bring about the demise of Othello. Iago’s lies and manipulations lead to the death of Desdemona, Othello, and Emilia. Many scholars have described Iago as one of Shakespeare’s more evil and complex villains. This is due not only to Iago’s deception, for many Shakespearean villains engage in this behavior, but his reputation. Iago is often referred to as ‘honest Iago’ in this play, but he is the complete opposite. His deception is so great that he can convince the world that he is an honest and true man, a loyal friend to Othello when he is working to bring about his downfall.

It is unclear why Iago is trying to bring down Othello; this is the subject of some debate among scholars. Some scholars believe Iago has no motives. The poet and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge described Iago as a “motiveless malignity”. Other scholars believe Iago is jealous of Othello’s success. There are as many theories surrounding Iago’s motives as there are lies from Iago. Regardless, these deceptions illuminate a major theme within Othello: appearance versus reality. Iago’s deceptions illustrate that a man may not be as good as he appears, that honesty should be questioned.

How to use King Lear for the 2015 AP English Literature Free Response Questions

In some Free Response Questions, you will be asked to analyze how a particular action function within the narrative. In the question below, cruelty is the means you are asked to view this world and how it is relevant to the theme and characters. The question follows.

“Select a novel, play, or epic poem in which acts of cruelty are important to the theme. Then write a well-developed essay analyzing how cruelty functions in the work as a whole and what the cruelty reveals about the perpetrator and/or victim.”

There is no lack of cruelty in Othello, but it all stems from one central character: Iago. His cruel actions and manipulations spur others in the play to react and lash out in ways they normally may not. At the beginning of the play, Othello passes over Iago for promotion, giving it instead to Cassio. This spurs Iago to finally bring about both of their downfalls, which is why he makes Othello believe Cassio is having an affair with his wife. Cassio is not an innocent bystander in this plot, but one of Iago’s targets. Cruelty is the means by which our antagonist achieves his ends and our protagonist is undone. The audience always knows Iago to be evil and cruel, but by the end of the play, Othello has been manipulated into a place where he lashes in a fatal way.

Othello’s mind is filled with falsehoods, which drive him to obsession and near madness. In this place, he decides the only way to deal with Desdemona’s betrayal is death. His actions are not justifiable, but he would not be in a position to exert such cruelty were it not for the cruelty exercised on him. Desdemona, the ultimate victim in this tragedy, made the scapegoat. Desdemona is revealed to be loyal until the moment of her death, taking the blame for her murder. Desdemona even forgives Othello, perhaps showing that she knew that this was not truly Othello’s doing and that somehow her husband had been led astray. Desdemona’s forgiveness at the hands of such cruelty show her to be the most loyal wife, but also proves to Othello that she loves him.

How to use King Lear for the 2007 AP English Literature Free Response Questions

Some Free Response Questions will ask you to analyze an act done by or to a character. In this question betrayal is the means by which we look at Othelloand those around him. A well-crafted essay will take into account not only acts of betrayal against another person, but acts of betrayal against oneself. All of this needs to be back up by examples from the text.

“Works of literature often depict acts of betrayal. Friends and even family may betray a protagonist; main characters may likewise be guilty of treachery or may betray their own values. Select a novel or play that includes such acts of betrayal. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the nature of the betrayal and show how it contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.”

Betrayal is at the heart of Othello; characters betray each other and themselves which brings about their destruction. Iago betrays the trust of his friend and commander Othello by manipulating him into believing his wife is having an affair with Cassio. He betrays the trust of his wife, his friendship with Cassio, and anyone who stands in his way.

Betrayal is much more complex when analyzed using Othello. He betrays his true nature when Iago manipulates him. Othello believes his marriage to be one of his greatest accomplishments and even says that if he died now, he would be happy in Act II. His murder of Desdemona only exemplifies the breakdown of his once great and noble character. Betrayal exposes Othello’s world as one to be manipulated and reinforces the theme of appearance versus reality. Shakespeare wants the audience to see that one should not always trust the ‘honest Iago’ for he may be the man who is betraying you and that betrayal may drive you to betray your own character.

With this guide and an in-depth knowledge of Othello, you can have great success on the AP English Literature Exam. There are many resources out there to help you practice for the AP English Literature Exam, such as How to Study for the AP English Literature Exam. For an in-depth breakdown into Free Response questions, you should check out The Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs. You can take practice online exams at Albert’s AP English Literature Free Response Questions page.

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