Othello Enotes

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Othello study guide

Introduction
Preparing to study
Tragedy, comedy and history
Different kinds of exam question
Context questions
How to answer context questions
A map of the play
The essay question
Possible essay subjects
Characters and relationships
Theatrical questions
The structure of the play in acts
Key scenes analysed
The language of the play
Past essay questions
Themes of the play

Preparing to study
This guide is written to support your study of Othello. The guide indicates the terms in which examiners will expect you to understand the play. It should be used in conjunction with study of Othello in performance, as far as possible, and of the text in one or more editions designed for study at your level. What other resources should you use? This depends on your own aptitude and readiness for study. But any serious Advanced level student should expect to use at least some of the following: Editions of the play: The most authoritative version is the Arden edition. Most students will find this challenging, although the introduction is well worth reading. The New Cambridge edition is good (but uses archaic spelling of names) while sound editions are published by Penguin and Macmillan. Critical works and background sources: For critical writing about the play, you should use the Casebook anthology (Macmillan): read the introduction, and study essays selectively. At a more basic level the guides from Brodie's Notes (Pan) and York Notes (Longman) may help you. For general background information about Shakespeare, Ms. Marchette Chute's Shakespeare and his Stage (University of London, 1953) is hard to beat. Literature reference: Useful handbooks for the general study of English literature include The Cambridge Guide to English Literature and The Oxford Guide to English Literature, J. A. Cuddon's Dictionary of Literary Terms (Penguin, 1982) and Richard Gill's Mastering English Literature (Macmillan, 1985). Use these books effectively: do not try to read them for extended periods like a story (unless you have unusual intellectual powers!) Study for short periods, then write down simple statements of what you want to remember, or questions to raise in class discussion.

Tragedy, comedy and history
As a term to describe a category (kind) of play, tragedy (which means "goat song" in classical Greek!) originates in Athens in ancient times. Aristotle (a philosopher and scientist, but no playwright) describes rules or principles for the drama which tragedians should follow. These rules have proved helpful as a working description, but should not be seen as absolute: Shakespeare, in practice, ignores them more or less. For him a tragedy is a play in which a character begins with or attains a position of eminence, from which he falls, through circumstances which are partly within and partly outside his control. In each tragedy we see a man, generally good, but flawed in some way, destroyed by his own error or the malice of another (or both of these); the plays are so written as to excite some mixture of pity, awe or horror at the tragedy, and to question and perhaps re-affirm the justice of the world. This is a gross over-simplification of a subject which has exercised critical debate over centuries! What is not in doubt is that these tragedies work in the theatre - people continue to be moved by seeing them in performance. Comedy is a term applied to the humorous plays of Greek (e.g. Aristophanes) and later Roman (e.g. Terence) dramatists. For Shakespeare, a comedy is a play with a happy ending - it may or may not be comical in the modern sense of being humorous. In trying to arrange Shakespeare's work into categories (as for publication in book form) editors have produced a third category, of histories. More recently critics have noted that Shakespeare's latest plays do not fit any of these categories easily. Thus we have problem plays (or tragi-comedies) in Measure for Measure and All's Well that Ends...
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