“Othello” Summary: One of The Greatest Tragedies in the World
“Othello” is a play written by William Shakespeare around 1604. It is also known under another title “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice”. This is one of the most staged and read tragedies in the world. It presents a strong feeling of love which results in a cruel obsession driven by jealousy. The text is known for its gripping plot, rich language, and sad story. The story was actually inspired by another text – “A Moorish Captain” – written by Boccaccio’s student Cinthio. Such resemblance added more fire to the rumors that Shakespeare was not the true author of his plays, however, even today there is not enough evidence to prove or contest such speculations. So, millions of readers around the world continue to enjoy the rich and intense stories written by this famous English author.
“Othello” Characters: List and Analysis
Othello is a Moor, a dark-skinned general who occupies a high post in the Venetian army. Shakespeare never mentions where Othello was born, but presumably, he has African or Middle Eastern roots. The time of his character predates large-scale slave trades and racism that would become more common later, so calling Othello black in parts of the play shouldn’t confuse the reader. Othello is a skilled warrior and a good man. His virtues convinced Venetian senators to approve of his marriage with Desdemona, even though she was much younger than him and her father wasn’t too thrilled about it. Deceived by one of his lieutenants, Othello kills his beloved wife in a jealous outrage.
Desdemona is the daughter of a Venetian Senator, Brabantio. She was a sought after bride for many men in Venice, but she fell in love with Othello. By eloping with Othello, Desdemona demonstrated courage to stand up to her father and fight for her wishes. Despite her courage, the young girl is very delicate and tender, and in the hands of Desdemona, Othello finds the softness, kindness, and generosity he couldn’t experience in the army. Desdemona is also very humble – she treats all people with respect and doesn’t discriminate based on class. The kind girl agrees to help Cassio make peace after their fight with Othello while knowing that her kindness towards Cassio will ignite Othello’s jealousy.
Cassio is a loyal lieutenant in Othello’s army. He doesn’t have much experience in the war, but he is able to win Othello’s trust. With his smooth and polite behavior, Cassio is the complete opposite of strict and direct Othello, but Othello appreciates their differences. However, when Iago convinces Othello that Cassio is having a secret affair with Desdemona, Othello starts to observe Cassio’s behavior, and because of their differences, the General finds more and more reasons to believe the lies about the affair.
Iago is the villain in the “Othello” play. He fakes his friendship with Othello and causes his doubts and jealousy. Iago sets his sights for the high lieutenant post occupied by Michael Cassio, and therefore begins to attempt to compromise his rival in the eyes of their supervisor – General Othello. Iago is the one who encourages Roderigo to expose Desdemona’s relationship with Othello to her father, hoping that the nobleman would not allow for such a marriage.
Brabantio is the Senator of Venice and the father of Desdemona. He can’t believe that his young, pretty, and tender daughter can fall in love with such a callous, dark-skinned Moor who is also much older than her. He calls upon the council of senators, presided by the Duke of Venice, to punish Othello for dishonoring his daughter. But instead, the council validates the marriage of Othello and Desdemona.
Roderigo is a soldier in the army who is fond of Desdemona. The young woman rejected his feelings towards her and that’s why Roderigo hates Othello thinking of him as his rival. He believed that Iago could help him get Desdemona back, but Iago uses Roderigo to instill Othello’s jealousy towards Cassio and tries to get Roderigo to kill Cassio. In the end, Roderigo manages to tell Cassio about Iago’s deeds which in turn help everybody see the reality clearly.
Duke of Venice is the ruler of the town. He is the one who grants Othello a lot of power and credibility when he asks him to gather the army and protect Venice’s lands (Cyprus) from the Turkish attack. He is also the one who approves Othello’s marriage to Desdemona, thus validating their feelings.
Senators are people of high positions in Venice. The reader first meets them during the council presided by the Duke of Venice. They approve the marriage of Desdemona and Othello, and they also send Othello to the war with the Turks over Cyprus. They represent the final authority of the state.
Montano is the Governor of Cyprus. He greets Othello, Iago, and others when they arrive on the island. He tries to dissolve the fight between Cassio and Roderigo and gets stabbed as a result. Othello then blames Cassio for Montano’s injury and strips him of his promotion. Montano recovers towards the end of the play and helps catch Iago.
Emilia is the wife of Iago. Unknowingly, she plays an important part in inflaming Othello’s jealousy – she takes the gift Othello gave Desdemona for their wedding and hands it over to Iago, who in his turn makes sure Cassio finds it. The irony of the play is in the fact that Desdemona confides in Emilia, and she tells Emilia about her worries regarding losing Othello’s trust and love. When Othello asks Emilia about the situation, she says that there are no signs of Desdemona’s involvement with Cassio:
Act IV, Scene II “I durst, my lord, to wager she is honest. Lay down, my soul at stake: if you think other, remove your thought”
In the end, Emilia denounces her husband’s plan.
Lodovico and Gratiano arrive in Cyprus in the middle of the play to bring news from the Duke of Venice. Othello behaves rudely towards Desdemona in Lodovico’s presence, even though he is one of Desdemona’s cousins. When Emilia cries for help, the ambassadors come to find Desdemona dead, they then catch Iago and appoint Cassio the governor of Cyprus.
Bianca is the beloved woman of Cassio. She doesn’t have a big role in the play and the reader meets her when Cassio gives her Desdemona’s handkerchief that he found earlier. Iago sets-up for Othello to overhear parts of Cassio’s conversations with Bianca. Iago also makes sure that Othello misinterprets the meaning of those conversations to confirm his jealousy further.
Othello Summary for Each Act
Othello Act 1 Summary
The first act introduces Othello and Desdemona and consists of three scenes. A young and pretty Venetian noblewoman, Desdemona, secretly meets with Othello, the Moor of Venice, in the middle of the night. At the same time, Iago and Roderigo tell Desdemona’s father about the meeting, hoping that the senator of Venice will put an end to their connection. Roderigo hates Othello for being more successful with Desdemona. Why does Iago hate Othello? – Not only is he more successful with Desdemona, but he also holds a grudge as Othello didn’t appoint him lieutenant some time ago. Iago believes that he was cheated since Cassio, who obtained his desired position, does not deserve it, because he is:
Act I, Scene I “…forsooth, a great arithmetician, one Michael Cassio, a Florentine, a fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife; that never set a squadron in the field, nor the division of a battle knows, more than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric…”
Iago induces Roderigo:
Act I, Scene I “Call up her father. Rouse him: make after him, poison his delight, proclaim him in the streets; incense her kinsmen”
They wake up Brabantio, who doesn’t believe the men at first, but then finds out that his daughter isn’t at home. He orders his servants to bring Othello to him:
Act I, Scene I “Strike on the tinder, ho! Give me a taper! Call up all my people! This accident is not unlike my dream: belief of it oppresses me already”
Brabantio and his servants enter into a fight with Othello’s fellow warriors, but they get interrupted when the officers call Brabantio and Othello for an urgent council meeting. At the meeting, a sailor announces that: “The Turkish preparation makes for Rhodes” (Act I, Scene III). The senators and the Duke of Venice believe that the Turks want to occupy Cyprus, which, at the time, was a colony of Venice. Othello is tasked with protecting the island.
Brabantio tries to get justice for his daughter, claiming that the Moor kidnapped her. When Desdemona contests such a version and tells him that she is in love with Othello, her father starts to believe that the Moor used witchcraft on her:
Act I, Scene III “She is abused, stol’n from me, and corrupted by spells and medicines bought of mountebanks”
Othello says that Desdemona fell in love with him when she heard the stories of all the battles he’d been through. The Duke of Venice, and the senators present at the meeting, become convinced that the love of two people is mutual and approve of their marriage. Desdemona then wants to go with her husband to the war. Roderigo falls into despair after his plan fails, but Iago reassures him that it’s possible to break up their relationship while tarnishing Cassio’s reputation in the middle of the process.
Othello Act 2 Summary
Montano, the governor of Cyprus, greets the warriors that arrive from Venice. Othello informs everybody that the Turkish army was destroyed by the sea storm. They plan a big celebration party. Iago begins to convince Roderigo that Desdemona is falling in love with Cassio:
Act II, Scene I “… very nature will instruct her in it and compel her to some second choice. Now, sir, this granted, - as it is the most pregnant and unforced position – who stands so eminent in the degree of this fortune as Cassio does?”
Iago also induces Roderigo to start a fight with Cassio during the party:
Act II, Scene I “.. you find some occasion to anger Cassio, either by speaking too loud, or tainting his discipline; or from what other course you please”
Iago gets Cassio drunk and then goes to check on his guards. Roderigo, dressed as a guard, picks a fight with Cassio. Montano tries to pull them apart and gets stabbed. Othello finds out about the fight, blames Cassio for being too hot-headed and strips him of his high position in the army. Iago suggests that Cassio should seek Othello's forgiveness through his wife, Desdemona.
Othello Act 3 Summary
Cassio asks Desdemona to convince Othello to return his title. Desdemona agrees:
Act III, Scene III “O, that’s an honest fellow. Do not doubt, Cassio, but I will have my lord and you again as friendly as you were”
Desdemona starts to talk about Cassio with Othello and mentions his good traits and virtues, and Iago uses it to plant a seed of jealousy in Othello. Iago says how important it is to have the family honor, and mentions that Desdemona once lied to her father to be with the man she liked:
Act III, Scene III “Beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on… what damned minutes tells he o’er who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!”
From this point on Shakespeare’s Othello becomes obsessed; blinded by jealousy, the man is not able to distinguish reality from the fake picture Iago has painted for him. To further fuel the suspicion, Iago recruits his wife to help Desdemona lose her wedding gift – an embroidered handkerchief. Emilia didn’t know what Iago’s plan was – she simply found the handkerchief on the floor and gave it to her husband. Iago then arranges for Cassio to find the handkerchief, though the latter doesn’t know whose it is. Othello gets upset when his wife can’t find his gift, but Desdemona still doesn’t notice how jealous her husband is and continues to lobby her husband for Cassio’s forgiveness.
Othello Act 4 Summary
Cassio gives the handkerchief to his lover, Bianca. Iago encourages Othello to secretly listen to the conversation of the two lovers. When the suspicious Othello hears them talk about the handkerchief, he loses his doubt and becomes dead sure that Cassio is involved with his wife. Iago adds more fuel to the fire by claiming that he’s seen the handkerchief and it is, in fact, the very same one Othello gave his wife for their wedding:
Act IV, Scene I “Yours by this hand: and to see how he prizes the foolish woman your wife! She gave it him, and he hath given it his whore”
The Moors play intensifies when Othello orders Iago to kill Cassio. He himself discusses with Iago the best way to kill his disrespectful wife:
Act IV, Scene I “Get me some poison, Iago; this night; I’ll not expostulate with her, lest her body and beauty unprovided my mind again: this night, Iago”
And Iago keeps leading Othello towards committing the crime:
Act IV, Scene I “Do it with poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated”
The ambassadors from Venice arrive, including Desdemona’s cousin Lodovico, and they notice how agitated Othello has become.
Othello comes into Desdemona’s room. He talks to Emilia briefly and she reassures him that there are no reasons to believe that his wife has been unfaithful. Othello orders Emilia to leave and accuses Desdemona of cheating on him. Iago convinces Roderigo that the special commission from Venice plans to make Cassio the General. With that, Othello and Desdemona will leave Cyprus and Roderigo will never see the woman he loves again. Iago convinces Roderigo that the only way to fix the situation is to kill Cassio:
Act IV, Scene II “… he goes into Mauritania and takes away with him the fair Desdemona, unless his abode be lingered here by some accident: wherein non can be so determinate as the removing of Cassio”
Othello Act 5 Summary
Roderigo and Iago meet Cassio in the street at night. Roderigo tries to kill Cassio, but Cassio’s armor saves him. Iago then manages to wound Cassio without being detected. Cassio cries for help, Lodovico and Gratiano come to his rescue, then Bianca. Soon Iago appears as himself, condemns Roderigo for hurting Cassio, and kills Roderigo.
Meanwhile, Othello enters the chambers of his wife. Desdemona’s words that she loves only him can’t get through to Othello in his outrage and he starts to strangle her with a pillow. When Emilia bangs on the doors, he finishes his wife off with a dagger. Emilia enters to hear Desdemona’s last words:
Act V, Scene II “O, falsely, falsely murdered!”
Emilia calls for help and Iago, Montano, Gratiano, and others come. Othello defends his crime by talking about his wife’s unfaithfulness and justifies it with the handkerchief story. That is when Emilia realizes the role her husband had played in this tragedy. Emilia tells Othello that she is the one who found the handkerchief and gave it to Iago:
Act V, Scene II “O thou dull Moor! That handkerchief thou speak’st of I found by fortune and give my husband”
Exposed, Iago stabs Emilia and runs away. Othello realizes that he’s been fooled and begins drowning in despair. The officers and ambassadors bring Iago and wounded Cassio in. Cassio tells the noblemen everything Roderigo had told him before dying in regards to Iago’s cunning dealings. Othello attacks Iago and then kills himself. Desdemona and Othello lie dead together on their family bed. Cassio recovers and is then appointed governor of Cyprus. He is tasked with executing justice on Iago.
Othello Themes and Main Topics
Good vs. evil is a key theme in “Othello”. The main problem of the protagonist is to distinguish who is loyal and who are traitors. The dramatic ending of the play is caused by Iago’s mischievous scheming, who had only pretended to be Othello’s friend.
Appearance vs. reality is another theme that is contingent upon the previous one. Out of the desire to be promoted, Iago fakes the appearance that Desdemona is unfaithful to her husband. The play has a tragic end, but it also brings justice – Iago’s sly actions are exposed and the reality of all of the manipulation becomes clear.
Race is an obvious theme as the protagonist of the story is dark-skinned. Sometimes he is even referred to as black: “Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (Act I, Scene III). The theme of the story doesn’t have anything to do with racism, but it stresses how judgmental society was at that time. The characters are proud of their positions in the army, and they are also proud of their origins, as ancestry had had great influence on one’s status and power. Othello stresses his noble bloodline:
Act I, Scene II “I shall promulgate – I fetch my life and being from men of royal siege, and my demerits may speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune as this I have reach’d”
Pride is a theme that reflects how much characters in the play value high social status; they strive to have public acknowledgment and the trust of their people. From the beginning of the play, Iago demonstrates his obsession with pride:
Act I, Scene I “I know my price, I am worth no worse a place: but he; as loving his own pride and purposes, evades them, with a bombast circumstance horribly stuff’d with epithets of war”
Magic is a theme that portrays how Shakespeare’s characters explain things happening to them. For example, Brabantio believes that Othello uses magic to win the love of his daughter. Othello partly believes such a theory:
Act I, Scene III “Of my whole course of love, what drugs, what charms, what configuration and what mighty magic, for such proceeding I am charged withal, I won his daughter”
Order vs. chaos is an evident theme, since most people on the list of characters in the “Othello” play are from military backgrounds. Iago is an ensign, Cassio is a lieutenant, and Othello is a general. They serve the state and their duty is to follow orders and ensure that others obey those orders. But Iago breaks his promise to serve the state – by succumbing to his malicious aspirations, he brings a lot of chaos to his country.
Self-knowledge is one of Shakespeare’s themes through which he demonstrates how much people depend on external circumstances. Othello acts on the opinions and words of other people to make up his mind about his wife. Maybe if he had looked deep inside of himself and around him more carefully, he would have noticed that reality was different than how Iago had portrayed it. His revelation came too late.