Othello Summary

  • Last updated on March 25, 2021
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authorWilliam Shakespeare

Othello opens in the stately city of Venice, a worldwide hub for trade and commerce. The first characters introduced are Iago, an ensign denied promotion by Othello, and Roderigo, a jealous ex-suitor of Desdemona. The two are in route to describing to Senator Brabantio the elopement of Othello and Desdemona, Brabantio’s daughter.

Quickly revealing Iago’s deceitful nature, the matter is breached to Brabantio and soon afterward brought before the Duke of Venice to be discussed. Othello and Desdemona plead their love to the Duke, refuting the Senator’s claims that Othello bewitched his daughter, and that their marriage was true. After Othello claims that he wooed her with his adventurous stories, Desdemona herself testifies that she fell honestly in love with the Moor and freely married him.

Following their clearance of wrongdoing, Othello is immediately sent to defend against the Turks in Cyrpus. Taking Desdemona with him, Othello sets out for the island with Iago and his wife Emilia in tow. Again displaying his deceitful nature, Iago manages to convince Roderigo to follow along for when Desdemona tires of her new husband.

When the Venetians arrive in Cyprus, Iago immediately goes about planting doubt in Othello’s mind as to how loyal his wife is. A carefully planned fight between Roderigo and Cassio, the man who was promoted above Iago, results in Cassio’s demotion. Taking advantage of his saddened state, Iago advises Cassio to seek out Desdemona’s favor to speak on his behalf.

Iago carefully maneuvers Othello and himself to arrive as Cassio is leaving Desdemona’s audience. Iago points out how Cassio seems to be avoiding Othello. Desdemona for her part immediately begs for Cassio’s pardon, as she has promised him from their meeting. This is all Iago needs to immediately begin planting seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind as to his wife’s fidelity.

The ensuing scenes are all a carefully staged dance by Iago in which he finds a dropped handkerchief of Desdemona’s and convinces Othello of her improper actions. He stages yet another carefully monitored conversation with Cassio and finishes the job of hardening Othello’s heart, leading to the climax, and tragedy of the play.

Othello arranges with Iago the deaths of both Desdemona and Cassio, his wife at his own hands, in the midst of his jealous anger. Because of her pledge to plea for Cassio, Desdemona only further worsens her case to her husband, solidifying his suspicions of their affair.

Iago utilizes Roderigo one last time to help him in the murder of Cassio. The two however fail to kill Cassio, instead only wounding him. However, waiting for the cry of his death, Othello hears the attack and immediately takes to his part of the plan, going to Desdemona in her bed and smothering her with a pillow.

In the final scenes, Iago’s wife Emilia reveals the ruse to Lodovico and Gratiano, their fellow Venetians, and incurs Iago’s anger, dying at his hands. Cassio however, having not been murdered in the street, confirms the tale and exonerates Desdemona and himself in the process. Othello however, has already killed his wife and in a final moment of despair, takes his own life for what he has done.

Character Summaries

  • Othello - A brilliant military mind and respected leader in Venice’s elitist society, Othello is a Moor (an African) and is not fully excepted because of his origins and color. After many successful military ventures, he finds and falls in love with Desdemona, the daughter of a senator. Because of his insecurities and social hyper awareness, he is easily deceived and misled by Iago’s careful machinations and forced into a blind, jealous rage, smothering Desdemona in her sleep.
  • Desdemona - A noble woman and daughter of the Venetian Senator Brabantio, Desdemona falls in love with Othello and displays particular strength of spirit in following him and remaining steadfast in the face of danger. She relies on her trust and love of her husband and even as he grows distant and jealous of her for reasons she cannot discern, she simply appeals to their love and hopes for his trust in return. On her death bed, after realizing Othello’s intentions, she feels only grief.
  • Iago - A captain in Othello’s forces and extremely careful planner and horribly vindictive thinker, his grievances turn into fully fledge revenge against both Cassio and Othello. Turned down for a promotion by Othello in favor of Cassio, Iago is responsible entirely for plotting the demotion and murder of Cassio and the jealous seeds in Othello’s head that lead to his murdering Desdemona and then himself.
  • Michael Cassio - The popular, well spoken, friend of Othello, Cassio is a lieutenant for Othello, chosen over Iago for promotion and thus drawing his ire. His natural charm and kindness lead him to trust Iago in requesting Desdemona’s help and eventually lead to his implication in an affair that twists Othello’s mind against his former friend.
  • Emilia - The wife of Iago and servant of Desdemona, Emilia is a carefully thinking wife and lady-in-waiting and one of the few who has suspicions of her husband’s activities. She realizes too late his true motives and pays for those suspicions when he stabs her.
  • Roderigo - A former suitor of Desdemona, Roderigo is a Venetian nobleman who continues to pay freely to win her hand. He trusts Iago as his go between man and pays him liberally to help win her hand. Iago takes his money and uses Roderigo to instigate his plans for revenge against Cassio and Othello.
  • Bianca - A courtesan in love with Cassio who is approached to help recreate the handkerchief he finds. Her skills in needlework are inarguable, but also help recreate the final piece of evidence Othello uses against his wife.
  • Brabantio - A Venetian senator and the father of Desdemona, Brabantio is wary of Othello and his intentions and the marriage of his daughter. He even warns his new son in law against the deceitfulness of his daughter.
  • Duke of Venice - The ruler of the leading body of the Venetian senate, the Duke is responsible for urging the sanction of Othello and Desdemona’s marriage. He sends Othello to Cyprus to help defend against the Turks.
  • Montano - The former governor of Cyprus before Othello’s arrival. The two are good friends and Montano takes the evidence from Cassio that displays Iago’s deceitfulness.
  • Lodovico - As Desdemona’s cousin, he questions both Cassio and Othello after his cousin’s death to finally decide what happened, revealing the truth.
  • Gratiano - As Desdemona’s uncle, he arrives and finds Cassio injured after Roderigo and Iago attack him.

Scene Summaries

Act 1

Scene 1

The play opens with a conversation between Iago and Roderigo on a street in Venice. Roderigo is a failed suitor of Desdemona, having paid Iago to help win her hand. During this scene, Roderigo has just discovered that Desdemona and Othello were recently married. Iago assures Roderigo that, even though he serves as an ensign for Othello, he hates the man. His hatred is due to Othello passing over Iago for promotion in favor of Cassio, someone with considerably less experience than Iago in battle and in the field. He states explicitly his intentions to follow Othello only in appearance, waiting for his chance to act.

Iago incites Roderigo to go to Desdemona’s father, Brabantio and rile him against the marriage. The two shout in the street of thievery, waking the Senator and work to convince the man that his daughter and has been stolen away by Othello. At first unsure because of his warning to Roderigo to stay clear of his family, Brabantio is convinced by Iago’s own riotous claims that Desdemona and Othello are engaged in sexual activity, sending the senator to search for his daughter. The scene closes with Brabantio’s discovery that his daughter is missing, stolen from him by “magic charms” and the lot of them going to confront Othello.

Scene 2

The second scene takes to Othello’s lodgings and Iago again leading the way. Iago arrives and warns Othello of Brabantio’s anger and his intentions to nullify the marriage in divorce. As the two talk, men appear, walking towards the residence. These men however are not Brabantio’s, but Cassio and his own retinue, carrying word from the Duke that Othello has been requested as a matter of discussion of Cyprus.

As Othello’s men prepare to leave, Brabantio and Roderigo arrive, fully prepared to fight. Othello however, quells the arising conflict with a command to put up their swords and explains that he is requested by the Duke. Brabantio decides that this suits his needs as well and he will bring his case before the Duke for consideration.

Scene 3

The Duke, in conversation with fellow Senators discusses the war with the Turks before Othello’s retinue arrives. At first the Turks are moving on Rhodes to mislead the Venetians, but soon they put their full energy back into their offensive against Cyprus.

Othello, Brabantio, and their men arrive in the midst of this conversation and Brabantio immediately requests a parlay of state business for the discussion of his daughter and Othello. He presents his wild accusations of magic and potions and the Duke is incensed to agree until he realizes who the accused party is. Thereafter, he gives Othello his fair chance to speak and defend himself against the charges.

Othello describes the invitations he often received from Brabantio to visit his home and share the stories of adventure and fortune in battle. Desdemona merely overheard his incredible stories and requests a private recount of the stories again, a scenario that causes her to fall in love with Othello.

The Duke agrees with Othello’s assessment, that his stories would win the heart of any woman, and decides that Brabantio’s claims are unlikely. Desdemona arrives and confirms the decision by stating that she married of her own free will and for love, and that her loyalties have shifted from her father to her husband.

Returning to the military matter on which the scene opened, the Duke tells Othello that his presence is required in Cyprus to defend against the Turks. Desdemona decides she will go with him and they leave to prepare for their journey.

After the clearing of the stage, Iago and Roderigo once again discuss Roderigo’s failed attempts to woo Desdemona. Iago assures him that hope is not lost and repeatedly convinces him that he should follow her to Cyprus, coldly declaring that love is not as powerful as Roderigo’s broken heart claims it to be. After Roderigo leaves, Iago delivers a soliloquy on the exact nature of his horrid plans. He describes his plans to take Roderigo’s money and use him, why he hates Othello so much, including his suspicions that he slept with Iago’s wife Emilia. He lays out the entirety of his plan detailing how he will bring Othello to his death, including the ruse to fool Othello into believing Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair.

Act 2

Scene 1

The second act shifts scenery to the island nation of Cyprus, inside the Venetian military fortifications, where it remains until the end of the play. Montano, Cyprus’ Governor, awaits the arrival of the Venetians, delayed as they are by a horrible storm at sea. That same storm, however has also damaged the Turkish forces to the point that they pose little to no threat to the island anymore.

Finally Cassio and Desdemona’s ships arrive, and Desdemona immediately inquires of her husband’s whereabouts. However, Iago watches from the sidelines, watching Cassio’s niceties with Desdemona and how he will turn those against them.

When Othello finally arrives, everyone retreats inside, leaving Iago once again alone with Roderigo. Warning Roderigo that Desdemona has fallen for Cassio, Iago convinces him to fight Cassio in order to have Cassio removed from Othello’s forces. With yet another soliloquy, Iago restates his hatred of Othello and his plans to drive him mad.

Scene 2

As a short interlude, a herald announces that there will be a celebration, a night of festivities to celebrate the arrival of Othello and his recent marriage as well as the destruction of the Turkish forces.

Scene 3

Cassio and Iago are given orders to keep the peace among the soldiers and that they should drink in moderation. Othello and Desdemona finally retire for their first night together as a married couple and Iago puts his plans into motion.

At first trying to pry him with talk of Desdemona being a temptress, Iago turns to convincing Cassio to drink. At first unwilling, Cassio finally relents and allows himself to drink with Iago and enjoy the festivities.

While Cassio becomes increasingly intoxicated, Iago begins to tell Montano of his worries about Casio’s leadership in regards to his drinking problem. Almost immediately, Iago turns to Roderigo and pushes him into a fight with Cassio. When enough other men have stepped into the fight, Iago sends Roderigo to ring the alarm bell, summoning Othello and the soldiers not on night watch. In the fight, Cassio is enraged and stabs Montano in the process.

Iago, in a show of reluctance, names Cassio as the instigator of the fight. Othello immediately relieves Cassio of his post and goes back to sleep. Iago then turns to Cassio and tells him that he should speak to Desdemona and beg her to speak on his behalf before Othello.

Roderigo returns one more time and explains angrily how he’s tired of having his money taken and being beaten with nothing to show for it. Displaying his silver tongue once more, Iago convinces him to stay and that all hope is not lost. Iago once again addresses the audience, explaining how he will enroll the assistance of his wife Emilia, a lady-in-waiting for Desdemona to arrange the meeting with Cassio and that he will bring Othello to witness the meeting.

Act 3

Scene 1

Cassio sends musicians to play outside of Othello’s window, hoping to win back some of his friend’s support. However, Othello sends his servant to wave them away. Cassio begs the servant for a message to be sent to Emilia in order for him to gain access to Desdemona.

Iago appears and tells Cassio that he will retrieve Emilia and somehow get Othello away so as Cassio can speak with Desdemona. When Emilia arrives, she relays how Othello and Desdemona have been discussing the case and that even though Desdemona has been pleading his case, the reinstatement of Cassio is impractical because of Montano’s popularity in Cyprus. Emilia eventually lets Cassio enter, telling him to wait while she fetches Desdemona.

Scene 2

Othello and Iago, with a Cyprus gentleman walk at a nearby citadel, discussing matters of state. Othello hands some letters for delivery to Iago and decides to check the fortifications.

Scene 3

Cassio and Desdemona discuss the previous night’s transgressions and Desdemona agrees to speak on his behalf because of the friendship between them. The scene opens with the two finishing their conversation and Othello and Iago reentering the room.

Cassio is embarrassed and quickly leaves the room, fleeing out of uneasiness at so soon speaking with Othello. Othello questions Iago as to whether it was Cassio he saw and Iago responds that surely Cassio would not act so guiltily. Desdemona begins her entreaties to Othello to speak with Cassio. He agrees, but not fully and not with a specific time. He appears distracted.

After Iago and Othello are alone again, Iago begins in earnest his infusion of doubt into Othello’s mind. He reminds him of how Cassio was the go between during Othello’s courtship of Desdemona and begins to plant small, indiscriminant thoughts of adultery in Othello’s mind, pretending to be reluctant to answer questions and being very circuitous.

Othello begins to show his own doubts, declaring Desdemona does not love him any more and that maybe her father was right in that her love for him was unnatural and unhealthy, that he was not good for her. After Iago leaves, he contemplates further the implications, how his wife might already be besot with another man and the choice he would need to make, to clear her from his heart. He tries to push those thoughts away.

When Desdemona reappears, Othello is distant and quiet, looking for signs of her unfaithfulness. He brushes aside her handkerchief when tries to sooth the pain in his head and the two soon leave for dinner. Emilia retrieves the handkerchief which Iago has asked her to steal many times. When he arrives, he takes it from her happily and sends her away.

Othello reenters the room now, enraged by the situation and demands that Iago somehow produce proof of Desdemona and Cassio’s affair. Iago, pressed so by Othello, produces a story in which Cassio calls out Desdemona’s name in his sleep, kisses Iago, and embraces him. He then reiterates that it was only a dream but offers more evidence in that he saw Cassio wipe his beard with the very handkerchief that Othello gave Desdemona and that Iago just retrieved from his wife.

Othello’s uncertainty disappears, replaced by calculated anger and a call for vengeance. He announces his plans to kill both Cassio and Desdemona and entreats Iago to take care of Cassio while he ponders how to kill his wife.

Scene 4

Desdemona sends the message to Cassio that she has spoken with Othello on his behalf. She then wonders to Emilia where her handkerchief might have gone to. Othello enters soon afterwards and asks for her hand, noting how moist it is, a sign of sexual activity. He then claims another head ache and asks for her to bind it, but only with the handkerchief he gave her.

He explains the history of the handkerchief, a gift from an Egyptian sorceress that, if kept safe by the woman it is given to, will ensure the fidelity and loyalty of her husband. Desdemona is distraught and claims it is not with her, changing the subject to Cassio once more, entreating his reinstatement.

Othello leaves angrily, soon followed by the entry of Cassio and Iago. Cassio entreats Desdemona’s help once more, but she is reluctant because of Othello’s bad mood. Emilia states that he appears to be jealous, but Desdemona refuses that theory, stating that it is more likely he is upset by a matter of politics.

Cassio is left to wait as Desdemona retrieves Othello and is soon met by Bianca, a prostitute. She asks why he has not visited her more often, and he explains that he is under great stress. He produces a handkerchief he found in his room (which Iago planted) for her to copy the embroidery of. They agree to meet later that night.

Act 4

Scene 1

Iago and Othello are once more discussing the matter of Desdemona and Cassio. Iago slyly insinuates that it is okay for a woman to be naked with a man if nothing happens and that a woman may do with her handkerchiefs as she pleases. The undertone of these comments only works up Othello more, and when pressed hard enough, Iago finally contrives that Cassio confessed to him that he had lain down with Desdemona.

Othello falls into a trance and soon afterwards Cassio enters. Iago explains it is the second fit as such in two days and that he should leave, but that he would like to speak with him in time. Iago explains to Othello when he wakes that Cassio was there and that he arranged a meeting. He tells Othello to hide and observe their conversation when Cassio returns. He explains that he will get Cassio to recount his tale of sexual encounters with Desdemona. He later tells the audience that he will actually ask questions of Cassio in regards to Bianca, the prostitute.

Watching the conversation, Othello witnesses Cassio laughing openly, and though he cannot hear the details, assumes it is about Desdemona. When Bianca enters and tosses the handkerchief back to Cassio, his rage is set, having seen Cassio’s mistress handling Desdemona’s handkerchief. He convinces himself that he must kill Cassio and Desdemona that very night. He mentions poison, but Iago pushes him to strangle her in the bed in which she betrayed him.

Lodovico enters with Desdemona with a letter recalling Othello back to Venice. The two discuss Cassio, upsetting Othello even further and when Desdemona expresses happiness at being recalled, Othello strikes here. Lodovico is surprised by the violence and the loss of control by Othello.

Scene 2

Othello questions Emilia about Desdemona’s infidelities, to which Emilie denies the accusations. However, Othello only takes this as meaning his wife is more cunning than he thought. He then takes to calling Desdemona a “whore” and a “strumpet”, railing against her.

Desdemona is distraught by her husband’s treatment of her, sure that she is being punished for some unknown crime. Emilia once again shows foresight by saying it is as though someone has turned Othello against her. However, when his opinion is asked, Iago only states that it is politics that have Othello so worked up.

In yet another conversation with Roderigo, Iago convinces him not to give up his pursuit just yet. He enlists Roderigo’s assistance in the end in the murder of Cassio, telling him that Cassio’s death will keep Othello and Desdemona in Cyprus.

Scene 3

Othello, deciding to walk with Lodovico demands that Desdemona retreat to her chambers and dismiss her maid. Desdemona then discusses with Emilia what seems to be a premonition of her own death, requesting that her body be wrapped in her wedding sheets. Emilia comments on the state of Desdemona’s marriage, mentioning that it might have been a mistake. Desdemona, however ignores the comments and ponders the meaning of adultery, asking if Emilia would ever cheat on her husband. The two discuss the nature of sexual appetites and the double standards set by men over women before Desdemona finally readies herself for bed.

Act 5

Scene 1

Iago and Roderigo wait outside in the dark as Cassio leaves Bianca. Giving Roderigo a sword, he sends the man in to attack him as he leaves. However, Roderigo fails to pierce his armor and instead takes a wound himself. Iago, jumps in during the fray and stabs Cassio, leaving the man on the ground unsure of who stabbed him. The cries of pain and murder from Cassio are interpreted by Othello as a successful execution by Iago and he hurries to his bed chambers to kill his wife.

Lodovico and Gratiano discover the men in the street, but it is too dark to see what its happening. Iago quickly enters with a light and pretends to find Cassio. He quickly stabs Roderigo while the two other men are still confused and leads them Cassio where they question his injuries.

When Bianca enters the scene, she is distraught by Cassio’s injuries, which he cannot explain. When Iago suggests it to be Roderigo’s doing, Cassio declares he doesn’t know the man. Emilia enters after Cassio and Roderigo’s corpse are removed and the two comment on the horrible results of whoring, arresting Bianca and commenting on Iago’s final move.

Scene 2

Othello enters Desdemona’s room and entreats her to pray and repent, as he does not want to kill her soul. She realizes her death is imminent and because she knows she cannot plead her case, she entreats Othello to let her live a bit longer or to merely banish her. He does not and as the two struggle, he smothers her. Hearing a voice from outside, he thinks maybe he has failed and smothers her again, only to find that Emilia has arrived to give him the news of what has happened.

He hides the bed and opens the door for Emilia who informs him that Cassio has killed Roderigo, not at all what he expected to hear. Desdemona is not quite dead yet and speaks from under the sheets, “falsely murdered” prompting Emilia to call for help. Desdemona then dies, stating that she killed herself. Othello however, announces that he murdered his wife, his eyes open by Iago to her treachery.

Emilia discusses with Othello what she herself saw, and that her husband is a liar and as his treachery becomes apparent, she calls murder to wake everyone. When everyone arrives, she lays her claims out against Iago, claiming him a liar and giving him a chance to defend himself.

He retains his claim that Cassio and Desdemona were having an affair. However, Emilia describes how she found the handkerchief and gave it to Iago. He quickly stabs his wife and runs off, leaving Emilia to die, but not before she explains to Othello how Desdemona loved him.

Iago is quickly caught and returned to the scene, where Othello declares his follies after Iago refuses to explain himself. In one final show of devotion and despair, Othello takes his own life and falls upon the bed.

Lodovico takes charge of the situation, giving Othello’s property to his next of kin and granting command of the forces to Cassio, who will have the sentencing power over Iago. Lodovico himself will return to Venice to explain exactly what happened.

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