The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in approximately 1603, and based on the Italian short story Un Capitano Moro ("A Moorish Captain") by Cinthio, a disciple of Boccaccio, first published in 1565. The work revolves around four central characters: Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army; his wife, Desdemona; his lieutenant, Cassio; and his trusted ensign, Iago. Because of its varied and current themes of racism, love, jealousy, and betrayal, Othello is still often performed in professional and community theatres alike and has been the basis for numerous operatic, film, and literary.
Othello - The play’s protagonist and hero. A Christian Moor and general of the armies of Venice, Othello is an eloquent and physically powerful figure, respected by all those around him. In spite of his elevated status, he is nevertheless easy prey to insecurities because of his age, his life as a soldier, and his race. He possesses a “free and open nature,” which his ensign Iago uses to twist his love for his wife, Desdemona, into a powerful and destructive jealousy (I.iii.381).
Desdemona - The daughter of the Venetian senator Brabanzio. Desdemona and Othello are secretly married before the play begins. While in many ways stereotypically pure and meek, Desdemona is also determined and self-possessed. She is equally capable of defending her marriage, jesting bawdily with Iago, and responding with dignity to Othello’s incomprehensible jealousy.
Iago - Othello’s ensign (a job also known as an ancient or standard-bearer), and the villain of the play. Iago is twenty-eight years old. While his ostensible reason for desiring Othello’s demise is that he has been passed over for promotion to lieutenant, Iago’s motivations are never very clearly expressed and seem to originate in an obsessive, almost aesthetic delight in manipulation and destruction.
Michael Cassio - Othello’s lieutenant. Cassio is a young and inexperienced soldier, whose high position is much resented by Iago. Truly devoted to Othello, Cassio is extremely ashamed after being implicated in a drunken brawl on Cyprus and losing his place as lieutenant. Iago uses Cassio’s youth, good looks, and friendship with Desdemona to play on Othello’s insecurities about Desdemona’s fidelity.
Emilia - Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s attendant. A cynical, worldly woman, she is deeply attached to her mistress and distrustful of her husband.
Roderigo - A jealous suitor of Desdemona. Young, rich, and foolish, Roderigo is convinced that if he gives Iago all of his money, Iago will help him win Desdemona’s hand. Repeatedly frustrated as Othello marries Desdemona and then takes her to Cyprus, Roderigo is ultimately desperate enough to agree to help Iago kill Cassio after Iago points out that Cassio is another potential rival for Desdemona.
Bianca - A courtesan, or prostitute, in Cyprus. Bianca’s favorite customer is Cassio, who teases her with promises of marriage.
Brabanzio - Desdemona’s father, a somewhat blustering and self-important Venetian senator. As a friend of Othello, Brabanzio feels betrayed when the general marries his daughter in secret.
Duke of Venice - The official authority in Venice, the duke has great respect for Othello as a public and military servant. His primary role within the play is to reconcile Othello and Brabanzio in Act I, scene iii, and then to send Othello to Cyprus.
Montano - The governor of Cyprus before Othello. We see him first in Act II, as he recounts the status of the war and awaits the Venetian ships.
Lodovico - One of Brabanzio’s kinsmen, Lodovico acts as a messenger from Venice to Cyprus. He arrives in Cyprus in Act IV with letters announcing that Othello has been replaced by Cassio as governor.
Graziano - Brabanzio’s kinsman who accompanies Lodovico to Cyprus. Amidst the chaos of the final scene, Graziano mentions that Desdemona’s father has died.
The play opens with Roderigo, a rich and dissolute gentleman, complaining to Iago, a high-ranking soldier, that Iago has not told him about the secret marriage between Desdemona, the daughter of a Senator named Brabantio, and Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army. He is upset by this development because he loves Desdemona and had previously asked her father for her hand in marriage. Iago hates Othello for promoting a younger man named Michael Cassio above him, and tells Roderigo that he plans to use Othello for his own advantage. Iago is also angry because he believes, or at least gives the pretence of belief, that Othello slept with his wife Emilia. Iago denounces Cassio as a scholarly tactician with no real battle experience; in contrast, Iago is a battle-tested soldier. By emphasizing Roderigo's failed bid for Desdemona, and his own dissatisfaction with serving under Othello, Iago convinces Roderigo to wake Brabantio, Desdemona's father, and tell him about his daughter's elopement. Iago sneaks away to find Othello and warns him that Brabantio is coming for him.
Before Brabantio reaches Othello, news arrives in Venice that the Turks are going to attack Cyprus; therefore Othello is summoned to advise the senators. Brabantio arrives and accuses Othello of seducing Desdemona by witchcraft, but Othello defends himself successfully before an assembly that includes the Duke of Venice, Brabantio's kinsman Lodovico and Gratiano, and various senators. He explains that Desdemona became enamored of him for the stories he told of his dangerous military life, not because of any witchcraft. The senate is satisfied, but Brabantio leaves saying that Desdemona will betray Othello. By order of the Duke, Othello leaves Venice to command the Venetian armies against invading Turks on the island of Cyprus, accompanied by his new wife, his new lieutenant Cassio, his ensign Iago, and Emilia as Desdemona's attendant.
The party arrives in Cyprus to find that a storm has destroyed the Turkish fleet. Othello orders a general celebration. Iago schemes to use Cassio to ruin Othello and takes the opportunity of Othello's absence at the celebration to persuade Roderigo to engage Cassio in a fight. He achieves this by getting Cassio drunk after Cassio's own admission that he cannot hold his wine. The brawl alarms the citizenry, and Othello is forced to quell the disturbance. Othello blames Cassio for the disturbance and strips him of his rank. Cassio is distraught, but Iago persuades him to importune Desdemona to act as an intermediary between himself and Othello, and persuade her husband to reinstate him.
Iago now persuades Othello to be suspicious of Cassio and Desdemona. As it happens, Cassio is having a relationship of sorts with Bianca, a prostitute. Desdemona drops a handkerchief that was Othello's first gift to Desdemona and which he has stated holds great significance to him in the context of their relationship. Emilia steals it, at the request of Iago, but unaware of what he plans to do with the handkerchief. Iago plants it in Cassio's lodgings as evidence of Cassio and Desdemona's affair. After he has planted the handkerchief, Iago tells Othello to stand apart and watch Cassio's reactions while Iago questions him about the handkerchief. Iago goads Cassio on to talk about his affair with Bianca, but speaks her name so quietly that Othello believes the two other men are talking about Desdemona when Cassio is really speaking of Bianca. Bianca, on discovering the handkerchief, chastises Cassio, accusing him of giving her a second-hand gift which he received from another lover. Othello sees this, and Iago convinces him that Cassio received the handkerchief from Desdemona. Enraged and hurt, Othello resolves to kill his wife and asks Iago to kill Cassio as a duty to their intimacy. Othello proceeds to make Desdemona's life miserable, hitting her in front of her family. Desdemona laments her suffering, remembering the fate of her mother's maid, who was forsaken by her lover.
Roderigo complains that he has received nothing for his efforts and threatens to abandon his pursuit of Desdemona, but Iago convinces him to kill Cassio instead, because Cassio has just been appointed governor of Cyprus, and — Iago argues — if Cassio lives to take office, Othello and Desdemona will leave Cyprus, thwarting Roderigo's plans to win Desdemona. Roderigo attacks Cassio in the street after Cassio leaves Bianca's lodgings. They fight and both are wounded. Cassio's leg is cut from behind by Iago who manages to hide his identity as perpetrator. Passers-by arrive to help; Iago joins them, pretending to help Cassio. When Cassio identifies Roderigo as one of his attackers, Iago secretly stabs Roderigo to stop him from confessing. He then accuses Bianca of the failed conspiracy to kill Cassio.
In the night, Othello confronts Desdemona, and then smothers her to death in bed, before Emilia arrives. Othello tries to justify his actions to the distressed Emilia by accusing Desdemona of adultery. Emilia calls for help. The Governor arrives, with Iago, Cassio, and others, and Emilia begins to explain the situation. When Othello mentions the handkerchief as proof, Emilia realizes what Iago has done. She exposes him, whereupon Iago kills her. Othello, realizing Desdemona's innocence, attacks Iago but does not kill him, saying that he would rather have Iago live the rest of his life in pain. For his part, Iago refuses to explain his motives, vowing to remain silent from that moment on. Lodovico, a Venetian nobleman, apprehends both Iago and Othello, but Othello commits suicide with a sword before they can take him into custody. At the end, it can be assumed, Iago is taken off to be tortured, and Cassio becomes governor of Cyprus.
At the end of Othello, Desdemona seems to be the most passive kind of victim. Smothered, deprived of breath and of words by her husband, she is totally overwhelmed by Othello’s insane jealousy and physical strength. But before her murder, Desdemona is remarkable for showing more passivity when her husband is not around and more assertiveness when he is.
Desdemona’s first speech, in which she defends her recent marriage, is confident and forthright. When she gives it, she is the only female character onstage, surrounded by powerful men who include the duke, her husband, and her father, but she is not ashamed to assert her belief in the validity of her desires and actions. Unfortunately, Iago recognizes Desdemona’s forthrightness and uses it against her. He exploits her willingness to demand and justify what she wants by making Cassio her cause and, simultaneously, Othello’s enemy. In Act III, scene iii, Desdemona asks Othello to forgive Cassio and persists, in spite of Othello’s rising consternation, until her husband declares, “I will deny thee nothing” (III.iii. 41–84). Her courage is apparent in her refusal to search for the missing handkerchief in Act III, scene iv; in her willingness to shout back at Othello as he abuses her in Act IV, scene i; and in her insistence upon her innocence in Act V, scene ii. Her audacity seems to infuriate Othello all the more, as what he takes to be shameless lies convince him that she is unremorseful in what he believes to be her sin.
The terrible effect of Othello’s brutality is most obvious in Desdemona’s scenes with Emilia. Emilia is cynical and bawdy, and she gives Desdemona every possible opportunity to bad-mouth Othello. Men, she says in Act III, scene iv, “are all but stomachs, and we all but food. / They eat us hungrily, and when they are full, / They belch us” (III.iv.100–102). Later, she insults Othello: “He called her whore. A beggar in his drink / Could not have laid such terms upon his callet [whore]” (IV.ii.124–125). And, at the end of Act IV, scene iii, she gives a lengthy discourse about the virtues of infidelity. Desdemona, however, never says anything worse than “Heaven keep the monster [jealousy] from Othello’s mind” (III.iv.158). With her closest confidante, Desdemona does not speak ill of her husband, even as she shows the strain of his terrible abuse.
Iago / Othello
Although eponymously titled, suggesting that the tragedy belongs primarily to Othello, Iago plays an important role in the plot. He reflects the archetypal villain, and has the biggest share of the dialogue. In Othello, it is Iago who manipulates all other characters at will, controlling their movements and trapping them in an intricate net of lies. He achieves this by getting close to all characters and playing on their weaknesses while they refer to him as "honest" Iago, thus furthering his control over the characters . A. C. Bradley, and more recently Harold Bloom, have been major advocates of this interpretation. Other critics, most notably in the later twentieth century (after F. R. Leavis), have focused on Othello.
As the Protestant Reformation of England highlighted the importance of pious, controlled behaviour in society, it was the tendency of the contemporary Englishman to displace society's undesirable qualities of barbarism, treachery, jealousy and libidinousness onto those who are considered 'other'. The assumed characteristics of black men, or 'the other', were both instigated and popularised by Renaissance dramas of the time; for example, the treachery of black men inherent to George Peele's 'The Battle of Alcazar' (1588).
Religious / Philosophical
Many critics have noted references to demonic possession throughout the play, especially in relation to Othello's seizure, a phenomenon often associated with possession in the popular consciousness of the day. Another scholar suggests that the epileptic fit relates to the mind-body problem and the existence of the soul.
There have been many differing views on the character of Othello over the years. A.C Bradley calls Othello the "most romantic of all of Shakespeare's heroes" (by "hero" Bradley means protagonist) and "the greatest poet of them all". On the other hand, F.R. Leavis describes Othello as "egotistical". There are those who also take a less critical approach to the character of Othello such as William Hazlitt saying that "the nature of the Moor is noble... but his blood is of the most inflammable kind".
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
The Incompatibility of Military Heroism & LoveBefore and above all else, Othello is a soldier. From the earliest moments in the play, his career affects his married life. Asking “fit disposition” for his wife after being ordered to Cyprus (I.iii.234), Othello notes that “the tyrant custom . . . / Hath made the flinty and steel couch of war / My thrice-driven bed of down” (I.iii.227–229). While Desdemona is used to better “accommodation,” she nevertheless accompanies her husband to Cyprus (I.iii.236). Moreover, she is unperturbed by the tempest or Turks that threatened their crossing, and genuinely curious rather than irate when she is roused from bed by the drunken brawl in Act II, scene iii. She is, indeed, Othello’s “fair warrior,” and he is happiest when he has her by his side in the midst of military conflict or business (II.i.179). The military also provides Othello with a means to gain acceptance in Venetian society. While the Venetians in the play are generally fearful of the prospect of Othello’s social entrance into white society through his marriage to Desdemona, all Venetians respect and honor him as a soldier. Mercenary Moors were, in fact, commonplace at the time.
Othello predicates his success in love on his success as a soldier, wooing Desdemona with tales of his military travels and battles. Once the Turks are drowned—by natural rather than military might—Othello is left without anything to do: the last act of military administration we see him perform is the viewing of fortifications in the extremely short second scene of Act III. No longer having a means of proving his manhood or honor in a public setting such as the court or the battlefield, Othello begins to feel uneasy with his footing in a private setting, the bedroom. Iago capitalizes on this uneasiness, calling Othello’s epileptic fit in Act IV, scene i, “[a] passion most unsuiting such a man.” In other words, Iago is calling Othello unsoldierly. Iago also takes care to mention that Cassio, whom Othello believes to be his competitor, saw him in his emasculating trance (IV.i.75).
Desperate to cling to the security of his former identity as a soldier while his current identity as a lover crumbles, Othello begins to confuse the one with the other. His expression of his jealousy quickly devolves from the conventional—“Farewell the tranquil mind”—to the absurd:
Farewell the plum’d troops and the big warsOne might well say that Othello is saying farewell to the wrong things—he is entirely preoccupied with his identity as a soldier. But his way of thinking is somewhat justified by its seductiveness to the audience as well. Critics and audiences alike find comfort and nobility in Othello’s final speech and the anecdote of the “malignant and . . . turbaned Turk” (V.ii.362), even though in that speech, as in his speech in Act III, scene iii, Othello depends on his identity as a soldier to glorify himself in the public’s memory, and to try to make his audience forget his and Desdemona’s disastrous marital experiment.
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell,
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!”