Shakespeare’s Othello – A Detailed Summary & Character Exploration
Shakespeare’s Othello, also known as The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, is a riveting tale of love, jealousy, deception and treachery. Adapted from Cinthio’s Un Capitano Moro (A Moorish Captain), the play has managed to capture millions of hearts for its gripping plot and the tragic outcome of misplaced trust. It is also one of the clearest examples of Shakespeare highlighting racial discrimination.
Othello: Act-wise Summary
Othello is divided into five acts, with a minimum of two scenes per act. Here, you’ll find a detailed exploration of the events that transpired in each scene:
Othello Act 1 Summary:
The first scene begins with a nobleman, Roderigo chastising Iago for failing to meet his part of the agreement. Roderigo was in love with the daughter of the Venetian Senator, Brabantio, and had paid Iago (who was a captain in the defenses) to buy Desdemona gifts on his behalf and sing his praises.
Unfortunately, Desdemona has already eloped with Othello, a General in the defenses, and a Moor.
Iago reassures Roderigo that he will have Desdemona for himself because Iago plans to take revenge on Othello. The Moor had promoted Cassio to lieutenant, a position that he believed he deserved more than Cassio.
Hence, he suggests they go wake up Brabantio and let him know of his daughter eloping with Othello. The two raise a huge hue and cry and incite Brabantio with inflammatory comments about Othello:
Ift be your pleasure and most wise consent;
Transported, with no worse nor better guard
But with a knave of common hire, a gondolier,
To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor-
This leads him to organize a search party to find his daughter.
Readers begin to realize Iago’s wily nature, and he pretends to worry about Othello and informs him about a potential attempt by Brabantio to break up his marriage to Desdemona.
That the magnifico is much beloved,
Or put upon you what restraint and grievance
The law, with all his might to enforce it on,
Will give him cable.
However, Othello pays no need to the warning, for he believes he is too invaluable to the army to be in trouble. Meanwhile, Cassio and some officers arrive with a summons for Othello by the Duke of Venice regarding a matter concerning Cyprus.
However, Brabantio and Roderigo, along with Brabantio’s men, come to attack Othello. Brabantio insults the Moor and is convinced he has used witchcraft to enchant his daughter, for she would never go with him voluntarily:
O thou foul thief, where hast thou stow'd my daughter?
Damn'd as thou art, thou hast enchanted her;
The group finally decides to settle the matter at the Duke of Venice’s court since Othello has already been summoned there.
The third scene begins with the Duke and the Senators of Venice discussing the matter of the possible Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Their discussions are interrupted when the group arrives, and Brabantio demands all state affairs be postponed until the court addresses his grievances.
He explains how his daughter has been taken away from him through enchantments:
By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks;
Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense,
The Duke is initially sympathetic to Brabantio until he learns the accused is Othello. When he gives Othello a chance to explain himself, the Moor explains how Brabantio would often invite him to his house and ask him about his battles and stories.
His daughter, Desdemona, became fascinated with these stories, and they soon fell in love with each other. He admits that he married her without Brabantio’s permission but that he has never used any witchcraft.
When Desdemona is summoned, Brabantio demands her to tell the court who she is most obedient to:
While he clearly expects Desdemona to take his name, the young woman clarifies that though she owes her father for her life and education, her duty is now towards her husband, whom she has married of her own free will.
I do perceive here a divided duty:
To you I am bound for life and education;
How to respect you; you are the lord of duty;
Brabantio finally relents to his daughter’s will.
When the Duke requests Othello to leave for Cyprus immediately to defend it from the Turkish invasion, Othello requests an accommodation for his wife. The Duke suggests she remain with Brabantio, but the suggestion is turned down by Othello, Brabantio and Desdemona.
Be't at her father's.
I'll not have it so.
Nor I; I would not there reside,
So, after some discussion, they prepare to leave for Cyprus.
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Othello Act 2 Summary:
As Montano, Cyprus' Governor and others await Othello's arrival, they witness the storm destroy the Turkish fleet. However, they do not have any confirmation of whether Othello's ship survived the storm.
A ship carrying Desdemona, Roderigo, Iago and Iago’s wife, Emilia, arrives first. But as soon as Desdemona embarks and Cassio tells her of Othello not having arrived yet, there is an announcement of another ship.
Cassio holds Desdemona’s hand as he takes her aside for a private discussion about Othello’s coming to Cyprus, which doesn’t go unnoticed by Iago. The wily man plots to use this to raise suspicions about Cassio and make him lose his position as the lieutenant.
[Aside] He takes her by the palm: ay,
ensnare as great a fly as Cassio. Ay, smile upon her,
When Othello finally reunites with Desdemona, he compares his time battling the storm at sea to Hell. But with his wife, he is in Heaven.
Iago insinuates that Desdemona will soon grow tired of Othello and will want someone like Cassio by her side. He poisons Roderigo’s mind about Desdemona’s virtue and breaks the ideal version of her:
While Roderigo tries to reason with Iago that Cassio held Desdemona’s hand out of courtesy, he soon falls prey to Iago’s schemes and agrees to start a quarrel with Cassio.
Iago believes that Cassio engaging in a drunken fight while Cyprus still remains tense and worried about a possible Turkish invasion will make him lose his position. He also reveals the truth about his secretly lusting after Desdemona because he suspects that Othello has slept with his wife. However, even if he isn't successful with Desdemona himself, he believes Roderigo accusing Cassio of having an affair with Desdemona will plant the seeds of jealousy in Othello’s mind and drive him to madness.
A herald makes an announcement that Othello plans to celebrate the destruction of the Turkish fleet and his marriage to Desdemona. Othello declares that the citizens and soldiers can make merry from five o'clock till eleven at night.
It is Othello's pleasure, our noble and valiant general,
nuptial. So much was his pleasure should be proclaimed.
Othello orders Cassio and Iago to ensure that the soldiers drink in moderation and practice self-restraint. After Othello and Desdemona leave to consummate their marriage, Iago strikes up a conversation with Cassio and implies that Desdemona is a temptress.
What an eye she has! methinks it sounds a parley of
However, Cassio maintains that Desdemona is modest.
Next, Iago convinces Cassio to drink, and when he leaves to fetch the revelers, Iago turns to the audience and reveals his plan to make Cassio disgrace himself in public.
When the revelers, which include Montano and three others, return, Cassio is already drinking. He soon becomes intoxicated and wanders offstage, assuring others at the party that he isn't drunk. Iago takes this opportunity to place the seed of doubt about Cassio in Montano’s mind, highlighting that even though Cassio is an upstanding soldier, he believes that his drinking problem might affect his professional attitude.
The one as long as the other: 'tis pity of him. I fear the trust Othello puts him in.
When Roderigo arrives, Iago incites him to attack Cassio. When Montano tries to prevent a fight from breaking out, Cassio attacks the Governor and stabs him. Iago takes this moment to urge Roderigo to sound the alarms.
[Aside to RODERIGO] Away, I say; go out, and cry a mutiny.
Othello soon arrives with his armed guards and demands to know who started the fight. Initially, Iago pretends to be reluctant to reveal the truth but finally admits that it was Cassio who caused the disturbance. Othello immediately relieves him of his position as a lieutenant and returns to Desdemona.
Meanwhile, Cassio laments the permanent damage to his reputation. Iago suggests he appeal to Desdemona's kindness and talk to Othello on his behalf. In an aside, Iago reveals that Cassio spending more time with Desdemona privately will make it easier for him to convince Othello of an affair between them.
That she repeals him for her body's lust;
And by how much she strives to do him good,
And out of her own goodness make the net
After reassuring Roderigo that everything is going according to plan, Iago explains to the audience that he will take the help of his wife, Emilia, to arrange a meeting between Cassio and Desdemona.
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Othello Act 3 Summary:
In an attempt to get back into Othello’s good graces, Cassio sends for musicians to play under Othello’s window, but the general sends his clown to ask them to leave. Cassio requests the clown to find Emilia so he can request a private audience with Desdemona.
Iago takes responsibility himself and sends for Emilia immediately. He also reassures Cassio that he’ll think of a way to take Othello aside so Cassio can talk to Desdemona privately. When Iago leaves, Cassio thinks that he has never met a Florentine as kind as Iago, which is ironic considering Iago’s true motivations.
Once Emilia arrives, she tells Cassio that she overheard Desdemona and Othello talking about the situation. Desdemona has already appealed to her husband on Cassio’s behalf, and since Othello likes him, he is already waiting for the best moment to bring Cassio back in his favor. However, he worries that Montano’s power and influence will make this impractical.
And great affinity, and that in wholesome wisdom
He might not but refuse you; but he protests he loves you
And needs no other suitor but his likings
To take the safest occasion by the front
Othello enters a room in the castle with Iago and a few gentlemen. He gives a few letters to Iago to deliver to Venice. Then, he leaves to check the fortifications.
Desdemona, Emilia and Cassio enter the scene mid-conversation, and the readers can see Desdemona reassuring Cassio she'll try her best to reason with Othello to reinstate his position, for he knows they are old friends.
When Iago and Othello approach, Cassio is too embarrassed about his conduct the previous night and exits hastily after embracing Desdemona. Iago immediately takes the opportunity to pass a snide comment.
When Othello enquires whether it was Cassio who just left, Iago responds that Cassio would surely not act like a guilty man in front of Othello.
When alone together, Desdemona passionately speaks on behalf of Cassio and entreats Othello to promote him to lieutenant again. And though Othello admits he would not deny his wife anything, he requests her to leave him alone with his thoughts, for he is too distracted by what Iago had said.
In a private conversation with Othello, Iago insinuates Cassio might be having an affair with Desdemona. He plants the seeds of doubt in Othello's mind and makes him question whether Brabantio was right all along – whether he is too unnatural to be loved by Desdemona.
And have not those soft parts of conversation That chamberers have,
Must be to loathe her. O curse of marriage,
Desdemona enters and requests Othello's audience at dinner. But Iago’s plan has started to work as Othello intently watches his wife’s actions with suspicion. He rejects her offer to wrap his head with her handkerchief when he complains of a headache.
After they leave for dinner, Emilia picks up the handkerchief that had fallen to the floor, as Iago had instructed.
Meanwhile, Othello rages against Iago, admitting that his mind is tormented with thoughts of his wife’s infidelity. He demands to see proof, for he would rather be deceived than suspect his wife without proof.
At this, Iago conjures up a fake scenario, where he admits that when Iago and Cassio were sharing a bed, Cassio had embraced him, called Desdemona’s name, and kissed him on the lips. Iago also confesses to having seen Cassio wipe his beard with a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries, which was Othello’s first gift to Desdemona.
Nay, but be wise: yet we see nothing done;
She may be honest yet. Tell me but this,
I gave her such a one; 'twas my first gift. IAGO
I know not that; but such a handkerchief--
Enraged at this revelation, all doubts vanish from Othello’s mind. He is convinced of Desdemona and Cassio having an illicit affair and vows vengeance. Iago promises to help him and is promoted to lieutenant.
Desdemona instructs a clown to relay to Cassio that she has already spoken to her husband on his behalf and laments to Emilia that she cannot find her handkerchief that she had dropped earlier. At that moment, Othello enters and asks Desdemona to procure that strawberry-embroidered handkerchief.
When Desdemona tries to avoid the topic, Othello reveals that the handkerchief was given to his mother by an Egyptian charmer. As long as his mother had the handkerchief in her possession, Othello's father would remain loyal to her. However, if she lost it, she would lose her husband.
Desdemona becomes scared of losing such an important handkerchief and refuses to admit that it is lost. She broaches the reinstatement of Cassio in an attempt to distract Othello. However, this has the opposite effect, and her husband storms off in anger.
Fetch't, let me see't.
Why, so I can, sir, but I will not now.
Fetch me the handkerchief: my mind misgives.
You'll never meet a more sufficient man.
I pray, talk me of Cassio.
Emilia suggests that Othello's actions reflect that of a jealous man. But Desdemona refuses to believe so.
When Cassio arrives and requests Desdemona to help him win back Othello’s favor, Desdemona asks him to wait while she goes to fetch Othello so they can have a talk.
While Cassio waits for Desdemona to arrive, Bianca, a prostitute, enters and chastises him for not visiting her often. Cassio apologizes and cites that his stress has been keeping him away.
He gives Bianca the strawberry-embroidered handkerchief that he had found in his room (which was planted by Iago) and requests her to make a copy of it since he'll have to return the original to its owner once he finds out who that person is.
Bianca accuses Cassio of having another lover and asking her to copy the other woman’s embroidery, but Cassio dismisses the accusations as absurd, and they plan to meet up later.
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Othello Act 4 Summary:
Iago tries to convince Othello that even if Desdemona has been naked with Cassio, nothing might have happened. And if he had gifted his wife a handkerchief, she could do what she pleases with it.
It seems as if Iago is speaking in favor of Cassio, but in turn, his words continue to make Othello suspect Desdemona’s faithfulness to him. He keeps obsessing over the handkerchief, and upon his insistence, Iago tells Othello that Cassio has admitted to having slept with Desdemona.
With her, on her; what you will.
Lie with her! lie on her! We say lie on her, when
Upon learning this, Othello faints in shock.
Cassio arrives at this moment, and Iago tells him Othello has had a fit of epilepsy and they mustn’t revive him then. He sends Cassio away but asks him to meet him later for a conversation.
When Othello awakens from his fit, Iago informs him about his conversation with Cassio and urges Othello to hide and observe Cassio’s behavior during the conversation.
During the conversation with Cassio, Iago jokes with him about Bianca and Cassio humorously recounts Bianca’s pursuit of him. Othello, who had been hiding, cannot hear the conversation and thinks Cassio is joking about Desdemona.
During this conversation, Bianca enters the scene and throws the strawberry-embroidered handkerchief at Cassio, still accusing him of giving her another woman's love token. Othello recognizes the handkerchief immediately and considers it the evidence he needs to confirm Cassio’s betrayal and Desdemona’s infidelity.
Iago continues to incite Othello once Cassio and Bianca leave, highlighting how Desdemona had given Othello's gift to Cassio and how the man had given it to a prostitute.
And did you see the handkerchief?
Was that mine?
Yours by this hand: and to see how he prizes the
Othello, now completely convinced of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness, plans to poison her to death. But Iago suggests strangling her on the same bed where she slept with another man. He promises to take care of Cassio himself.
Desdemona soon enters the stage with a messenger, Lodovico, who informs Othello that the Duke has sent for him. He is to leave Cyprus under Cassio’s care and return immediately. Lodovico also enquires after Cassio, which Desdemona answers. This irks Othello to no end, and he immediately loses control and strikes her.
Lodovico is horrified at Othello's display of his lack of self-control and demands that he call back Desdemona. Othello complies, only to accuse his wife of infidelity and promiscuousness. After commanding Desdemona to leave, Othello storms off.
Despite receiving reassurance from Emilia that his wife had not been unfaithful to him with Cassio, Othello refuses to believe her. He summons his wife and hurls accusations at her, calling her a "cunning whore of Venice" and a "strumpet."
I cry you mercy, then:
I took you for that cunning whore of Venice
After Othello leaves, Desdemona laments to Emilia, who suspects that some fiend must have turned Othello against her mistress. Upon Desdemona's insistence, she fetches Iago, who reassures her that Othello is merely disturbed because of state affairs.
Roderigo enters in a fit and tells Iago of his intentions to demand the jewels that he has sent Desdemona back from her. Iago tells him that Cassio has been assigned Othello's position in Cyprus and lies that the Moor has been reassigned to Africa. He incites Roderigo by claiming that the only way to keep Desdemona in Cyprus is to kill Cassio so that Othello is forced to stay.
Othello asks Desdemona to prepare her bed and dismiss her attendants, and he will join her shortly. Desdemona already has a premonition of her fate and requests Emilia to wrap her body in her wedding sheets if she were to die before her.
Emilia helps her undress for bed, and Desdemona sings “Willow,’ a song that she had learnt from Barbary, her mother’s maid, who died singing the song after being jilted by her lover.
Othello Act 5 Summary:
Iago instructs Roderigo to wait outside the brothel where Cassio had gone to meet Bianca and kill him when the opportunity presents itself. Unfortunately, Roderigo is only able to wound Cassio before he is stabbed and wounded by Cassio himself. Taking advantage of the darkness, Iago stabs Cassio and kills Roderigo.
Meanwhile, hearing Cassio’s shouts of murder, Othello believes Iago has done his part of the deed. He proceeds to enter Desdemona’s bedchamber to kill her as well.
Othello tells Desdemona to be prepared to die. Frightened, Desdemona demands to know the reason, and Othello cites her unfaithfulness. Despite her vehement denial of the charges, Othello refuses to believe her and strangles her to death.
When Emilia arrives and reports that Cassio has killed Roderigo, Othello feels deceived that everything has not gone according to plan. At that moment, Desdemona cries out with her last breath that she is innocent and denies that she has been murdered.
A guiltless death I die.
O, who hath done this deed?
Nobody; I myself. Farewell
Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell!
Emilia confronts Othello and insists that Desdemona has never been unfaithful to him. However, Othello is beyond reasoning as he claims that Iago has opened his eyes to the truth. Emilia finally puts two and two together and realizes her husband has a role to play in this murder.
When Iago, Gratiano, and others rush to the bedchamber upon hearing Emilia’s cries, she confronts her husband and reveals that he had commanded Emilia to steal Desdemona’s handkerchief.
Iago murders Emilia and flees from the scene. Othello finally begins to realize that he has been manipulated by Iago all along. Unable to bear the guilt, he stabs himself and dies.
The scene ends with Gratiano receiving Othello’s property, Cassio meting out Iago’s punishment, and Lodovico returning to Venice with the tragic news.
Othello Characters List: Major Roles
Othello is a classic example of a tragic hero. He is an outstanding soldier, and his heroic deeds have earned him immense popularity among the people. However, like all tragic heroes, he has a tragic flaw – his immense jealousy.
Othello is unlike the other fair-skinned characters in the play. He comes from a lowly background and is a dark-skinned Moor. This sense of Otherness makes Othello feel alienated from his wife, Desdemona, when Iago uses his insecurities against him.
Othello’s jealousy prevents him from seeing the truth of Iago’s manipulation and ultimately leads him to murder his wife.
Iago is the main protagonist of Othello. Unlike other villains, he does not have to rely on brute strength to exact his revenge. His ability to read people well enables him to manipulate Othello, Cassio, and other characters in the play. Iago is one of the rarest instances of an antagonist that relies on his wits and slyness to scheme against the main characters.
Unlike Iago or Roderigo, Desdemona is free of racial discrimination and doesn't consider Othello's dark skin a factor against her decision to marry him. She is faithful to him till her last breath and is heartbroken when Othello accuses her of infidelity. Even after Othello strangles her, she defends him till her dying breath, claiming she has not been murdered, but has taken her life.
Minor Characters in Othello
Cassio, a lieutenant under Othello, might not have a direct role in the proceedings of the play but is a key player nonetheless. He has been described to be a handsome, fair-skinned Venetian and a gentleman. However, his gentlemanly actions are intentionally misinterpreted by Iago, who incites Othello against Cassio.
Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s attendant, initially seems to be Iago’s puppet in his ploy to take revenge upon Othello and Cassio. However, she is very perceptive and knows how vulnerable women are to the whims of their husbands. Though she plays a vital role in Iago’s scheme, she scolds Othello for suspecting his wife and never deters from her faithfulness to Desdemona. She reveals her husband's ploy and dies at Iago’s hand. With her last breath, she seeks atonement for unintentionally being a part of her husband’s cruel plot.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does Othello fulfill the characteristics of a tragic character?
Othello is considered a staple tragic character because he is virtuous and a brave warrior, but he is not exempt from a hamartia or fatal flaw – jealousy. Despite being loved and respected because of his noble character, Othello gives in to his jealous whims, which leads to his eventual downfall.
Why is Othelloan important play in the 21stcentury?
Despite being written in the early 17th century, Othello is still relevant in the 21st century because it is one of the earliest literary instances exploring racial discrimination. In the play, Othello is described as a dark-skinned Moor and is subject to excessive racist remarks from Iago and Roderigo, who comment on his appearances and call him Desdemona’s “gross revolt.”
Is Othellobased on a true story?
Shakespeare adapted the story of Othello from Un Capitano Moro, or, A Moorish Captain, written by Cinthio in the mid-16th century. Moreover, literary critics believe that the character Othello might have been inspired by the Moorish ambassador from Barbary, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, who visited Queen Elizabeth’s court.
Why did Shakespeare write Othelloin five acts?
The five-act structure of Othello is an upgrade of the three-act classical tragedies of Aristotelian times. The five acts progress sequentially and focus on the prologue, rise, climax, fall and denouement, respectively. This structure follows the pyramidal scheme, similar to the classical tragedies.
Can you consider Othello an upstanding character?
Othello is a noble character who is loved and respected for his military prowess and gentle heart. Despite being a fierce warrior, his loving nature finds expression through his interactions with his wife, Desdemona. So, even though Othello is susceptible to fits of jealousy, readers consider him to be an upstanding character.
How does Othelloportray gender roles?
Othello exhibits a very patriarchal notion of gender roles. The men in the play, including Othello, are controlling of women. When he believes that Desdemona is cheating on him, Othello feels that her betrayal is an insult to his masculinity. Moreover, unmarried women in the play are considered their fathers' or their husbands' property.
Which literary devices does Shakespeare use in Othello?
Shakespeare uses the following literary devices:
- Symbolism– Desdemona’s handkerchief
- Allusion– But my Muse labors/ And thus she is delivered (alludes to one of the nine Muses in Greek mythology)
- Foreshadow– Desdemona sings Willow, which foreshadows Othello’s descent into madness
- Simile– Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards (Iago compares the thought of Othello having an illicit affair with his wife to poison that eats him up inside)
What are the three major themes in Othello?
- Jealousy– Othello is deceived by Iago and gives in to his jealous urges; Iago is jealous of Othello and schemes against him.
- Justice– Othello’s search for justice against wrongdoings against him leads to destruction.
- Treachery– Treachery leads the actions in the play as Iago betrays Othello, and Othello betrays Desdemona’s trust in him.
Which motif does Shakespeare use in Othello?
- Animals & monsters– Iago compares Othello to an "old black ram", and this animal imagery is a recurring theme to highlight Othello's
- Plants– Othello and Iago frequently bring up plant motifs. Othello highlights the beauty of plants, while Iago sees poison.
- Location– Venice represents civilization, while Cyprus represents the wilderness.
Why is Iago the perfect example of an antagonist?
Iago is the perfect example of an antagonist because he manipulates people around him while hiding his true intentions. Despite his downfall, he manages to bring about Othello's doom as he had planned. Unlike other antagonists, he doesn’t need brute force to achieve his plans and relies completely on his wits.
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