Othello Summary

William Shakespeare


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Othello Summary

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One of Shakespeare’s most celebrated tragedies, Othello, tells the tale of a Moorish general in the Venetian army, his jealous love for his wife, Desdemona, and his betrayal by his treacherous solider, Iago. The play begins in Venice, with an argument between Iago and Roderigo, a rich nobleman. The nobleman complains that he paid Iago to help him court Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator, but that Desdemona has secretly married Othello instead. Iago quickly turns this into a complaint of his own, and criticizes Othello for promoting a soldier named Cassio to the rank of lieutenant when Iago believes himself to be a superior fighter and better candidate for the position. He vows that he will seek revenge for this perceived insult and win Desdemona for Roderigo at the same time. Together, the two men wake Desdemona’s father and inform him that his daughter has eloped with an unspecified Moorish man, employing racist insults to increase his anger. While the others organize a search party, Iago sneaks off to warn Othello they are coming, ensuring that the general continues to trust him.

When Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, arrives at Othello’s home, he finds it full of the Duke of Venice’s soldiers, sent there to collect the general so he can advise them on how to defend Cyprus from a Turkish invasion. Prevented from attacking Othello, Brabantio accuses him of using witchcraft to seduce and steal away Desdemona. However, Othello says Desdemona fell in love with him because he told her tragic tales of his past, a story which Desdemona confirms. Brabantio accepts this but warns Othello that if she has betrayed her father, Desdemona may well betray her husband too.

The Duke sends Othello, Cassio, and Iago to fight the Turks in Cyprus, and Desdemona and Iago’s wife, Emilia, accompany them. However, when they arrive, they discover the Turkish fleet has been decimated by a terrible storm and no longer threatens Cyprus. While for most this is a time to celebrate, Iago takes this as an opportunity to work further mischief. He persuades Cassio, who has been tasked with preventing the soldiers from becoming too drunk, to drink heavily himself, and then convinces Roderigo to goad him into a brawl. With feigned reluctance, Iago blames this fight on Cassio, and Othello strips the drunken lieutenant of his rank.

Pretending to be Cassio’s friend, Iago advises the disgraced soldier to ask Desdemona to persuade her husband to forgive him. Desdemona readily agrees to help, but when Othello and Iago see them speaking together, Iago remarks that it is suspicious and implies that Desdemona may be unfaithful. Encouraged by Iago’s continued hints and insinuations, Othello becomes increasingly suspicious of his wife. Desdemona tries to calm and reassure him and, in the process, drops Othello’s first gift to her: a distinctive strawberry-patterned handkerchief that Iago’s wife, Emilia, picks up. Later, Iago takes it from her and tells Othello that he has seen Cassio using it, after falsely claiming that solider revealed his love for Desdemona and his hatred of Othello while talking in his sleep. This is sufficient evidence for Othello, who renounces love and vows vengeance, asking Iago to murder Cassio before speculating on ways to kill his wife.

Having stoked Othello’s jealous rage, Iago hides Desdemona’s handkerchief in Cassio’s quarters. When Cassio finds it, he gives it to his lover, Bianca, but she recognizes it as a woman’s handkerchief and accuses him of being unfaithful, revealing her own jealous anger. Despite this, Cassio still manages to laugh happily about his relationship while talking to Iago. However, unbeknownst to Cassio, Iago has encouraged Othello to spy on the conversation, telling him that they will be discussing Cassio and Desdemona’s affair. Believing this, Othello, who cannot hear the details of the talk, interprets Cassio’s laughter as bragging about winning Desdemona’s love. When Bianca enters brandishing the strawberry-patterned handkerchief and complaining of Cassio’s unfaithfulness, these suspicions appear to be confirmed, and Othello again pledges to kill Desdemona and asks Iago to kill Cassio.

With Iago’s plan firmly in motion, the play spirals towards its tragic conclusion. Roderigo returns to tell Iago that he has given up his pursuit of Desdemona and would like his courtship gifts returned, only to find himself once more convinced to do the soldier’s bidding, this time by agreeing to kill Cassio. However, Iago himself is forced to intervene when Rodrigo’s attack fails—unrecognized in the dark street, Iago strikes Cassio in the leg before fatally stabbing Roderigo to prevent him revealing the details of his plot.

Believing that Iago has successfully killed Cassio, Othello follows his lead and murders Desdemona, strangling and smothering her in their bed. Emilia discovers his crime, and summons the other characters. When Othello tries to justify his actions by presenting the strawberry-patterned handkerchief as evidence of Desdemona’s infidelity, Emilia realizes what her husband has done and denounces him. His plan revealed, Iago kills Emilia and flees, only to be captured and then stabbed by Othello. The wound is not fatal, and Iago remains a prisoner, but refuses to explain what motivated his deceit. Tormented by grief and guilt, Othello fatally stabs himself and dies, collapsed across Desdemona’s body.

Often celebrated for its complex characters, affecting plot, and its use of dramatic irony, Othello touches on issues of racism and prejudice, as well as exploring the great, universal themes of love, deceit, revenge, and jealousy. In fact, jealousy is generally seen as Othello’s “tragic flaw”—the aspect of his character that means he is, like all of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, destined for an inevitable, disastrous end. Shakespeare famously added hundreds, possibly thousands, of new words and phrases to the English language, and Othello contains several of the most famous, including “wear your heart on your sleeve,” “vanish into thin air,” and even the description of jealousy as “a green-eyed monster,” a phrase still widely used to this day.