36 pages 1 hour read

William Shakespeare

Othello

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1604

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

William Shakespeare’s Othello is a tragedy written in approximately 1603 and published in 1622. The play begins in Venice, where Iago, a subordinate of Othello’s and a captain in the Venetian defense forces, tells Roderigo that Othello has passed him over for promotion. Instead, Othello, a Moor, has chosen the noble and popular Michael Cassio to be his lieutenant. Iago tells Roderigo that he will have his revenge on Othello but behave as a loyal friend while plotting against him. Iago enlists Roderigo to help, and Roderigo agrees because of his infatuation with Desdemona, who has just eloped with Othello. The two men begin by waking Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, with racial and sexual epithets, alerting him that his daughter has run off to marry Othello. An incensed Brabantio raises a mob and confronts Othello in front of the Venetian senate, but Desdemona arrives and testifies to her love for Othello, saving the marriage. The senate, meanwhile, has decided to send Othello to Cyprus to defend it against a Turkish fleet, and the strong-willed and eloquent Desdemona insists on accompanying him.

The Turkish fleet is destroyed in a storm, leaving the characters free to celebrate their victory as well as the marriage of Othello and Desdemona. Iago has convinced Roderigo to sell his land and accompany him to Cyprus with money, promising that he will help him seduce Desdemona. Iago then gets Cassio drunk and uses Roderigo to draw him into a fight, prompting Othello to demote him. He convinces a distraught Cassio to ask Desdemona to lobby Othello on his behalf, then poisons Othello against them both by insinuating, then outright accusing Cassio and Desdemona, of having an affair. The success of Iago’s plot hinges on Desdemona’s handkerchief, which she drops accidentally after trying to soothe a distraught Othello. Iago’s wife, Emilia, gives Iago the handkerchief but doesn’t know what he plans to do with it.

Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio’s room, and Cassio in turn gives it to Bianca, a local woman who prostitutes herself for food and clothing. Bianca is in love with Cassio and suspects the handkerchief came from another woman he is sleeping with. Iago draws Cassio into discussing Bianca, and Othello eavesdrops and believes he is speaking about Desdemona. Bianca then enters and confronts Cassio, and Othello sees the handkerchief, sending him into a jealous fury. Iago further goads him into planning the deaths of both Cassio and Desdemona. Iago enlists Roderigo to carry out Cassio’s murder by convincing him that he will take Cassio’s place as Desdemona’s lover. Roderigo, meanwhile, has begun to suspect that Iago had swindled him out of his money, but agrees to the plot.

Roderigo attacks Cassio, and both men are wounded but survive. Iago arrives on-scene and murders Roderigo so that he won’t reveal his plot. He blames Bianca for the attack on Cassio. Desdemona, meanwhile, has come to fear Othello and seems to suspect that her life may be in danger. She asks Emilia to put her wedding sheets on the bed and goes to sleep. Othello enters as she sleeps and kisses her. When she awakes, he announces that she must make peace with God because he is going to kill her. She repeatedly protests her innocence and says that Cassio will also deny the affair, but Othello tells her (incorrectly) that Cassio is dead, and she realizes that she can’t convince her husband of her innocence. He strangles her according to Iago’s suggestion, and shortly thereafter Emilia arrives in time to hear Desdemona’s dying statement that she has been unjustly murdered. Even in her last moments, however, Desdemona protects Othello and refuses to name him as her murderer.

A grief-stricken and enraged Emilia insults Othello’s intelligence and proclaims Desdemona’s innocence. Iago, Cassio, and Venetian envoys Lodovico and Montano enter, and Othello explains his rationale for killing Desdemona. Emilia realizes what Iago has done and refuses to keep quiet, revealing that she was the one who gave Iago the incriminating handkerchief. Iago kills Emilia for speaking the truth and betraying him, and she falls on the bed and dies next to Desdemona. Othello implies that Iago is some sort of devil and wounds him, preferring that he live and be tortured, as Lodovico and Cassio pledge to do. Othello asks the men to remember his previous noble deeds when telling his story back in Venice and kills himself, also falling on the bed. Lodovico charges Cassio with punishing Iago and governing Cyprus and says that he will return to Venice to tell the sad story.

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