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Othello (1604)

Othello (1604)

Hundred Word Summary

The city state of Venice appoints the warrior Othello to defend their Mediterranean possession Cyprus from Turkish attack.  But Othello’s choice of Cassio as his assistant enrages the ambitious Iago, who resolves to destroy him.

Accompanied by his young wife Desdemona, Othello sails for Cyprus, only to discover that a storm has shipwrecked the Turkish fleet.

Now Iago begins his campaign, first engineering Cassio’s sacking, then convincing Othello that Desdemona is in love with her husband’s former lieutenant.

Enraged, Othello confronts, then murders his young wife – before learning of her innocence and his own folly in trusting Iago.


Table of Contents


Dramatic irony – where the audience knows more than one or all of the characters – is an essential element in every type of narrative, from opera to soap opera, and a very familiar feature of real life.  It goes without saying that it’s an essential tool in the Shakespearean toolbox, nowhere more prominent than in “Othello”.

Dramatic irony is central to the narrative in this play from the opening scene, in which Iago – in many ways the play’s central character – confides in the audience that he intends to destroy Othello.  From that moment on, as Othello comes to rely more and more on Iago, the dramatic irony deepens and the audience’s unease intensifies.

The audience feels uneasy because, out of the nine soliloquies in this play, seven are delivered by Iago. There is often a special intimacy between character and audience in the course of a soliloquy, because here a character may reveal their most intimate secrets.  But with Iago, because he is inherently dislikeable, there is no intimacy.

On the contrary there is distaste, and this is reinforced by the tendency of the other characters to misread him completely.  Iago is a liar and a deceiver but over two dozen times in the play, he is described as “honest Iago”.  It seems impossible to the audience that the other characters know him well enough to comment with such confidence on his personality, yet at the same time know him so little as to misread him so completely.

This contradiction serves as a reminder that dramatic irony has another function – namely to imply that human beings often operate quite confidently on the basis of imperfect or incomplete knowledge.  The story of “Othello” is the act of finding that out, and the price that then has to be paid.


Scene by Scene


Iago is angry that Cassio has been promoted as Othello’s lieutenant in his place.

He tells Roderigo that he will pretend to be Othello’s loyal servant in order to get his revenge.

They begin by waking Brabantio to tell him that his daughter Desdemona is missing from home.

They reveal that she is with Othello, with whom she is conducting an intimate relationship.


Iago warns Othello that Brabantio is about to confront him about his relationship with Desdemona.

Cassio arrives to announce that Othello is needed urgently to help solve a crisis concerning Cyprus.

Brabantio’s men arrive and a street battle begins to break out over Desdemona.

Othello asserts his authority and calms the conflict before heading to hear more about Cyprus.


The Venice Senate concludes that Turkey is about to invade their Mediterranean possession Cyprus.

Brabantio arrives at the Senate to accuse Othello of deceiving and seducing his daughter.

Othello explains his romance: he used to visit Brabantio to describe his many adventures.

During his visits, Brabantio’s daughter Desdemona listened in, and fell in love with Othello.

Desdemona argues that, voluntarily married, she owes her loyalty to her husband not her father.

The Senate agrees that the marriage is valid, but that the warrior Othello must hasten to Cyprus.

Othello agrees to serve as commander so long as he can take his young wife with him.

Othello trustingly assigns Desdemona’s safe passage to Cyprus to his old lieutenant Iago.

Later, alone with Iago, Roderigo is heartbroken that Desdemona, whom he loved, is now married.

Iago rehearses the reasons he hates Othello, including a belief that his wife was unfaithful with him.


Cassio reaches Cyprus – followed by Desdemona along with Roderigo, Iago and his wife Emilia.

Iago notes Cassio’s great respect for Desdemona, and resolves to twist it and use it to destroy both.

Othello arrives in high spirits – in vivid contrast with Iago’s secret plans to destroy him.

Alone, Iago explains his plan to Roderigo: later that night, he is to provoke a fight with Cassio.

Iago reveals his belief that his wife has also been unfaithful with Cassio: he too is to be destroyed.


A herald announces Othello’s orders that the island is to celebrate the sinking of the Turkish fleet.


Othello appoints Cassio to keep order on the island before he retires for the night with his new wife.

Iago reveals his plan to get Cassio drunk and involved in a fight with Roderigo and three local men.

The plan succeeds, and in the ensuing confusion, Montano, a Cypriot, is stabbed by Cassio.

Othello is roused from his bed and brought to the scene to restore order among his trusted men.

Pretending reluctance, Iago reveals to Othello that Cassio, “high in oath”, was involved in the fight.

Othello praises Iago for his honesty before discharging Cassio from service and returning to his wife.

Iago pretends to console Cassio and promises to help him by enlisting the support of Desdemona.

Alone with Roderigo, Iago plans to make Iago suspicious of his wife’s relationship with Cassio.


Iago’s wife Emilia agrees to help Cassio by asking her mistress Desdemona to intercede with Othello.


With Cassio’s dismissal, it now seems that Iago is Othello’s chosen lieutenant.


Desdemona promises Cassio she will do all in her power to speak on his behalf to Othello.

She reminds Othello that Cassio is an old friend and insists he agree a time to discuss the matter.

Iago pretends to be reluctant to criticise Cassio, but advises Othello to beware of jealousy.

Iago reminds him that she misled her father, and should now be watched closely when with Cassio.

Othello reveals that he now mistrusts his wife while placing his faith firmly in Iago’s advice.

Emilia arrives and accidentally drops a handkerchief; it is found by Emilia, who passes it to Iago.

Iago will use it to frame Cassio; Othello returns to lament that he ever had doubts about his wife.

He threatens Iago – but Iago then ‘reveals’ that Cassio calls out Desdemona’s name in his sleep.

Iago then claims that he has seen Cassio with a handkerchief Othello once gave Desdemona.

Othello, convinced of their infidelity, puts Cassio’s death sentence in Iago’s hands.


Emilia tells Desdemona that she doesn’t know what happened to the missing handkerchief.

Desdemona reminds Othello she wants to discuss Cassio, but he asks to see the handkerchief.

He tells her the handkerchief is extremely important, but she returns to the subject of Cassio.

When he leaves, Emilia dishonestly consoles her, criticising men for their treatment of women.

Cassio arrives to explore his reinstatement, but Desdemona suspects her husband has changed.

Bianca appears, and Cassio hands her the handkerchief, asking her to remove its embroidery.

Bianca is suspicious it is a love token, but Cassio says he found the handkerchief in his chamber.


Iago’s lies about the handkerchief affect Othello so deeply that he falls into a trance and faints.

When Othello revives, Iago tells him to watch his conversation with Cassio from a distance.

Othello believes the conversation is about Desdemona.  But in practice it’s about Bianca.

Cassio is dismissive of her.  When she arrives she asks about the handkerchief he left with her.

Othello, deceived by what he thinks he has seen, discusses with Iago how to murder Desdemona.

Lodovico arrives from Italy with letters recalling Othello and appointing Cassio to govern the island.

When Desdemona expresses her pleasure at this news, Othello hits her in front of Lodovico.


Emilia reassures an incredulous Othello that Desdemona has never even been alone with Cassio.

Othello accuses Desdemona of being unfaithful but will not specify with whom.

He implies that Desdemona’s infidelity is so egregious that he cannot bring himself to speak about it.

Alone with Emilia, Desdemona asks her to lay her wedding sheets on her bed tonight.

Emilia tells Iago she suspects some “rogue” has poisoned Othello’s mind against Desdemona.

Desdemona kneels and begs Iago to intercede on her behalf with Othello.

Alone with Roderigo, Iago provokes him to launch a physical attack on Cassio later that night.


Desdemona tells Emilia that if she is to die tonight, her body is to be wrapped in her wedding sheets.

Desdemona sings a song to herself about a woman abandoned by her lover.

Emilia muses on infidelity, and observes that women have strong sexual desires just as men do.

Desdemona reflects that she would prefer to meet evil with good rather than with further evil.


Iago prepares Roderigo to attack Cassio, content if either or both should be killed in a street brawl.

Roderigo attacks Cassio and is wounded, but Cassio is stabbed by Iago attacking him from behind.

Iago comes to Cassio’s “aid”, then pretending to avenge him, stabs Roderigo so as to silence him.

Bianca arrives in a panic to see her beloved Cassio has been attacked – only to be arrested by Iago.


Othello kisses Desdemona as she sleeps but claims he kills her to prevent her repeating her offence.

He tells her she must die because the missing handkerchief is evidence of her infidelity with Cassio.

Despite her denials, and despite Emilia’s clamour from outside to be let in, he smothers Desdemona.

Emilia, finally able to report the news of the street brawl, discovers her mistress murdered.

Emilia is enraged when she realises the deception her husband has performed on Othello.

Iago arrives, and when he is accused by Emilia of deceiving Othello, he threatens to stab his wife.

Emilia explains the story of the handkerchief – and now Iago stabs his wife to death and escapes.

Othello bitterly laments that he was deceived by Iago and anticipates his own death.

Iago has been captured, and will now be taken away to be punished with “cruelty” and “torture”.

Othello, claiming he loved not wisely but too well, stabs himself and dies on the bed beside his wife.


Thinking Aloud

The play’s subtitle (“The Moor of Venice”) captures the contrast at the centre of the play – the combination of opposites surrounding identity and belonging that underwrites the events described here.

Iago’s motives for wanting to destroy Othello are never completely clear.  In the opening scene, he is bitter because he has been passed over for promotion by Cassio – “a Florentine,” as Iago contemptuously describes him, reinforcing the element of xenophobia in Iago’s make-up.  Later in the play it emerges that Iago harbours sexual jealousy towards Othello, believing him to have been intimate with his wife Emilia.  It’s an accusation Emilia herself derides in the last act.

The play progresses quickly onto what is – for Shakespeare – familiar territory: Brabantio has been deceived by his daughter, who has apparently misled him and escaped his clutches: “Fathers,” he concludes, “from hence trust not your daughters’ minds / By what you see them act.” This theme of fathers being deceived by daughters is a repeated feature in Shakespeare’s plays (for example, Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice”, Egeus in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the Duke in “A Comedy of Errors”).  Shakespeare, who lived several days’ travel distant from his own family, had two daughters.

Brabantio is so preoccupied with his own petty affairs in 1.3 that he interrupts the discussion in the Senate, completely misunderstanding the gravity of the situation in Cyprus: essentially the Turks have declared war on Venice. Brabantio is more focused on family matters but his intervention is so inappropriate it is almost comical.

Othello’s visits to Brabantio to tell him about his adventures – visits that inspire Desdemona to fall in love with him – reflect the important historical moment of global exploration and discovery in which Shakespeare was writing.  “The Tempest” – Shakespeare’s last play, set on a largely uninhabited island – shares the same historical background.

According to the Duke of Venice, Othello is chosen to lead the military expedition because it seems he has experience of Cyprus: as the Duke says, “the fortitude of the place is best known to you.”

The storm that destroys the Turkish fleet is a reminder that a number of Shakespeare’s plays – “The Tempest”, “Twelfth Night”, “The Comedy of Errors” – begin with destructive elements at sea.

Iago’s soliloquy in 2.3 (beginning “If I can fasten ….”), which describes how he means to get Cassio drunk, is purely functional, updating the audience on the mechanics of his plans, with no further details on his motives.  It’s a reminder how precisely he levels with the audience – much to their distaste, of course.  He does the same in 4.1 when he is toying with Othello and Cassio. 

At the point where Cassio is fired as Othello’s lieutenant late in 2.3, Iago has achieved most of what he set out to do in 1.1.  But his appetites are by now apparently limitless and indeed motiveless.

When in 3.1 Cassio says of Iago “I never knew / A Florentine more kind and honest”, it may seem that he mistakenly thinks Iago is from Florence rather than from Venice.  True, his comment might be read another way – that Iago is kinder and more honest even than his own compatriots. Either way, the comment reflects Iago’s remarkable ability to hoodwink his associates.

In 3.3, Iago uses his Venetian background (“I know our country disposition well; / In Venice they [i.e., married women] do let heaven see the pranks  / They dare not show their husbands …”) to engage Othello’s confidence in him: trust me, he says, I am from Venice and I know.  Othello complies.

In reflecting on reputation in 3.3 (“But he that filches from me my good name / Robs me of that which not enriches him / And makes me poor indeed”) Iago follows a lead given by Cassio in Act Two when he laments the loss of his own reputation following the brawl.  Bearing in mind that Iago’s reputation is a lot better than he deserves (“honest Iago” etc), this is a prominent theme in the play.

Though the play is entitled “Othello”, it takes nearly 2,000 lines before Othello is finally granted his first soliloquy, his first chance to level with the audience (“This fellow’s of exceeding honesty ….” 3.3).  By now, Iago has delivered at four such speeches. Why is the play not entitled “Iago”?

When Othello asks Desdemona for the handkerchief in 3.4 Emilia is in the room and overhears the conversation.  Her unwillingness to help her mistress when Othello presses her for an explanation is one of the most perplexing conundrums of the play

Iago’s deception of Othello may not be entirely motiveless.  The power he exercises over the general – who in other respects exercises power over him – is perhaps motive enough.

Iago in act four resembles someone spinning plates – maintaining his deception of Othello, his control of Emilia, his importance to Desdemona and to Cassio and his manipulation of Roderigo: five characters misled by his fantasies and malevolence.  It is clear that he’s the play’s central character, from the first scene on.  Once again, one wonders why the title of the play is not “Iago”.

In killing Roderigo in 5.1, Iago anticipates Macbeth in killing the murderers of Banquo: they will not be able to talk about what really happened when they’re dead.

Iago’s “arrest” of Bianca in 5.1 is completely gratuitous, and does not benefit justice or indeed any individual party – unless it obscurely draws attention away from himself and his one role in the assault on Cassio. But really it seems it’s done purely for malice.

“Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.”  Othello appears to offer a very thin excuse for what he has in mind for his wife, pretending to be killing her to protect others. In fact he’s killing her to satisfy his own amour proper, his own self-regard.  Right to the end, he deludes himself as to his motives: “For nought I did in hate, but all in honour,” for example.  An honour killing, then ….

Othello, like a good Catholic, makes sure Desdemona has “prayed tonight” before she dies.  The same caution stops Hamlet from killing Claudius while he is praying.  For background, it is worth remembering that the Reformation in England occurs around half a century before this play is written, and that Purgatory (the destination of those who die without having confessed their sins) is a Catholic doctrine.

Othello does know, and admits, that he is committing “A murder, which I thought a sacrifice.”  But he does it anyway.  He has been poisoned by Iago’s dishonesty, which proves contagious.

As Emilia unpacks what has happened in 5.2, she addresses Othello with the contemptuous “thee / thou” form, while he defensively responds with the respectful “you” form: she tells him “Do thy worst: / This deed of thine is no more worthy heaven / Than thou wast worthy her,” to which he replies “Peace, you were best.”  With Iago, when he arrives a few lines later, she uses both forms, moving from thou to you as the evidence against him mounts.

In fairness, Othello does ask Cassio to pardon him at the play’s close.  Cassio responds to his former captain’s death by saying he was “great of heart.”  A generous assessment.

Ultimately the play’s central theme is probably trust – can you believe what you’re told and what you think you see? Othello puts his trust in the one character who is not to be trusted and though he can’t see this till it’s too late, the audience watches with horror the whole story as it unfolds.  But this is often Shakespeare’s theme: don’t trust anyone, especially if you occupy a position of authority, and dramatic irony is the means by which he presents this to his audiences.  




A warrior, an outsider, a hired hand but one who values loyalty (evidenced in the words he speaks as he stabs himself at the close), a man of authority, humble but everywhere respected, a man with a remarkable back story.  But also a man who proved remarkably pliable, gullible, suggestible, and in blindly following Iago, the author of his own demise. His self-analysis, that he loved not wisely but too well, does not stand up to examination.


Known to all as “honest” Iago (the adjective is used over two dozen times in the play), he boasts from the first scene of his villainous dishonesty, his determination to spread discord and to undermine Othello in particular.  His motives appear to vary as the play progresses – at first, thwarted ambition, later sexual jealousy – one critic speaks of his “motiveless malignity”, evil for its own sake.


If any character in the play loves “not wisely but too well”, it is Desdemona, not Othello.  Out of her depth in a military operation dominated by men much older and more experienced than she is, she allows her enthusiasm for Cassio’s cause to clash with changes in her husband’s mind that go under her radar.  She dies a heroic but unnecessary death, never having levelled with him about his suspicions about her conduct or loyalties.


She has every right to speak critically of men in 3.4, but her remarks follow the lie she tells Desdemona – that she knows nothing about the handkerchief – on which the events that follow depend.  At last and too late she speaks plainly to Othello and unmasks her husband, but her role in the play is ultimately protective to her husband’s designs and damaging to her mistress’s safety.


A native of Florence but a citizen of Venice, an outsider in a range of ways.  A mathematician with no experience of battle (as Iago ruefully complains in the first scene), he is friendly to Iago without any idea of the real nature of their relationship, and depends on Desdemona’s championing his rights more closely than is good for either.  His appointment as civil governor of the island by the Senate suggests the esteem in which he is held in Venice.

Quick Quiz

  1. In the opening scene, what does Iago tell Brabantio has been stolen from his house?
  2. Before the brawl in 1.2, why does Othello command all parties to put away their swords?
  3. When the Senate first discuss the Turkish threat, what do they think is the main target?
  4. Who is entrusted with the care of Desdemona on the voyage to Cyprus?
  5. Who does Iago imply are the heaviest drinkers in Europe?
  6. How does Desdemona react when Othello says he has a headache?
  7. Who does Othello think Cassio is discussing in 4.1?
  8. Why is the handkerchief so special?
  9. What does Cassio tell Bianca to do with the handkerchief?
  10. Who does Venice instruct to take over Cyprus now that Othello is being recalled?
  1. His daughter
  2. They will rust
  3. Rhodes
  4. Iago
  5. The English
  6. She tries to bind his head with her handkerchief
  7. Desdemona
  8. It has magical properties
  9. To remove the embroidery
  10. Cassio

Last Word

The majority of Shakespeare’s History plays have straightforward titles: “Henry V”, for example, “Richard II”.  Similarly, his Tragedies tend to keep it simple: “Hamlet”, “Macbeth”, “King Lear”.  Of very few can it be said that they have the wrong title, but “Othello” is perhaps a case in point.  The centre of the action, after all, is Iago, as his numerous soliloquies attest.  Nonetheless the use of Othello’s name does at least allow for a subtitle – “The Moor of Venice” –  that carries the ambiguity at the heart of the story: of belonging, on the one hand, and of being an outsider on the other.

True, Othello is not the only outsider: Michael Cassio’s roots are in Florence, a neighbouring city state.  His status as a foreigner in Venice is important enough for Iago to mention it in his opening speech, an index of Cassio’s unfitness to be Othello’s ensign: “One Michael Cassio, a Florentine”, he calls him, and one can hear the disdain.  Cassio by contrast makes no attempt to hide his outsider status.  In 3.1 he is moved to praise Iago, comparing him favourably to his own people: “I never knew / A Florentine more kind and honest” he says.

Othello himself is also at ease with his outsider status.  His background and adventures endear him to Desdemona, and indeed are praised by the Duke.  True, the Moor believes there are disadvantages in his ethnic background – “Haply for I am black / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have”, he says – but in practice he is as articulate as anyone in the play and anyway he has no desire to play the “chamberer”.  He is a man of action – that’s why he’s there.

The issue arises for two reasons: one is that Iago uses his own “insider” status to persuade Othello that outsiders need guidance and he can provide it.  “I know our country disposition well,” he tells the Moor – in other words, I know how Venetian women operate: “In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands”.  So Othello would do better to seek Iago’s advice over Cassio’s when it comes to Desdemona, since Iago understands Venetian women and Cassio is an outsider.

The second reason is that issues of identity and belonging clearly matter to Othello.  At the close of the play, at his lowest ebb, as he prepares to kill himself, he is still keen to underline his loyalties with an anecdote that says that when a Venetian was in peril, he defended him and took down his assailant.  It’s an odd note on which to end his life and it jars, but it serves as a reminder that closing the ambiguity in the subtitle was never far from Othello’s thoughts.

One Response

  1. So enormously helpful for students (and teachers!) embarking for the first time upon Othello as an A Level text. Quite a tricky play to navigate your response to nowadays, but an endlessly fascinating one, and the comments here (re. the centrality of the outsider question) chime beautifully with other compelling lines of thought: Thank you, Bardology!

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