Othello is a great general, a man who has won the honor of a people who might otherwise scorn him by his astounding military successes on their behalf. But Othello is not only a great fighter; he is also a great speaker. While he wins the honor of the Venetians because of his victories, he wins the love of Desdemona because of his enrapturing stories. The extent of Othello's reputation is seen when Desdemona's father, an influential senator, attempts to have him punished for allegedly abducting Desdemona from him. The Duke of Venice promises to punish the offending foreigner severely, but, when he learns that the man is Othello, he quickly changes course and takes the side of the Moor Othello against that of the native Venetian, Desdemona's father. Because of this same reputation, it is Othello who is sent to Cyprus to defend it against approaching Turkish attackers.
The Turks are stopped at sea by a storm, and so victory is already won when Othello arrives in Cyprus. So he instructs the citizens and soldiers on the island to enjoy themselves and goes to his chambers to finally consummate his marriage with Desdemona. But events intervene: the plots of Iago, Othello's third-in-command, have already begun, and Cassio, Othello's second-in-command, has been drawn into a drunken brawl. Othello fires Cassio, and begins listening to Iago's hints that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with Cassio. But Othello demands proof, and Iago provides it: Othello gave Desdemona a priceless handkerchief when he was courting her, and Iago steals it and plants it in Cassio's bedroom. Othello, learning who has the handkerchief, resolves to act: Iago will kill Cassio, and he will kill his wife, Desdemona.
Othello begins acting madly, calling his wife a "whore" and striking her in front of visitors from Venice. Soon he goes to their bedroom and demands Desdemona's confession. She confesses nothing, and, though he almost persuades himself not to, Othello strangles her in their bed. Emilia, Iago's wife and Desdemona's attendant, quickly finds out and reveals to everyone what her husband has done. Learning this, Othello tries to kill Iago but fails. Finally, before the assembled crowd, he stabs himself, his last words a story of how he once defended a Venetian against a foreigner.
Iago begins the play complaining that he has been denied a promotion by Othello. He commends himself for always disguising his true intentions in order to get what he wants. At once, Iago hatches his plan: since he suspects that Othello also slept with his wife Emilia, he will get Othello to believe that Desdemona has cheated on him. He does so with the help of friends whom he betrays as soon as they are no longer needed. Roderigo, a gullible Venetian in love with Desdemona, is persuaded by Iago to stockpile money to woo Desdemona, money that Iago promptly takes from him. He persuades his wife to steal from Desdemona the handkerchief that he will use as proof of Desdemona's infidelity. When Roderigo gets into a fight with Cassio, whom Iago has ordered Roderigo to kill, he stabs and kills his "friend." When Emilia reveals his plots to Othello, he stabs and kills her as well. Most of all, Iago is adept at becoming the closest friend of the man whom he intends to destroy, Othello. He slyly plants the idea in Othello's head that Cassio is a suspicious man, and finally that his wife has cheated on him, while at the same time feigning praise for Cassio's loyalty and Desdemona's honor. Until Emilia finally tells Othello what her husband has done, Iago is remarkably successful: Othello, until the very end of the play, accepts the information and advice of the man he calls "honest, honest, Iago." When he is finally arrested, Iago refuses to make excuses; in fact, he says, he will never speak again. Silent, he is taken away to be tortured for his crimes.
Desdemona, one of the most sought-after women in Venice, defies her father by marrying a Moor, Othello. She is wooed by his stories of his military exploits and strange adventures and insists on going with him to battle in Cyprus. Desdemona is praised by everyone (except, of course, by Iago to Othello) as flawless, and this seems to be true. She engages in somewhat bawdy banter with Iago and Emilia, but seems to be shocked by their immorality. She talks familiarly with Cassio and pleads for his job back, but even Iago is quite sure that she is faithful, in thought and act, only to Othello. When Othello begins accusing her, Desdemona's feeling for him doesn't fade; she insists, even when she seems to foresee her imminent murder, that she loves him. When she is about to die, Emilia finds her, and her friend asks who has murdered her; Desdemona, seeking to save Othello with her last words, insists that she herself was the one who did it.
Emilia is Iago's wife and Desdemona's attendant. Innocent of her husband's intentions, she is the one who takes the handkerchief that Othello accepts as "proof" of Desdemona's infidelity. Emilia is a good deal less subservient than Desdemona: she makes witty jests at her husband's expense and defends adultery when questioned on it by Desdemona. When she finally understands what her husband has done, she is the one who reveals it to Othello and the rest. Despite Iago's verbal and physical threats, she unfolds the entire story as she knows it; Iago, as soon as he has the chance, stabs and kills her for doing so. Emilia asks to be laid beside Desdemona and dies beside her.
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Did You Know
Scenes 1.1 and 1.2
Scenes 2.1 and 2.2
Scenes 3.1 and 3.2
Scenes 4.2 and 4.3