Othello Summary

Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, written circa 1603, can be viewed as one of the earliest literary piece dealing with the problem, which still exists now: racism.

This is a story of marriage between Othello, a Moorish general in Venetian army, and a lovely white noble woman, Desdemona, the daughter of Senator Brabantio, made unhappy by scheming Iago, Othello’s ensign.

The story starts with a great scandal, gradually revealed to the reader. At first, we see Roderigo, a dissolute Venetian, complaining about his one-way love to Desdemona. His attempt to marry her had failed and now he finds out that his old friend, Iago, did not tell him about a secret marriage of Othello, the Moor, and young Desdemona. Iago, who hates Othello for promoting young Cassio  instead of him, tells Roderigo that he is going to use Othello for attaining his own goals. Iago is sure that Cassio is in an incapable soldier and just does not deserve the promotion to lieutenant he got before Iago.

These two representatives of salt of Venetian earth decide to pay a night visit to Senator Brabantio and tell him that his chaste daughter eloped with the Moor. After their tattling on Othello, Brabantio rushes into his daughter’s room and finds her missing. Angered, Brabantio suggests that Othello somehow tricked his innocent girl into this misalliance.

In the next scene, we see Othello speaking with Iago. He seems to completely understand the situation and its possible consequences, but he has a good reputation in Venice and really loves Desdemona (note that he did not merely abduct the girl, but actually had married her). Cassio enters the scene, telling that there the Duke of Venice wants to see Othello due to the situation on Cyprus: the Turkish fleet is going to attack the island. At this Brabantio arrives, willing to behead Othello for stealing and ruining the girl, possibly by some kind of witchcraft.

Othello speaks sincerely and directly, explaining to the people present, including the Duke, that he did not seduce Desdemona. They really love each other, and their marriage was consentual. Desdemona confirms his story. The senate agrees that there was no crime conducted, but Brabantio is still angry and anxious. He warns “the Moor” that she will betray him, same as she betrayed her father. At this Iago listens carefully.

The Cyprus campaign requires the presence of general Othello, so he goes to the island, accompanied by his wife, his new lieutenant Cassio, his ensign Iago and Iago’s wife, Emilia, as a servant maid for Desdemona.

In act II, upon their arrival on Cyprus, the company finds out that the storm had crushed the Turkish fleet. Therefore, Othello decides to spend his honeymoon there. While he is busy consummating his marriage with Desdemona, Iago goes on with his plan and gets Cassio drunk. After this he arranges his fight with Roderigo, who is still lovesick for Desdemona; actually, Iago had already promised Roderigo her hand, and the only thing left to do is bring Othello down. The fight involves Montano, the former governor of Cyprus. He tries to calm Cassio and Roderigo down but gets wounded. At last the fight is interrupted by Othello: he is furious at his young lieutenant and fires him. No wonder, Cassio sobers a little and feels completely crushed under such circumstances. Iago advices him to ask Desdemona for help; she may be able to soften Othello’s heart and persuade him to restore Cassio’s job and rank.

In act III Iago, who already saw Cassio’s attitude to women, suggests to Othello that he and Desdemona should be watched closely. When Desdemona accidentally drops a handkerchief, the first gift given her by Othello, it is found by Emilia, who gives it to her husband, never thinking about anything bad. This act is a crucial point in the play, when the characters make their fateful decisions. 

Act IV. Iago hides the handkerchief among Cassio’s belongings, to strengthen and confirm Othello’s suspicion. When Othello learns about the precious handkerchief lost, his suspicion is confirmed and he vows to kill these cheaters. He tries to question his wife about the handkerchief, and Desdemona, never knowing that the damned cloth was lost or rather stolen, tries to talk about Cassio. There is no good outcome, Othello is enraged.

In the next scene, we meet Bianca, a prostitute, who’s having an affair with Cassio. He gives her Desdemona’s handkerchief, vowing that this is not a token of love from another woman. Bianca leaves, enters Iago. He and Cassio have a conversation about Bianca, overheard by Othello. Thanks to careful whispers of Iago, Othello decides that Cassio is bragging about having sexual relations with Desdemona. At this, Bianca comes in, furious, for she had learned that the handkerchief actually belonged to another woman, whom her lover probably had an affair with. Othello sees this and later Iago manages to convince him that this was a gift from Desdemona to Cassio. The Moor, almost reduced to a rampaging savage, decides to kill his wife and asks Iago to kill Cassio. Iago encounters Roderigo, who paid him for his efforts in winning Desdemona, and delegates him the task of killing Cassio. 

In act V Roderigo tries to reach the murderous goal, but Cassio wounds him. Iago stabs his young competitor in the leg, so Roderigo is saved for a while. Two Venetians rush in to help and Iago pretends that he was just passing by. Quickly estimating the situation, he stabs Roderigo to death before the latter can tell anyone about this plot. Emilia enters and is promptly sent by her husband to deliver the quickly weaved false news to Othello and Desdemona.

Meanwhile Othello kills Desdemona, at first attempting to strangle her and then, at founding that she is still alive, stabbing her with a dagger. Emilia enters with her news just at the moment of her mistress’s death (Desdemona even tries to tell that she killed herself, in her last attempt to save her truly beloved husband). After Othello’s negative reaction at the news about Cassio still being alive, Emilia realizes that her husband was not true in his tale, so she has a chance to tell everyone (as people fill the room) that all this misunderstanding and the following tragedy is Iago’s fault. Iago kills her, but the truth has already poured out in presence of several witnesses. Outraged and completely ruined, Othello demands explanations from Iago but never receives any. Venetians decide to take both Othello and Iago back to Venice, so they can be judged justly for their crimes, but Othello, completely overwhelmed by his grief and guilt, commits suicide.