Othello — a Moor commanding the armies of Venice
Desdemona — the daughter of a Venetian senator, and Othello's bride
Iago — Othello's ensign; perhaps Shakespeare's greatest villain
Cassio — Othello's lieutenant, promoted in place of Iago
Emilia — Iago's wife and Desdemona's attendant
Roderigo — a jealous suitor of Desdemona
Bianca — a courtesan in Cyprus, and Cassio's mistress
Brabantio — Desdemona's father, and a senator in Venice
Lodovico — Brabantio and Desdemona's kinsman
Gratiano — Brabantio's brother
Clown — Othello's servant
Montano — the governor of Cyprus before Othello
The Duke of Venice — the official authority in Venice
Othello was likely written in early 1604 and first performed in front of King James I of England on November 1 of that year. The great Richard Burbage played Othello. In 1660, Margaret Hughes played Desdemona, becoming the first woman allowed to perform on the English stage.
Shakespeare's choice of a black African as a hero was strikingly original. Blackness in Elizabethan England was a color associated with moral evil and death, and Moors in the theater, like Jews, were usually stereotyped as villains, such as Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, an early play. Othello is a noble, towering figure whose good nature is the means to his downfall, making the play that much more tragic.
Othello is set against the backdrop of the wars between Venice and Turkey that raged in the latter part of the sixteenth century. Cyprus, which is the setting for most of the action, was a Venetian outpost attacked by the Turks in 1570 and conquered by the Ottomans the following year. Shakespeare's information probably comes from The History of the Turks, by Richard Knolles, which was published in England in autumn of 1603.
Ira Aldridge (who died around 1867) was born a slave in the United States and moved to Europe, becoming an acclaimed Shakespearean actor. He is thought to be the first African-American to play Othello.
Scholars believe Othello is derived from an Italian prose tale written in 1565 by Giovanni Battista Giraldi in his collection Hecatommithi, although there seems to have been no English translation at the time Shakespeare wrote Othello (prompting the thought that he may well have been able to read some Italian). The original story concerns a Moorish general who is deceived by his ensign into believing his wife is unfaithful.
Othello, a celebrated Moorish general of Venice, has promoted Cassio as his lieutenant instead of Iago. Iago is incensed and plots against Cassio and Othello to get his due. Othello and Desdemona, the beautiful daughter of Brabantio, fall in love, elope, and marry. Brabantio is deeply upset by the deceit and the marriage. When Othello is posted to Cyprus by the Duke of Venice, Iago escorts Desdemona.
Arriving in Cyprus, Iago immediately begins plotting. He tricks Cassio into getting drunk, then has Roderigo, a former suitor of Desdemona who is upset at her marriage, pick a fight with Cassio. Cassio ends up getting arrested and subsequently demoted. Iago then encourages Cassio to call on Desdemona, saying that if she speaks up for him with her husband, Othello may reinstate him.
Iago now goes to Othello, and as they watch Desdemona and Cassio talk, recalling her father's accusations of her betrayal of trust, Iago plants the seeds of jealousy in Othello. Iago suggests that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair.
By chance, because his wife Emilia is Desdemona's maid, Iago gets hold of a handkerchief Othello gave Desdemona as a token of his love for her. Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio's room and then tells Othello that he saw Cassio with it. When Othello asks Desdemona about the handkerchief, she tells him that it was lost. Cassio, meanwhile, gives it to a courtesan with whom he is intimate. Iago then gets Othello to overhear a conversation whereby Othello thinks they are discussing Desdemona, when in fact they are talking about Bianca, the courtesan.
Iago's evil is the antithesis of the love that Othello and Desdemona share. The purity of their passion is perhaps one of the strongest portrayals of romantic affection in any tragedy, including Romeo and Juliet. It is this deep love that Iago hates so much because he is incapable of it, and his awareness of his weakness provides him with the key to destroying Othello.
George Bernard Shaw, who more than once vented his critical anger at Shakespeare's plays, said of Othello, “It has a police court mentality and commonplace thought.”
Based on Iago's misinformation, Othello reacts. He tells Iago to kill Cassio and then angrily confronts Desdemona. Despite Desdemona's protests of innocence and Emilia's vouching for her, Othello is now convinced she is sleeping with Cassio.
Iago gets Roderigo to murder Cassio. Roderigo only wounds him, and Iago kills Roderigo so Roderigo can't betray his machinations. Othello hears the commotion in the street and thinks Iago has kept his part of their bargain. Now it is time to strangle Desdemona in her bed.
When Emilia discovers the crime, Desdemona, with her dying breath, refuses to accuse her husband. Emilia becomes distraught and accuses the Moor of being a murderous villain. She refuses to believe that Iago has so evilly manipulated Othello. Iago's appearance and subsequent answers make Emilia realize her husband is responsible for this tragedy.
Letters found on Roderigo's body confirm Iago's villainy. Faced with the shame of having murdered an innocent Desdemona and confronted by Venetian emisaries, Othello delivers a famous soliloquy which leads to his suicide. He dies stabbing the “heathen” within himself.
Othello is an intense, fast-paced play with most of the action compressed into a twenty-four-hour period. Scenes begin in midconversation, and subplots are pretty inconsequential. Everything plays to the domestic tragedy, centering on the three principle characters manipulated by Iago. Indeed, in no other tragedy does a single figure have so much control over events.
The horror of the play is its inevitability. We know what Iago is planning, and we are forced to watch it unfold. The audience shares in the fate of Desdemona and Othello — caught in Iago's trap.
We suffer with Iago's victims because he manages to use the purity of Othello and Desdemona's love against them. They, and we, are helpless against the chaos that Iago represents. Indeed, Othello says of Desdemona, “When I love thee not, Chaos is come again.” And chaos, embodied in “honest Iago,” seems to win the day.
The swiftness with which Iago manages to destroy Othello is stunning. He needs only two conversations and a missing handkerchief to convince the Moor that Desdemona has been unfaithful. Iago's “evidence” reminds Othello of her father's parting words: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. She has deceived her father, and may thee.”
Once Othello snaps, Shakespeare delays Desdemona's murder, and we can hope that she may be saved at the last moment. Instead, Iago tries to make Othello suffer even more. Once his plan has borne its bitter fruit, the play is ended.
“We cannot all be masters, nor all masters
“I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
“Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial” (Act II, Scene III).
“O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains!” (Act II, Scene III).
“How poor are they that have not patience!” (Act II, Scene III).
“Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
“Trifles light as air
“He that is robb'd, not wanting what is stolen,
“Take note, take note, O world,
“'Tis neither here nor there” (Act IV, Scene III).
“Put out the light, and then put out the light:
“So sweet was ne'er so fatal” (Act V, Scene II).
“Then, must you speak