Character Analysis

Othello 1

Beginning with the opening lines of the play, Othello remains at a distance from much of the action that concerns and affects him. Roderigo and Iago refer ambiguously to a “he” or “him” for much of the first scene. When they begin to specify whom they are talking about, especially once they stand beneath Brabanzio’s window, they do so with racial epithets, not names. These include “the Moor” (I.i.57), “the thick-lips” (I.i.66), “an old black ram” (I.i.88), and “a Barbary horse” (I.i.113). Although Othello appears at the beginning of the second scene, we do not hear his name until well into Act I, scene iii (I.iii.48). Later, Othello’s will be the last of the three ships to arrive at Cyprus in Act II, scene i; Othello will stand apart while Cassio and Iago supposedly discuss Desdemona in Act IV, scene i; and Othello will assume that Cassio is dead without being present when the fight takes place in Act V, scene i. Othello’s status as an outsider may be the reason he is such easy prey for Iago.

Although Othello is a cultural and racial outsider in Venice, his skill as a soldier and leader is nevertheless valuable and necessary to the state, and he is an integral part of Venetian civic society. He is in great demand by the duke and senate, as evidenced by Cassio’s comment that the senate “sent about three several quests” to look for Othello (I.ii.46). The Venetian government trusts Othello enough to put him in full martial and political command of Cyprus; indeed, in his dying speech, Othello reminds the Venetians of the “service” he has done their state (V.ii.348).

Those who consider Othello their social and civic peer, such as Desdemona and Brabanzio, nevertheless seem drawn to him because of his exotic qualities. Othello admits as much when he tells the duke about his friendship with Brabanzio. He says, -“[Desdemona’s] father loved me, oft invited me, / Still questioned me the story of my life / From year to year” (I.iii.127–129). -Othello is also able to captivate his peers with his speech. The duke’s reply to Othello’s speech about how he wooed Desdemona with his tales of adventure is: “I think this tale would win my daughter too” (I.iii.170).

Othello sometimes makes a point of presenting himself as an outsider, whether because he recognizes his exotic appeal or because he is self-conscious of and defensive about his difference from other Venetians. For example, in spite of his obvious eloquence in Act I, scene iii, he protests, “Rude am I in my speech, / And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace” (I.iii.81–82). While Othello is never rude in his speech, he does allow his eloquence to suffer as he is put under increasing strain by Iago’s plots. In the final moments of the play, Othello regains his composure and, once again, seduces both his onstage and offstage audiences with his words. The speech that precedes his suicide is a tale that could woo almost anyone. It is the tension between Othello’s victimization at the hands of a foreign culture and his own willingness to torment himself that makes him a tragic figure rather than simply Iago’s ridiculous puppet…………..

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Othello-Lists of Characters by Different Authors For Use With Character Map (See last post)

Character List 1


BRABANTIO, a Senator.

Other Senators.

GRATIANO, Brother to Brabantio.

LODOVICO, Kinsman to Brabantio.

OTHELLO, a noble Moor, in the service of Venice.

CASSIO, his Lieutenant.

IAGO, his Ancient.

RODERIGO, a Venetian Gentleman.

MONTANO, Othello’s predecessor in the government of Cyprus.

CLOWN, Servant to Othello.


DESDEMONA, Daughter to Brabantio and Wife to Othello.

EMILIA, Wife to Iago.

BIANCA, Mistress to Cassio.

Officers, Gentlemen, Messenger, Musicians, Herald, Sailor, Attendants, &c.

Character List 2


A Moor, and an officer in the Venetian military. He falls in love with, and marries, the delicate Desdemona though he is middle-aged, and she is still young. Othello is bold and a good warrior, but he is a good man undone by his two main failings – jealousy and pride. Although Othello is very eloquent, he believes his manners and words are both rough.

Othello’s wife, a young Venetian woman of high birth and good breeding. Desdemona is almost overly virtuous, which causes her to feel that she must defend Cassio, and speak in a public sphere when necessary. She is stronger than Othello believes her to be, and is not the private, withdrawn, meek woman he wish she were.


Othello’s lieutenant, though he has little field experience. Cassio is a smooth-talking Venetian courtier, the opposite of Othello in many respects, which is why Othello admires him. Othello is led to believe that Cassio has had an affair with his wife, though Cassio has only honorable intentions toward Desdemona.


Othello’s ensign who was passed over for the lieutenant position in favor of Cassio. Iago is young and treacherous; he is a villain from the start, and though he cites his wounded pride and Othello’s alleged infidelity with his wife Emilia, his actions are without justification. He is immoral, but very perceptive, keen, and able to manipulate people into falling for his deceptions.


Iago’s wife, and Desdemona’s handmaiden. She is entrusted with bringing people into Desdemona’s presence, staying with her at all times, etc. Emilia is not aware of her husband’s machinations, nor his darker qualities. She remains loyal to Desdemona above all others, although she unwittingly plays a key part in Iago’s treachery.


Desdemona’s father, a senator and renowned citizen of Venice. He is not at all pleased by Desdemona’s union, and warns Othello that as Desdemona betrayed her father, she may betray her husband too.


A Venetian who lusts after Desdemona, and thus a tool in Iago’s plots. Iago promises Roderigo that he shall have Desdemona’s love in return for his help; Roderigo actually receives nothing but a disgraced death following his attempt on Cassio’s life.

Duke of Venice

Ruler of the city, and Othello’s superior. He allows Othello and Desdemona to stay together despite her father’s protests. The Duke also sends Othello off to Cyprus to battle the Moors.


Other authority figures of Venice, and men of reason and order; they also support Othello and Desdemona’s union, and Othello answers to them and the Duke in matters of war.

A courtesan who Cassio visits frequently; Cassio asks her to make a copy of Desdemona’s handkerchief, and the fact that the handkerchief is found in her place further incriminates Cassio. She is the only female in the play whom Cassio shows less than full respect to, likely because she is a prostitute.

Montano, Governor of Cyprus

Pronounces judgment on Iago at the end of the play, comments on the situation, and helps to wrap the play up. He is the main law and order figure of Cyprus, and serves as damage control after Othello dies, and Iago is proven unfit.

Lodovico and Gratiano

Two Venetian nobles, both of some relation to Desdemona; both play their biggest part after Desdemona has died, and must take the news of the tragedy back to Venice as officials of that city.

Character List 3

Othello – The play’s protagonist and hero. A Christian Moor and general of the armies of Venice, Othello is an eloquent and physically powerful figure, respected by all those around him. In spite of his elevated status, he is nevertheless easy prey to insecurities because of his age, his life as a soldier, and his race. He possesses a “free and open nature,” which his ensign Iago uses to twist his love for his wife, Desdemona, into a powerful and destructive jealousy (I.iii.381).

Desdemona – The daughter of the Venetian senator Brabanzio. Desdemona and Othello are secretly married before the play begins. While in many ways stereotypically pure and meek, Desdemona is also determined and self-possessed. She is equally capable of defending her marriage, jesting bawdily with Iago, and responding with dignity to Othello’s incomprehensible jealousy.

Iago – Othello’s ensign (a job also known as an ancient or standard-bearer), and the villain of the play. Iago is twenty-eight years old. While his ostensible reason for desiring Othello’s demise is that he has been passed over for promotion to lieutenant, Iago’s motivations are never very clearly expressed and seem to originate in an obsessive, almost aesthetic delight in manipulation and destruction.

Michael Cassio – Othello’s lieutenant. Cassio is a young and inexperienced soldier, whose high position is much resented by Iago. Truly devoted to Othello, Cassio is extremely ashamed after being implicated in a drunken brawl on Cyprus and losing his place as lieutenant. Iago uses Cassio’s youth, good looks, and friendship with Desdemona to play on Othello’s insecurities about Desdemona’s fidelity.

Emilia – Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s attendant. A cynical, worldly woman, she is deeply attached to her mistress and distrustful of her husband.
Roderigo – A jealous suitor of Desdemona. Young, rich, and foolish, Roderigo is convinced that if he gives Iago all of his money, Iago will help him win Desdemona’s hand. Repeatedly frustrated as Othello marries Desdemona and then takes her to Cyprus, Roderigo is ultimately desperate enough to agree to help Iago kill Cassio after Iago points out that Cassio is another potential rival for Desdemona.

Bianca – A courtesan, or prostitute, in Cyprus. Bianca’s favorite customer is Cassio, who teases her with promises of marriage.

Brabanzio – Desdemona’s father, a somewhat blustering and self-important Venetian senator. As a friend of Othello, Brabanzio feels betrayed when the general marries his daughter in secret.

Duke of Venice – The official authority in Venice. The duke has great respect for Othello as a public and military servant. His primary role within the play is to reconcile Othello and Brabanzio in Act I, scene iii, and then to send Othello to Cyprus.

Montano – The governor of Cyprus before Othello. We see him first in Act II, as he recounts the status of the war and awaits the Venetian ships.

Lodovico – One of Brabanzio’s kinsmen, Lodovico acts as a messenger from Venice to Cyprus. He arrives in Cyprus in Act IV with letters announcing that Othello has been replaced by Cassio as governor.

Graziano – Brabanzio’s kinsman who accompanies Lodovico to Cyprus. Amidst the chaos of the final scene, Graziano mentions that Desdemona’s father has died.

Clown – Othello’s servant. Although the clown appears only in two short scenes, his appearances reflect and distort the action and words of the main plots: his puns on the word “lie” in Act III, scene iv, for example, anticipate Othello’s confusion of two meanings of that word in Act IV, scene i.

Character List 4

Meet the Cast

Othello is the first great black protagonist in Western literature… and he’s still one of the most famous (which is a big problem, and why you should set a goal to do a “read only non-white autho…

Iago is one of the most notorious and mysterious villains of all time—it’s no accident that the hyper-annoying and malicious sidekick to Jafar in Disney’s Aladdin was named Iago. But unlike…

Desdemona is a beautiful, young, white, Venetian debutante. And she’s a total Daddy’s girl… until she falls head over heels in love with Othello. She refuses to marry any of the rich, handsome Ve…

Desperate HousewifeYou’d be desperate and jaded too if you realized that monogramming “Mrs. Emilia Iago” on all your towels meant that… you were married to Iago.Because here’s the thing: Emilia i…

Michael Cassio
Top Brass-When we begin, Cassio is one of Othello’s soldiers, recently appointed the general’s second-in-command. This infuriates Iago—because he wanted to be lieutenant, and because Cassio is…

Roderigo is a rich, unintelligent guy who thinks that if he sends Desdemona enough expensive presents, she’ll fall in love with him. He’s hired Iago to be his wingman, but Iago basically uses him a…

Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, is a rich and important Venetian politician. He likes Othello and invites him to visit his house a lot—but he never expected Othello to “steal” his daughter. Furthe…

Bianca is a Venetian courtesan who is in love with Cassio… who in turn sees her as a laughable nuisance. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Bianca is sympathetic—when Cassio treats her like garbage, it…

Duke, Senators
The important men in charge of Venice. They think Othello’s pretty great—and even that he might make a pretty great son-in-law.

Desdemona’s cousin and a member of Venice’s diplomatic service, Lodovico arrives in Cyprus just in time to see Desdemona get slapped by her new husband, and then witness the deaths of all the main…

Governor of Cyprus before Othello showed up to take command, Montano ends up getting in a fight with Cassio, and in turn gets Cassio in serious trouble.

Desdemona’s uncle. He’s a wee bit of a jerk: when he finds out that Desdemona is dead, he says something lame like “Gee, it’s a good thing her dad is dead, otherwise he would have been really upset…


Roderigo—a Venetian gentleman; rejected suitor to Desdemona

Iago—newly appointed ensign to Othello, Moor of Venice

Brabantio—Venetian Senator; father to Desdemona

Othello—the Moorish General; husband to Desdemona

Cassio—newly appointed lieutenant to Othello

Duke of Venice—official who appoints Othello in charge of Cyprian mission

Desdemona—wife to Othello; daughter to Brabantio

Montano—retiring governor of Cyprus; predecessor to Othello in Cyprian government

Emilia—wife to Iago; attendant to Desdemona

Clown—servant to Othello

Bianca—a courtesan; mistress to Cassio

Gratiano—Venetian nobleman; brother to Brabantio

Lodovico—Venetian nobleman; kinsman to Brabantio

Senators—officials who discuss Cyprian mission

Messengers—deliver announcements during the play

Two Gentlemen—converse with the governor

Third Gentleman—brings news of the Turkish fleet

Herald—Othello’s herald who reads a proclamation

Sailor—brings message about Turkish fleet

Officers—unnamed characters throughout the play who serve in the military

Attendants—unnamed characters throughout the play whose purpose is to serve the other characters

Othello Characters Discussed


Othello (oh-THEHL-oh), a Moorish general in the service of Venice. A romantic and heroic warrior with a frank and honest nature, he has a weakness that makes him vulnerable to Iago’s diabolic temptation. He becomes furiously jealous of his innocent wife and his loyal lieutenant. His character decays, and he connives with Iago to have his lieutenant murdered. Finally, he decides to execute his wife with his own hands. After killing her, he learns of her innocence, and he judges and executes himself.


Iago (ee-AH-goh), Othello’s ancient (ensign), a satirical malcontent who is envious of the appointment of Michael Cassio to the position of Othello’s lieutenant. He at least pretends to suspect his wife Emilia of having an illicit affair with the Moor. A demi-devil, as Othello calls him, he destroys Othello, Desdemona, Roderigo, his own wife, and himself. He is William Shakespeare’s most consummate villain, perhaps sketched in several of Shakespeare’s other characters: Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, Richard of Gloucester in Henry VI and Richard III, and Don John in Much Ado About Nothing. He is echoed in Edmund in King Lear and Iachimo in Cymbeline. He contains strong elements of the Devil and the Vice in the medieval morality plays.


Desdemona (dehz-dee-MOH-nuh), the daughter of Brabantio and wife of Othello. An innocent, idealistic, and romantic girl, she gives her love completely to her warrior husband. In her fear and shock at his violent behavior, she lies to him about her lost handkerchief, thus convincing him of her guilt. Even when she is dying, she tries to protect him from her kinsmen. Other characters can be judged by their attitude toward her.


Emilia (ee-MIHL-ee-uh), Iago’s plainspoken wife. Intensely loyal to her mistress, Desdemona, she is certain that some malicious villain has belied her to the Moor. She does not suspect that her husband is that villain until too late to save her mistress. She is unwittingly the cause of Desdemona’s death; when she finds the lost handkerchief and gives it to Iago, he uses it to inflame the Moor’s insane jealousy. Emilia grows in stature throughout the play and reaches tragic dignity when she refuses to remain silent about Iago’s villainy, even though her speaking the truth costs her her life. Her dying words, clearing Desdemona of infidelity, drive Othello to his self-inflicted death.

Michael Cassio

Michael Cassio (KAS-ee-oh), Othello’s lieutenant. Devoted to his commander and Desdemona, he is impervious to Iago’s temptations where either is concerned. He is, however, given to loose living, and his behavior when discussing Bianca with Iago fires Othello’s suspicions, after Iago has made Othello believe they are discussing Desdemona. Cassio’s drinking on duty and becoming involved in a brawl lead to his replacement by Iago. He escapes the plot of Iago and Othello to murder him, and he succeeds Othello as governor of Cyprus.


Brabantio (brah-BAN-shee-oh), a Venetian senator. Infuriated by his daughter’s elopement with the Moor, he appeals to the senate to recover her. Losing his appeal, he publicly casts her off and warns Othello that a daughter who deceives her father may well be a wife who deceives her husband. This warning plants a small seed of uncertainty in Othello’s heart, which Iago waters diligently. Brabantio dies brokenhearted at losing Desdemona and does not learn of her horrible death.


Roderigo (rod-eh-REE-goh), a young Venetian suitor of Desdemona. The gullible victim of Iago, who promises Desdemona to him, he aids in bringing about the catastrophe and earns a well-deserved violent death, ironically inflicted by Iago. The degradation of Roderigo is in striking contrast to the growth of Cassio. Iago, who makes use of Roderigo, has profound contempt for him.


Bianca (bee-AN-kuh), a courtesan in Cyprus. Cassio gives her Desdemona’s handkerchief, which Iago has planted in his chambers. She thus serves doubly in rousing Othello’s fury.


Montano (mohn-TAH-noh), a former governor of Cyprus. He and Cassio quarrel while drinking (by Iago’s machinations), and Montano is seriously wounded. This event causes Cassio’s removal. Montano recovers and aids in apprehending Iago when his villainy is revealed.


Gratiano (gray-shee-AH-noh), Brabantio’s brother. He and Lodovico go to Cyprus from Venice and aid in restoring order and destroying Iago.


Lodovico (loh-doh-VEE-koh), a kinsman of Brabantio. As the man of most authority from Venice, he ends the play after appointing Cassio governor of Cyprus to succeed the self-killed Othello.

The Clown

The clown, a servant of Othello. Among Shakespeare’s clowns, he has perhaps the weakest and briefest role.




Character Map


Character List

Othello- A Moor (an African), a general in the defense forces of the city state of Venice. His successful profession brings him high status in Venice, but his foreign origins and color separate him from those with whom he lives and works. He is a military man, with a reputation for courage in battle and good judgment in military matters. Othello falls in love and marries Desdemona, but during the campaign against the Turks, Othello is tricked by Iago into believing that his wife has been unfaithful with his lieutenant, Cassio. Iago works on Othello’s personal and social insecurity until Othello believes the combination of Iago’s lies and flimsy circumstantial evidence. Inflamed with jealousy, he smothers Desdemona in her bed, only to find out too late that he has been misled and has killed the woman who loved him faithfully. In despair, he kills himself.

Iago- Othello’s ancient (captain) in the Venetian defense forces. He had hoped for promotion, but Othello passed over him in favor of Cassio, and Iago works revenge on them both. He exploites Roderigo as a source of money and an unwitting accomplice in his plot to bring down Othello. When finally cornered and charged with his wickedness, Iago refuses to speak or to repent or explain his actions, and he goes to his punishment still surrounded by mystery.

Desdemona- A noble Venetian lady, daughter of Brabantio. She organizes her life intelligently and shows courage, love, and loyalty in following her husband into danger. She accompanies Othello to Cyprus on the campaign against the Turks but finds him becoming distant and making wild accusations against her. She firmly believes that he will see that she is true to him, but when she realizes he is about to kill her, she can only feel despair and grief. She dies declaring her love for him.

Brabantio- A Venetian Senator, Desdemona’s father. He is angry at his daughter’s choice of husband but can do nothing once the marriage has taken place, and the Venetian Senate has accepted it. He warns Othello that Desdemona is a clever deceiver.

Roderigo- A Venetian nobleman in love with Desdemona. He has more money than sense and pays Iago to court Desdemona on his behalf. Iago, playing on Roderigo’s hopes and gullibility, continues to help himself to Roderigo’s money, and Roderigo never gets his heart’s desire. Iago involves Roderigo in an attack on Cassio, for which Roderigo pays with his life, as Iago kills him to ensure his silence.

Cassio- Othello’s lieutenant in the Venetian defense forces. Cassio accompanied Othello as his friend when he was courting Desdemona. He is popular, he speaks well, and he is lively and trusting. Iago eventually convinces Othello that Cassio is Desdemona’s paramour. Cassio is appointed governor of Cyprus after Othello’s death.

Bianca- A courtesan (prostitute), in love with Cassio. She is skilled in needlework and agrees to copy the handkerchief that Cassio gives her; then she throws it back at him, believing it is the token of his new love.

Emilia- Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting and Iago’s wife. She knows Iago better than anybody else and is suspicious of his actions and motives. She does not realize until too late that the wicked person who has poisoned Othello against Desdemona is Iago, her own husband.

The Duke of Venice- The leader of the governing body of the city state of Venice. The Duke appoints Othello to lead the forces defending Venice against the Turkish attack on Cyprus; he also urges Brabantio to accept his daughter’s marriage.

Gratiano- Brabantio’s brother. He and Lodovico find Cassio wounded after Roderigo stabs him in the drunken brawl.

Lodovico- Desdemona’s cousin. After the death of Desdemona, Lodovico questions Othello and Cassio together, thus revealing the truth.

Montano- Othello’s predecessor as the governor of Cyprus. He is Othello’s friend and loyal supporter.




Themes At a Glance

The distinction between reality and appearance is present in Iago’s duplicity and woven as a motif into his soliloquies.

Trust is at the heart of the story, evidenced by Othello’s loss of trust in Desdemona and his misplaced trust in Iago.

Reputation drives Othello to value how others see him; his concern for his public image leaves him vulnerable to Iago’s manipulation.

Jealousy motivates Othello’s suspicion of Desdemona, Roderigo and Bianca’s pining for Desdemona and Cassio, and Iago’s revenge.

Othello is a Moor; while Shakespeare defies several racial stereotypes of his time, he also makes it evident that other characters discriminate against Othello.

– Natalie Saaris.


Theme of Reality and Appearance

In the midst of the play’s “corruption scene” (Act III, Scene 3), Iago says to Othello that “men should be what they seem” (III.iii.127). Here the arch-villain is referring to Cassio, but the irony is plain enough, as Iago has already disclosed to Roderigo in the opening scene of this tragedy: “I am not what I am” (I.i.65). At that stage, Iago elaborates on the meaning of this seeming paradox:

Though I do hate him as I do hell-pains,
Yet, for necessity of present life,
I must show out a flag and sign of love,
Which is indeed but sign.

Via Iago’s interwoven schemes, the demise of Othello is propelled by the disparity between appearances, on the one hand, and underlying reality, on the other. It is most often through Iago that this gap is highlighted within the play’s text. At the very end of Act II in one of several soliloquies in which Iago reveals his villainy to the audience, Othello’s “ancient” says:

When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now: for while this honest fool
Plies Desdemona to repair his fortune,
And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,
I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear—
That she repeals him for her body’s lust;
And by how much she strives to do him good,
She shall undo her credit with the Moor.
So will I turn her virtue into pitch.

Iago, the agency of human evil, is able to twist the distinction between what something is and what it appears to be, and it is this deception that stands at the bottom of Othello’s tragic tale.

Consistent with this theme, much is made in Othello of perception, of looking, of seeing. Again in the corruption scene, Iago directs Othello, “Look to your wife, observe her well with Cassio” and then adds again “look to’t” (III.iii.197,200). Reacting to Iago’s intimations about Desdemona, Othello warns that Iago must be sure that he can prove Desdemona to be a whore, commanding his ancient to “Give me ocular proof” (III.iii.360). It is the “ocular proof” of the mislaid handkerchief that seals Desdemona’s doom and Othello’s own demise. A prime example of Iago’s ability to use Othello’s visual perceptions against him takes place in the exchange between Iago and Othello at the start of Act IV. Here Iago suggests scenes for Othello to envision, such as finding Desdemona and Cassio in an embrace or in bed together, and then leaves their evident meaning open for Othello to discover, thereby fanning the flames of murderous jealousy.

Iago is not the only character who exhorts Othello to “look” at Desdemona. In Act I after hearing of his daughter’s intention to abide by her “betrayal” of him, Brabantio warns Othello: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see; / She has deceiv’d her father, and may thee” (I.iii.292-293). Congruent with this motif, the subject of trust, its loss and its misplacement, is clearly a salient theme in Othello.

Theme of Otherness and Racism

Answer: In this post-colonial context it is impossible to read Shakespeare’s Othello without considering the issues of race, color and hegemonic ideologies as they are presented in the play. As we go through the play we see a complex relation between a black man, a white woman and the state. The crime committed by Othello can also be judged as a crime of the ‘pressure group’. But in order to understand the racial issues we should ,at first, consider the Elizabethan attitude to the black people.

What was the Elizabethan attitude to Muslims and blacks?

There was a good deal of animosity between the Muslims and Christians in Europe during Shakespeare’s times. Muslims were part of a group that had invaded many lands and threatened Europe with the same. They had stretched their control across the southern end of the Mediterranean Sea and crossed into Spain with their sights set on conquest. There was also much racial hatred between the white and the black. The Elizabethan society fostered a general cultural hostility to strangers,which stemmed from the growing presence of black people who posed an economic threat to the state.Race was a topic of great debate, discussion, controversy and passion in the Sixteenth century, as we see in the twenty-first century society.Othello and other works of Shakespeare also show that racism drew much public attention.

What Was a Moor?

A Moor was a Muslim of mixed Arab and Berber descent. Berbers were North African natives who eventually accepted Arab customs and Islam after Arabs invaded North Africa in the Seventh Century A.D. The term has been used to refer in general to Muslims of North Africa and to Muslim conquerors of Spain. The word Moor derives from a Latin word, Mauri, used to name the residents of the ancient Roman province of Mauritania in North Africa. To refer to Othello as a “black Moor” is not to commit a redundancy, for there are white Moors as well as black Moors, the latter mostly of Sudanese origin. Othello introduces an upright and righteous Moor. The Moors were disliked by Europeans on a lot of levels. They were Muslims that alone made them pretty unpopular. Thus, Othello finds himself in a society and culture that are very much antagonistic to him.

Racial conflict reflected through the character Othello
The Turks, their Ottoman Empire, and their Islamic culture and heritage yield the crisis that sets Othello in motion and layers of meaning which reinforce the play’s themes and imagery. Shakespeare sets his play as a struggle between the liberal, enlightened Europeans and the savage, maurading Turks. Othello must wage an inner struggle between the two, and overcomes his sinister side, the Aleppine Turk — but only at the expense of his honor, his family, and his life, the traditional sacrifices of a Shakespearean tragedy.

The racial conflict in Othello is evident from the very beginning of the play.Othello is depicted as an ’other’ or outsider from the beginning of the play. Within the opening lines of the play, we see how Othello is distanced from much of the action that concerns and affects him. He is ambiguously referred to as “he” or “him” by Roderigo and Iago for much of the first scene and when they do begin to specify just who they are talking about, they use racial epithets, not names.

Iago, the vilest character in all of Shakespeare’s characters, uses racism in the opening scene of the play as a spark to inflame Desdemona’s father, Senator Brabantio, against Othello..After Iago and Roderigo raise a clamor outside Brabantio’s house late one evening, the senator awakens and comes to a window. Iago then uses vulgar animal imagery to slur Othello, telling Brabantio that the black Moor has seized his greatest treasure, his daughter, and at that very moment is defiling her.

Iago shouts to Brabantio –
… now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping5 your white ewe. Arise, arise!

There is an obvious racism in this quote. When Brabantio reacts with incredulity, Iago replies with a metaphor that this time compares Othello to a horse: ‘you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse’

Roderigo, whom Iago uses as a cat’s-paw, supports Iago’s story. Iago then says, “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you, your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” . Roderigo adds that Desdemona is indeed in the “gross clasps of a lascivious Moor”.

Brabantio, now convinced of the truth of the story, tells Roderigo to summon help. Roderigo also refers to Othello as ‘Thick lips’ and Iago continually uses the word ‘slave’, which are both racist terms.

The use of animal imagery is used to help convey Othello as a monster and the choices of animals shows the underlying racism: “Old Black ram” and “Barbary horse”. The references to witchcraft and the devil also help to emphasise Othello’s differences: “The devil will make a grandsire of you”, “the beast with two backs”. The playwright uses these characters to paint a picture of Othello as the embodiment of the black stereotype held by people at this time, labelling him as “different” to everyone else.

By and by, Brabantio and others appear. The senator, after denouncing Othello for taking Desdemona to his “sooty bosom” , accuses the Moor of having used “foul charms” and “drugs or minerals” to weaken Desdemona’s will.

The marriage between Othello and Desdemona was an inter-racial marriage

Previouslly Othello was a favorite to Brabantino and he along with Desdemona had had dinner many times with Othello.But why does he instantly react to the news of the marriage of Othello and Desdemona?It is because Othello is a Black. Instantly the matter becomes an issue in the Venetian council chamber, where the Duke and other senators are preparing for war against the Turks.

There is a clear theme of racism throughout, one which was firmly embedded in the Venetian society which rejects the marriage of Othello and Desdemona as erring, ‘against all rules of nature’. Nothing separates Othello from, ‘the wealthy curled darlings of our nation,’ except skin-colour . Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio combine to give us a portrait of Venetian racism.

After Othello speaks eloquently of his love for Desdemona and she speaks on his behalf, the Duke exonerates Othello.But in doing so, the Duke obliquely denigrates Othello because of his race–apparently unintentionally, in a Freudian slip–telling Brabantio, “Your son-in-law is more fair than black” , implying that fairness is superior to blackness. Brabantio reluctantly accepts the ruling.

Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’

The racial conflict becomes clearer when we consider of Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’ against Othello. Iago seems to have few motives for his devious actions. Although he resents Othello being promoted before himself, it seems that from his speech that the thing he hates most about Othello is the colour of his skin. Because of this he uses unintelligent and colloquial racism to insult Othello. He refers to Othello as, “Thick lips,”.

Essentially, Iago is a representative of the white race, a pre-Nazi figure who tries to inform the public of the impurity of Othello and Desdemona’s marriage. He demonstrates how this miscegenation is threatening to the existing social order.

Having lost a battle, Iago continues to plot to win the war, still using racism as one of his weapons. Consider that in referring to Othello, he sometimes inserts the word black to remind listeners that the Moor is different, a man apart, a man to be isolated. For example, after referring to Othello in Act 1 as a “black ram,” he tells Michael Cassio in Act 2, Scene 2, “Come, lieutenant, I have a stoup of wine, and here without are a brace of Cyprus gallants that would fain have a measure to the health of black Othello” (25).

Iago’s scheme would not have worked without the underlying atmosphere of racial prejudice in Venetian society, a prejudice of which both Desdemona and Othello are very aware. Shakespeare’s Desdemona copes with prejudice by denying it access to her own life: Her relationship with Othello is one of love, and she is deliberately loyal only to that.

Racism leads to jealousy

Although “jealousy” is often offered as Othello’s “tragic flaw,” but that emotion is not self-creating. Rather, it stems from a psychology of inferiority. Because of his strngemess , Othello can be perceived to be extremely insecure. Factors such as his age, his life as a soldier, and his self-consciousness about being a racial and cultural outsider, simply play on his unsureness of his position.The thing that fuelled his jealousy was his belief that he is black and Desdamona is white.That he is unfit to retain her attention for long.Thus Jealousy and racism are both inter-connected.

There are few things that the human mind cannot stand, and one of them is self-contempt. It is one thing to hate another person, but to hate and despise oneself is equivalent to denying one’s existence. Othello, in a fundamentally ethnocentric and racist society, finds himself confronted with the horrible reality of this self-contempt when there is cause to believe that Desdemona, whose loved had been the shield against his self-contempt, now betrays him too. Thus, Shakespeare’s Othello is a psychoanalytic view of a self-loathing man and his doomed attempts to defend himself against a painful reality.

Why did not Othello openly discuss the matter with Desdemona?

The society and culture in which Othello finds himself is one where racism and ethnocentrism prevailed and prejudices abounded.Othello, however, is not aware how deeply prejudice has penetrated into his own personality.

This absorbed prejudice undermines him with thoughts akin to “I am not attractive,” “I am not worthy of Desdemona,” “It cannot be true that she really loves me,” and “If she loves me, then there must be something wrong with her.” These thoughts, inflamed by Iago’s hints and lies, prevent Othello from discussing his concerns and fears directly with Desdemona, and so he acts on panicked assumption. In order to survive the combined onslaught of internalized prejudice and the directed venom of Iago, Othello would have had to be near perfect in strength and self-knowledge, and that is not a fair demand for anyone.

Thus,though invisible in the drama, racism plays a significant part in bringing the tragedy of Othello. Shakespeare is also sending an anti-racist message through his play Othello. Those who discriminate people racially are the truly devious characters and Shakespeare shows this clearly through Iago and Barbantio. Iago is portrayed as the most evil villain and also the hateful racist.

By presenting the main villain of the play to have such deep-rooted racism, Shakespeare is denouncing those who attack people purely on the basis of the colour of their skin or their nationality.

Conflicts of characters in Othello

Many of the scenes in Othello work by the pairing of two characters who are basically different in values or hidden agendas, putting them together through an experience or event, which has a different significance for each. Such pairs are Iago and Roderigo, Desdemona and Emilia, Othello and Iago, and Iago and Emilia.

Iago is paired with Roderigo for purposes of exploitation. By talking to him, Iago can show the audience his wicked intentions, yet Roderigo is so gullible that he is an easy dupe. Desdemona and Emilia are newly in each other’s company, but quickly develop a friendly style of conversation that contrasts their different approaches to life. Emilia is down to earth to Desdemona’s nobility, and practical to Desdemona’s romanticism. Yet, when a crisis comes, they both share the same basic values of honesty and loyalty.

Iago and Emilia, although married and appearing to be similar personalities on the surface, see the world differently. Iago has the reputation of the “rough diamond,” who speaks directly and honestly, but he uses his reputation as a disguise for his plotting, whereas the “rough diamond” really is Emilia’s true nature. Their conversations are oppositions of opinion about the nature of men or women, or attempts by Iago to control Emilia’s actions, balanced — until she discovers his true nature — by Emilia’s willingness to do things to please her husband.

The development of the Othello-Desdemona pair is more hidden, and more complex. There is a polite formality of words between these two which persists below the endearments of the first half and the abuse and anguish of the second. At a certain level, they always treat each other as respected strangers, and as circumstances drive them apart, only this formal politeness remains as a frame for communication in the final act, where they go in different emotional directions, despite their underlying love for each other.

Theme of Jealousy

Throughout Shakespeare’s Othello, jealousy is apparent. The tragedy Othello focuses on the doom of Othello and the other major characters as a result of jealousy. In Shakespeare’s Othello, jealousy is mainly portrayed through the two major characters: Iago and Othello. It utterly corrupts their lives because it causes Iago to show his true self, which in turn triggers Othello to undergo an absolute conversion that destroys the lives of their friends.

Othello represents how jealousy, particularly sexual jealousy, is one of the most corrupting and destructive of emotions. It is jealousy that prompts Iago to plot Othello’s downfall; jealousy, too, is the tool that Iago uses to arouse Othello’s passions. Roderigo and Bianca demonstrate jealousy at various times in the play, and Emilia demonstrates that she too knows the emotion well. Only Desdemona and Cassio, the true innocents of the story, seem beyond its clutches. Shakespeare used the theme in other plays, but nowhere else is it portrayed as quite the “green- eyed” monster it is in this play. Since it is an emotion that everyone shares, we watch its destructive influence on the characters with sympathy and horror.

How jealousy works in Othello

Shakespeare’s Othello is very close to the Aristotle’s conception of tragedy,specially in respect ofthe portrayal of the protagonist Othello. Like a classical tragic Othello in the tragedy Othello falls from his position due to his his ’tragic flaw’ jealousy.Jealousy is the main tragic flaw that brings about Othello’s misfortune,suffering, and death.Though this flaw is fuelled by the external force like the withces in Macbeth,but jealousy seems to have a deep root in Othello’s character.

Jealousy is the main factor that appears to destroy Othello. Iago is the initiator of the chain of events that sparks jealousy in Othello, and eventually leads to the downfall of not only the main character, but also of most of the significant characters in the book. In Othello Shakespeare presents us with the tragic spectacle of a man who,in spirit of jealous rage ,destroys what he loves best in all the world.We will be able to best realize the tragic effect jealousy if we consider first the nature of the relation between Othello and Desdemona.The marriage between Othello and Desdemona is a real ’marriage of true minds’, a true love based on a mutual awareness and a true appreciation of each other’s worth,a love that has in it none of the element of sensual lust.The love of Othello and Desdemona transcends the physical barriers of color,nationality and age.But this love is destroyed as soon as jealousness enters into the mind of Othello





Critical Essays Major Themes

Explore the different themes within William Shakespeare’s tragic play, Othello.

Themes are central to understanding Othello as a play and identifying Shakespeare’s social and political commentary. In Othello, the major themes reflect the values and the motivations of characters.


In Othello, love is a force that overcomes large obstacles and is tripped up by small ones. It is eternal, yet derail-able. It provides Othello with intensity but not direction and gives Desdemona access to his heart but not his mind. Types of love and what that means are different between different characters.

Othello finds that love in marriage needs time to build trust, and his enemy works too quickly for him to take that time. The immediate attraction between the couple works on passion, and Desdemona builds on that passion a steadfast devotion whose speed and strength Othello cannot equal.

Iago often falsely professes love in friendship for Roderigo and Cassio and betrays them both. For Iago, love is leverage. Desdemona’s love in friendship for Cassio is real but is misinterpreted by the jealous Othello as adulterous love. The true friendship was Emilia’s for Desdemona, shown when she stood up witness for the honor of her dead mistress, against Iago, her lying husband, and was killed for it.

Appearance and Reality

Appearance and reality are important aspects in Othello. For Othello, seeing is believing, and proof of the truth is visual. To “prove” something is to investigate it to the point where its true nature is revealed. Othello demands of Iago “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore, be sure of it, give me the ocular proof” (Act 3, Scene 3).

What Iago gives him instead is imaginary pictures of Cassio and Desdemona to feed his jealousy. As Othello loses control of his mind, these pictures dominate his thoughts. He looks at Desdemona’s whiteness and is swept up in the traditional symbolism of white for purity and black for evil. Whenever he is in doubt, that symbolism returns to haunt him and despite his experience, he cannot help but believe it.

Appearance vs. Reality 2

Especially relevant to the issue of Iago’s character; for although he is called “honest” by almost everyone in the play, he is treacherous, deceitful, and manipulative. This also applies to Desdemona, as Othello believes that she is deceitful and impure, although she is really blameless and innocent. This theme contributes greatly to the tragedy, as Iago is able to engineer his schemes due to the perception of others of his honesty. Othello’s decision to murder his wife is hastened by a conversation in which Cassio speaks of Bianca; Othello assumes the man is talking about an affair with Desdemona.

Misrepresentation allows Iago to gain trust and manipulate other people; he is able to appear to be “honest,” in order to deceive and misdirect people. Although the word “honest” is usually used in an ironic way throughout the text, most characters in the play go through a crisis of learning who and who not to trust. Most of them, unfortunately, trust in Iago’s honesty; this leads to the downfall of many characters, as this trust in Iago’s “honesty” became a crucial contributor to their undoing. Discovering or uncovering reality would have changed the course of the play.


Jealousy is what appears to destroy Othello. It is the emotion suggested to him by Iago in Act 3, Scene 3. Iago thinks he knows jealousy, having rehearsed it in his relationship with Emilia to the extent that Emilia believes jealousy is part of the personality of men, but Iago’s jealously is a poor, weak thought compared to the storm of jealousy he stirs up in Othello.

Iago has noticed Othello’s tendency to insecurity and overreaction, but not even Iago imagined Othello would go as far into jealousy as he did. Jealousy forces Othello’s mind so tightly on one idea, the idea that Desdemona has betrayed him with Cassio, that no other assurance or explanation can penetrate. Such an obsession eclipses Othello’s reason, his common sense, and his respect for justice.

Up to the moment he kills Desdemona, Othello’s growing jealousy maddens him past the recall of reason. Upon seeing that she was innocent and that he killed her unjustly, Othello recovers. He can again see his life in proportion and grieve at the terrible thing he has done. Once again, he speaks with calm rationality, judging and condemning and finally executing himself.


Race is an extremely important theme, as it leads to Othello’s insecurity, which Iago is able to manipulate. Despite his standing and military prowess, Othello never feels comfortable in Venice because of his otherness. As a Moor, he is constantly stereotyped as “savage” or “animal”, even though he speaks eloquently and displays more gentlemanly qualities than those who judge him. Thus, Othello perceives himself to be a rough outsider, though he is nothing of the sort. Othello’s race sets him apart, and makes him very self-conscious; it makes him work hard and look carefully after his reputation, so he is regarded as equal to the white people that surround him. This has perhaps led to his success, but the prejudice that surrounds him – especially with respect to his marriage to Desdemona – has tragic consequences


Iago’s scheme would not have worked without the underlying atmosphere of racial prejudice in Venetian society, a prejudice of which both Desdemona and Othello are very aware. Shakespeare’s Desdemona copes with prejudice by denying it access to her own life. Her relationship with Othello is one of love, and she is deliberately loyal only to her marriage.

Othello, however, is not aware how deeply prejudice has penetrated into his own personality. This absorbed prejudice undermines him with thoughts akin to “I am not attractive,” “I am not worthy of Desdemona,” “It cannot be true that she really loves me,” and “If she loves me, then there must be something wrong with her.”

These thoughts, inflamed by Iago’s hints and lies, prevent Othello from discussing his concerns and fears directly with Desdemona, and so he acts on panicked assumption. In order to survive the combined onslaught of internalized prejudice and the directed venom of Iago, Othello would have had to be near perfect in strength and self-knowledge, and that is not fair demand for anyone.


Othello is defensively proud of himself and his achievements, and especially proud of the honorable appearance he presents. The allegations of Desdemona’s affair hurt his pride even more than they inflame his vanity and jealousy; he wants to appear powerful, accomplished, and moral at every possible instance, and when this is almost denied to him, his wounded pride becomes especially powerful.


Othello is charged with using magic to woo Desdemona, merely because he is black, and therefore, “pagan.” Yet, Othello does have real magic, in the words he uses and the stories he tells. Magic also reappears when Desdemona’s handkerchief cannot be found; Othello has too much trust in the symbolism and charm of the handkerchief, which is why the object is so significant to him.

Order vs. chaos

As Othello begins to abandon reason and language, chaos takes over. His world begins to be ruled by chaotic emotions and very shady allegations, with order pushed to the side. This chaos rushes him into tragedy, and once Othello has sunk into it, he is unable to stop his fate from taking him over.


Othello’s lack of self-knowledge makes him easy prey for Iago. Once Iago inflames Othello’s jealousy and sets the darker aspects of Othello’s nature in motion, there is nothing Othello can do to stop it, since he cannot even admit that he has these darker traits. Even after he has murdered his wife, and has learned that Iago set a trap for him, Othello is unable to acknowledge the character flaws that were manipulated. He asserts he is “honorable” even in murder. This theme is related to pride, as Othello’s pride blinds him to his weaknesses, precipitating his downfall.

Good vs. Evil

Iago’s battle against Othello and Cassio certainly counts as an embodiment of this theme. Iago and his evil battle to corrupt and turn the flawed natures of other characters, and he does succeed to some extent. By the end of the play, neither has won, as Desdemona and Emilia are both dead, and Iago revealed and punished. Othello is a tragic character, but one that is neither good nor evil. His flaws are easily manipulated, and he is unable to see the truth while blinded by pride. He is a good soldier and a good man, but this good is twisted and he commits an evil act.

Desdemona is the embodiment of goodness in the play, as she has done no wrong and seeks only to love and to help her friends. However, she resigns herself to her death out of this goodness. The ruin of innocence is a key ingredient to tragedy, but one could interpret that Desdemona did not have to suffer her fate. Othello represents a grey area between good and evil, where self-interest clouds even the best intentions, and people on both sides end up dead.

Iago / Othello

Although its title suggests that the tragedy belongs primarily to Othello, Iago plays an important role in the plot. He reflects the archetypal villain, and has the biggest share of the dialogue. In Othello, it is Iago who manipulates all other characters at will, controlling their movements and trapping them in an intricate net of lies. He achieves this by getting close to all characters and playing on their weaknesses while they refer to him as “honest” Iago, thus furthering his control over the characters. A. C. Bradley, and more recently Harold Bloom, have been major advocates of this interpretation.[29] Other critics, most notably in the later twentieth century (after F. R. Leavis), have focused on Othello.


As the Protestant Reformation of England proclaimed the importance of pious, controlled behaviour in society, it was the tendency of the contemporary Englishman to displace society’s “undesirable” qualities of barbarism, treachery, jealousy and libidinousness onto those who are considered ‘other’.[30] The assumed characteristics of black men, or ‘the other’, were both instigated and popularised by Renaissance dramas of the time; for example, the treachery of black men inherent to George Peele’s ‘The Battle of Alcazar’ (1588).[31]

Religious / Philosophical

Many critics have noted references to demonic possession throughout the play, especially in relation to Othello’s seizure, a phenomenon often associated with possession in the popular consciousness of the day.[32] Another scholar suggests that the epileptic fit relates to the mind-body problem and the existence of the soul.[33]

The Hero

There have been many differing views on the character of Othello over the years. A.C. Bradley calls Othello the “most romantic of all of Shakespeare’s heroes” (by “hero” Bradley means protagonist) and “the greatest poet of them all”. On the other hand, F.R. Leavis describes Othello as “egotistical”. There are those who also take a less critical approach to the character of Othello such as William Hazlitt, who said: “the nature of the Moor is noble… but his blood is of the most inflammable kind”.




Themes, Motifs and Symbols contd.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Handkerchief

The handkerchief symbolizes different things to different characters. Since the handkerchief was the first gift Desdemona received from Othello, she keeps it about her constantly as a symbol of Othello’s love. Iago manipulates the handkerchief so that Othello comes to see it as a symbol of Desdemona herself—her faith and chastity. By taking possession of it, he is able to convert it into evidence of her infidelity. But the handkerchief’s importance to Iago and Desdemona derives from its importance to Othello himself. He tells Desdemona that it was woven by a 200-year-old sibyl, or female prophet, using silk from sacred worms and dye extracted from the hearts of mummified virgins. Othello claims that his mother used it to keep his father faithful to her, so, to him, the handkerchief represents marital fidelity. The pattern of strawberries (dyed with virgins’ blood) on a white background strongly suggests the bloodstains left on the sheets on a virgin’s wedding night, so the handkerchief implicitly suggests a guarantee of virginity as well as fidelity.

The Song “Willow”

As she prepares for bed in Act V, Desdemona sings a song about a woman who is betrayed by her lover. She was taught the song by her mother’s maid, Barbary, who suffered a misfortune similar to that of the woman in the song; she even died singing “Willow.” The song’s lyrics suggest that both men and women are unfaithful to one another. To Desdemona, the song seems to represent a melancholy and resigned acceptance of her alienation from Othello’s affections, and singing it leads her to question Emilia about the nature and practice of infidelity.

THE WILLOW SONG 1 (Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory)

Weeping Willow

As Desdemona is preparing for bed the night she will be murdered, she starts singing a song about willow trees. (We’d be nodding off to Antiques Roadshow and eating ice cream, but that’s just us.)

This song, supposedly sung originally by one of Desdemona’s mother’s servants who loved a crazy guy, reflects Desdemona’s own situation. She herself is worried that the man she married has gone crazy and will desert her. Willows at the edge of water are a traditional symbol of women deserted by their lovers: in another Shakespearean example, Ophelia, deserted by her love, Hamlet, dies after she falls out of a willow tree and drowns in a brook in the play Hamlet.

The Willow Song

The ‘Willow Song’ has a life of its own as one of the more familiar Elizabethan ballads, mainly through its dramatic quotation in Shakespeare’s play, Othello (Act IV, Scene iii). Also known as ‘Desdemona’s lament’, the song is found in an untitled version for voice and lute in British Library Add. Ms. 15117, f. 18 (circa 1600). An earlier setting for lute solo is also found in Folger Shakespeare Library manuscript 448.16, f. 19, and Christopher Goodwin and Ian Payne have pieced together fragments from other miscellaneous early sources, even creating choral and consort versions of the song, as described in Lute News 64 and 73.

While Shakespeare’s text is adapted to fit the female perspective, the manuscript source offers an alternative, employing nearly the full range of imagery that describes ‘Elizabethan melancholy’, or what might aptly be called the 16th-century Blues. Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) is a source that offers both a literary and a medical description of the symptoms of melancholy, as well as the role of music as a treatment for the affliction:

The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is presumed to date from 1604, although it was not published until 1622, and Shakespeare’s source for the play was a novella by Giraldi Cinthio, published in his Hecatommithi (Venice, 1565). As with his earlier source for the story, Shakespeare likely quoted the ‘Willow song’ from the English ballad tradition of the late 16th century, with the phrase-oriented melody and lute accompaniment set to preexisting poetry, the result seeming more like a realized ground than an authentic through-composed song.

In Othello Act IV, Scene iii, Desdemona describes her source of the song to Emilia while dressing:

My mother had a maid call’d Barbary;
She was in love, and he she lov’d prov’d mad,
And did forsake her. She had a song of “Willow,”
And old thing ’twas, but it express’d her fortune,
And she died singing it. That song tonight
Will not go from my mind, I have much to do
But to go hang my head all at one side
And sing it like poor Barbary.

Desdemona’s rendition of the song naturally adapts the text to the female point of view, and her singing is interrupted a few times for dramatic purposes.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hN33bGXS7Y…  The Willow Song (Othello) Lyrics -Giles Terera

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iYm2MQWPUA… The Willow Song

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34QxnNvq3vs… Anonymous – The Willow song (Othello, IV:3)


Shakespeare’s Saddest Song?

Of all the laments and dirges throughout Shakespeare’s plays, which is his saddest song?

It has to be “The Willow Song”, in Act Four Scene Three of Othello. Desdemona is preparing for bed, afraid that Othello is wrongly angry with her for being unfaithful. She sings The Willow Song, a mournful folk ballad, in which a lady laments her lost love. Desdemona only has time to sing two verses before she breaks off to talk to her maid Emilia. But Shakespeare’s audience would have been familiar with the ending of the original ballad, and they would have known that it foretold tragedy.

The earliest record of The Willow Song is in a book of lute music from 1583. There were eight verses, and it was originally about a man who dies because of his love’s cruelty and betrayal. Shakespeare changes the victim in the song from a man to a woman, making it more relevant to Desdemona.

Shakespeare’s audience would have understood that the inclusion of the song foretells imminent tragedy for Desdemona, due to the cruelty of her lover Othello.

In the play, Desdemona says she learnt the song from her mother’s maid, Barbara, who met with a tragic end whilst singing it:

“She was in love, and he she loved proved mad….etc as  above

Later in the play, Desdemona’s own maid Emilia makes Othello realise Desdemona’s innocence, and she is stabbed by her own husband, Iago, for betraying him. She refers to the song and its ominous prediction, and then sings it herself as she dies:

“What did thy song bode, lady?
Hark, canst thou hear me? I will play the swan.
And die in music.
Willow, willow, willow —
Moor, she was chaste; she loved thee, cruel Moor;
So come my soul to bliss, as I speak true;
So speaking as I think, I die, I die.”
Othello, 4.3

As well as forewarning the audience of the tragedy to come, The Willow Song gives both Desdemona and Emilia a way out of their problem.





Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Incompatibility of Military Heroism & Love

Before and above all else, Othello is a soldier. From the earliest moments in the play, his career affects his married life. Asking “fit disposition” for his wife after being ordered to Cyprus (I.iii.234), Othello notes that “the tyrant custom . . . / Hath made the flinty and steel couch of war / My thrice-driven bed of down” (I.iii.227–229). While Desdemona is used to better “accommodation,” she nevertheless accompanies her husband to Cyprus (I.iii.236). Moreover, she is unperturbed by the tempest or Turks that threatened their crossing, and genuinely curious rather than irate when she is roused from bed by the drunken brawl in Act II, scene iii. She is, indeed, Othello’s “fair warrior,” and he is happiest when he has her by his side in the midst of military conflict or business (II.i.179). The military also provides Othello with a means to gain acceptance in Venetian society. While the Venetians in the play are generally fearful of the prospect of Othello’s social entrance into white society through his marriage to Desdemona, all Venetians respect and honor him as a soldier. Mercenary Moors were, in fact, commonplace at the time.

Othello predicates his success in love on his success as a soldier, wooing Desdemona with tales of his military travels and battles. Once the Turks are drowned—by natural rather than military might—Othello is left without anything to do: the last act of military administration we see him perform is the viewing of fortifications in the extremely short second scene of Act III. No longer having a means of proving his manhood or honor in a public setting such as the court or the battlefield, Othello begins to feel uneasy with his footing in a private setting, the bedroom. Iago capitalizes on this uneasiness, calling Othello’s epileptic fit in Act IV, scene i, “[a] passion most unsuiting such a man.” In other words, Iago is calling Othello unsoldierly. Iago also takes care to mention that Cassio, whom Othello believes to be his competitor, saw him in his emasculating trance (IV.i.75).

Desperate to cling to the security of his former identity as a soldier while his current identity as a lover crumbles, Othello begins to confuse the one with the other. His expression of his jealousy quickly devolves from the conventional—“Farewell the tranquil mind”—to the absurd:

Farewell the plum’d troops and the big wars
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell,
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!”

One might well say that Othello is saying farewell to the wrong things—he is entirely preoccupied with his identity as a soldier. But his way of thinking is somewhat justified by its seductiveness to the audience as well. Critics and audiences alike find comfort and nobility in Othello’s final speech and the anecdote of the “malignant and . . . turbaned Turk” (V.ii.362), even though in that speech, as in his speech in Act III, scene iii, Othello depends on his identity as a soldier to glorify himself in the public’s memory, and to try to make his audience forget his and Desdemona’s disastrous marital experiment.

The Danger of Isolation

The action of Othello moves from the metropolis of Venice to the island of Cyprus. Protected by military fortifications as well as by the forces of nature, Cyprus faces little threat from external forces. Once Othello, Iago, Desdemona, Emilia, and Roderigo have come to Cyprus, they have nothing to do but prey upon one another. Isolation enables many of the play’s most important effects: Iago frequently speaks in soliloquies; Othello stands apart while Iago talks with Cassio in Act IV, scene i, and is left alone onstage with the bodies of Emilia and Desdemona for a few moments in Act V, scene ii; Roderigo seems attached to no one in the play except Iago. And, most prominently, Othello is visibly isolated from the other characters by his physical stature and the color of his skin. Iago is an expert at manipulating the distance between characters, isolating his victims so that they fall prey to their own obsessions. At the same time, Iago, of necessity always standing apart, falls prey to his own obsession with revenge. The characters cannot be islands, the play seems to say: self-isolation as an act of self-preservation leads ultimately to self-destruction. Such self-isolation leads to the deaths of Roderigo, Iago, Othello, and even Emilia.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Sight and Blindness

When Desdemona asks to be allowed to accompany Othello to Cyprus, she says that she “saw Othello’s visage in his mind, / And to his honours and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate” (I.iii. 250–252). Othello’s blackness, his visible difference from everyone around him, is of little importance to Desdemona: she has the power to see him for what he is in a way that even Othello himself cannot. Desdemona’s line is one of many references to different kinds of sight in the play. Earlier in Act I, scene iii, a senator suggests that the Turkish retreat to Rhodes is “a pageant / To keep us in false gaze” (I.iii.19–20). The beginning of Act II consists entirely of people staring out to sea, waiting to see the arrival of ships, friendly or otherwise. Othello, though he demands “ocular proof” (III.iii.365), is frequently convinced by things he does not see: he strips Cassio of his position as lieutenant based on the story Iago tells; he relies on Iago’s story of seeing Cassio wipe his beard with Desdemona’s handkerchief (III.iii.437–440); and he believes Cassio to be dead simply because he hears him scream. After Othello has killed himself in the final scene, Lodovico says to Iago, “Look on the tragic loading of this bed. / This is thy work. The object poisons sight. / Let it be hid” (V.ii.373–375). The action of the play depends heavily on characters not seeing things: Othello accuses his wife although he never sees her infidelity, and Emilia, although she watches Othello erupt into a rage about the missing handkerchief, does not figuratively “see” what her husband has done.


Iago is strangely preoccupied with plants. His speeches to Roderigo in particular make extensive and elaborate use of vegetable metaphors and conceits. Some examples are: “Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme . . . the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills” (I.iii.317–322); “Though other things grow fair against the sun, / Yet fruits that blossom first will first be ripe” (II.iii.349–350); “And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand, / Cry ‘O sweet creature!’, then kiss me hard, / As if he plucked kisses up by the roots, / That grew upon my lips” (III.iii.425–428). The first of these examples best explains Iago’s preoccupation with the plant metaphor and how it functions within the play. Characters in this play seem to be the product of certain inevitable, natural forces, which, if left unchecked, will grow wild. Iago understands these natural forces particularly well: he is, according to his own metaphor, a good “gardener,” both of himself and of others.

Many of Iago’s botanical references concern poison: “I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear” (II.iii.330); “The Moor already changes with my poison. / Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons, / . . . / . . . Not poppy nor mandragora / Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world / Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep” (III.iii.329–336). Iago cultivates his “conceits” so that they become lethal poisons and then plants their seeds in the minds of others. The organic way in which Iago’s plots consume the other characters and determine their behavior makes his conniving, human evil seem like a force of nature. That organic growth also indicates that the minds of the other characters are fertile ground for Iago’s efforts.


Iago calls Othello a “Barbary horse,” an “old black ram,” and also tells Brabanzio that his daughter and Othello are “making the beast with two backs” (I.i.117–118). In Act I, scene iii, Iago tells Roderigo, “Ere I would say I would drown myself for the love of a guinea-hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon” (I.iii.312–313). He then remarks that drowning is for “cats and blind puppies” (I.iii.330–331). Cassio laments that, when drunk, he is “by and by a fool, and presently a beast!” (II.iii.284–285). Othello tells Iago, “Exchange me for a goat / When I shall turn the business of my soul / To such exsufflicate and blowed surmises” (III.iii.184–186). He later says that “[a] horned man’s a monster and a beast” (IV.i.59). Even Emilia, in the final scene, says that she will “play the swan, / And die in music” (V.ii.254–255). Like the repeated references to plants, these references to animals convey a sense that the laws of nature, rather than those of society, are the primary forces governing the characters in this play. When animal references are used with regard to Othello, as they frequently are, they reflect the racism both of characters in the play and of Shakespeare’s contemporary audience. “Barbary horse” is a vulgarity particularly appropriate in the mouth of Iago, but even without having seen Othello, the Jacobean audience would have known from Iago’s metaphor that he meant to connote a savage Moor.

Hell, Demons, and Monsters

Iago tells Othello to beware of jealousy, the “green-eyed monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on” (III.iii.170–171). Likewise, Emilia describes jealousy as dangerously and uncannily self-generating, a “monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself” (III.iv.156–157). Imagery of hell and damnation also recurs throughout Othello, especially toward the end of the play, when Othello becomes preoccupied with the religious and moral judgment of Desdemona and himself. After he has learned the truth about Iago, Othello calls Iago a devil and a demon several times in Act V, scene ii. Othello’s earlier allusion to “some monster in [his] thought” ironically refers to Iago (III.iii.111). Likewise, his vision of Desdemona’s betrayal is “monstrous, monstrous!” (III.iii.431). Shortly before he kills himself, Othello wishes for eternal spiritual and physical torture in hell, crying out, “Whip me, ye devils, / . . . / . . . roast me in sulphur, / Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!” (V.ii.284–287). The imagery of the monstrous and diabolical takes over where the imagery of animals can go no further, presenting the jealousy-crazed characters not simply as brutish, but as grotesque, deformed, and demonic.






1. accident (142) an occurrence.

2. addiction (6) an inclination.

3. affined (39) [Obsolete] under obligation; bound.

4. affinity (48) kinship; family.

5. Almain (79) a German.

6. anters (140) [Archaic] caves.

7. Anthropophagi (144) man-eaters; cannibals.

8. article (11) substance.

9. assay (18) a test.

10. attach (77) arrest.

11. being . . . heaven (36) looking like an angel.

12. besort (238) suitable company.

13. birdlime (126) a kind of paste.

14. blank (129) a target; bull’s-eye.

15. bobbed (16) cheated; swindled.

16. bolster (399) lie together.

17. bookish theoric (24) the student, not practitioner.

18. brace (24) stance of defense.

19. caitiff (109) a wretch.

20. callet (121) a whore, or prostitute.

21. canakin (66) a drinking pot.

22. carack (50) large trading ship.

23. cashiered (48) dismissed (but not necessarily without honor).

24. cast (14) dismissed.

25. censure (184) judgment.

26. chrysolite (146) topaz; a gemstone.

27. clyster pipes (177) syringes; enema tubes.

28. coat (25) a coat of mail worn under outer clothing.

29. cogging, cozening (132) lying, cheating.

30. coloquintida (351) a bitter fruit.

31. compliment extern (63) outward appearance.

32. composition (1) consistency.

33. compt (274) accounting on Judgment Day.

34. conceit (115) a thought or fancy.

35. continuate (179) uninterrupted.

36. conveniences (233) compatibilities.

37. convinced or supplied (28) overcame or gratified.

38. credit (97) reputation.

39. crocodile (247) a reference to the false tears supposedly shed by crocodiles.

40. crusadoes (27) Portuguese gold coins.

41. customer (120) here, a prostitute.

42. daws (65) jackdaws or crows; here, fools.

43. defend (266) forbid.

44. deserve (183) reward.

45. designment halts (22) plan is crippled.

46. dial (176) a full twelve hours on the face of a clock.

47. discourse fustian (272) to speak nonsense.

48. distemp’ring draughts (99) intoxicating drinks.

49. do my duties (2) voice my loyalty.

50. ecstasy (80) a trance.

51. Egyptian (57) a Gypsy.

52. encave (82) hide.

53. engluts (57) [Archaic] devours.

54. entreats his pause (220) begs him to stop.

55. enwheel (87) encompass.

56. fineless (173) unlimited.

57. fitchew (146) a polecat (meaning “a whore”).

58. fopped (194) duped; deceived.

59. fordoes (129) destroys.

60. forfend (32) forbid.

61. fortitude (222) fortification.

62. frank appearance (38) no attempt to conceal.

63. frieze (126) rough cloth.

64. galleys (40) officers of the galleys.

65. galls (91) the ability to resent.

66. gastness (106) ghastliness, or terror.

67. gennets for germans (113) Spanish for relatives.

68. go by water (104) be rendered by tears.

69. grange (106) an isolated farmhouse.

70. grise (200) a degree or step.

71. gross in sense (72) perfectly clear.

72. haggard (255) a wild hawk.

73. hales (140) tugs at; hauls.

74. happily (238) [Archaic] haply, by chance.

75. heave the gorge (234) become nauseated.

76. heraldry (48) heraldic symbolism.

77. high-wrought flood (2) heavy sea.

78. hobby-horse (156) a prostitute; harlot.

79. hold her free (255) believe her to be guiltless.

80. home (165) to the point, bluntly.

81. A horned man’s (63) a cuckold’s.

82. humane seeming (241) courteous appearance.

83. Hydra (298) the many-headed beast killed by Hercules.

84. hyssop (323) a fragrant herb.

85. idle (140) barren.

86. imposition (260) a quality imposed by others.

87. in false gaze (19) looking the wrong way.

88. inclining (82) party; side.

89. incorporate (266) carnal, or fleshly.

90. indign (273) [Obsolete] unworthy.

91. infected (21) stricken with the plague.

92. inhibited (79) [Rare] prohibited; forbidden.

93. Janus (33) the two-faced god of the Romans.

94. jesses (261) straps for holding a hawk to the trainer’s wrist.

95. Judean (348) a possible reference to Judas Iscariot.

96. jump (5) agree.

97. leet and law days (140) meetings of the court.

98. liberal as the north (221) freely as the north wind blows.

99. lown (88) a lout or rascal.

100. mamm’ring (70) hesitating.

101. mandragora (330) a soporific, or substance causing sleep.

102. mazzard (146) [Obsolete] the head.

103. mere perdition (3) complete destruction.

104. minion (33) mistress; or hussy, as here used.

105. minister (8) a servant.

106. molestation (16) a tumult.

107. mortal engines (355) deadly artillery.

108. a moth of peace (256) A useless creature living a luxurious life.

109. mountebanks (61) charlatans who sell quack medicine.

110. mummy (75) fluid drained from embalmed bodies.

111. napkin (287) a handkerchief.

112. nightgown (34) a dressing-gown; robe.

113. Ottomites (33) Turks.

114. paragons (62) [Obsolete] surpasses.

115. peculiar (60) private.

116. peevish (88) silly.

117. perfect soul (31) stainless conscience.

118. Pioners (346) manual laborers doing the least desirable kinds of work.

119. plume up (396) to gratify.

120. poise (82) weight; grave importance.

121. portance (139) [Archaic] one’s bearing or demeanor; behavior.

122. pottle-deep (51) to the bottom of the tankard.

123. pregnant (238) likely, most significant.

124. prime (403) lustful.

125. probal (333) provable by.

126. profane . . . counsellor (164) worldly and licentious.

127. Promethean heat (12) divine fire.

128. propriety (167) proper order.

129. puddled (144) muddied.

130. quality (251) profession.

131. quarter (171) friendliness.

132. quat (11) a pimple.

133. quillets (24) quips; puns.

134. quirks (63) ingenuities.

135. rank garb (310) gross manner.

136. relume (13) relight.

137. reprobation (210) rejection by God.

138. restem (37) steer again.

139. rude (81) unpolished.

140. Sagittary (158) the name of an inn.

141. salt (242) lecherous.

142. ‘sblood (4) [Obsolete] euphemism for by God’s blood; used as an swearword.

143. seamark (269) a beacon, destination.

144. seel (210) to close.

145. sequestration (347) separation.

146. shambles (66) a slaughterhouse.

147. shrift (24) [Archaic] a confessional.

148. siege (22) rank.

149. signiory (18) here, the Venetian government.

150. small’st opinion (109) least suspicion.

151. Spartan dog (362) a bloodhound.

152. spleen (89) anger.

153. stones (221) thunderbolts.

154. store (84) to fill; populate.

155. stoup (27) a two-quart tankard.

156. stubbornness (20) roughness.

157. sudden in choler (275) quick to anger.

158. sufferance (23) [Archaic] suffering; disaster.

159. swag-bellied (75) loose-bellied.

160. thick-lips (66) the Moor.

161. toy (157) a fancy or a trifle.

162. trimmed (50) [Obsolete] dressed up.

163. twiggen (143) wicker-covered.

164. unbookish (102) uninformed.

165. undertaker (156) a person who undertakes to do something.

166. unhandsome warrior (152) unskilled soldier.

167. unhatched practice (142) a budding plot.

168. unhoused (26) unrestrained.

169. unlace (185) to undo.

170. Veronesa (26) ship fitted in Verona.

171. vile success (222) evil consequences.

172. votarist (188) a nun.

173. whipster (245) a term of contempt.

174. white (133) a pun on “wight,” [Archaic] a person.

175. winks (66) shuts her eyes.

176. works (2) fortifications.

177. yerked (5) stabbed.

178. Zounds (86) [Archaic] by God’s wounds.




Othello…William Shakespeare

Act I, scenes i–ii

Summary: Act I, scene i

In following him I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so for my peculiar end.

Othello begins on a street in Venice, in the midst of an argument between Roderigo and Iago. The rich Roderigo has been paying Iago to help him in his suit to Desdemona, but he has seen no progress, and he has just learned that Desdemona has married Othello, a general whom Iago serves as ensign. Iago reassures Roderigo that he hates Othello. Chief among Iago’s reasons for this hatred is Othello’s recent promotion of Michael Cassio to the post of lieutenant. In spite of Iago’s service in battle and the recommendation of three “great ones” of the city, Othello chose to give the position to a man with no experience leading men in battle. As he waits for an opportunity to further his own self-interest, Iago only pretends to serve Othello.

Iago advises Roderigo to spoil some of Othello’s pleasure in his marriage by rousing Desdemona’s family against the general. The two men come to the street outside the house of Desdemona’s father, Brabanzio, and cry out that he has been robbed by “thieves.” Brabanzio, who is a Venetian senator, comes to the window. At first, he doesn’t believe what he hears, because he has told Roderigo to stay away from his daughter before and thinks Roderigo is merely scheming once again in order to see Desdemona. Iago speaks in inflammatory terms, vulgarly telling the senator that his daughter and Othello are having sex by saying that they are “making the beast with two backs” (I.i.118). Brabanzio begins to take what he hears seriously and decides to search for his daughter. Seeing the success of his plan, Iago leaves Roderigo alone and goes to attend on Othello. Like Brabanzio, Othello has no idea of Iago’s role in Roderigo’s accusations. As Iago departs, Brabanzio comes out of his house, furious that his daughter has left him. Declaring that his daughter has been stolen from him by magic “charms,” Brabanzio and his men follow Roderigo to Othello.

Summary: Act I, scene ii

Iago arrives at Othello’s lodgings, where he warns the general that Brabanzio will not hesitate to attempt to force a divorce between Othello and Desdemona. Othello sees a party of men approaching, and Iago, thinking that Brabanzio and his followers have arrived, counsels Othello to retreat indoors. Othello stands his ground, but the party turns out to be Cassio and officers from the Venetian court. They bring Othello the message that he is wanted by the duke of Venice about a matter concerning Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean Sea controlled by Venice. As Cassio and his men prepare to leave, Iago mentions that Othello is married, but before he can say any more, Brabanzio, Roderigo, and Brabanzio’s men arrive to accost Othello. Brabanzio orders his men to attack and subdue Othello. A struggle between Brabanzio’s and Othello’s followers seems imminent, but Othello brings the confrontation to a halt by calmly and authoritatively telling both sides to put up their swords. Hearing that the duke has summoned Othello to the court, Brabanzio decides to bring his cause before the duke himself.

Summary: Act I, scene iii

But here’s my husband,
And so much duty as my mother showed
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.

The duke’s meeting with his senators about the imminent Turkish invasion of Cyprus takes an unexpected turn when a sailor arrives and announces that the Turks seem to have turned toward Rhodes, another island controlled by Venice. One of the senators guesses that the Turks’ change of course is intended to mislead the Venetians, because Cyprus is more important to the Turks and far more vulnerable than Rhodes. This guess proves to be correct, as another messenger arrives to report that the Turks have joined with more forces and are heading back toward Cyprus.

This military meeting is interrupted by the arrival of Brabanzio, Othello, Cassio, Iago, Roderigo, and officers. Brabanzio demands that all state business be put aside to address his own grievance—his daughter has been stolen from him by spells and potions purchased from charlatans. The duke is initially eager to take Brabanzio’s side, but he becomes more skeptical when he learns that Othello is the man accused. The duke gives Othello the chance to speak for himself. Othello admits that he married Desdemona, but he denies having used magic to woo her and claims that Desdemona will support his story. He explains that Brabanzio frequently invited him to his house and questioned him about his remarkable life story, full of harrowing battles, travels outside the civilized world, and dramatic reversals of fortune. Desdemona overheard parts of the story and found a convenient time to ask Othello to retell it to her. Desdemona was moved to love Othello by his story.

The duke is persuaded by Othello’s tale, dismissing Brabanzio’s claim by remarking that the story probably would win his own daughter. Desdemona enters, and Brabanzio asks her to tell those present to whom she owes the most obedience. Brabanzio clearly expects her to say her father. Desdemona, however, confirms that she married Othello of her own free will and that, like her own mother before her, she must shift her primary loyalty from father to husband. Brabanzio reluctantly resigns himself to her decision and allows the court to return to state affairs.

The duke decides that Othello must go to Cyprus to defend the island from the Turks. Othello is willing and ready to go, and he asks that appropriate accommodations be provided for his wife. The duke suggests that she stay with her father, but neither Desdemona nor Brabanzio nor Othello will accept this, and Desdemona asks to be allowed to go with Othello. The couple then leaves to prepare for the night’s voyage.

The stage is cleared, leaving only Roderigo and Iago. Once again, Roderigo feels that his hopes of winning Desdemona have been dashed, but Iago insists that all will be well. Iago mocks Roderigo for threatening to drown himself, and Roderigo protests that he can’t help being tormented by love. Iago contradicts him, asserting that people can choose at will what they want to be. “Put but money in thy purse,” Iago tells Roderigo repeatedly in the paragraph that spans lines 329–351, urging him to follow him to Cyprus. Iago promises to work everything out from there. When Roderigo leaves, Iago delivers his first soliloquy, declaring his hatred for Othello and his suspicion that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia. He lays out his plan to cheat Roderigo out of his money, to convince Othello that Cassio has slept with Desdemona, and to use Othello’s honest and unsuspecting nature to bring him to his demise….DOWNLOAD BELOW  TO READ MORE…









Othello’s villainous ensign Iago plots against Othello and sends Roderigo to tell Senator Brabantio that Othello has seduced Brabantio’s daughter Desdemona.After convincing the Senate that he has won Desdemona’s love fair and square, Othello is sent to Cyprus for a military command, new bride in tow.Iago plants a handkerchief that Othello gave to Desdemona on Cassio, the man who received the promotion Iago wanted, and convinces Othello that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair.Iago convinces Roderigo to make an attempt on Cassio’s life, and when it only maims him, frames the courtesan Bianca and quietly murders Roderigo. Mad with jealousy, Othello smothers Desdemona. Iago’s wife Emilia stumbles upon the murder and exposes Iago’s plots, for which Iago kills her and is arrested. Othello, realizing his grave error, kills himself.
Along with Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, Othello is one of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies and thus a pillar of what most critics take to be the apex of Shakespeare’s dramatic art. Othello is unique among Shakespeare’s great tragedies. Unlike Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, which are set against a backdrop of affairs of state and which reverberate with suggestions of universal human concerns, Othello is set in a private world and focuses on the passions and personal lives of its major figures. Indeed, it has often been described as a “tragedy of character”; Othello’s swift descent into jealousy and rage and Iago’s dazzling display of villainy have long fascinated students and critics of the play. The relationship between these characters is another unusual feature of Othello. With two such prominent characters so closely associated, determining which is the central figure in the play and which bears the greater responsibility for the tragedy is difficult.
More than anything else, what distinguishes Othello from its great tragedies’ peers is the role of its villain, Iago. While the usurper King Claudius of Hamlet, the faithless daughters of Lear, and the unnatural villains of Macbeth (Macbeth, his Lady and the Weird Sister witches) are all impressively evil in their own way, none of them enjoys the same diabolical role as Iago.
Iago is a character who essentially writes the play’s main plot, takes a key part in it, and gives first-hand direction to the others, most notably to the noble Moor, Othello. The play presents us with two remarkable characters, Iago and his victim, with Iago as the dominant force that causes Othello to see the infidelity of his young and beautiful wife, Desdemona, with his favorite lieutenant, Michael Cassio. Indeed, not only is “seeing” and the gap between appearance and reality a central theme of the play, it overlaps with other major thematic strands (trust, honor, and reputation) and sheds light on still others, including the theme of patriarchy and the political state.
Written in 1604, Othello is one of Shakespeare’s most highly concentrated, tightly constructed tragedies, with no subplots and little humor to relieve the tension. Although he adapted the plot of his play from the sixteenth-century Italian dramatist and novelist Giraldi Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi, Shakespeare related almost every incident directly to the development of Iago’s schemes and Othello’s escalating fears. This structure heightens the tragedy’s ominous mood and makes the threat to both Desdemona’s innocence and the love she and Othello share more terrifying.
Although narrow in scope, Othello, with its intimate domestic setting, is widely regarded as the most moving and the most painful of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. The fall of a proud, dignified man, the murder of a graceful, loving woman, and the unreasoning hatred of a “motiveless” villain—all have evoked fear and pity in audiences throughout the centuries. If it lacks the cosmic grandeur of Hamlet or King Lear, Othello nevertheless possesses a power that is perhaps more immediate and strongly felt for operating on the personal, human plane


Othello Summary-How It All Goes Down

We start out in Venice, Italy, land of love and water. We meet two guys early on: Iago and Roderigo. Iago, who’s been taking money from Roderigo in some sort of “arrangement,” is upset at “the Moor,” a.k.a. Othello, our tragic hero. Othello is a general in the Venetian army, and he just chose another man, Cassio, to be his lieutenant. This angers Iago, who wanted the position for himself.
Iago and Roderigo decide to get back at Othello by making a nighttime visit to Brabantio, the father of Desdemona (a.k.a. the woman Othello has recently eloped with). When Iago and Roderigo tattle on Othello for marrying Desdemona without her father’s permission, Brabantio rushes to his daughter’s room and discovers that she is missing. According to the angry father, this must mean that “the Moor” somehow “tricked” his daughter into whatever the two of them are doing together.
Cut to Othello in the next day or so, who’s hanging out with Iago and talking about his new wife, Desdemona. Trouble is brewing since Brabantio is a senator and therefore pretty influential. It’s clear that he’ll try to split the pair up. But Othello isn’t worried. Since he’s legendary in the Venetian military, he believes his service record will get him through just fine. He adds that he really loves Desdemona, too.
The conversation is interrupted by Michael Cassio (the guy who got the lieutenant position over Iago), who says the Duke of Venice needs to see Othello right away, because there’s some military action going down in Cyprus. Before everyone can peacefully exit, Brabantio shows up with Roderigo and various henchmen, ready to kill Othello or at least maim him severely for having the audacity to marry his daughter. Looks like everyone is off to see the Duke and settle the matter.
Once we get to the Duke, Othello speaks in his defense: he says Desdemona was an equal participant in their courting, and there was no trickery involved. They’re now very much in love and married. Our woman in question, i.e. Desdemona, finally arrives and confirms the whole story. At this, the Duke tells Brabantio to stop whining and sends Othello to fight the battle in Cyprus. Desdemona states that she’ll come along, as do Iago, his wife Emilia, Cassio, and Roderigo.
Iago and Roderigo have a little conversation during which Roderigo complains about being lovesick for Desdemona, and Iago says he’ll get them together as soon as they bring down Othello. Once alone, Iago reveals a rumor that Othello was having sex with Iago’s wife, Emilia. (The rumor is totally untrue and it’s not even clear that Iago believes it.) To get revenge, he’ll take out Cassio and Othello by convincing Othello that Cassio is having sex with Othello’s wife, Desdemona.
So our cast of characters gets transported to Cyprus, where instead of battle there’s just a big party (long story, read your play for the details). We note that Cassio is a ladies’ man, especially around Emilia. While on watch together, Iago gets Cassio drunk and orchestrates a fight between him and Roderigo.
Othello intervenes and fires Cassio for being belligerently drunk instead of doing his job. Iago then convinces Cassio that he should ask Desdemona to tell Othello to give him back his job. Once alone, Iago schemes more about how he’s going to convince Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio.
Cassio talks to Desdemona and she agrees to try to convince her husband to give Cassio his job back. As Othello is seen approaching, Cassio slinks off, not wanting to have an awkward moment with the guy that just fired him. Iago (entering with Othello) notes how suspicious it is that Cassio hurried off like that. Once the two men are alone, Iago plants (and massively fertilizes) the seed of suspicion. Cassio, he hints, is having an affair with Desdemona. He warns Othello to keep his eye out for anything suspicious, like Desdemona talking about Cassio all the time and pleading for his job back.
Othello is so upset he gets physically ill. Once Desdemona is back, she tries to bandage his head playfully with the “special handkerchief” Othello once gave her, a symbol of their undying love, an heirloom from his dead mother, and eventually the cause of a whole lot of trouble—which is why we later call it “the handkerchief of death.”
To make a long story short, Emilia steals the handkerchief for her husband Iago, whom we learn has asked for it repeatedly in the past. Iago plants the handkerchief of death in Cassio’s room. Othello enters, and Iago furthers Othello’s suspicions with the aid of various outright lies. When Othello learns about the handkerchief, he decides that Desdemona is cheating on him, and because of that, she has to die.
The next scene brings us to Othello arguing with Desdemona while Emilia watches. He wants to know where the handkerchief is and Desdemona, oblivious, wants to talk about Cassio. Fighting ensues.
Shortly afterwards, we meet Bianca, a prostitute who’s in love with Cassio. Cassio gives her the handkerchief he got from Iago, and swears it’s not a love token from another woman. Some time later, Iago sets up a conversation between himself and Cassio, in which he gets Cassio to speak provocatively about Bianca. According to Iago’s plan, somehow Othello, hiding and listening in, will think Cassio’s speaking of Desdemona. So while Cassio is saying, “Yeah, I gave it to her good,” Othello is thinking, “I’m going to kill that guy.”
To make matters even worse, Bianca storms in and throws the special handkerchief in Cassio’s face, having discovered that it indeed belonged to another woman. She storms out, with Cassio following behind her. Othello rages for a bit, and Iago advises that he strangle Desdemona. The next time the couple interacts, Othello hits her in the face (in front of a messenger from Venice telling him he has to go back home). Shortly after that, Othello yells at his wife, calling her a “whore,” a “strumpet,” and lots of other hurtful names. Filled with jealousy and indignation, he eventually resolves to kill his wife.
Back on the other manipulation front, Roderigo is getting tired of Iago taking all his money and not delivering the goods (i.e., Desdemona), as promised. Iago tells him to cool his jets, and also to kill Cassio when the opportunity arises, which, according to Iago, will happen that night between midnight and 1:00 AM.
Meanwhile, Desdemona and Emilia are talking together, and Desdemona begins to act strangely, foreshadowing her own death. She sings of it, too. Emilia, meanwhile, defends the act of cheating on one’s spouse, especially if there’s a good reason for it.
Iago and Roderigo hang out, waiting for Cassio. Roderigo tries to stab Cassio, fails, gets stabbed himself, and looks to be in trouble until Iago sneaks up and stabs Cassio in the leg. Two Venetian gentlemen run in at the sound of Cassio’s screaming. Iago pretends he just stumbled in himself, declares Roderigo to be the assailant, and stabs Roderigo to death before the man can claim otherwise. Bianca runs in and screams a bit, and Iago tries to pin the mess on her. Emilia enters and Iago weaves her a lying tale. He instructs her to tell Othello and his wife about the news.
Othello, meanwhile, kills Desdemona, just as Emilia enters the room. In this moment of confusion, Emilia reports (incorrectly) to Othello that Cassio killed Roderigo. Othello is furious to find that Cassio is still alive, as that was definitely not the plan. Emilia finally puts two and two together and realizes her own husband is the cause of everyone’s tragedy.
As people pour into the room, Emilia outs Iago for being a rat. Iago promptly stabs his wife, but not so promptly that the truth can’t come out first. Othello demands to know why Iago ruined his entire life, but Iago refuses to give him (and us) a good reason. The Venetian gentlemen decide to take Othello back to Venice to face his punishment for killing his wife, and Cassio inherits Othello’s post in Cyprus. Othello, overwhelmed by grief, decides to end his life rather than live without Desdemona.