In this lesson, meet Shakespeare’s tragic hero, Othello, and some of his friends and foes. Find out where the infamous Moor went wrong, and read some of the famous quotes from the play.
Summary of Othello
What do you get when you mix a viciously ambitious military man with a jealous newlywed and a spurned lover? A famous Shakespearean tragedy about what happens when people let their emotions get the best of them. The play opens in Venice, Italy, with Iago, the play’s villain, and Roderigo, a man who is paying Iago to help him in his romantic pursuit of Desdemona, arguing about Desdemona’s recent marriage to Othello. Iago assures Roderigo that Desdemona will soon become bored with Othello and then Roderigo will have his chance with her.Iago is upset with Othello, the military commander, because he recently promoted a guy named Cassio instead of Iago to the position of lieutenant even though Iago has more military experience. Iago and Roderigo tell Desdemona’s father that the only reason she married Othello is because he put some kind of magic spell on her. Desdemona’s father complains to the local governing body, the Senate, and Othello offers his rebuttal, stating that he won Desdemona’s love by telling her the exciting stories of his military adventures.
Desdemona appears before the Senate to confirm Othello’s story and tells her father that her allegiance is now to her husband.Meanwhile, the Turks are on their way to invade Cyprus, an island just off Italy’s coast, so all the major characters sail to the island to prepare to defend it. When they get there, however, they learn that the Turks’ ships were all lost in a storm. With the problem of the Turks out of the way, Iago can now concentrate on a complex plan to get Cassio demoted and get revenge on Othello for promoting Cassio in the first place. When Iago notices Cassio innocently holding Desdemona’s hand while he assures her that Othello’s ship has made it safely through the storm, he decides to use this purely platonic gesture to frame Desdemona for adultery.To celebrate the fact that the Turks will not be invading after all, Othello declares a night of feasting and partying.
During the party, Iago gets Cassio drunk and sends Roderigo to start a fight with him. During the fray, Cassio inadvertently stabs the governor of Cyprus. Othello punishes Cassio by demoting him. Cassio complains about his demotion to Iago who tells him that if he tells Desdemona his story, she will be sympathetic and talk Othello into reinstating him as lieutenant. Iago offers to help by telling Othello he needs to check on some of the town’s fortifications.
When Othello returns, Desdemona asks him to forgive Cassio and let him have his lieutenant position back. This, plus Iago’s suggestions that Cassio and Desdemona are being intimate, causes Othello to become jealous and angry. He accuses Desdemona of adultery and smothers her with a pillow. Later, Emilia, who is Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s friend, convinces Othello that Desdemona was never unfaithful. Iago is angered by this and kills Emilia. Othello is guilt-stricken and kills himself. The authorities, realizing that Iago was behind this plot to ruin Othello, sentence him to be executed.
Analysis of Othello
Othello is unusual among Shakespeare’s tragedies because much of it is set up like a typical Shakespearean comedy. A tragedy is a play that focuses on unfortunate events and that ends unhappily, while a Shakespearian comedy almost always deals with love and marriage, has a plot that hinges on deception and disguises, and has a setting that is outside of civilization where supernatural events can take place and the characters are not held to the normal rules of society. Othello contains all of the elements of a comedy, but instead of ending in marriage, the play ends in multiple deaths including that of the tragic hero, Othello.Othello is a military hero, well-respected by the Senate, and well-loved by his new wife. At the beginning of the play, he seems calm, controlled, and eloquent. But by the end of Act IV, Othello has given himself over to raging jealousy, so much so that he suffers an epileptic fit and cannot speak.
Shakespeare uses this to show Othello’s progression from military hero to tragic hero.Although Othello is the tragic figure, Iago is really the main character in the play. He has been passed up for a promotion and this apparently explains his revenge plot against Othello, but as the play progresses, it becomes apparent that Iago may simply just be a bad guy. He manipulates just about everyone else in the play and causes the deaths of several innocent characters. He even stabs and kills his own wife. Iago’s plan hurts many more people than just Othello.Most of the action of the play takes place on the island of Cyprus.
In contrast to Venice, where the Senate rules and Othello is calm and well-spoken, Cyprus appears to be a place where deception, strong emotions, and lack of control abounds. Othello contains probably one of the most disturbing murder scenes in literature, that of Othello smothering his bride, possibly on their wedding night (the timing of their actual marriage is unclear during the play). Again, Shakespeare uses this act to show how far unchecked emotions, in this case, jealousy, can go.
Quotes in Othello
Here are some famous quotes from the play, along with their explanations:’And so much duty that my mother showedTo you, preferring you before her father,So much I challenge that I may professDue to the Moor my lord.’ (Act I, Scene 3, Lines 213-218)Desdemona says this to her father when he’s complaining that she has been tricked into marrying Othello with a magic spell. She tells her father that she now owes her loyalty to her husband (Othello the Moor) just like her mother was loyal to her husband (Desdemona’s father).
Basically, she’s doing the same thing her mother did when she got married, so why should her father be angry?’O beware, my lord, of Jealousy!It is the green-eyed monster which doth mockThe meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in blissWho, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;But O, what damned minutes tells he o’erWho dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly loves!’ (Act III, Scene 3, Lines 195-200)Iago utters this famous description of jealousy when he is egging Othello on about Desdemona’s supposed infidelity. You may recognize now where we get the idea of jealousy being a ‘green-eyed monster.’ A ‘cuckold’ was a term used to describe a man whose wife was cheating on him. Here, Iago says a husband who doesn’t love his wife doesn’t really care what she does even when he is certain of her unfaithfulness, but it’s maddening when a man just suspects that his wife might be cheating, but still loves her.’When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,Nor set down aught in malice.
Then must you speakOf one that loved not wisely, but too well.Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,Perplexed in the extreme. Of one whose hand,Like the base Indian, threw a pearl awayRicher than all his tribe. Of one whose subdued eyes,Albeit unused to the melting mood,Drop tears as fast as the Arabian treesTheir medicinal gum.’ (Act V, Scene 2, Lines 357-367)Othello is dictating his last request to Lodovico, Desdemona’s cousin, just before he kills himself. He asks that he be remembered as objectively as possible given the circumstances. He describes himself as a man who did not make good choices in love, but who was faithful in his love.
This line obviously refers to his relationship with Desdemona, but it also speaks of the alliance he and Iago made during the play. He claims here that he was not easily made jealous (which is suspect, given how easily Iago was able to convince him of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness), but when he became jealous he was consumed by the emotion and threw away a precious part of his life (Desdemona) and then cried bitterly about it.
In Othello, a tragedy by William Shakespeare, Iago, angered over being passed up for a promotion, seeks to get revenge on Othello. Iago manipulates the words and actions of almost everyone else in the play in order to convince Othello that his new wife, Desdemona, has committed adultery with Cassio, the man who received the promotion Iago wanted.
Most of the play takes place on Cyprus, an island just off the coast of Italy. Although in the beginning, Othello is calm and well-spoken, by the end he has become so consumed with jealous rage, he kills Desdemona and then kills himself. This transformation emphasizes the theme that unchecked emotions can cause disastrous results.Othello is unusual among Shakespeare’s tragedies because much of it is set up like a typical Shakespearean comedy. A tragedy is a play that focuses on unfortunate events and that ends unhappily, while a Shakespearian comedy almost always deals with love and marriage, has a plot that hinges on deception and disguises, and has a setting that is outside of civilization where supernatural events can take place and the characters are not held to the normal rules of society.
Ensure that you’re able to reach these goals after watching the video lesson:
- Recount the plot of Othello
- Analyze the character ‘Othello’
- Recite and clarify some quotes from the play