Read the comprehensive analysis on the background, characters, theme, settings and an Act by Act summary of OTHELLO by William Shakespeare.
Background of OTHELLO by William Shakespeare
Othello is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1603. It is based on the story Un Capitano Moro (“A Moorish Captain”) by Cinthio (a disciple of Boccaccio’s), first published in 1565. The story revolved around its two central characters: Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army, and his treacherous ensign, Iago.
Given its varied and enduring themes of racism, love, jealousy, betrayal, revenge, and repentance, Othello is still often performed in professional and community theatre alike, and has been the source for numerous operatic, film, and literary adaptations.
Character Summary of OTHELLO by William Shakespeare
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.
The daughter of the Venetian senator Brabanzio. Desdemona and Othello are secretly married before the play begins.
Othello’s ensign and the villain of the play. 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 delight in manipulation.
4. Michael Cassio
Othello’s lieutenant. Cassio is a young and inexperienced soldier, whose high position is much hated by Iago.
Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s attendant. A cynical, worldly woman, she is deeply attached to her mistress and distrustful of her husband.
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.
A courtesan, or prostitute, in Cyprus whose favourite customer is Cassio.
Desdemona’s father, a somewhat blustering and self-important Venetian senator.
9. Duke of Venice
The official authority in Venice.
The governor of Cyprus before Othello.
One of Brabanzio’s kinsmen, Lodovico acts as a messenger from Venice to Cyprus.
Brabanzio’s kinsman who accompanies Lodovico to Cyprus.
Themes in OTHELLO by William Shakespeare
In Shakespeare’s “Othello,” themes are essential to the working of the play. The text is rich with plot, character, poetry, and theme – elements which come together to form one of the Bard’s most engaging tragedies.
Othello Theme 1: Race
Shakespeare’s Othello is a Moor, a black man – indeed, one of the first black heroes in English literature.
The play deals with interracial marriage. Others have a problem with it, but Othello and Desdemona are happily in love. Othello holds an important position of power and influence. He has been accepted into Venetian society based on his bravery as a soldier.
Iago uses Othello’s race to ridicule and belittle him, at one point calling him “thick lips”. Othello’s insecurities surrounding his race ultimately lead to his belief that Desdemona is having an affair.
As a black man, he doesn’t feel he is worthy of his wife’s attention or that he has been embraced by Venetian society. Indeed, Brabanzio is unhappy about his daughter’s choice of suitor, due to his race. He is quite happy to have Othello regale stories of bravery to him but when it comes to his daughter, Othello is not good enough.
Brabanzio is convinced that Othello has used trickery to get Desdemona to marry him:
Othello’s race is an issue for Iago and Brabanzio but, as an audience, we are rooting for Othello, Shakespeare’s celebration of Othello as a black man is ahead of its time, the play encourages the audience to side with him and take against the white man who is mocking him just because of his race.
Othello Theme 2: Jealousy
The story of Othello is propelled by feelings of intense jealousy. All of the action and consequences that unfold are the result of jealousy. Iago is jealous of Cassio’s appointment as lieutenant over him, he also believes that Othello has had an affair with Emilia, his wife, and harbors plans for revenge on him as a result.
Iago also appears to be envious of Othello’s standing in Venetian society; despite his race, he has been celebrated and accepted in society. Desdemona’s acceptance of Othello as a worthy husband demonstrates this and this acceptance is due to Othello’s valor as a soldier, Iago is envious of Othello’s position.
Roderigo is jealous of Othello because he is in love with Desdemona. Roderigo is essential to the plot, his actions act as a catalyst in the narrative. It is Roderigo who goads Cassio into the fight which loses him his job, Roderigo attempts to kill Cassio so that Desdemona stays in Cyprus and eventually Roderigo exposes Iago.
Iago convinces Othello, erroneously, that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Othello reluctantly believes Iago but is finally convinced of his wife’s betrayal. So much so that he kills her. Jealousy leads to Othello’s degradation and ultimate downfall.
Othello Theme 3: Duplicity
Unfortunately for Othello, the man who he trusts in the play, Iago, is not what he seems he is scheming, duplicitous and has a deep malevolent loathing for his master. Othello is made to believe that Cassio and Desdemona are the duplicitous ones. This mistake of judgment leads to his downfall.
Othello is prepared to believe Iago over his own wife because of his faith in his servant’s honesty. He does not see any reason why Iago might double cross him.
Iago’s treatment of Roderigo is also duplicitous, treating him as a friend or at least a comrade with a common goal, only to kill him in order to cover up his own guilt. Fortunately, Roderigo was savvier to Iago’s duplicity than he knew, hence the letters exposing him.
Emilia could be accused of duplicity in exposing her own husband. However, this endears her to the audience and demonstrates her honesty in that she has discovered her husband’s wrongdoings and is so outraged that she exposes him.
Settings of OTHELLO by William Shakespeare
Othello is set in Venice, presumably sometime in the latter half of the sixteenth-century. Venice was at war with the Ottoman empire between 1570 and 1573, so the play’s reference to the threat of an attack on Cyprus could reflect a setting sometime during this period.
Venice was well-known as an early example of what might later be called a multicultural city, boasting a much greater diversity of ethnicities and religions amongst its inhabitants than most other European cities could.
Othello is identified in the play’s subtitle as a “Moor”: a term most typically used in this period to signal someone who was either of African descent, Muslim faith, or both. Whatever the precise details of Othello’s racial and religious identity, they are clearly enough to provoke anxiety when Iago torments Brabantio by referring to Othello as “an old black ram” and a “Barbary horse”.
While Brabantio is outraged that his daughter has married a man marked as an outsider, Othello has also clearly gained a significant amount of prestige and respect in Venice since the Duke trusts him with the crucial military defense of Cyprus. As a setting, Venice serves Shakespeare’s needs of a place where a non-European, and potentially non-Christian, man could both hold significant authority but still be distrusted.
A second factor which may have informed Shakespeare’s decision to set his play in Venice was the city’s reputation as a hub of prostitution.
While prostitution existed everywhere, a number of visitors to Venice in the early modern period published accounts of an established courtesan profession. Venetian prostitutes were often well-educated and lived in relative luxury, and as long they obeyed state-determined rules about when and how they practiced their trade, they were relatively free to conduct their business.
The Venetian state tolerated prostitution as another feature of the city’s bustling commercial life, and the city gained a reputation as a place potentially loaded with sexual innuendo. Shakespeare’s incorporation of the prostitute Bianca was likely more plausible to contemporary audiences in a play set in Venice.
Moreover, Othello’s fears that his bride could rapidly slide into sexual promiscuity seem linked to a belief that the line between virtuous wives and common courtesans is dangerously thin.
Act by Act Summary of OTHELLO by William Shakespeare
Othello began on a street in Venice, in the midst of an argument between Roderigo, a rich man, who had been paying Iago to help him in his suit to Desdemona.
But Roderigo had just learnt that Desdemona had married Othello, a general whom Iago begrudgingly served as ensign. Iago said he hated Othello, who recently passed him over for the position of lieutenant in favour of the inexperienced soldier Michael Cassio.
Unseen, Iago and Roderigo cried out to Brabanzio that his daughter Desdemona has been stolen by and married to Othello, the Moor.
Brabanzio found that his daughter was indeed missing, and gathered some officers to find Othello. Not wanting his hatred for Othello to be known, Iago left Roderigo and hurried back to Othello before Brabanzio sees him.
At Othello’s residence, Cassio arrived with an urgent message from the duke: Othello’s help was needed in the matter of an imminent Turkish invasion of Cyprus.
Not long afterward, Brabanzio arrived with Roderigo and others, and accused Othello of stealing his daughter by witchcraft. When he found out that Othello was on his way to speak with the duke, Brabanzio decided to go along and accuse Othello before the assembled senate.
But Brabanzio’s plan backfired.
The duke and senate were very sympathetic towards Othello and given a chance to speak for himself, Othello explained that he wooed and won Desdemona not by witchcraft but with the stories of his adventures in travel and war.
The duke found Othello’s explanation convincing, and Desdemona herself was called to defend her choice in marriage and she announced to her father that her allegiance is now to her husband.
Brabanzio was frustrated, but acquiesced and allowed the senate meeting to resume. The duke then continued that Othello must go to Cyprus to aid in the defense against the Turks, who were headed for the island. Desdemona insisted that she will accompany her husband on his trip, and preparations were made for them to depart that night.
In Cyprus the following day, two gentlemen stood on the shore with Montano, the governor of Cyprus. A third gentleman arrived and reported that the Turkish fleet had been wrecked in a storm at sea. Cassio, whose ship did not suffer the same fate, arrived soon after, followed by a second ship carrying Iago, Roderigo, Desdemona, and Emilia, Iago’s wife. Once they have landed, Othello’s ship was sighted, and the group went to the harbor.
As they wait for Othello, Cassio greeted Desdemona by kissing her hand. Watching them, Iago told himself that he will use “as little a web as this” hand-holding to ensnare Cassio.
Othello arrived, greeted his wife, and announced that there will be partying that evening to celebrate Cyprus’s safety from the Turks.
Once everyone had left, Roderigo complained to Iago that he had no chance of breaking up Othello’s marriage. Iago assured Roderigo that as soon as Desdemona’s “blood is made dull with the act of sport,” she will lose interest in Othello and seek sexual satisfaction elsewhere.
However, Iago warned that “elsewhere” will likely be Cassio. Iago counseled Roderigo that he should cast Cassio into disgrace by starting a fight with Cassio at the evening’s party.
In a soliloquy, Iago explained that eliminating Cassio is the first crucial step in his plan to ruin Othello.
That night, Iago got Cassio drunk and then sent Roderigo to start a fight with him. Apparently provoked by Roderigo, Cassio chased Roderigo across the stage. Governor Montano attempted to hold Cassio down, and Cassio stabbed him. Iago sent Roderigo to raise alarm in the town.
The alarm was rung, and Othello, who had left earlier with plans to consummate his marriage, soon arrived to still the commotion. When Othello demanded to know who began the fight, Iago feigned reluctance to implicate his “friend” Cassio, but he ultimately told the whole story.
Othello then stripped Cassio of his rank of lieutenant. Cassio was extremely upset, and he lamented to Iago, once everyone else has gone, that his reputation had been ruined forever. Iago assured Cassio that he can get back into Othello’s good graces by using Desdemona as an intermediary.
In a soliloquy, Iago told himself that he will frame Cassio and Desdemona as lovers to make Othello jealous.
In an attempt to reconcile with Othello by pleading with Desdemona, Cassio asked Iago to beg his wife, Emilia to arrange a meeting for him and Desdemona. Iago sent for his wife immediately and promised to get Othello out of the way so that Cassio can speak privately with Desdemona.
Iago then left with Othello as promised.
Desdemona was quite sympathetic to Cassio’s request and promised to do everything she can for Othello to forgive his former lieutenant. But as Cassio was about to leave, Othello and Iago returned.
Feeling uneasy, Cassio left without talking to Othello. Othello inquired whether it was Cassio who just parted from his wife, and Iago, poised to kindle Othello’s fire of jealousy, replied, “Cassio, my lord? No, surely he would not sneak away so guilty-like when he saw you coming”.
Othello became upset and moody, and Iago furthered his goal of removing both Cassio and Othello by suggesting that Cassio and Desdemona were involved in an affair.
All Desdemona’s appeals to Othello to reinstate Cassio as lieutenant added to Othello’s immediate conviction that his wife is unfaithful.
After Othello’s conversation with Iago, Desdemona came to call Othello to supper and found him feeling unwell. She offered him her handkerchief to wrap around his head, but he finds it to be “too little” and lets it drop to the floor.
As Desdemona and Othello went for dinner, Emilia picked up the handkerchief and mentioned to the audience that Iago had always wanted her to steal it for him.
Iago was ecstatic when Emilia gives him the handkerchief, which he planted in Cassio’s room as “evidence” of his affair with Desdemona. When Othello demands “ocular proof” that his wife was unfaithful, Iago said that he has seen Cassio “wipe his beard” with Desdemona’s handkerchief—the first gift Othello ever gave her.
Othello vowed to take vengeance on his wife and Cassio, and Iago offered to assist him.
When Othello sees Desdemona later that evening, he demanded the handkerchief, but she told him that she does not have it with her and attempted to change the subject by continuing her plea on Cassio’s behalf. This drove Othello into further rage, and he stormed out.
Later, Cassio was wondering about the handkerchief he had just found in his chamber. He was greeted by Bianca, a prostitute, whom he asked to take the handkerchief and copy its embroidery for him.
Through Iago’s machinations, Othello became so consumed by jealousy that he fell into a trance and had a fit of epilepsy. As he writhed on the ground, Cassio came by, and Iago told him to come back in a few minutes to talk.
When Othello recovered, Iago told him of the meeting he had planned with Cassio. He instructed Othello to hide nearby and watch as Iago extracted from Cassio the story of his affair with Desdemona.
While Othello stood out of earshot, Iago pumped Cassio for information about Bianca, causing Cassio to laugh and confirm Othello’s suspicions. Bianca herself then came with Desdemona’s handkerchief, reprimanding Cassio for making her copy out the embroidery of a love token given to him by another woman.
When Desdemona came with Lodovico and Lodovico subsequently gives Othello a letter from Venice calling him home and instating Cassio as his replacement, Othello goes over the edge, hitting Desdemona and then storming out.
That night, Othello accused Desdemona of being a whore. He ignored her protestations, seconded by Emilia, that she was innocent. Iago assured Desdemona that Othello was simply upset about matters of state.
Later that night, however, Othello ominously told Desdemona to wait for him in bed and to send Emilia away.
Meanwhile, Iago assures the still-complaining Roderigo that everything was going as planned: in order to prevent Desdemona and Othello from leaving, Roderigo must kill Cassio. Then he will have a clear avenue to his love.
Iago instructed Roderigo to ambush Cassio, but Roderigo missed his mark and Cassio wounded him instead. Iago then wounded Cassio and ran away.
When Othello heard Cassio’s cry, he assumed that Iago had killed Cassio as he said he would. Lodovico and Graziano came out to see what the commotion was about. Iago appeared shortly thereafter and flew into a pretend rage as he “discovered” Cassio’s assailant Roderigo, whom he murdered. Cassio was taken to have his wound dressed.
Meanwhile, Othello stood over his sleeping wife in their bedchamber, preparing to kill her. Desdemona woke and attempted to plead with Othello. She asserted her innocence, but Othello smothered her.
Emilia entered with the news that Roderigo was dead. Othello asked if Cassio was dead too and was mortified when Emilia said he was not. After crying out that she has been murdered, Desdemona changed her story before she died, claiming that she had committed suicide.
Emilia asked Othello what happened, and Othello told her that he had killed Desdemona for her infidelity, which Iago brought to his attention.
Montano, Graziano, and Iago come into the room. Iago attempts to silence Emilia, who realizes what Iago had done. At first, Othello insisted that Iago had told the truth, citing the handkerchief as evidence. Once Emilia told him how she found the handkerchief and gave it to Iago, Othello was crushed and begins to weep.
He tried to kill Iago but was disarmed. Iago killed Emilia and fled, but was caught by Lodovico and Montano, who returned holding Iago captive. They also brought Cassio, who was now in a chair because of his wound.
Othello wounded Iago before he was disarmed. Lodovico told Othello that he must come with them back to Venice to be tried. Othello made a speech about how he would like to be remembered, then killed himself with a sword he had hidden on himself.
The play closed with a speech by Lodovico. He gave Othello’s house and goods to Graziano and ordered that Iago be executed.
Let others know
In as much as I have provided the above summary of “OTHELLO by William Shakespeare”, you are advised to still bring out time to read the full play for wider understanding.