It is believed that William Shakespeare wrote The Tragic Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice around 1603, which is based on the 1565 short story Un Capitano Moro (“A Moorish Captain”) by Cinthio, a disciple of Boccaccio.
There are four central characters in this tightly constructed play: Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army; Desdemona, his beloved wife; Cassio, the loyal lieutenant; and Iago, the trusted but unfaithful ensign.
Othello is still often performed professionally and in community theatres alike due to its diversity of themes, including racism, love, jealousy, betrayal, revenge, and repentance, as well as its many operatic, film, and literary adaptations.
You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book review provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.
Let’s get started without further ado.
Table of Contents
A proud soldier murders his wife after being tricked by an evil lieutenant into believing she was unfaithful.
As night falls in Venice, Iago, second lieutenant to the Moorish general Othello, is bitter that Othello has passed him over and chosen the inexperienced Cassio to be his first lieutenant. He explains to Roderigo, a foolish gentleman, that he intends to patiently await the time when revenge on Othello will be possible.
They arrive at the house of Senator Brabantio, whose daughter Desdemona has secretly wed the dark-skinned Othello. Iago awakens the old man and crudely tells him that his daughter had eloped with the Moor, whom the Senator dislikes. Brabantio becomes furious, but Iago departs before being recognized, not wanting to jeopardize his planned deception of Othello.
Moments later, Iago pretends to be indignant when he tells Othello of Brabantio’s violent reaction to the marriage, but the general is not concerned. They are met by Cassio, who informs Othello that the Duke of Venice wishes to see him.
En route to the palace, they encounter Brabantio and his men, who demand Desdemona’s return. Othello avoids a fight by agreeing to take their dispute before the Duke. At the palace, the Duke and his assembled senators receive news that a Turkish fleet is about to attack the Venetian colony of Cyprus.
Othello and Brabantio arrive and the council takes up their dispute. Brabantio accuses Othello of using magic to seduce his daughter; Othello lets his reputation as an honorable warrior serve as his defense. When Desdemona arrives to announce that she loves Othello of her own free will, an outraged Brabantio disowns her.
The Duke orders Othello to defend Cyprus. Roderigo secretly confesses to Iago his anguish over losing Desdemona, at which point Iago enlists him in his plot to ruin Othello’s marriage. In a soliloquy (speech made alone on stage), Iago states that Othello is rumored to have made love to Iago’s wife, Emilia. He decides to trick the Moor into believing that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair.
The scene shifts to the island of Cyprus, several days later. A storm has destroyed the Turkish fleet before it could attack the island. While awaiting news of Othello’s ship, Desdemona and Iago argue about the nature of womanly virtue.
Othello arrives and warmly greets his wife, proclaiming a victory celebration. Iago convinces Roderigo to ruin Cassio by provoking a public fight with him. In a soliloquy, Iago reveals his envy of Cassio and Othello, and swears to destroy them. As the celebration begins, Othello orders Cassio to keep the watch, then retires for his long-awaited wedding night with Desdemona. Iago tricks Cassio into becoming drunk, then has Roderigo engage him in a fight.
A drunken Cassio beats Roderigo and strikes Montano, the governor of Cyprus. Othello, roused from bed, demands to know who started the riot. Iago cleverly implies that it was Cassio. Othello believes him and strips Cassio of his rank. Iago men secretly advises the ruined Cassio to let Desdemona plead his case to Othello.
After Cassio departs, Iago confesses in another soliloquy his plan to have the justice-loving Desdemona take up Cassio’s cause and make it seem to Othello that she pleads out of love for Cassio.
With Othello off to inspect the island’s defenses, Desdemona pledges to Cassio that she will represent him before her husband. When Othello and Iago see them talking, Iago begins to arouse suspicion in Othello by pointing out Cassio’s sudden departure at their approach.
Desdemona speaks in favor of Cassio, making Othello even more suspicious. After she leaves, Iago skillfully implies that Desdemona’s impassioned pleas for Cassio are inspired more by love for him than love of justice.
He also points out that Venetian women are not to be trusted, reminding Othello of Desdemona’s “deception” of her father when she and Othello eloped. Othello is immediately possessed by the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy.
Desdemona returns and finds her husband greatly worried. Thinking he is physically ill, she attempts to comfort him with a precious handkerchief that he had given her during their courtship. He pushed it away, causing her to drop and abandon it. After they depart, Emilia finds the handkerchief and gives it to Iago, who had asked her to steal it.
Othello confronts Iago and demands “ocular [visible] proof” of his wife’s unfaithfulness. Iago claims that she has given Cassio the handkerchief as a love token. Othello swears revenge against both Cassio and Desdemona. He makes Iago first lieutenant, ordering him to murder Cassio and promising to look after Desdemona’s death himself.
Othello confronts Desdemona in her chambers and demands to see the handkerchief, which an Egyptian sorceress had given to his mother. Desdemona cannot produce it and changes the subject by asking if he has attended to Cassio’s case. Othello, enraged, stalks off. Cassio enters and asks Desdemona if Othello has changed his mind.
She explains that Othello is strangely upset with her, reasoning that it must be some army matter. Cassio is met by his lover, Bianca, and gives her the handkerchief which Iago had left in his room.
Lago vividly describes Desdemona’s unfaithfulness to Othello, who becomes so upset that he faints. Iago then arranges a scene where Cassio will speak of his lover, Bianca, but it will seem to Othello that Cassio speaks of Desdemona. Othello falls for Iago’s ploy and becomes even further enraged when Bianca arrives and returns the handkerchief to Cassio.
Lodovico, one of Brabantio’s relatives, arrives from Venice with a letter from the Duke. He enters the castle with an unsuspecting Desdemona, and gives Othello the letter, in which the Moor reads that he has been dismissed from his command as military governor of Cyprus and replaced by Cassio.
Furious and humiliated, Othello strikes his wife. Later that evening, Othello confronts Desdemona with his suspicions about her unfaithfulness. She claims innocence, but he calls her a “whore.” After he storms off, Desdemona asks Emilia to lay out her wedding sheets in an attempt to recapture the spirit of love in her marriage.
Iago enters and promises that Othello’s behavior is only a passing mood. Then he secretly informs a cowardly Roderigo that Cassio will be ready for ambush later in the evening. That night, Othello rudely dismisses Desdemona after dinner, promising to meet her later. As Emilia undresses her, Desdemona sadly sings the “Willow Song”—a song of tragic love and death taught to her by her childhood maid, Barbary.
Outside the castle, Roderigo unsuccessfully attacks Cassio and is seriously wounded. In the confusion, Iago badly cuts Cassio’s leg from behind. Othello comes out onto a balcony and, believing Cassio to be dead, hurries off to slay Desdemona. Iago men murders Roderigo so he won’t expose their deception of Cassio.
Othello comes upon Desdemona asleep in her room. He is ambivalent about murdering her, but decides that she must die, “else she’ll betray more men.” Desdemona wakes and Othello demands she confess her sins, but she maintains her innocence. With that Othello smothers her.
Emilia bursts in and discovers an almost-dead Desdemona, who refuses to blame Othello. When the Moor confesses to the crime, using Iago’s evidence as justification, Emilia begins to realize the extent of Iago’s lies and villainy to Othello.
Iago, Montano, and Gratiano (Brabantio’s brother) respond to Emilia’s cries for help. Othello explains to the Venetians that he had to kill the adultering Desdemona for the sake of justice. Emilia, however, reveals Iago’s lies to a stunned Othello, who then tries to kill Iago. In the confusion, Iago kills Emilia and flees.
Emilia is laid beside her mistress, dying with the “Willow Song” on her lips. Lodovico, Cassio, and Montano return with the captive Iago. Othello wounds him superficially, and Iago pledges never to confess the motives for his trickery.
Othello, in his final speech, announces that he “loved not wisely, but too well.” Recalling his years of service to Venice, Othello stabs himself and falls to his death beside Desdemona on her bloodstained bridal sheets.
Othello: Professional soldier; general of Venetian army. North African Moor (of Arab and Berber descent), dark-skinned. Well respected, yet an outsider to Venetian society. Noble, decisive, proud; powerful in personality and physique. Honored veteran of many wars, yet naive in matters of love and “cultured” society. Thinks grandly, yet simplistically. Speaks in exotic images. His tragic flaw: easily convinced by appearances, victimized by jealousy, acts rashly when he allows emotions to overcome his rational thoughts.
Iago: Venetian officer, lieutenant to Othello. Called the “Ancient.” Shrewd, calculating, extremely cynical. Hides behind the mask of the good, dedicated soldier. Incapable of compassion or warmth; makes fun of these characteristics in others. Envies the happiness of Othello and Desdemona. Seeks to undermine his superiors and enjoys only the process of planning their downfall. Corrupts positive values such as justice, honesty, and one’s good reputation.
Desdemona: Othello’s wife; daughter of a Venetian senator. Faithful, loving, and blessed with a strong sense of justice. Has a schoolgirl “crush” on Othello and is unable to doubt him. Seduced by his exotic past and nobility, she goes against her father’s wishes and marries the Moor. Her honesty and innocence make her unlike the worldly, decadent Venetians of her time, thus setting her up for being a victim of Iago’s deception.
Cassio: Othello’s well-educated lieutenant, ruined by Iago. Comes from Florence. Something of a lady’s man, but honest and friendly. Trusting nature. His inability to hold his liquor makes him a prime target for Iago’s schemes.
Emilia: Iago’s wife. Open, honest, earthy; devoted to her mistress Desdemona. Unknowingly helps her husband destroy Othello by giving Desdemona’s handkerchief to Iago, yet afraid to expose the truth upon learning it.
Themes and Ideas
1. Appearance vs. Reality
Othello’s downfall stems from his inability to distinguish between appearance (illusion) and reality. He demands visual proof of his wife’s infidelity, yet settles for rumors and partial evidence.
Othello believes that the deceiving Iago is honest and that the devoted Desdemona is unfaithful. He interprets his wife’s attempts to have Cassio reappointed (as first lieutenant) as a sign of their affair, though she is actually motivated by a desire for justice.
The Moor believes Cassio’s laughter to be associated with Desdemona, but in reality it is with Bianca. He sees Cassio’s possession of Desdemona’s handkerchief as proof of his wife’s unfaithfulness, though it is part of a false plot arranged by Iago.
Desdemona’s inability to judge between appearance and reality also causes trouble: on eloping with the Moor, she assumed that Othello’s social nobility and confidence reflected an emotional stability and maturity in personal matters.
Tragedy results from an incorrect understanding of love by the three main characters:
(a) Othello loves Desdemona without knowing her true nature (she is worshipful, possessive, monogamous, and romantic). The blindness of love allows him to be easily fooled; the intensity of love forces him to commit a horrible action.
(b) Desdemona loves Othello totally, without doubts about him. She is too dazzled by his nobility to see his shortcomings. Even as he murders her, she will not give him up; she protects him by claiming to Emilia that she has committed suicide (Emilia says, “Who hath done this deed?” and Desdemona replies, “Nobody—I myself—farewell”).
(c) Iago, incapable of love, makes fun of it in others, terms it “merely a lust of the blood [body] and a permission of the will [mind].” This envy of love is one motive for his action against Othello, who loves Desdemona intensely.
3. “Green-Eyed Monster” (Jealousy.)
Othello and Iago are both victims of jealousy, but very different types. Othello’s jealousy is a symptom of his inability to separate appearance from reality. Not usually jealous, he “catches” jealousy like a disease given to him by Iago’s lies.
It is a form of temporary insanity. On the surface, Iago seems jealous of Cassio’s promotion and of Othello’s rumored affair with Emilia, but is actually envious of other characters’ happiness and ability to love.
Simple honesty is continually corrupted in the play. Wearing his “heart on sleeve” proves dangerous in Othello. Iago seems honest to the other characters, but is actually deceitful: He believes “honesty’s a fool / And loses that it works for” (i.e., honesty is not rewarded).
The events of the play show that Iago is correct: people who are honest lose in the end. Othello, open and honest, cannot imagine the idea of a deceitful lieutenant and is taken in by Iago; Desdemona’s honest pleading for Cassio is used against her.
Also, the characters are not honest with themselves: Othello, a heroic soldier, does not see the importance of domestic (private) passions in his life; the devoted Desdemona cannot admit to herself that Othello is behaving badly. Only Iago is “honest” to his corrupt, evil nature.
A desire to have a strong reputation contributes to the tragedy. The cynical Iago uses the fear of a bad reputation to manipulate others. He tells Othello, who continually uses his reputation to defend himself, that Desdemona spoils “his good name … the immediate jewel” of his soul. Cassio’s anxiety over his ruined reputation allows Iago to fool him into letting Desdemona plead his case.
Othello’s blackness sets him apart from the rest of the characters. He is repugnant to some (Brabantio, Roderigo, Iago), but exotically attractive to Desdemona. He is an outsider, ignorant of the manners and morals of European society. This enables the tragic misunderstanding of Desdemona’s and Cassio’s behavior.
A desire for justice leads to the misunderstanding and tragedy as characters act blindly to set things right. Desdemona pleads for Cassio, believing he has been unjustly dismissed by her husband. Iago’s revenge is partly motivated by his feelings that Othello has wronged him in promoting Cassio. Othello murders Desdemona, since he believes it to be the only fitting punishment for her “sins.”
8. Heaven and Hell
Othello can be seen as a version of the never-ending struggle between good and evil, between heaven and hell. Iago, representing evil, uses temptation and lies to corrupt good, represented by the love of Othello and Desdemona.
He turns their paradise into hell. Othello is a man fallen to temptation who sees himself as being damned at the end of the play. Desdemona is the slaughtered innocent victim of Iago’s evil and Othello’s pride.
Othello decides to give the supposedly “charmed” handkerchief to Desdemona (it came from a sorceress), who loses it during the play. It is a symbol of Othello’s inability to distinguish between appearance and reality: he takes Cassio’s possession of it for proof that Cassio also possesses Desdemona. The handkerchief serves as a mystical bond between Othello and Desdemona: When it is lost, their love fades.
Much of the play is set on the island of Cyprus, a colony of Venice in the Mediterranean. In Venice, social and marital harmony prevail, with a sense of justice and balance. Yet Cyprus, with its brawls, lies, and storms, sets the stage for Othello’s tragic decline. The island suggests the isolation of the main characters’ thoughts and emotions, and their inability to communicate with each other.
The major verbal image in the play; used mostly by Iago (“The Moor already changes with my poison …”). Poison is a symbol of his corruption and of his “poisoning” of Othello’s mind and spirit.
Othello gains a victory over the Turkish fleet when a tempest sinks them. The tempest also separates Othello’s time of marital happiness from the tragedy on Cyprus (the tempest occurs between the two parts of the play). It symbolizes Othello’s stormy moods and his quickness to anger and rash action.
From the moment when Iago initially claims to Brabantio that “an old black ram / Is tupping [having sex with] your white ewe,” to Othello’s chilling declaration of “Goats and monkeys!” (i.e., a sexual implication that Cassio and Desdemona are acting like animals) upon deciding that his wife is an adulteress, animal imagery symbolizes Iago’s contagious view that humans are dominated by lust, greed, and other base passions.
1. The Masterful Characterization
Shakespeare’s ability to create complex and nuanced characters is on full display in Othello. The titular character, Othello, is a noble and honorable general who is tragically undone by his own insecurities and the machinations of Iago. Desdemona, his loyal wife, is a compassionate and loving woman who is devoted to her husband despite his unfounded accusations.
And then there’s Iago, the quintessential villain, who manipulates everyone around him to serve his own twisted agenda. Each character is distinct and fully realized, with their own motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. Their interactions create a rich tapestry of human emotion and psychology that is both fascinating and heartbreaking to behold.
2. The Timeless Themes
At its core, Othello is a play about trust, jealousy, and the destructive power of manipulation. These themes are universal and timeless, and resonate just as strongly today as they did when the play was first written.
We can all relate to the experience of trusting someone who betrays us, or feeling jealous and insecure in a relationship. And we have all encountered people like Iago, who use their charisma and cunning to exploit others for their own gain.
By exploring these themes in such a vivid and visceral way, Shakespeare invites us to reflect on our own lives and relationships, and to consider the consequences of our actions and beliefs.
3. The Rich Language
Finally, I must mention the language itself. Shakespeare’s poetic prose is often considered the pinnacle of English literature, and Othello is no exception. From the soaring monologues to the witty banter, every line is imbued with a musicality and beauty that elevates the story to another level.
The famous “green-eyed monster” quote is just one example of Shakespeare’s ability to distill complex emotions into simple yet profound phrases that stay with us long after we’ve finished reading.
Even if you’re not a fan of Shakespearean language, I would encourage you to give Othello a chance, as the beauty of the language is part of what makes the play so powerful and enduring.
1. The Inadequate Annotations
One of the strengths of the Arden Shakespeare series is its extensive annotations that help readers understand the language and historical context of the plays. However, the second edition of Othello in the series is disappointingly scanty in this regard.
While the new introduction by Ayanna Thompson is commendable, the rest of the volume lacks the level of detail and depth that readers have come to expect from the Arden series. Hopefully, a new edition with more comprehensive annotations will be forthcoming in the future.
2. The Mediocre Adaptations
While the text of Othello is undeniably brilliant, some of the adaptations of the play leave something to be desired. For example, the BBC Radio production of the play features decent performances by the cast, but lacks the passion and depth that make the play truly memorable.
Similarly, the Shakespeare Made Easy series provides a convenient way to understand the plot of the play, but at the cost of losing the poetic language and nuances that make Shakespeare’s works so enduring. If you want to experience the full power of Othello, it’s best to read the original text or seek out adaptations that do it justice.
3. The Predictable Plot
While it’s unfair to criticize a classic work of literature for being predictable, there is something to be said for the fact that many readers already know the story of Othello before they even begin reading it. The play’s famous twists and turns have been parodied and referenced in countless other works of art, to the point where they can feel almost cliched.
Of course, this is not Shakespeare’s fault, and the play remains a masterpiece of storytelling and characterization despite its predictability. However, for readers who are looking for something truly surprising and fresh, Othello may not be the best choice.
Othello by William Shakespeare is a masterpiece of literature that continues to captivate readers centuries after its publication. It is a story that explores themes of love, jealousy, betrayal, and racism, with characters that are complex and intriguing.
While the language may be challenging for some, the rewards of reading this play are plentiful. It is a tale that will stay with readers long after they have finished reading, and it is a testament to Shakespeare’s skill as a writer that his works continue to resonate with readers of all ages and backgrounds.
William Shakespeare was an English writer born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. He moved to London around 1586 and worked as a playwright, poet, actor, and theater shareholder until 1612.
Shakespeare wrote a variety of plays, including tragedies, comedies, romances, and historical dramas, which were popular in theaters at the time. His early plays were optimistic and reflected the energetic spirit of England as it was emerging as a world power.
However, his later plays, such as Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, were more pessimistic and cynical. These great tragedies highlighted the decadence and political corruption of the Elizabethan and Jacobean court.
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