William Shakespeare: Othello, the Moor of Venice
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1999

William Shakespeare

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.   

Overall Impression: This is great Shakespeare, profoundly moving and with great language.

Per Bevington:  Main source is G. B. Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi, which was available in French translation to WS. Probably based on a real event in Venice c. 1508. WS considerably changed the story and added characters.

Act I

Act I Scene 1

Venice, a street before Senator Brabantio's house. Iago tells Roderigo (a "gulled gentleman") of Desdemona's elopement with Othello. Iago tells of his own hatred for Othello, since Othello passed up the recommendations made by Iago's mediators to name Iago his lieutenant and instead appointed Michael Cassio, a Florentine, to this position. Iago regards Cassio as less experienced and attributes the appointment to favoritism. Iago was given a subordinate position as Othello's ancient [ensign]. Iago gives vent to his dark thoughts, saying he will give the semblance of serving O. while all the while serving his own purposes. He will disguise his true feelings, saying "For when my outward action doth demonstrate/The native act and figure of my heart/In compliment extern, 'tis not long after/But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve/For daws to peck at." 

Iago tells Roderigo to awaken the sleeping father of Desdemona, Brabantio, to "poison his delight" and "plague him with flies". Iago calls out "Thieves" and Brabantio appears above. Iago says "an old black ram is tupping your white ewe" and "the devil will make a grandsire of you" [Othello is older and a black African while Desdemona is fair]. Brabantio recognizes only Roderigo and tells him he is has already told him he will not allow Roderigo's suit for Desdemona. Iago compares O. to a Barbary horse and says "your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs." R. asks if Brabantio knows of the elopement, and tells him to search his house. Iago slinks away, not wanting to be associated with this covert action against his superior officer, knowing he must continue to put up an appearance of love for O. R. laments the loss of Desdemona to O. Brabantio is incensed at Desdemona's actions and concludes she must have been charmed into it--he wishes he had given her instead to R. and asks R. to lead him to her.

Act I Scene 2

Venice, before Othello's lodgings. Iago speaks to Othello of Roderigo's alleged harsh words attacking O.'s honor, and asks if O. and D. have really married. O. is confident the high regard in which he is held for his military actions will help him win against attack Brabantio's attack.

Cassio arrives with others and tells O. the Duke of Venice and senators want to meet with him immediately regarding news of a Turkish attack bearing down on Cyprus. Iago informs Cassio that O. has married.

Brabantio arrives with Roderigo. He threatens O. with his sword, while Iago pretends to defend against R., but O. refuses to fight his new father-in-law. Brabantio accuses him of enchanting his daughter with charms and drugs, and wants him taken before the Duke. O. tells him he is already on his way there.

Act I Scene 3

Venice, a council chamber. The Duke, senators, and officers meet. The Turkish fleet is said to be bearing on Cyprus, then another messenger says it heads instead for Rhodes, then another says the fleet joined another on its way to Rhodes, and that the now larger fleet is again heading toward Cyprus. Duke tells O. he must go to Cyprus to defend against the Ottomans. 

Brabantio presents his case against O., claiming O. used witchcraft or potions to win Desdemona "against all rules of nature". O. offers to tell his "unvarnished" tale of how he fairly won her, while they send for the lady to tell her version. O. says her father had welcomed him into his house and had questioned him about his exotic origins and heroic deeds. D. heard these stories and was greatly impressed, taking pity on him and falling in love with him. D. arrives and confirms that she has a duty not just to her father but now to her husband as well. Brabantio gives her to O. and washes his hands of her. The Duke counsels that B. should not mourn that which cannot be undone and advises him to be philosophical, but Brabantio remains bitter.

Duke asks O. to leave for Cyprus that night [to serve as governor and defend the island], an assignment which he readily accepts as he is accustomed to war. He asks that D. be properly placed. Her father does not want her, and D. wants to join O. O. agrees and assures the council that it is not for reasons of sexual pleasure but to satisfy her wish that he wants her to come to join him. D. is left with Iago and his wife Emilia to join O. soon. Brabantio warns O. that D. has deceived him, so may also deceive O.

After they have all left, Roderigo laments that he will drown himself, but Iago speaks contemptuously of virtue and suicide for love and talks him out of it, arguing for reason over passion. He argues that she will soon tire of this unnatural marriage and that he should gather money for Iago to help him pursue his desire to win her. They pledge to pursue revenge against the Moor jointly. To himself, Iago boasts he is making this fool his purse. He decides on a plan: to claim to O. that Cassio is too familiar with D. and says "Hell and night/Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light."

Act II

Act II Scene 1

Seaport in Cyprus, near the quay. The "substitute" [i.e., deputy] governor of Cyprus, Montano, looks out to sea with other gentlemen at the storm raging. The Turkish fleet is halted by the storm. Michael Cassio arrives by ship, and expresses worry about the fate of O. Iago then arrives in another ship. Cassio describes to Montano O.'s marriage to the divine Desdemona, "our great captain's captain". Iago enters with D., Emilia, and Roderigo, and Cassio is quite affectionate with the ladies, asking I. to forgive his "bold show of courtesy" to Emilia which results from his breeding. I. jests about his wife's traits, talkativeness etc. D. playfully asks I. how he would describe her, and they exchange witty word play about fair, foul, black, white, wit, foolish, etc. To himself, I. plots how Cassio's affection to D. will play into his purposes, saying "With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio."

O. finally arrives by ship. and greets D. with great happiness. He also greets his old friend, Montano.

Iago speaks privately to Roderigo, telling him D. loves Cassio and that her expression of love for the Moor is false, since he is like a devil and "very nature will instruct her" in finding an alternative lover. He speaks of her lecherous thoughts, how she and Cassio "met so near with their lips that their breaths embraced together." He tells Roderigo to provoke Cassio that night while Cassio is on watch [presumably in order to neutralize this competitor]. After R. exits, Iago muses to himself how he suspects the lusty Moor has had relations with Emilia, and how I. has himself lusted for D. He plans to practice "upon [Othello's] peace and quiet/Even to madness."

Act II Scene 2

Cyprus, a street. The herald announces that O. has proclaimed a night of celebration for the victory and for his nuptials.

Act II Scene 3

Cyprus, the citadel. O. assigns the guard to Cassio and retires with D. to at last consummate their marriage (Iago: "He hath not yet made wanton the night with her; and she is sport for Jove.") I. talks with Cassio, suggesting D. is provocative, but Cassio does not agree. Cassio does not want to drink, recognizing that he does not handle drink well and has already had a glass, but I. talks him into it and they all drink. Iago sings drinking songs, Cassio gets drunk, then claims the lieutenant is to be saved before the ancient. I. hints to Montano that Cassio has a drinking problem and wonders why O. trusts him so. 

I. sends Roderigo to provoke Cassio. Cassio enters chasing Roderigo drunkenly and strikes him--I. raises a cry for help. Cassio attacks Montano, who has tried to restrain him. O. arrives and castigates Cassio for the brawling, for which Cassio can make no satisfactory explanation. O. asks who started the fight. I. pretends he does not want to incriminate Cassio and seems to try to defend him, while implying his guilt. O. tells Cassio he is no longer his lieutenant and returns to bed with D.

Cassio laments with I. his downfall and shame from drink ("O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains!"). But I. minimizes the importance of reputation: "Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving." I. recommends that he appeal to D. to plead his case with O. To himself, Iago says he will plant the idea with O. that D. makes her appeals for Cassio because she lusts for him--"So will I turn her virtue into pitch". Roderigo returns and laments his declining money and lack of results, but Iago counsels that "wit depends on dilatory time". 


Act III Scene 1

Before the chamber of O. and D. Cassio arrives with musicians, who play. A clown [country rustic] appears, speaking in puns about wind instruments, says "thereby hangs a tail" [rather than the usual "tale" in AYLI and MWW]. Cassio asks to speak to Emilia. I. arrives and Cassio tells him he has asked to speak to Emilia--I. exits. Emilia tells Cassio that D. is already advocating for him, and that O. will soon restore him. But C. asks nevertheless to speak to D. alone, and enters their quarters.

Act III Scene 2

The citadel. O. tells I. he plans to walk with others on the fortifications (breastworks) of the citadel and asks him to deliver letters to the Senate.

Act III Scene 3

The garden of the citadel. D. meets with Cassio and Emilia; D. assures Cassio she will do all she can for him, and will work on O. until he relents. O. and I. appear in the distance and Cassio decides to exit, not wishing to speak then to O. 

Iago spots them and says to O. "Ha? I like not that." O. has also seen Cassio depart from D. and I. begins to plant seeds of doubt about her fidelity. D. says to O. she was meeting with C., says he is penitent--O. says he will not deny her wish to see C. reinstated. He concludes "When I love thee not, Chaos is come again." I. continues to build his subtle case against D. He asks if C. knew of O.'s love for D. while O. wooed her--he answers yes. O. wants I. to explain his evasive suspicions and ruminations. I. cautions O. not to be jealous and feigns reluctance to divulge his inner thoughts. I. reflects on reputation "Who steals my purse steals trash" [quite opposite to his sentiments expressed earlier to Roderigo] and cautions him about the "green-eyed monster" of jealousy. O. is incensed, his concern piqued, but he would require proof. I. advises him "Look to your wife;/ observe her well with Cassio". I. reminds him that D. deceived her own father. I. suggests that D. desires a match "Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,/Whereto we see in all things nature tends". I. says to "leave it to time" and not draw hasty conclusions, then exits. O. says to himself "If she be false, then heaven mocks itself." 

D. and Emilia reappear to O. His head is in pain and she offers her handkerchief--he refuses it and it drops to the ground as she focuses on her husband's distress. Emilia picks it up after the couple leave, knowing her husband has asked for it. I. appears and she gives it to him in secret and after a bawdy interchange. He refuses to tell her what he intends to do with it. To himself, I. plans to use the handkerchief as evidence, saying "Trifles light as air/Are to the jealous confirmations strong/As proofs of holy Writ" and knows that his poison is already working on the Moor. 

O. is tormented by Iago's insinuations ("thou hast set me on the rack"), laments the loss of his tranquility, wishing he were not aware of her alleged infidelity. He becomes angry with I., and I. pretends that he regrets being so honest. I. wants to know what evidence would be available that would prove her infidelity, commenting that they are unlikely to catch her actually being "topped". He relates an episode when he lay asleep with Cassio in which Cassio spoke in his sleep of Desdemona, telling her to be wary of their love, kissing I. as if it were her, and then he put his leg across I. He pauses though, claiming this was but a dream, but O. thinks it was a "foregone conclusion". Now he wants to tear her to pieces. I. tells O. he saw Cassio wiping his beard with the handkerchief. O.'s rage increases. I. suggests that O. delay the reinstitution of Cassio in order to observe Desdemona's behavior. O. asks I. to murder Cassio within 3 days and wants to murder D.

Act III Scene 4

Before the citadel. D. asks the clown where Cassio can be found, accompanied with more word play. D. is worried about the lost handkerchief and Emilia fails to take the opportunity presented to tell her she found it and gave it to I. But D. denies O. will be jealous, saying it is not in him to feel so.

O. appears and queries her about her moist hand, suggesting she has a liberal (licentious) heart. She begins to plea for Cassio, but he wants her to lend him her lost handkerchief. She cannot produce it, and he tells of its origins, sewn by a sibyl and having magic powers to hold marriage together, passed down to him from his mother. He demands she produce it, but she still is absorbed with advocating for Cassio. O. leaves. The pragmatic Emilia interprets his angry behavior as jealous but D. doesn't understand why he should be.

I. and Cassio arrive. Cassio pleads again for D.'s help, but D. says her master is not receptive now. I. wonders with her why O. could be angry, then exits.

D. wonders with E. why O. should have such ideas, but Emilia comments on the irrationality of jealousy. D. promises again to Cassio to plead his cause. D. and E. exit.

Bianca, a courtesan and mistress of Cassio, arrives and wants to know why he has been staying away from her. He gives her Desdemona's handkerchief, asking that she have it copied. She is jealous, wondering where he got it. Cassio does not want to be seen with her for the time being.

Act IV

Act IV Scene 1

Before the citadel. O. speaks with I.-- he has become obsessed over the alleged unfaithfulness of D. I. has told O. that he saw Cassio with the handkerchief bragging about lying with his mistress. O. feels the rage of his jealousy and rationalizes that it must be grounded in fact, since "Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction." He falls in a trance. I. gloats that his poison is working.

Cassio appears and I. tells him that O. is having an epileptic fit. Cassio leaves. O. awakens and thinks I. mocks him about his sore head, as if it were growing cuckold horns. I. suggests O. hide and observe Cassio when he will again brag that he is "to cope your wife." 

O. stands aside and I. questions Cassio about Bianca (not Desdemona as he said to O.). Cassio makes jokes about her, saying he would never, as a customer, want to marry her, that she [Bianca] is persuaded only out of her own love that they will marry. Bianca arrives and angrily returns the handkerchief to him. 

O. left alone with I. concludes Cassio cared so little about D. that he gave the handkerchief she had given him to Bianca. O. is now determined to kill D. I. suggests he strangle her in bed rather than poison her.

Lodovico, a kinsman of D., arrives from Venice, and enters accompanied by D. O. reads the letter Lodovico brings, but makes angry comments about D., finally striking her and implying her infidelity. I. in private disparages O. to Lodovico, and Lodovico wonders if this is the noble Moor so unshakable in the past.

Act IV Scene 2

The citadel. O. questions Emilia about D., but E. defends her and suggests some wretch has put the wrongful ideas in his head. O. thinks she is merely an effective liar and is assisting her in her liasions.

D. enters with Emilia. O. is insulting, implying they are like customer and whore, and asks Emilia to guard the door for the "procreants". He interrogates D., asking her to swear she is honest (faithful), but accuses her of being false. He will not believe her, calling her a whore. He leaves, giving Emilia money as if for services.

D. asks Emilia to lay out her wedding sheets. I. arrives and Emilia tells him of the cruelty O. showed to D. Emilia suspects there is a villain who has put O. up to this, but she does not suspect I. D. hopes to win back the affection of her husband. I. attributes all this begavior to O.'s concern with the business of the state.

Roderigo and I. meet. Roderigo accuses I. of accomplishing nothing for his efforts, jewels, and money. But I. reassures R. he will soon have D. I. tells R. that the Venetian commission has sent word to deputize Cassio in O.'s place as governor, and to send O. to Mauritania (Africa). I. wants R. to kill Cassio, thereby delaying the departure of O., and tells him that Cassio sups that night with Bianca.

Act IV Scene 3

The citadel. Othello, with Lodovico, tells D. to go to bed and to dismiss her attendant. Left alone, Emilia prepares D. for bed. D. has foreboding thoughts and asks that she be wrapped in the wedding sheets if she should die before Emilia. She recalls the sad "Willow" song taught her by her mother's maid from Barbary, and sings it, though frightened by sounds she hears. She asks if Emilia would be unfaithful for all the world. Emilia is pragmatic and would indeed be so, suggesting wives should repay husbands for their own infidelity. But D. would not be unfaithful even for all the world.

Act V

Act V Scene 1

A street in Cyprus at night. I. positions Roderigo to attack Cassio as he leaves Bianca. R. attacks but Cassio stabs him. I., from behind, wounds Cassio in the leg. He later reappears as if he had not been there before and summons an alarm. O. arrives and is happy to see Cassio lying wounded. Gratiano (also a kinsman of D.) and Lodovico appear but are cautious and stand off. I. acts as if he is defending against Cassio's attacker and kills Roderigo, then tends to Cassio's wound. Bianca arrives and I. expresses suspicion of her involvement in this plot. Emilia arrives, and I. instructs her to tell O. and D. of the attack.

Act V Scene 2

A Bedchamber in the citadel. O enters, D. is asleep in her bed. He debates killing her, and kisses her, "So sweet was ne'er so fatal". She awakens and he asks her if she has said her prayers, and wants her to confess her sins. He accuses her of giving the handkerchief to Cassio, which she denies. He says Cassio is dead, and she weeps--this angers him and in a rage he smothers her despite her pleas.

Emilia arrives and, not seeing D., informs him of the murder of Roderigo and that Cassio lives. She discovers D. and calls him a devil, saying D. was true to him. He tells her I. told him that Cassio and D. were lovers, and she says he lied. She ignores his threats with his sword and calls out Murder.

Montano and Gratiano and I. arrive. Emilia demands that I. refute O.'s version of what happened, and when he sticks to his story she calls him a liar and villain. O. falls on the bed and cries out in despair and Emilia says "Nay, lay thee down and roar;/For thou hast kill'd the sweetest innocent/That e'er did lift up eye." I. threatens Emilia with a sword but she will not cease her accusations. She says she gave the handkerchief to I., who had begged her to steal it. O. runs at I., and in the scuffle I. stabs Emilia, then flees. O. is disarmed, then Montano and the others chase after I., leaving O. locked in with D. and E.

Emilia tells O. that D. was chaste, then dies. 

Gratiano reenters. O. has pulled out a hidden knife. He is remorseful and knows he is condemned to hell. 

Cassio is brought in on a litter with Lodovico, Montano, officers, and with I. as prisoner. O. wounds Iago and is disarmed. O. calls himself an "honorable murderer", acknowledges he plotted with I. for the murder of Cassio. I. refuses to speak further. Lodovico produces letters found on Roderigo which tell of his plot with I. to kill Cassio. Cassio says he found the handkerchief in his room, and I. has confessed to planting it there. Roderigo's letter also tells of the plot against Cassio while he was drunken and on watch. Lodovico announces that Cassio is now governor of Cyprus, and that Iago will face torture to force further confession. O. asks that "When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,/Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,/Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak/Of one that loved not wisely but too well." He stabs himself, saying to D. "I kissed thee ere I killed thee. No way but this,/Killing myself, to die upon a kiss." 

Lodovico commands I. to look on the tragic outcome of his plotting. He commands Cassio to seize the fortunes of O. and to arrange the censure and torture of I. He will return to Venice to relate what has happened. .