Act I, Scene I
The play opens on a warm Venetian night, where a conversation is underway between Roderigo, a gentleman, and Iago, a soldier under Othello’s command. Roderigo, who has been courting Desdemona, is upset with the news that she has eloped with Othello, a great Moorish warrior who is now a general in the service of the ruler of Venice. Iago confesses to Roderigo that he hates the Moor because another soldier, Michael Cassio, has been promoted to lieutenant instead of Iago. He reveals that he only remains in Othello’s service to facilitate his plans of revenge: “I follow him to serve my turn upon him” (I.i.42). It is not surprising that Iago sees Roderigo as a useful puppet in his evil schemes. He tells Roderigo that they should first inform Desdemona’s father of the Moor’s marriage to his daughter. Her father, prejudiced and ignorant, will surely be livid when he hears that a black man has wed Desdemona. Roderigo hopes that her father, Brabantio, will use his political status to see that their marriage is quickly annulled. But Iago knows that the Duke would not jeopardize Othello’s desire or ability to fight for Venice in the Turkish wars by punishing him for marrying a Venetian nobleman’s daughter. Othello’s punishment for wedding Desdemona is not part of Iago’s plan. His plan at the moment is only to make Othello believe that he is a trustworthy confidant. When Othello is confronted by Brabantio, Iago will be there to lend his counsel and support. Iago and Roderigo stand below Brabantio’s bedroom window and Roderigo calls his name. To ensure a response, Iago adds,
Awake! What ho, Brabantio! Thieves! thieves! thieves! Look to your home, your daughter, and your bags! Thieves! thieves! (I.i.79-81)
Brabantio comes to the window and Iago tells him to dress at once and come down, for “an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe” (I.i.88). Unable to understand Iago’s reference to the union of Othello and Desdemona, Brabantio demands to know why they are bothering him at such a late hour. Roderigo explains that his daughter is in the ‘clasps of a lascivious Moor’ and Brabantio rushes into Desdemona’s room to find it empty. He runs downstairs and out into the street without even changing into his day clothes. Furious, he demands to know if they have married and when Roderigo answers yes, Brabantio cries ‘treason’. Roderigo tells him where he can find Othello and Brabantio hurries off in a rage.
Act I, Scene II
The scene opens on a Venetian street where Iago has joined Othello and his attendants. Iago is quick to report his conversation with Roderigo to Othello. Of course, Iago’s retells the story to accommodate his cunning plan. He says that Roderigo “prated”
And spoke such scurvy and provoking terms Against your honor That with the little godliness I have I did full hard forbear him. (I.ii.6-9).
Cassio arrives with news that the Duke requires Othello at an urgent war meeting. Brabantio and Roderigo enter and Brabantio lashes out at Othello: “O thou foul thief, where hast thou stow’d my daughter?” (I.ii.62-4). Othello responds to the verbal attack with grace and dignity. Brabantio demands that Othello go to prison. Othello calmly tells him that he cannot for the Duke needs him at once. Brabantio decides to take the matter to the Duke, since he is already awaiting Othello. He is sure that the Duke will brand Othello a criminal as he has done, sure that his is “not an idle cause” (I.ii.95).
Act I, Scene III
The Duke and his senators gather in the council chamber. They are concerned with the news that a Turkish fleet is planning an attack on Cyprus, which is governed by Venice. They are discussing a counter attack which will be led by Othello, when Brabantio comes storming in, accusing Othello of corrupting his daughter, Desdemona, with “spells and medicines bought of mountebanks.” Othello asks that they summon Desdemona, for her testimony is the only defense he needs. While they wait for her, Othello describes to the Duke the real way in which he won Desdemona’s heart. She arrives, with Iago following her. She tells the Duke and her shocked father that she did fall in love with Othello for the “visage in his mind” (252). She begs to be allowed to go with Othello to Cyprus. The Duke grants her permission to accompany Othello, but Othello must leave immediately. Desdemona must meet him there at a later time, and Othello entrusts Iago with her safe passage: “Honest Iago/My Desdemona must I leave to thee” (I.iii.295). The senate adjourns and leave the council chamber, followed by Brabantio, Othello, Desdemona, and all the rest, except for Iago and Roderigo. Iago assures Roderigo that Desdemona’s love for Othello is fleeting and that, if Roderigo will come to Cyprus, he will continue scheming to break up the newlyweds. Roderigo agrees and leaves to make preparations to sail for Cyprus. Once alone, Iago reveals phase two of his evil plan — the destruction of Michael Cassio, the soldier who received the promotion from Othello. He will make Othello believe that Cassio is Desdemona’s secret lover, thereby ruining both of his enemies with the same lie.
Act II, Scene I
Act II opens in Cyprus where Montano, the Venetian governor, and his friends discuss a tempest that might have destroyed the Turkish fleet. A messenger comes in with the news that the enemy ships have indeed been pulled under by the waves. But they soon begin to fear that the very same storm has taken the lives of Othello and his crew. Cassio arrives, confirming that Othello cannot be located. One ship does land, carrying Iago, Desdemona, Roderigo, and Iago’s wife, Emilia, who has come to look after Desdemona. Desdemona is shaken with fear for her husband, but, much like her warrior husband, she is brave and steady, and keeps her worry to herself. She converses with Iago and Emilia, and is sure to include Cassio in the discussion. Cassio is an old and beloved friend of Othello’s and he too is afraid that the ship has been lost at sea. Out of this great concern for Othello’s safety, Cassio takes Desdemona by the hand. Iago delights in this overt display of affection that he will use against them. A trumpet sounds and to everyone’s relief Othello enters. He greets Desdemona with a kiss and addresses the crowd, proposing a great feast in celebration of the Venetian victory. All but Iago and Roderigo move from the seaport to the royal castle. Iago tells Roderigo that Cassio is also in love with Desdemona and that, to help their plans, Roderigo should pick a fight with Cassio while he is on duty. This will hurt Cassio’s reputation and ruin his friendship with Othello and help keep him apart from Desdemona. Desperate, Roderigo agrees: “I will do this if you can bring it to any opportunity.” (II.i.276). They bid each other goodbye and Iago walks off alone. He soliloquizes that he intends to “make the Moor thank and love” him, while at the same time planting thoughts of jealousy in Othello’s mind — thoughts so strong “That judgement cannot cure.” (II.i.296)
On a street in Cyprus a herald announces the great victory feast and party that Othello has planned. All the soldiers have full liberty to make merry until eleven o’clock that evening, at which time they must return to their posts.
Act II, Scene III
In the great hall of the castle Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio speak briefly about Iago. Othello tells Cassio that Iago is “most honest.” Othello and Desdemona leave and Iago comes in to join Cassio. Iago asks him to partake in a glass of wine. Cassio agrees, but insists that he have only a little, for he has “no brains for drinking”. But reason gives way to temptation and soon Cassio is drunk. Although he should know better, Cassio takes his post as usual. Iago sends Roderigo to engage Cassio in the fight and within moments the two come bursting back into the hall, swords clashing. They duel until Othello rushes in and demands that they stop. Disappointed and angered by Cassio’s behavior, Othello dismisses him from duty. Othello leaves and Iago convinces Cassio that, in order to regain Othello’s favour and his position as lieutenant, he must persuade Desdemona to speak to Othello on his behalf. Cassio leaves, confident that Iago’s plan will work to restore his friendship with Othello. Iago is also sure that his plan will be a success, but with much different results. His intent is to make it appear that Desdemona is pleading for her long-time lover. Desdemona will become Iago’s most valued pawn:
So I will turn her virtue into pitch, And out of her own goodness make the net That shall enmesh them all.” (II.iii.336-8)
Act III, Scene I
Outside the castle, Cassio has gathered some musicians in the hopes of putting Othello in a good mood. Cassio asks Emilia if she will grant him access to visit Desdemona. Iago overhears and offers to fetch Desdemona at once. Desdemona agrees to an interview with Cassio and Emilia shows him to Desdemona’s chamber.
Act III, Scene II
In this short scene Othello makes plans to inspect some parts of the fortifications built by his troops. The purpose of this scene is to explain why Othello is not initially present when Desdemona meets with Cassio. Iago had planned to concoct a story to ensure Othello was absent for Cassio’s visit, but luck has made Iago’s job easier indeed.
Act III, Scene III
The scene shifts to the garden of the castle. Cassio asks Desdemona to speak to Othello and convince him that he is still a trustworthy soldier and friend. Desdemona does not hesitate to help because she knows how deeply Cassio and Othello feel for one another. She longs for them to reconcile: “You do love my lord/You have known him long” (III.iii.10-1). In a moment of brilliant dramatic irony, Desdemona innocently professes her undying support for Cassio:
Assure thee If I do vow a friendship, I’ll perform it To the last article. My lord shall never rest; I’ll watch him tame and talk him out of patience; His bed shall seem a school, his board a shrift; I’ll intermingle everything he does with Cassio’s suit. (III.iii 20-6)
Othello returns to the castle and first greets Iago. They go together to see Desdemona and they catch a glimpse of Cassio leaving out the back entrance. Under his breath, Iago is quick to add “Ha! I like not that” (III.iii.34). Othello asks what Iago means by such a statement. Confused, he further asks if that was really Cassio that just parted from his wife. Iago, in the midst of administering his first dose of poison, replies “Cassio, my lord?/No sure, I cannot think it/That he would steal away so guilty-like/Seeing you coming” (III.iii.37-40). Desdemona rushes over to Othello and immediately begins to plead for Cassio. So adamant is she that Othello agrees to a future meeting with Cassio to begin a reconciliation: “Prithee no more. Let him come when he will/I will deny thee nothing (III.iii.75). Happy with Othello’s answer, Desdemona leaves the garden and Iago, alone once again with Othello, continues his evil machinations. He asks if Cassio knew about Othello’s love for Desdemona from the beginning of their courtship. Othello says yes and adds that Cassio even served as a matchmaker for the two and “went between [them] very oft.” Iago shows deep concern and subtly hints that Cassio’s ulterior motive had been all along to engage in an affair with Desdemona. Iago plays upon Othello’s insecurities, reminding him that Cassio is younger and more handsome and is a white Venetian citizen. It does not take long before Othello is convinced of Desdemona’s betrayal. He chooses the words of Iago over his trust in his wife, and declares “my relief must be to loathe her.” (III.iii.268). Desdemona enters with Emilia to call Othello for supper. He tries to hide his inner turmoil but Desdemona can tell that he is troubled. He complains that he has a headache. She pulls out a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries and lovingly puts it to his head, but he pushes it away and it falls to the ground. Othello insists she not bother picking it up, and he tells her that he is ready for supper. For some time Iago has asked Emilia to steal Desdemona’s handkerchief and now, alone in the garden, she has the opportunity. Hiding it in her pocket, Emilia wonders what Iago’s intentions are for the handkerchief. Iago enters and Emilia proudly shows him the handkerchief. He calls her a “good wench” and she asks him for what purpose will he use it. He refuses to tell her and she leaves on his command. Once alone, Iago reveals what Emilia desired to know: I will in Cassio’s lodging lose this napkin/And let him find it” (III.iii.321-2). Othello returns from his short supper and he is distraught to say the least: “Farewell, tranquil mind” (III.iii.350). Desdemona’s treachery consumes his thoughts and he lashes out at Iago, demanding immediate proof of her betrayal. Iago makes up a story that placed him outside Desdemona’s chamber a short time before, and he tells Othello that he heard Desdemona professing her love to Cassio. Othello rages “I’ll tear her to pieces” and Iago adds that he has seen Cassio with Desdemona’s handkerchief — the first gift Othello ever gave her. Othello cries for “blood! blood! blood!” (III.iii.451) and kneels before his confidant Iago, taking a vow of revenge:
Now, by yond marble heaven, In the due reverence of a sacred vow I here enrage my words. (III.iii.459-62)
Iago also kneels and pledges his loyalty to Othello. In this joint swearing of oaths, Iago and Othello have become partners in evil. Through this act we see Othello’s transformation from hero into villain.
Act III, Scene IV
In front of the castle Desdemona and Emilia meet the Clown, a servant to Othello. Desdemona asks him where Cassio might be, and he says that he will search for him. Desdemona is distraught over her missing handkerchief and tells Emilia that she would have rather lost anything else she owns, ironically adding:
and but my noble Moor Is true of mind, and made of no such baseness As jealous creatures are, it were enough To put him to ill thinking. (III.iv.22-4)
Othello arrives and cunningly asks Desdemona to lend him the handkerchief, and she replies that she cannot. He tells her the history of the handkerchief, and packs his tale with implied accusations. He next tells her that, if the handkerchief were misplaced, it would be an irrevocable loss. Now afraid of the consequences, she lies to Othello and assures him that it is not lost. But Othello grows more angry and storms out of the room in a rage. Iago and Cassio enter and Cassio asks Desdemona if she continues to plead his case before Othello, and she admits that she cannot because she too has fallen out of favour with her husband. But she promises to discuss Cassio with Othello when she is again on good terms with him. Desdemona and Emilia leave and Cassio stays behind to talk to Bianca, his lover, who has just come out of the castle. Bianca chides him for not giving her the attention she deserves. He pulls out the handkerchief that Iago planted in his chamber and asks Bianca if she will make a copy of the embroidered pattern, for he finds it very beautiful. She agrees and Cassio asks to be alone as he waits for a possible word with Othello.
Act IV, Scene I
On the grounds of the castle, Iago and Othello have found a secluded place in which to continue their discussion of Desdemona’s adultery. Although to the audience it appears that they have resumed where they left off at the end of Act III, Shakespeare hints that much time has elapsed and that Iago used those missing hours and days to pollute further Othello’s mind. Iago tells Othello that Cassio has admitted to having sex with Desdemona. Othello, overcome with rage, spirals into incoherent hysteria:
Lie with her? lie on her? — We say lie on her when they belie her. — Lie with her! Zounds, that’s fulsome. Handkerchief — confessions — handkerchief! — To To confess, and be hang’d for his labour — first to be hang’d, and then to confess. (IV.i.35-40)
He collapses in a trance-like state, oblivious to the outside world. Iago delights in his victory: “Work on/My medicine, work” (IV.i.44-5). Cassio enters and Iago pretends that he has information about Othello but they must discuss it later. Cassio leaves and when Othello regains his composure, Iago tells him that he will work a confession out of Cassio if Othello will secretly listen to their conversation. When Cassio comes back, Iago asks him about Bianca, and he replies that he knows that she loves him but that “She is persuaded I will marry her out of her own love and flattery/not out of promise” (IV.i.127-9). As expected, Othello thinks that Cassio is referring to Desdemona. Bianca comes in holding Desdemona’s handkerchief. Livid, she tells Cassio that she was a “fine fool” to take the “minx’s token.” She demands he give the handkerchief back to the woman it belongs to, whom she assumes is Cassio’s lover. Bianca runs away and confused Cassio follows her. Othello steps out of the shadows. His rage has metamorphosed into cool hatred as he calmly asks: “How shall I murder him, Iago?” (IV.i.166). He resolves also to murder Desdemona for her betrayal and discusses with Iago the best way to be rid of her. He asks for poison, but Iago says no, “Do it not with poison. Strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated” (IV.i.202-3). Othello responds like a heartless monster: “Good, good! The justice of it pleases. Very good!” (IV.i.204). Iago wants the privilege of killing Cassio himself and he will report back to Othello before midnight. Desdemona appears with Lodovico, her kinsman, who brings word from the Duke that Othello must return to Venice and that Cassio will be placed in charge of the soldiers in Cyprus. When Desdemona openly expresses her happiness for Cassio’s promotion, Othello strikes her, screaming “Devil!”. Timidly, Desdemona says that she will leave Othello’s presence for fear she will anger him more. Lodovico, surprised at Othello’s behavior, asks him to call her back. Othello does, only to brand her a devious manipulator in front of her kinsman. He orders her away and storms off to prepare for his trip back to Venice. Lodovico wonders if this is the noble Moor whom the senate believes to be a master of all situations. Iago tells Lodovico that he has changed much and that his treatment of Desdemona is at times even worse than what they have just witnessed. Lodovico says that he is sorry to have been so deceived by the Moor and the scene comes to a close.
Act IV, Scene II
In a room of the castle Othello has found Emilia to question her about her knowledge of Desdemona’s affair. She tells him that she has been with them every time they have spoken, and that she has heard nothing that would be considered suspicious in the least. She begs Othello to put such thought out of his mind at once, for Desdemona is as true and loyal a wife as any woman could be. She adds, “If any wretch have put this in your head/Let heaven requite it with the serpent’s curse!” (IV.ii.15-6). Othello commands her to leave. He does not want to hear the truth and ignores her testimony. He calls her a madam, lying to protect her whore Desdemona. When Desdemona enters Othello coolly asks her to come to him. Desdemona is very afraid and when he orders Emilia to leave Desdemona begs to hear the reason for his fury. He asks her what she is and she replies that she is his loyal wife. He calls her “as false as hell” and a labels her a strumpet and a whore. Desdemona is stunned when she realizes what she is being accused of, and she can only deny the charges against her, which fall upon deaf ears. When Emilia re-enters to check on Desdemona, Othello walks out, telling Desdemona to keep their conversation a secret. Emilia asks Desdemona is she is all right and she replies that she cannot tell if she is awake or dreaming. Shaken to her very core, she cannot regain her composure, but asks Emilia to fetch her husband. Emilia is surprised at Desdemona’s request for Iago, but she agrees and leaves to search for him. When Iago comes into the room, Desdemona begs for his counsel. Iago tells her that a matter of state is weighing heavy on Othello’s mind and he assures her that all will soon be well. She leaves the room and Iago immediately sends Roderigo to kill Cassio. Roderigo agrees to the murder because Iago convinces him that Cassio’s death will force Othello to remain in Cyprus and thus Desdemona will also stay and continue to be close to him.
Act IV, Scene III
In another room, Othello is gathered with Desdemona, Emilia, and Lodovico. Othello tells Desdemona to dismiss Emilia and get to bed, and he will be up shortly. While she gets ready for bed she speaks with Emilia, who helps her unpin her gown. Desdemona sings a sorrowful song about a woman who is abandoned by her lover and she waits for Othello’s knock at the door. She asks Emilia how any woman could do what she herself is falsely accused of doing. Emilia replies that she can certainly understand why women sometimes cheat on their husbands and, considering the way men treat their wives, it is oftentimes wholly justifiable. Desdemona bids Emilia good night and the scene ends with Desdemona’s lines so characteristic of her virtuous nature. She prays that the poor way in which she has been treated by Othello will teach her, not to hate or seek revenge, but to forgive and improve upon her own faults: “Good night, good night/Heaven me such uses send/Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend!” (IV.iii.102-3)
Act V, Scene I
Out on the streets Iago positions Roderigo to ambush Cassio. Roderigo stands in the shadows with his sword ready, and Iago watches close by, mentioning to the audience that he hopes each one will kill the other so that he will not have to return Roderigo’s money and jewels. Cassio appears and Roderigo attacks him, but Cassio’s thick coat shields him from the point of the rapier. Cassio strikes Roderigo, wounding him, and Iago is forced to crouch down and stab Cassio in the leg. Cassio’s injury causes him to fall to the ground and when Othello arrives, he is delighted to see what he believes is the corpse of Cassio. He quickly leaves for the castle, ready to administer Desdemona’s punishment. Lodovico and Gratiano appear and Rogerigo asks for their help. Iago comes out of the dark and pretends to be shocked by the chaos. Cassio is very much alive and he identifies Rogerigo as one of his attackers. Iago, aware he must silence Roderigo for good, expresses his outrage at the attack and stabs Rogerigo in a fit of supposed righteous indignation. Roderigo cries “O damn’d Iago! O inhuman dog!” (V.i.63), and dies. Iago orders Emilia to tell Othello what has happened and, when Biana arrives upon the scene, Iago accuses her of being Roderigo’s accomplice and places her under arrest.
Act V, Scene II
The scene shifts to Desdemona’s bedchamber in the castle. Desdemona is sleeping peacefully when Othello enter with a lantern. He stands for a long while at the foot of her bed, staring at her, overcome with feelings of love. He declares that he will not scar her beautiful face, but rather he will kill her “bloodlessly”. He kisses her one last time and she awakens and sweetly asks her husband to come to bed. He orders her to say one final prayer and to prepare for death. She begs him to tell her what she has done and he reveals it is because she gave his handkerchief to her lover, Cassio. She pleads with him to fetch Cassio who will support her innocence, but he says the Cassio is dead. She begs Othello to let her live, “Kill me tomorrow; let me live to-night!” (V.ii.80). But Othello will not listen to her cries, and cooly tells his horrified wife that “It’s too late” (V.ii.88). He smothers Desdemona where she lay. Emilia bangs on the door, reporting to Othello that Cassio has been injured but that he is still alive. Othello draws the curtains on Desdemona’s bed to hide his heinous deed and lets Emilia in to tell him more. But Desdemona, not quite dead, lets out a faint cry professing her innocence one last time. Emilia demands to know who has hurt her, and even now Desdemona loves Othello enough to protect him: “Nobody — I myself. Farewell” (V.ii.124). Desdemona dies, and Othello cowardly denies that he has murdered her. But Emilia does not believe him and he at last blurts out that he is guilty, but only of sending a “liar gone to burn in hell!” He threatens Emilia to keep silent but she screams “murder” and alerts the whole castle. Montano and Iago run into Desdemona’s chamber, and Othello again speaks of the handkerchief. Emilia tells Othello that Iago made her steal the handkerchief, and, beginning to comprehend the terrible truth, he lunges at Iago, but is promptly disarmed by Montano. Iago grabs Emilia and stabs her, much to the dismay and shock of Montano. As she lay dying, Emilia remembers Desdemona’s song and confirms that she was chaste and in love only with the “cruel Moor.” Iago runs away and the men chase after him, leaving Othello by himself. He has a sword hidden in the chamber and he waits for the men to return with Iago as prisoner. Othello stabs Iago, only to wound him, and is again disarmed. He asks forgiveness of Cassio who is now in the room, and Cassio obliges. More information about Iago’s plot is revealed in a letter left by Roderigo and picked up by Cassio as he lay on the street. Othello gives a final speech and pulls out a dagger he has hidden well. He stabs himself and falls dying next to Desdemona. He last words are to his innocent wife and victim: “I kiss’d thee ere I kill’d thee. No way but this/Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.” (V.ii.358-9)