by William Shakespeare

Othello by William Shakespeare


Summary / Riassunto

The very first scene opens on a street in Venice. It is night. Roderigo, a Venetian gentleman and persistent suitor of Desdemona, and Iago, a 28 year old low ranked officer in Othello’s army, are engaged in a heated discussion over the recent failure to perform the services he has been paid for, that is, to keep Roderigo informed of Desdemona’s affections. Her elopement with Othello The Moor has just come into Roderigo’s attention. Roderigo doesn’t really hate the Moor, while Iago’s hatred for Othello is a real one, especially since the general has refused to appoint him lieutenant and has chosen Cassio, an educated military theoretician of Florence, in his stead.
The pair arrive at Brabantio’s house and inform him that his “white ewe”, Desdemona, has gone with the Moor. The Venetian Senator calls for lights, checks Desdemona’s room and, indeed, founds that she is gone.
On another street in Venice Othello, Iago and several attendants appear bearing torches. Iago now attempts to goad Othello into anger against Brabantio, stressing Brabantio’s vilifications of the Moor and his power in the senate. Othello’s reaction is one of calm and dignity. Lights are seen in the darkness as Cassio and several officers with torches arrive. Iago warns Othello to retreat and hide. Othello proudly refuses and states confidentially “ My parts, my title and my perfect soul / shall manifest me rightly”. At this point, Brabantio, Roderigo and armed officers arrive on the scene. Brabantio demands Othello’s arrest, but patiently and with great dignity Othello assures Brabantio that he has no intention of resisting and agrees to answer his charges.
It is still the same night. In the Duke’s council chamber, the Duke and senators discuss various conflicting reports received from the navy. Othello and Brabantio enter the chamber and Brabantio informs the Duke that his daughter has been” abused, stol’n…,and corrupted” by Othello. Othello agrees that he has taken Brabantio’s daughter, but rather than deny the crime, he wisely stresses his virtues, his skill in combat and suggests to call Desdemona to speak before her father. He also offers to recount his courtship. At the conclusion of Othello’s story, Desdemona appears and confirms that she has married Othello through her free choice. Brabantio, thus still unreconciled to his daughter’s marriage, asks the Duke to move on the business of the state. The Duke appoints Othello Commander-in- Chief for the military defence of Cyprus.

Some weeks have passed. The action moves on to Cyprus. Cassio has arrived in Cyprus, Othello, who has been given the full powers of governor of the island, is still at sea. Desdemona’s ship has arrived. She is accompanied by Iago, Roderigo, and Emilia, Iago’s wife. At last Othello arrives. He embraces Desdemona and expresses his supreme happiness at this moment of reunion.
The night of the public festival – to celebrate the destruction of the Turkish fleet – Othello exhibits his wisdom as commander of the army and leaves with his wife and attendants early. During their watch, Iago invites Cassio to a “stop of wine” and Cassio, caught up by the spirit of the feast, accepts. He then has a quarrel with Roderigo, Montano intervenes and Iago slyly directs Roderigo to run off and rouse the town. Othello arrives at once and charges Iago to identify the trouble-maker. Iago informs him about the fight and is ordered to placate any Cypros who have been disturbed by the commotion. Othello is especially concerned about restoring order in Cyprus now that the war with the Turks is over, so he has no other choice than dismiss Cassio, even though he loves him. Cassio is distraught by the public loss of his reputation and Iago advises him to get his post back through Desdemona’s influence.

In the morning Cassio asks Emilia to arrange an interview with Desdemona. In the garden of Othello’s castle Cassio implores Desdemona to take swift action in his behalf. She assures Cassio that she will plead his cause as if it were her own. Towards the end of the conversation, Othello and Iago are seen approaching. Cassio is too embarrassed to face the General he has offended and abruptly takes his leave of the lady. This aids Iagso’s machinations from the start. Iago, by subtle insinuation, imparts his suspicions of Desdemona’s adultery to the General, who asks him to tell him if he perceives anything more and to set his wife Emilia to observe Desdemona. He is certain that Iago knows more than he is willing to tell. The psychological stress to which Iago has submitted him now, has its physical effects. He has headache and Desdemona offers him a handkerchief to bind his forehead. Othello drops it and it is retrieved by Emilia, and then taken by Iago, who will plant it in Cassio’s lodging. Othello’s capacity for judgement has deteriorated. Reason is less able to guide him as his passion takes over. Iago claims that he has seen Cassio wipe his beard with Desdemona’s handkerchief, giving Othello the proof of Desdemona’s treachery. Othello, totally convinced of Desdemona’s guilt, is determined to kill her and asks Iago to get him poison. But Iago suggests a more symbolic gesture: “Strangle her….in the bed she hath contaminated.”. Othello is pleased with the justice of this method.

After supper, that night, he orders Desdemona to go to bed, to dismiss Emilia, and to await his return. When he enters the room, he suffocates Desdemona, declining to shed her blood or scar “that wither skin of hers than snow / And smooth as monumental alabaster”, then draws the curtains around Desdemona’s corpse.
Meanwhile on a street of Cyprus Iago and Roderigo are preparing to ambush Cassio. In the fight Cassio is wounded and Roderigo dies. Emilia is sent to inform Othello and Desdemona of the disaster, but when she comes to the castle, she finds her mistress dying. Othello explains the cause of the murder and mentions the handkerchief, Emilia understands the whole plot and tells Othello the truth, then she is stabbed by her husband and dies in the final act. Too late Othello learns that his suspicions are unfounded. Othello dies, a self-murderer, declaring that he was “one not easily jealous”, but “ perplex’d in the extreme”.


Must know / Da sapere

  • “The tragic flaw” in Othello: the tragic hero must not be an entirely good man, or one who is completely evil, but, rather, a man who on the whole is good but contributes to his own destruction by some moral weakness
  • The story in the story (The war with the Turks)
  • Othello, a romantic figure: he brings suggestions of a mysterious non European world
  • Iago, the perfect villain: he belongs to the tradition of the devil of medieval history plays, of Judas, of the bad angels, of the Vice of the morality plays

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