Othello (oh-THEHL-oh), a Moorish general in the service of Venice. A romantic and heroic warrior with a frank and honest nature, he has a weakness that makes him vulnerable to Iago’s diabolic temptation. He becomes furiously jealous of his innocent wife and his loyal lieutenant. His character decays, and he connives with Iago to have his lieutenant murdered. Finally, he decides to execute his wife with his own hands. After killing her, he learns of her innocence, and he judges and executes himself.
Iago (ee-AH-goh), Othello’s ancient (ensign), a satirical malcontent who is envious of the appointment of Michael Cassio to the position of Othello’s lieutenant. He at least pretends to suspect his wife Emilia of having an illicit affair with the Moor. A demi-devil, as Othello calls him, he destroys Othello, Desdemona, Roderigo, his own wife, and himself. He is William Shakespeare’s most consummate villain, perhaps sketched in several of Shakespeare’s other characters: Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, Richard of Gloucester in Henry VI and Richard III, and Don John in Much Ado About Nothing. He is echoed in Edmund in King Lear and Iachimo in Cymbeline. He contains strong elements of the Devil and the Vice in the medieval morality plays.
Desdemona (dehz-dee-MOH-nuh), the daughter of Brabantio and wife of Othello. An innocent, idealistic, and romantic girl, she gives her love completely to her warrior husband. In her fear and shock at his violent behavior, she lies to him about her lost handkerchief, thus convincing him of her guilt. Even when she is dying, she tries to protect him from her kinsmen. Other characters can be judged by their attitude toward her.
Emilia (ee-MIHL-ee-uh), Iago’s plainspoken wife. Intensely loyal to her mistress, Desdemona, she is certain that some malicious villain has belied her to the Moor. She does not suspect that her husband is that villain until too late to save her mistress. She is unwittingly the cause of Desdemona’s death; when she finds the lost handkerchief and gives it to Iago, he uses it to inflame the Moor’s insane jealousy. Emilia grows in stature throughout the play and reaches tragic dignity when she refuses to remain silent about Iago’s villainy, even though her speaking the truth costs her her life. Her dying words, clearing Desdemona of infidelity, drive Othello to his self-inflicted death.
Michael Cassio (KAS-ee-oh), Othello’s lieutenant. Devoted to his commander and Desdemona, he is impervious to Iago’s temptations where either is concerned. He is, however, given to loose living, and his behavior when discussing Bianca with Iago fires Othello’s suspicions, after Iago has made Othello believe they are discussing Desdemona. Cassio’s drinking on duty and becoming involved in a brawl lead to his replacement by Iago. He escapes the plot of Iago and Othello to murder him, and he succeeds Othello as governor of Cyprus.
Brabantio (brah-BAN-shee-oh), a Venetian senator. Infuriated by his daughter’s elopement with the Moor, he appeals to the senate to recover her. Losing his appeal, he publicly casts her off and warns Othello that a daughter who deceives her father may well be a wife who deceives her husband. This warning plants a small seed of uncertainty in Othello’s heart, which Iago waters diligently. Brabantio dies brokenhearted at losing Desdemona and does not learn of her horrible death.
Roderigo (rod-eh-REE-goh), a young Venetian suitor of Desdemona. The gullible victim of Iago, who promises Desdemona to him, he aids in bringing about the catastrophe and earns a well-deserved violent death, ironically inflicted by Iago. The degradation of Roderigo is in striking contrast to the growth of Cassio. Iago, who makes use of Roderigo, has profound contempt for him.
Bianca (bee-AN-kuh), a courtesan in Cyprus. Cassio gives her Desdemona’s handkerchief, which Iago has planted in his chambers. She thus serves doubly in rousing Othello’s fury.
Montano (mohn-TAH-noh), a former governor of Cyprus. He and Cassio quarrel while drinking (by Iago’s machinations), and Montano is seriously wounded. This event causes Cassio’s removal. Montano recovers and aids in apprehending Iago when his villainy is revealed.
Gratiano (gray-shee-AH-noh), Brabantio’s brother. He and Lodovico go to Cyprus from Venice and aid in restoring order and destroying Iago.
Lodovico (loh-doh-VEE-koh), a kinsman of Brabantio. As the man of most authority from Venice, he ends the play after appointing Cassio governor of Cyprus to succeed the self-killed Othello.
The clown, a servant of Othello. Among Shakespeare’s clowns, he has perhaps the weakest and briefest role.