There are two basic factors that should be included in an introductory summary of William Shakespeare’s play. The underlying, all-important premise is that Othello is about the destructive power of jealousy. A second important factor is that Othello is a tragedy that is caused by jealousy; its tragic aspects include not only the death or destruction of many people, but the fact that most of those who die or suffer have done nothing wrong.
The title character, Othello, is undone by jealousy because he basically has a trusting nature and is extremely insecure; this combination of attributes makes him susceptible to manipulation. His bride, Desdemona, was attracted to him in part because she recognized that honest core more than being impressed by his success as a military leader. Because Othello basically doubts that he deserves her love, he is easily convinced that she would be attracted to another man, Cassio. Unable to shake his jealousy and insecurity, Othello becomes enraged and kills both Desdemona and himself.
The villainous Iago is also driven by jealousy, both for actual and imagined slights. He resents Cassio for getting a promotion that he thinks he deserved and hates Othello for promoting him. There has been considerable debate about the extent to which the hatred that Iago, who is white, feels toward Othello, who is black, may be motivated by racism. Iago’s jealousy of Cassio and Othello also includes his notion that Iago’s wife, Emilia, had a sexual relationship with both men. Iago also manipulates the jealous Roderigo, who had been Desdemona’s suitor. Iago’s determination to destroy Cassio and Othello leads to the deaths of Desdemona, Othello, Emilio, and Roderigo—but not Iago himself, who is left to face justice.