At a Glance

  • Othello, a Moorish general driven mad with jealousy.
  • Iago, Othello's villainous ensign, who plots against him.
  • Desdemona, Othello's faithful, innocent wife, whom he strangles.
  • Emilia, Iago's wife and Desdemona's servant. Her dying words clear Desdemona's name.
  • Cassio, Othello's lieutenant. Iago frames him and Desdemona by suggesting that they are having an affair.
  • Roderigo, Desdemona's young Venetian suitor.

Download Othello Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Characters

Othello

Othello is the play's protagonist. He evokes the audience's sympathies, partly because of what we now, as critics and social analysts, understand about race. Othello is a native of Northern Africa (that is, in Shakespeare's time, a "Moor"), which plays to his disadvantage in the sociopolitical battlefield of contemporary Venice. Despite being a gifted orator and physically powerful, his weaknesses are used against him: namely, his "free and open nature," his age, and his race. He is manipulated to the extent that he beats and murders his wife and ultimately commits suicide. Although he does not know it—until it is too late, that is—his primary antagonist is Iago.

Iago

Ostensibly Othello's ensign and ally, Iago is actually the villain of the play. He plots his master's demise and carries out his task with a diligence and single-mindedness which could easily be deemed sociopathic. His motives are ambiguous: he does not explicitly lust for power or status. Rather, there seems to be something more intrinsic—indeed, more carnal—at work in his aspiration to topple Othello. He seems driven by a desire purely to manipulate and destroy. He is young (twenty-eight years old) and psychically nimble, and he uses these characteristics to his advantage.

One way in which Iago sabotages Othello's marriage is by stoking Brabantio's racial prejudice:

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise,
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise, I say!

Brabantio

Brabantio is Desdemona's father. His sense of importance comes as much from himself as from his position as a civil servant. He is a friend of Othello's and feels betrayed by the couple's secret marriage. Representative of a certain Venetian social class, he falls foul of Iago's xenophobic rhetoric and turns sour on his friend, Othello.

Desdemona

Desdemona is Othello's wife and Brabantio's daughter. Though on the surface she may appear mild and stereotypical in her purity, she is more than able to defend herself. She jests with Iago, defends her marriage passionately, and is dignified in the face of Othello's unshakeable jealousy. However, verbal defense is not enough. Like a pawn in Iago's brutal game, Othello is driven first to distrust, then to physically beat, and finally to strangle Desdemona.

Michael Cassio

Michael Cassio is Othello's lieutenant—a much-coveted position. His good looks, youth, and rapport with Desdemona are unwittingly used as pawns in Iago's battle against Othello.

Emilia

Emilia is Iago's wife and Desdemona's maid, and her allegiance leans towards the latter. She sees through Iago's pomp and manipulation. Owing to the social obstacles placed before women trying to exert influence in contemporary society, however, she is unable to substantiate the distrust she feels for her husband or prevent Othello from murdering Desdemona.

Roderigo

Roderigo is another card in Iago's hand. He is enamored of Desdemona, and this makes him vulnerable. Iago converts Roderigo's passion into hatred and convinces him that he must kill Cassio.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Othello

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...

(The entire section is 1,267 words.)