The main characters in Othello are Othello, Iago, Desdemona, Emilia, Cassio, and Roderigo.
- Othello is a Moorish general driven mad with false jealousy.
- Iago is Othello’s villainous ensign; he plots Othello’s downfall.
- Desdemona is Othello’s innocent wife, whom he believes is unfaithful.
- Emilia is Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s servant; she reveals Iago’s schemes in the final moments.
- Cassio is Othello’s lieutenant; Iago frames him and Desdemona by suggesting that they are having an affair.
- Roderigo is Desdemona’s young Venetian suitor; Iago exploits his desire.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1182
The title character of the play, Othello is a Moorish general of Venice. At the start of the play, he has just promoted one of his soldiers, Michael Cassio, to the position of lieutenant, and eloped with a nobleman’s daughter, Desdemona. Othello is a skilled, well-spoken general, and many in Venice respect him for this reason. The duke of Venice, for instance, seems to trust Othello with any military matters that might arise.
However, Othello is still seen as an outsider, and various characters such as Roderigo, Brabantio, and Iago make reference to his being Black throughout the play. Othello’s race seems to be the primary reason that Brabantio is angry that Othello has married Desdemona, and it seems to play a role in Iago’s resentment toward him. In this way, Othello remains an outsider in Venice. Although he has accepted Christianity as his primary religion, he still has a connection to paganism. A measured man, Othello is still liable to become possessive and jealous, and it is this latter character trait, aggravated by Iago’s deceit, that leads to the tragedy of the play.
Desdemona is Othello’s wife as well as the daughter of the noble senator Brabantio. Desdemona is a strong character, and at the beginning of the play, she proves herself to be Othello’s equal. For example, Desdemona defends her elopement to her father, and she is able to convince Othello to take her to Cyprus. Until the second half of the play, Othello is willing to fulfill her every wish. Further, she is one of the few characters whom Iago cannot seem to manipulate directly. In the second act, she verbally spars with Iago in such a way that he loses his temper, speaking pointedly and rashly, rather than using the cool rhetoric that he typically uses to manipulate others. These examples show her strength as a wordsmith.
However, she is also devoted to her husband to a fault. In the second half of the play, she does not resist her husband’s abuse and refuses to blame him, even after he strikes her. A devoted wife, she makes excuses for her husband’s actions until he kills her, and she even blames herself for her death.
Iago is the villain of the play and serves the role of Othello’s ensign. He is resentful of Othello and Cassio because the former promoted the latter to the rank of lieutenant, but the depths of his villainy are never fully explained.
Iago is a master manipulator, and by present-day standards he could arguably be classified a sociopath. He is charming and elicits trust in others, as seen by the fact that he is often referred to as “honest Iago,” and yet his scheming leads to a number of false accusations and deaths. He is adept at predicting others’ emotions and reactions, and he uses this to his advantage. Further, although he claims to hate Othello for giving Cassio the position of lieutenant, the revenge he plans seems inordinately cruel compared to the sleight of being passed over for promotion. Often referring to himself as a villain and manipulator, Iago appears to simply enjoy the power that he derives from hurting others.
Emilia is Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s attendant. Emilia’s character initially seems weak, because she appears subservient to her villainous husband, receiving his verbal abuse, and because she is complicit in stealing Desdemona’s handkerchief so that Iago can “prove” Desdemona’s infidelity to Othello. However, in conversations with Desdemona, we learn that she does not think particularly highly of men, least of all her husband, and it seems as though she ignores, or believes herself above, her husband’s cruelty. Her fortitude and sense of justice are shown when she attempts to defend Desdemona to Othello on numerous occasions.
Cassio is the newly minted lieutenant of the Venetian army, although his degree of military experience is questionable. He is a fairly flat character, but he serves as a useful figure for Iago to manipulate. He is attractive, honorable, and trusting, and for these reasons he is a prime cog in Iago’s scheme to make Othello jealous. He was also instrumental in delivering messages between Desdemona and Othello when they were still courting, a fact which leads Othello to be even more suspicious of Cassio once Iago plants seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind. With his trusting and naïve nature, Cassio—along with Roderigo and Othello—is one of the immediate targets of Iago’s scheming.
Bianca is a prostitute who has fallen in love with Cassio. She believes that they should be married, but Cassio is not interested in her romantically. Bianca serves to show that while Cassio is often considered honorable, he can still be cruel. He leads Bianca to believe that she could be his love interest, but he finds this prospect laughable when she is not in his presence.
Roderigo is a young nobleman who is in love with Desdemona. He sides with Iago in an attempt to win Desdemona’s hand. Roderigo is almost comically gullible, believing anything that Iago tells him. Iago is even able to convince him to kill Cassio when Cassio poses no direct threat to his winning of Desdemona. Roderigo’s trust is ultimately his downfall, as Iago kills him to cover his own tracks.
Brabantio is a senator of Venice and Desdemona’s father. Although he is initially angry with Othello and Desdemona for eloping, he is willing to listen to their story and reluctantly accepts their marriage. He dies by the end of the play, but this fact is treated trivially, and it is not clear why or how he dies.
Duke of Venice
The duke of Venice appears only in the final scene of act 1. He relies on Othello for military advice and allows Othello to defend himself against charges of seducing Brabantio’s daughter. In the short time that he is on stage, he appears to be a just ruler.
Montano is the governor of Cyprus. Cassio, in a drunken stupor, attacks Montano, and Montano serves as the primary political pressure that Othello faces in demoting Cassio.
Lodovico is one of Brabantio’s kinsmen. He serves as a kind of objective or detached viewer, noting how cruelly Othello acts toward Desdemona in act 4. At the end of the play, he offers to spread the tale of Othello.
Gratiano is another of Brabantio’s kinsmen. He helps to maintain order as the play ends, guarding Othello's door in the final scene and letting readers know that Brabantio has died.
The clown only appears briefly in the play, offering some comic relief via clever wordplay. He makes fun of a number of the other characters, and, in alignment with the theme of the play, some of his wordplay relies on the homonym of “lie” (to recline) and “lie” (to tell a falsity).
The herald appears only in act 2, scene 2, and announces that Othello is throwing a feast.