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.
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.
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 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 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 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 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 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.
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...
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