Othello, a Moor, is a general and commander of the Venetian armed forces, and later governor of Cyprus. He secretly weds Desdemona and provokes Iago's enmity by promoting Cassio. He later relieves Cassio of his rank when he believes that the lieutenant started a drunken brawl. Othello gradually succumbs to Iago's plot, and, believing that Desdemona is unfaithful, smothers her. When he realizes she was innocent of Iago's accusations, he commits suicide.
Othello is a noble and imposing man, well respected in his profession as a soldier. At the beginning of the play, he enjoys great successes and everything seems to be going his way. Desdemona has chosen him over all of her other Venetian suitors, and Othello prevails over Brabantio's charges that Othello has coerced and abducted her. The duke of Venice and the Venetian senators place him in charge of the troops sent to defend Cyprus against the Turks. Things continue to go Othello's way when he arrives in Cyprus and discovers that the tempest has entirely eliminated the Turkish threat. He and Desdemona act differently toward each other in Cyprus. They are more openly loving, much less formal than they appeared in Venice. The couple celebrate their marriage; and, even when that celebration is interrupted by the brawling of Cassio and Montano, Othello still appears confident and self-controlled. In the tradition of the best strong-armed heroic types, he says, "He that stirs next to carve for his own rage / Holds his soul light; he dies upon his motion" (II.iii.164-165). He is a man in charge, one that will shoot first and ask questions later. But Othello's confidence starts to slip when Iago begins to work on his psyche, intimating that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair.
At first, Othello denies that the attractiveness of his wife's grace, charm, and beauty for other men could make him jealous because, as he says, "she had eyes and chose me" (III.iii.189). But Iago's "medicine" (IV.i.46) soon begins to work, and Othello begins to question how Desdemona could continue to love him. After Iago has suggested that Desdemona has already deceived her father and Othello, the Moor begins to think Desdemona's betrayal of him is inevitable given his skin color, greater age, and lack of courtly charm (III.iii.263-268). He begins to act as if her unfaithfulness is a certainty, bemoaning that "Othello's occupation is gone" (III.iii.357).
Iago works Othello into a jealous rage through these many insinuations. But it seems to be the handkerchief—the one Othello originally gave to Desdemona as a love token—that puts Othello over the edge. Iago convinces Othello that the innocently dropped handkerchief was actually given to Cassio (who in turn gives the handkerchief to Bianca) by Desdemona. Othello focuses on this piece of cloth as damning physical evidence in his confrontation with his wife. He refers to it repeatedly before he kills Desdemona: "That handkerchief which I so loved and gave thee, / Thou gav'st to Cassio" (V.ii.48-49); "By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in 's hand" (V.ii.62); and again, "I saw the handkerchief" (V.ii.66). Desdemona repeatedly denies giving the handkerchief to Cassio, suggesting that perhaps he found it somewhere, but to no avail.
In the end, Othello is so convinced by Iago's manipulation that he murders his wife in their bed. The most apparent reason for this deed is the one Othello gives to Emilia, stated repeatedly in response to her persistent questioning, immediately after he has smothered Desdemona: "She turn'd to folly, and she was a whore"; "She was false as water"; "Cassio did top her" (V.ii.133; 135; 137). Desdemona, Othello believes, has betrayed him and the sanctity of marriage, and she paid with her life.
Yet some believe that Othello's motives run deeper, that Othello killed Desdemona because she violated the mores of Venetian society by marrying a Moor....
(The entire section contains 1535 words.)
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Othello study guide. You'll get access to all of the Othello content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
- Act and Scene Summaries
- Critical Essays
- Teaching Guide
- Short-Answer Quizzes