At a Glance

  • Othello the character is a curious mix of strength and weakness, intelligence and stupidity, faith and mistrust. His tragedy is that he's incapable of discerning the truth from lies. This makes him susceptible to Iago's manipulation, which in turn drives him to madness.
  • Iago is often considered a flat character because his motivations are never revealed. There's some indication that Iago is jealous of Othello, whom Iago may hate because of the color of his skin, but these are merely conjectures. Iago emerges as one-dimensional villain.
  • Othello is a tragedy in the classic sense, with the hero, Othello, succumbing to his fatal flaw, jealousy. That Othello's suspicion of Desdemona is ultimately unfounded only adds to the tragedy, in which many innocent characters die because of Iago's evil plot.

The Role of Race in Othello

The historical development of racial relations between Shakespeare's time and our own has virtually compelled twentieth-century critics of Othello to consider the title character's status as a black man in a predominantly white society. Some modern interpreters of the play have focused on Othello's race as a causal or, at the very least, aggravating factor in the tragedy that befalls him. Others have gone so far as to assert that Shakespeare's Moor is the victim of racial discrimination, if not directly at the hands of Iago's, then indirectly at the hand of the play's author. This, in turn, has generated substantial historical research into the racial attitudes of Shakespeare and of Elizabethan England at large. The results of this...

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The Villainy of Iago

Shakespeare assigns the final say in Othello to the relative minor character of Lodovico, a representative Venetian nobleman, a blood relative to Desdemona, and the moral arbiter of the play. He turns directly to Iago, places full responsibility for the carnage at hand (including Othello's suicide) upon the "Spartan dog" before him whom he then characterizes as a "hellish villain" (V.ii.368). Throughout the tragedy, Iago himself uses figurative language that connects him to Hell, the demonic and the archfiend Satan. He promises that Roderigo will enjoy Desdemona "for my wits and all the tribe of hell" (I.iii.357), expounds upon the "Divinity of hell!" in Act II, scene iii (ll.350ff), and remarks that the poison of his dangerous conceits "burn like the mines of sulphur" (III.iii.329). And, right before he wounds Iago, Othello cries out, "If thou be'st a devil, I cannot kill thee" (V.ii.288). This strand of Satanic imagery magnifies Iago and the enormity of his crimes to mythic proportions, furnishing him with a stature akin to Shakespeare's Richard III, for example.

Nevertheless, upon close scrutiny, we find that Shakespeare deliberately undercuts Iago's implicit claim to being a great villain. There are, to begin, other characters and even inanimate substances that evoke the language of the demonic. In Act IV, scene i, the raging Othello curses out "Fire and brimstone" at his wife and calls Desdemona "Devil" as he strikes her (l.240). Earlier Cassio rues his bout with the "invisible spirit of wine" (II.iii.273), saying of it "[I] call thee devil" (II.iii.274). Iago, then, is not the only "devil" in the play, and is, in fact, more a villain of words than of substance.

In the play's first scene, Iago spells out his grounds for hating Othello to Roderigo (and the audience) and they seem comparatively petty. Iago explains that his ill will toward the Moor stems from Othello's decision to pass over Iago and name Michael Cassio as his second in command. Iago gives some point to his grudge by contrasting the "bookish theoretic" nature of his rival's qualifications with his own credentials as a proven military officer. He tells Roderigo that three "great ones" of the city pressed his suit to Othello, but that their petition was of no avail, Iago stooping to mimicry of the Moor's replay, "'I have already chose my officer.'" He then denounces the "modern" (and presumably corrupt) Venetian system of career advancement, "Preferment goes by letter and affection / And not by old gradation, where each second / Stood heir to the first." (I.i.36-38 ). As a motive for his hatred of Othello, Iago's complaint is weak, amounting to a labor dispute. Moreover, while he focuses upon the Moor's rejection of his suit for advancement, Iago also tells us that Othello's choice is consistent with the whole civil culture of Venice, with the system so to speak. In fact, while railing against favoritism, Iago himself has used the agency of special pleading through great ones. On the surface, the source of Iago's animus toward Othello is a mere career problem, and this is not the stuff that moves great villains.

Customarily, Shakespeare's great villains, Richard III or Edmund the bastard of King Lear are given the opportunity to...

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Why does Desdemona Marry Othello?

In the last scene of Othello, Desdemona recovers long enough from the smothering that her jealous husband has inflicted upon her to pronounce her complete innocence, and with her last breath tells Emilia, "A guiltless death I die" (V.ii.120). Plainly, Iago has deceived Othello into believing that his beautiful young wife has committed adultery with his once-trusted second in command, Cassio. That being so, Desdemona is clearly innocent of the charges embodied in Iago's cunning innuendoes, and is a victim who does not deserve the tragic end that she suffers. Nevertheless, Desdemona has put herself in a position to be a victim by virtue of her decision to marry the Moor and to go with him to the isolated, embattled post of Cyprus, where Othello possesses not only the moral authority of a spouse but also the legal powers of a governor. The question naturally arises: Why does Desdemona make these tandem choices?

By the time that we first see Desdemona in the middle of Act I, scene iii, we have been told that she is a young Venetian noblewoman, the beloved daughter of Senator Brabantio, who has married the military hero of the city-state without her father's consent or foreknowledge. Desdemona certainly realizes that her elopement with Othello and her sharing of honeymoon quarters with this "Barbary horse" at the unsavory sounding Sagittary Inn is bound to evoke her father's wrath. Indeed, when we first hear Desdemona speak her "divided duty" defense (I.iii.180-189), she appears to have anticipated the need to make her case to both Brabantio and the ruler(s) of Venice. Her plea is tightly reasoned and pivots upon a straightforward analogy between her own situation and that of her mother. Desdemona's speech is largely devoid of emotional appeal and rests upon the natural precedent of married women transferring their first loyalties from fathers to husbands. What she conveniently omits is that she has chosen to wed outside her station, to a man who is much older than she, of an entirely different race and, despite the accolades he has received, very much an outsider in Venice. Moreover, she has done all this under the pretense of being a mere listener to the stories of her father's invited guest. Realizing that the Duke will follow the expedient course and rule in favor of the newlyweds, Brabantio utters his warning to Othello: "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see / She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee" (I.iii.292-293). This admonition surfaces again in the "deception" scene as Iago uses it to spur Othello's suspicions, Brabantio's prominent reference to "eyes" resonating with the Moor's demand for "ocular proof" of his wife's infidelity. We are told in Act V that Brabantio has died of grief over his daughter's betrayal. Desdemona does not...

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Why Does Othello Change His Mind About Desdemona's Fidelity?

Until the midpoint of Othello, the title character comports himself in a dignified manner and expresses unbounded faith in the transcendent love that he shares with Desdemona, a bond that reaches over differences in race, age, and social status. Nevertheless, Othello begins to change his mind about his young wife in the corruption scene of Act III, scene iii, and by the start of Act IV he literally collapses at Iago's feet in a babbling trance. From this point forward, Othello is completely preoccupied with the mission of avenging himself on Desdemona and Cassio for an adulterous affair of which they are entirely innocent. The proximate cause of Othello's change of heart is the poisonous deceits that Iago pours into his ear....

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The Women of Othello

Shakespeare's Othello presents us with a male world in which women have an especially rough time. Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca are all rejected by their respective partners, and all three love their men unselfishly and unreservedly, even when confronted by behavior that we would deem grounds for divorce at the very least. All the women are engaged in unbalanced partnerships: they feel more for their self-centered men than the men are capable of reciprocating. However, the women also display genuine emotions toward each other that is not reflected in any of the male-male relationships.

Emilia and Desdemona are both wives to men that have made the military their lives. Desdemona is the new wife, innocent and...

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Geography's Role in Othello

While the focus of Shakespeare's Othello is often on the domestic conflict of Othello and Desdemona, these events are purposefully fixed in specific geographic locations: Venice and Cyprus. Shakespeare creates a comparison of Venice with Cyprus that permeates the play, and the influence that geography has on the play can be vital to understanding why the plot progresses the way it does.

The comparison begins, oddly enough, with the title of the play, The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. "Othello" as a name is neither Italian (which would be "Otello") or Moorish. In addition, while Othello could possibly be "the Moor of Venice," the title does not identify him as the only Moor from Venice. It...

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Opposites Attract: Othello and Desdemona

Frequently drama teachers will explain to their students that the essence of drama is conflict. In Shakespeare's Othello, conflict on the social and political levels are an essential part of the story. Yet within the relationship of Othello and Desdemona, one that should be conflict-free, we find the most important and the deepest rifts. The difference that has received the most attention in recent years is their interracial marriage. During the trial of O. J. Simpson, media used the play as a comparison. But there are other factors at work in their relationship that go beyond racial difference, for example, age, experience of life, and a lack of knowledge about sex, love, and each other. The convention of an older man in...

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The Use of Humor in Othello

By the time Othello was produced, Elizabethan theater-goers were accustomed to the conventional elements of comedy and knew what to expect from a comic play: a story of love and courtship with some deceptive twist of plot, all worked out to a happy ending through good fortune and human ingenuity. But in Othello, comedy appears as a precursor to tragedy. It presented the audience with the expected comic conventions gone awry.

Although Othello is a tragedy, a miniature comedy is played out until Act II, scene i, where the reunion of Desdemona and Othello takes place. First we are given the frustrations of Roderigo, who is paying Iago to convince Desdemona that she should love Roderigo. Apparently...

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Motivations for Characters' Actions in Othello

In a discussion of the causes or motivations of the play, it is helpful to understand the primary motifs of the great tragedies. Shakespeare emphasized the problems of good and evil, sin and redemption. He was not particularly interested in the public sides of people, but whether they were good people inside. This can be easily seen in Othello, for all the action revolves around successful deception. Even Othello, a basically noble and honest public figure, shows an irrational and violent side to his nature at the end.

Shakespeare seemed interested in how the characters responded to certain situations. He believed that the action of tragedy occurred in the soul. The characters in this play are sensitive: morally,...

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An Analysis of Four Shakespearean Villains

Shakespeare's plays have been the focus of critical analysis for centuries. Part of the reason that his works are so widely read is that his characterization of both protagonists and antagonists is well developed. In the course of this essay, four of Shakespeare's villains will be compared: Macbeth, King Claudius, Iago and Edmund. Finally, some general conclusions will be drawn.

Some Shakespearean critics attempt to justify Macbeth's evil behavior by contending that his actions were forced on him by an external power. However, A. C. Bradley argues that Macbeth was not controlled by the Witches, their "masters," or Hecate. He continues to explain that the prophecies of the Witches are presented simply as dangerous...

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Deception in Othello

(Shakespeare for Students)

Othello is, at heart, a play about deception, and the emotional turmoil and mental anguish it can cause. Although Iago aptly demonstrates all...

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The Relationship Between Othello and Iago

(Shakespeare for Students)

At the start of Othello, Iago makes very clear to Roderigo the apparent cause for his hatred of the general. His lack of promotion to...

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Historical Background

The primary source for Othello is a short story from Gli Hecatommithi, a collection of tales published in 1565 by Geraldi Cinthio. The story from the collection dealing with “The Unfaithfulness of Husbands and Wives” provides an ideal place for an Elizabethan dramatist to look for a plot. Since no translation of this work is known to have appeared before 1753, scholars believe that Shakespeare either read the work in its original Italian, or that he was familiar with a French translation of Cinthio’s tales, published in 1585 by Gabriel Chappuys.

In Cinthio’s tale, the wife is known as Disdemona, but the other characters are designated by titles only. There are also significant differences in the length of time over which the drama takes place, details of setting, and characters’ actions.

Commentators have also suggested that Pliny’s Natural History provided Shakespeare with details to enhance Othello’s exotic adventures and his alien origins. It has even been suggested by Geoffrey Bullough that Shakespeare consulted John Pory’s translation of Leo Africanus’ A Geographical History of Africa, which distinguishes between Moors of northern and southern Africa and characterizes both groups as candid and unaffected, but prone to jealousy. Shakespeare was also familiar with fifteenth and early sixteenth century accounts of wars between Venice and Turkey, during which time Venice regained temporary control of Cyprus.

It is agreed by most scholars that Shakespeare wrote...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Venice. Northeast Italian seaport on the Adriatic that is the setting of the three scenes of the play’s first act. This affluent Renaissance city was greatly admired by Elizabethans, and utilized by William Shakespeare in his earlier play The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596-1597). Ruled by a duke and a senate, Venice was an autonomous, powerful republic at this time, with a flourishing commercial economy. Venetian ships plied the seas from the Adriatic through the Mediterranean, trading wool, furs, leather, and glass. In the play, Iago cynically describes Venice as a place of moneybags, treachery, and promiscuity, and insinuates that a black man can never be other than an outsider. Playing upon Othello’s sense of alienation, he suggests that Desdemona’s choice of him was unnatural and thus temporary.

Before Brabantio’s house, Iago and Roderigo call out with shouts of alarm and obscene insinuations about his daughter Desdemona, which escalate almost into a brawl, until Othello appears to calm the fray. This outdoor setting, dark and noisy, creates a feeling of unrest and tension.

Duke’s council chamber

Duke’s council chamber. Awe-inspiring room to which Othello is summoned before the Duke and the special session of Senate. In this Venetian crisis, with the Turkish fleet now bearing down on the island of Cyprus, a possession of Venice, Othello’s services are necessary. However, he must defend himself first from the accusations of Brabantio, who claims that he has stolen Desdemona by witchcraft. Although alien to Venetian culture as a Moor, Othello has previously proven his worth to the state and he defends himself from Brabantio’s charges persuasively. Into this solemn chamber peopled with the powerful hierarchy of Venice, Desdemona appears to declare her love for Othello, which convinces the Duke to support the marriage and enlist Othello in the war against the Turk.


*Cyprus. Important island trading post in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and a Venetian possession from 1489 to 1571. It provides the setting for the last four acts of the play and, symbolically, represents the edge of the civilized world; beyond is the Ottoman Empire, the enemy infidels. The second act of Othello opens at an open place near the quay of a Cyprus seaport. The tempest-tossed, Venetian seafarers reach safety. The location emphasizes the distance from their familiar world. Although the Turks have now drowned, Cyprus is a barren military outpost, a citadel, lacking many of the comforts of Venice. It is a masculine world, isolated and contained; Desdemona is at the mercy of the men around her.

Cyprus citadel

Cyprus citadel. Governor’s castle within whose soldiers’ quarters, orchard, and halls the remainder of the play unfolds. This citadel is the spot where civility and barbarity merge. There, Iago is free to advance his plans for Othello’s destruction, first by making Cassio drunk, leading to his dismissal, and then by using lies and insinuations to increase Othello’s jealousy. At a distance, Othello sees the encounter between Cassio and Bianca and his handkerchief pass between them; he is then convinced of the falseness of Desdemona. The isolation of the island from the civilized world contributes to the absolutism of the play.

The setting of Desdemona’s murder in her citadel bedchamber is cruelly appropriate. “Strangle her in her bed,” says Iago. The room brings together the sexual possessiveness of Othello, Desdemona’s innocence, and Iago’s passion for destruction. But it also represents a place in which the truth is revealed, where Venice, in the person of Lodovico, brings civility once more, and where Othello can feel remorse.

Modern Connections

(Shakespeare for Students)

While there are a number of issues in Othello that twentieth-century audiences can connect with (crimes of passion are not new to...

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Media Adaptations

(Shakespeare for Students)

  • Otello, National Video Corporation Ltd., 1982. Performance of Verdi's opera featuring Kiri Te Kanawa, Vladimir Atlantov, and...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Shakespeare for Students)

Adamson, Jane. "Othello" as Tragedy: Some Problems of Judgment and Feeling. Cambridge: Cambridge University...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare’s “Othello.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Seven essays that explore the issues of power and the difference between male and female roles and occupations. Holds that the play is at once tragic and comic. Includes helpful bibliography and Shakespeare chronology.

Calderwood, James L. The Properties of “Othello.” Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. Takes the theme of ownership as a starting point and provides an overview of Elizabethan property lines to set the stage for argument. Stretches the term property to include not only material and territorial possessions but racial, social, and personal identity.

Heilman, Robert B. Magic in the Web: Action and Language in “Othello.” Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1956. Extensive discussion of Iago’s manipulative rhetoric. Argues against Othello as a “victim,” presenting him as responsible, if only in part, for his own actions. A good resource for both general readers and students.

Nevo, Ruth. Tragic Form in Shakespeare. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972. Chapter on Othello describes the two primary ways of looking at the Moor of Venice: as a man blinded by love, and as a man blinded by his tainted vision of that love. Chronicles the events leading to the protagonist’s downfall.

Vaughan, Virginia Mason, and Kent Cartwright, eds. “Othello”: New Perspectives. Teaneck, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991. A collection of twelve essays that examine different theoretical approaches. Goes beyond a discussion of good versus evil to reveal a variety of nuances in the play. Traces readings and misreadings from the first quarto to the present.