What happens in Othello?

Shakespeare's tragic tale of jealousy and deceit opens in Venice, where the villainous Iago plots against Othello, the Moor. Iago teams up with Roderigo, a young Venetian who wants Othello's wife, Desdemona, for himself. Roderigo tells Desdemona's father, Brabantio, of her elopement.

  • Othello assures everyone that he won Desdemona's heart by fair means, not magic. He's then sent to Cyprus prove himself in battle against the Ottomites. Iago is left to arrange Desdemona's travel to Cyprus.
  • Iago plans to implicate a soldier named Cassio in an illicit affair with Desdemona. Iago gets Cassio fired at Othello's wedding feast, then encourages the soldier to plead his case with Desdemona, who agrees to help.
  • Iago gives a handkerchief that Desdemona dropped to Cassio, then suggests to Othello that Desdemona gave it to Cassio as a symbol of her love. Mad with jealousy, Othello smothers Desdemona, only to discover she has been faithful all along. Othello's grief drives him to suicide. Iago is arrested, but never reveals his true motives for manipulating Othello.

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Introduction

Along with Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, Othello is one of Shakespeare's four great tragedies and thus a pillar of what most critics take to be the apex of Shakespeare's dramatic art. Othello is unique among Shakespeare's great tragedies. Unlike Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, which are set against a backdrop of affairs of state and which reverberate with suggestions of universal human concerns, Othello is set in a private world and focuses on the passions and personal lives of its major figures. Indeed, it has often been described as a "tragedy of character"; Othello's swift descent into jealousy and rage and Iago's dazzling display of villainy have long fascinated students and critics of the play. The relationship between these characters is another unusual feature of Othello. With two such prominent characters so closely associated, determining which is the central figure in the play and which bears the greater responsibility for the tragedy is difficult.

More than anything else, what distinguishes Othello from its great tragedies' peers is the role of its villain, Iago. While the usurper King Claudius of Hamlet, the faithless daughters of Lear, and the unnatural villains of Macbeth (Macbeth, his Lady and the Weird Sister witches) are all impressively evil in their own way, none of them enjoys the same diabolical role as Iago.

Iago is a character who essentially writes the play's main plot, takes a key part in it, and gives first-hand direction to the others, most notably to the noble Moor, Othello. The play presents us with two remarkable characters, Iago and his victim, with Iago as the dominant force that causes Othello to see the infidelity of his young and beautiful wife, Desdemona, with his favorite lieutenant, Michael Cassio. Indeed, not only is "seeing" and the gap between appearance and reality a central theme of the play, it overlaps with other major thematic strands (trust, honor, and reputation) and sheds light on still others, including the theme of patriarchy and the political state.

Written in 1604, Othello is one of Shakespeare's most highly concentrated, tightly constructed tragedies, with no subplots and little humor to relieve the tension. Although he adapted the plot of his play from the sixteenth-century Italian dramatist and novelist Giraldi Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi, Shakespeare related almost every incident directly to the development of Iago's schemes and Othello's escalating fears. This structure heightens the tragedy's ominous mood and makes the threat to both Desdemona's innocence and the love she and Othello share more terrifying.

Although narrow in scope, Othello , with its intimate domestic setting, is widely regarded as the most moving and the most painful of Shakespeare's great tragedies. The fall of a proud, dignified man, the murder of a graceful, loving woman, and the unreasoning hatred of a "motiveless" villain—all have evoked fear and pity in...

(The entire section is 1,267 words.)