Othello, Moorish commander of the armed forces of Venice, had secretly married Desdemona, the much younger daughter of the respected Senator Brabantio. Capitalizing on this news, Othello’s ensign, Iago, who had earlier professed his desires to Desdemona without receiving her love in return, sought revenge. Also passed over for promotion as Othello’s new lieutenant chief of staff, the Moor having chosen instead a loyal Florentine, Michael Cassio, Iago now devised a scheme to rid himself of these sorry reminders of his own failings. He dispatched his inexperienced follower, Roderigo, to inform Brabantio of the illicit marriage.
The thought of a beguiling Moor’s marrying his beloved daughter without consent, led the Senator with his guards to Othello’s house. However, violence was postponed by the report of an imminent attack on Cyprus from armed Turkish galleys. The Duke of Venice summoned Othello to the senate chambers. When Desdemona appeared and professed her love for Othello, the Duke cleared him of wrongdoing, saying to Brabantio, “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.” Then the Duke directed his courageous commander to lead the Venetian forces to Cyprus in its defense.
With his honor intact, and through Desdemona’s pleas to remain with her love, Othello gained permission to have her sail with him. For the voyage, Othello entrusted Desdemona to the care of Iago’s wife, Emilia, who did not suspect her husband’s treachery. Before the soldier band could reach its enemy, a storm destroyed the Turkish fleet and dispersed the Venetian vessels. Fortunately, all of Othello’s ships returned safely to Cyprus and Othello and his bride were reunited.
Iago’s hateful plan turned now to lies and innuendo. Seeing the infatuation his pawn Roderigo had for Desdemona, Iago engaged Rodcrigo in conversation, promising that he could secure for him Desdemona’s love:
I hate the Moor. My cause is hearted: thine both no less reason. Let s be conjunctive in our revenge against him. If thou canst cuckold him, thou dost thyself a pleasure, me a sport.
But then evil Iago demanded a price for Desdemona: Roderigo would have to engage Cassio in a fight during the lieutenant’s night watch. Iago further fanned Roderigo’s readiness to kill Cassio by claiming that Cassio was Desdcmona’s latest love.
That night Iago succeeded in getting Cassio drunk, and the brawl turned to riot. By way of reprimand, Othello was forced to demotc Cassio, a severe blow to the high-ranking officer. Desdemona nobly appealed to her husband on Cassio’s behalf, in an attempt to revive their friendship. This innocent act provided Iago with yet another idea – a way to convince the Moor of his wife’s “natural attraction” to the handsome young Florentine.
Iago approached the despondent Cassio and convinced him that a meeting could be arranged between him and Desdemona; and she could use her influence to have Cassio’s position restored. When the meeting took place, Iago drew Othello aside to cause him to see Cassio in the act of “soliciting” his wife. He also began his line of subtle allusions to gossip of a prior romance between the two. His clever suggestions continued, daily planting seeds of jealousy in Othello’s heart.
Meanwhile, Desdemona could sense her husband’s growing despair. Othello’s jealous rages grieved not only her, his ill-starred wife, but also all those under his command. Emilia, Desdemona’s loving caretaker, swore of her mistress’ fidelity, but the tormented Othello would not listen.
Iago’s plan was promoted even more when he obtained a handkerchief Othello had given to Desdemona as a love token. It had been found by Emilia, who intended to return it to her mistress. Instead, Iago secretly planted it in Cassio’s bed.
Tortured over the weeks, and weary of Iago’s incessant insinuations, Othello finally demanded proof from Iago of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness:
Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,
Or by the worth of man’s eternal soul,
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my wak’d wrath …
Iago swore to have heard Cassio speak words of love to Desdemona in his sleep. As additional evidence he cited having seen Cassio wipe his beard with the missing scarf, which Cassio had since discovered in his quarters. Iago’s cunning plan was working; Othello was finally convinced:
Othello: Get me some poison, Iogo, this night
Iago: Do it at with poison. Strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated.
Othello: Good, good. The justice of it pleases. Very good.
Iago: And for Cassio, let me be his undertaker …
Overwhelmed with madness, Othello at once accepted Iago’s words, making him his new lieutenant and charging him with his first order of business: Kill the deceitful Cassio.
In treacherous obedience to his commander, Iago enlisted Roderigo to ambush Cassio. With Iago hiding in the night’s darkness, Roderigo confronted Cassio in a duel, but was wounded himself. Then, in the scuffle, Iago leaped out and wounded Cassio. In order to keep Roderigo from talking, Iago next turned on Roderigo, fatally stabbing the unfortunate lackey.
A crowd quickly gathered, including a harlot who claimed wounded Cassio as a friend. Iago, reasoning that a broken and a shunned Cassio would be an even sweeter revenge than a dead Cassio, decided this woman could be used to further defame his enemy. Pretending to have been a passer-by coming to Cassio’s aid, Iago, along with some other Venetian gentlemen, assisted the wounded ensign toward Othello’s home.
That same evening, Othello ordered Desdemona to excuse her servant early and retire to bed. In an anguished fit of passion, he then entered her chamber and kissed her:
Othello: Have you pray’d to-night, Desdemon?
Desdemona: Ay, my lord.
Othello: If you bethink yourself of any crime Unrecoucil’d as yet to heaven and grace, Solicit for it straight …. I would not kill thy unprepared spirit …
Othello then spelled out the evidence that accused her of her crime, and demanded a confession. Desdemona denied any impropriety; Cassio must have found the handkerchief … But Othello spoke up, reporting that Cassio, her very lover, had already been justly assassinated. Desdemona burst into tears. “O strumpet! Weep’st thou for him in my face?” the husband cried. And then, despite her pleadings, he smothered her with a pillow.
The act completed, Othello was interrupted by Emilia at the door. She entered and told him that Roderigo had been killed, but Cassio yet lived. Distraught, and trying to justify his wife’s murder, Othello disclosed to Emilia how he knew of his dead wife’s infidelity – ” . . . Thy husband knew it all … My friend, thy husband, honest, honest Iago,” he had made the accusation.
When Iago, Cassio and the nobles arrived, Emilia urged her husband to refute Othello’s claim. Upon seeing the falseness reflected in Iago’s eyes, however, and beholding his vain attempts to absolve himself, the general suddenly realized the tragic error he had made. His trusted ensign had orchestrated the entire affair. The missing scarf, the meeting between Cassio and Desdemona, the cause of his insane grief – all was Iago’s doing.
Emilia became sickened at the reality of her husband’s villainy. Amid sobs of grief, she began to rebuke him. Impulsively, Iago drew his dagger and stabbed his frenzied wife. Othello lunged at Iago, wounding him, but was restrained by the nobles from finishing the deed.
Faithful Emilia died, still calmly defending Desdemona’s innocence and proclaiming her love for the virtuous woman. Othello, on the other hand, mad with guilt and sorrow, pleaded with his true friend, Cassio:
… When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of them as they are. Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that lov’d not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
Perplex’d in the extreme, of one whose hand
… threw a pearl away …
This said, Othello raised his dagger and thrust its blade into his own heart. As he lay dying, he could only be content with the promise that wicked, traitorous Iago would be tortured to death at the hands of the governor-general of Cyprus.
Shakespeare’s Othello epitomizes the playwright’s masterful ability to weave his characters’ intricate motives and acts into one smooth plot. Of at I his villains, Iago seems to be the most complete and sadistic, with no greater motive than wounded pride for his wickedness. Indeed, the drama might well be named “Iago,” since he is the character most prominent throughout.
But the character most discussed by critics continues to be Othello. Is he an honorable, tragic hero who is ennobled by the unsuspecting confidence he places in his advisor, Iago? Or is he nothing more than a vulnerable, murderous and tragic fool? Othello himself recognizes this extraordinary paradox when, at the end of the play, he describes himself as “an honourable murderer”; as “one that loved not wisely but too well.”
In contrast, we experience the authentic bond of love between two faithful women. And ultimately, love triumphs – even if only in death over pride, envy, hate and evil.