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Detailed Synopsis of ‘Othello’

Act One: Iago and Roderigo are outside the house of Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, one night on a street in Venice.  Roderigo expresses his displeasure at his (justified) belief that Iago has been dishonest with him.  Iago insists that he hates Othello for having promoted Michael Cassio to Lieutenant, when Iago, remaining merely the Moor’s ensign, feels he’s much more deserving of the promotion, since he has the military experience Cassio lacks.  Still, Roderigo doesn’t understand why Iago works for a man he hates; Iago explains that he’s only pretending to be Othello’s loyal servant, and when the opportunity comes, he will have his revenge on the Moor.  (See Quote #1 of my Analysis of ‘Othello’.)

Since Roderigo wishes to have Othello’s woman, Iago tells him to join him in shouting by her father’s window, to wake him up and tell him that Othello has eloped with Desdemona (which he has).  So both Iago and Roderigo shout at the top of their lungs to wake Brabantio up.  Her father is angry to see Roderigo there waking him up, and reminds the dissolute suitor that he has rejected his suit for Desdemona.  Roderigo and Iago tell him that Desdemona is not in bed where she should be; Iago uses particularly crude language to describe Othello’s enjoying of her (See Quotes #2 and 3 of my Analysis).  While Brabantio is even further annoyed with Iago’s foul mouth, Roderigo insists they can prove the truth of what they say, if the old man would come with Roderigo.  Iago tells Roderigo he must join Othello, pretending to be his friend, while Roderigo takes Brabantio with him to arrest the Moor.  Iago leaves, then Brabantio joins Roderigo in looking for Othello.

Iago meets with Othello and Cassio; the Moor has married Desdemona.  Cassio tells Othello that the Duke of Venice wishes to speak with him about a problem in Cyprus.  Roderigo and Brabantio come with officers to arrest Othello for using “magic” to win her heart, since Brabantio cannot imagine his daughter willingly going to “the sooty bosom/Of such a thing” as Othello.  The Moor is taken away by the officers.

The Duke of Venice, with a group of senators, discusses the imminent invasion of Cyprus, a Venetian territory, by the Turks.  They need Othello to lead their navy to repel the invaders.  Othello enters with Brabantio, Roderigo, Iago, and the officers.  Brabantio, with a broken heart, accuses the Moor of using witchcraft on Desdemona.

Othello defends himself in a long, eloquent speech (see Quote #4), telling of how he and Brabantio had been good friends, and Othello was often invited to Brabantio’s home.  Othello would tell stories of all the times he had fought in wars, been caught by the enemy and sold into slavery, and then escaped to freedom.  Othello speaks of how he has encountered many strange peoples in his travels, including cannibals and people whose heads were under their shoulders.

Desdemona loved to hear these stories, wishing not to miss a single word.  She pitied how he’d suffered, and he loved her for so pitying him.  She indirectly expressed her love for him by saying that if a man should ever want to win her love, telling such stories would win her to his heart.  Taking this hint, Othello pursued her, and they fell in love.  This is the only witchcraft that Othello has used on her.

The duke is so impressed with this story that he imagines his own daughter could be won by such a story.  Desdemona has been sent for to confirm the Moor’s story.  She arrives, and her father asks her to whom she owes her duty and obedience.  She says that while she owes duty to Brabantio for raising her, Othello is now her husband.

The duke tells Othello to get the navy ready to fight the Turks.  The Moor must hurry off to Cyprus.  Desdemona wishes to join him, so he will tell Iago, who is also to go to Cyprus, to bring his wife Emilia to attend on her.  Cassio will also go.

The marriage being thus confirmed, Brabantio must grudgingly accept it.  His last words to Othello are a warning that she may one day show deceitfulness to him, having already done so to her father (see Quote #5).  He leaves, as does everyone else except Iago and Roderigo.

This latter, despondent over losing Desdemona, wishes to drown himself.  Iago scoffs at Roderigo’s “silliness,” as he himself calls it, but he doesn’t know what else to do.  Iago advises him to collect all his money and join them on the boats to Cyprus.  Iago says that Desdemona will eventually tire of the Moor, then Roderigo will have his chance to woo her.  He should continue giving gifts to Desdemona, money or jewels, and Iago will (supposedly) continue delivering them for him.  This plan revives the hopes of gullible Roderigo, who will now sell all his land.

After Roderigo leaves, Iago speaks of how he’ll use this fool’s hopes for his own “sport and profit,” since cheating him of his money is Iago’s only reason for spending time with him (Quote #6).

Iago now gives the real reason for his, indeed, most virulent hatred for Othello, mentioning a rumour he’s heard that the Moor has slept with his wife, Emilia.  Iago doesn’t have proof of this adultery, but he’ll assume the story is true and act on this assumption.  He’ll take advantage of Othello’s trust of him, and weave Cassio into his schemes, knowing the lieutenant has a way with the ladies.  Since Othello “is of a free and open nature,” Iago can easily manipulate him.  The ensign now has the germ of a plan to destroy the Moor, his wife Desdemona, and Cassio.

Act Two: In Cyprus, Cassio, Montano, and the other Venetians wait as Othello’s ship sails on the stormy seas; everyone hopes the ship will arrive safely.

Desdemona, Iago, and Emilia arrive.  Cassio kisses Desdemona’s hand; Iago notes this innocent show of affection, and plans to make it seem much more than that.

The Moor arrives, and he will relieve Montano of the duties of governing Cyprus; he also has good news–the Turkish fleet perished in the storm, so there will be no invasion!  Everyone is to celebrate that night.  Cassio is commanded by Othello to watch over the city that night and ensure that the revelry doesn’t get out of hand.

Roderigo appears.  Iago tells Roderigo that Cassio’s kissing of her hand is proof that she is looking for new lovers.  Roderigo doesn’t believe this, thinking (correctly) that Cassio was only showing gentlemanly courtesy; but Iago insists that the kiss was an expression of lust.  He then tells Roderigo to pick a fight with Cassio that night, during the festivities, when the lieutenant is drunk.

When the celebrations begin, and everyone has had some wine, Cassio insists he’s had enough, and he must begin his work, watching over the town.  Iago asks him to have some more wine, but Cassio says he mustn’t have any more, since he cannot handle it well.  Iago insists, though, so Cassio reluctantly drinks some more.

Later on, after some singing and rowdiness, Cassio decides he must begin his work.  He is very drunk, but he refuses to admit it, his pride piqued at anyone even thinking he’s drunk.  He leaves to begin his night watch.

Iago speaks with Montano about Cassio, lying that the lieutenant regularly drinks to excess.  Montano finds it worrying that Othello would give such a man a position of such responsibility.

Suddenly, Cassio returns angrily after having fought with Roderigo.  When Montano tries to calm Cassio, he threatens to knock him over the head.  Montano says he’s drunk, provoking him.  Swords drawn, the two men fight briefly, and chaos ensues.  Montano is wounded by Cassio, and Othello arrives, demanding that everyone immediately stop fighting.  He demands an explanation: Montano cannot answer, since he’s badly hurt; the lieutenant is too ashamed to speak.  Othello then turns to Iago, and demands to know who started the fight.

Iago pretends to be reluctant about giving an answer to Othello’s question, acting as though he is loath to blame Cassio.  Othello insists that Iago speak.  Iago speaks in a manner as if only vaguely to justify Cassio’s aggression.  Othello responds in the manner Iago was aiming for: the Moor assumes his ensign is mincing matters to protect Cassio from judgement, but he punishes Cassio by stripping him of his rank of lieutenant.  He gives the responsibility of watching over the town to Iago.  Cassio is crushed.

Desdemona arrives, asking what the matter is; Othello expresses his annoyance that the brawl has woken her up.  He takes her and Montano away with him, since he will bandage Montano’s wound.  Everyone else leaves, except Cassio and Iago.

Cassio complains of how he has “lost [his] reputation,” and blames wine for bringing out the devil in him.  Iago says there is nothing wrong with wine when drunk in moderation.  He also tells Cassio that if he wishes to get his reputation back, he should plead his case to Desdemona, for the “General’s wife is now the General.”  She in turn will plead for Cassio’s sake, asking Othello to forgive him and reinstate him as lieutenant.  This gives Cassio hope, and he leaves.

Alone now, Iago insists he is being no villain for offering such good advice to Cassio (Quote # 7); and yet, it is Iago’s plan to make Othello believe that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair.  With every appeal she makes to Cassio’s virtues, she will all the more arouse the Moor’s suspicions of her infidelity.  Thus will Iago turn her white virtue pitch black.

Roderigo appears, complaining to Iago about the beating he’s got from Cassio, and of how he’s spent almost all his money (given in gifts to Iago to give to Desdemona, but of course Iago keeps the gifts for himself).  Iago gives the foolish suitor more dubious encouragement by saying that the fight he provoked in Cassio caused him to lose his rank of lieutenant.  This loss of status should make Cassio unattractive to Desdemona, and then Roderigo can have his chance to win her love.  Cheered up, Roderigo leaves.

Act Three: In the garden of the citadel in Cyprus the next day, Cassio asks Emilia if he can speak with Desdemona: she takes him to her.  He asks Desdemona to beg forgiveness of the Moor, and she promises to help him.  He, grateful, says he is her “true servant.”  As they continue talking, Othello and Iago arrive: while the Moor thinks nothing of his wife talking with Cassio, Iago says he doesn’t like what he sees.  Cassio leaves, and Iago characterizes his going as guilty-looking.

Desdemona approaches Othello, asking him to forgive Cassio.  He says they can discuss that at another time, with her at first importuning him when.  She obediently leaves at his request, satisfied that they will resume the discussion of reinstating Cassio.  The Moor expresses his love for Desdemona (Quote #8).

Iago asks Othello about how he began to woo her.  He says Cassio already knew of his wooing of her, and was very diligent in going between Othello and Desdemona.  Iago says, “Indeed,” in a way insinuating bad intentions in Cassio.  Othello begins to wonder what Iago is implying; the Moor recalls when Iago said he didn’t like seeing Cassio guiltily chatting with Desdemona.  He presses the seemingly reluctant Iago to speak his mind.

Using reverse psychology, Iago speaks of how wrong it is to harm someone’s reputation by slandering it, all the while making Othello more and more suspicious of Cassio and Desdemona.  Iago continues to be evasive, pretending Othello shouldn’t think too much of the matter.

Iago climaxes his manipulative words with a warning to Othello about giving in to jealousy (Quote #9), saying it’s better to be a cuckold who is blissfully ignorant of his wife’s infidelities than to suspect an innocent wife of such disloyalty and to torment himself with such suspicion.

Now, ironically, the Moor is fully enmeshed in the net of jealousy, though he denies it.  Knowing this, Iago advises him to watch Desdemona when she is with Cassio.  He reminds Othello of how she’s deceived her father, but still tells him not to worry about this suspicion until better proof is available.  Iago leaves.

Othello ponders what Iago has said, imagining that Desdemona may not find him so attractive because of his dark complexion.  She returns, and seeing he is not well, she tries to wrap around his brow a handkerchief, one designed with a distinct strawberry motif.  He pushes it away, causing it to fall on the ground; the distracted wife follows him as he storms away, forgetting to pick the handkerchief up.

Emilia enters, finding it on the ground.  She picks it up, speaks of wishing to have the pretty thing copied, and remembers how her husband has wanted her to steal it for some unrevealed purpose of his.  He returns, and she tells him she has the handkerchief; she tells Iago that she hasn’t stolen it, but Desdemona left it on the ground “by negligence.”  He takes it from Emilia, but she worries about Desdemona not getting it back, since she will be in a terribly distressed state if she loses it, a special gift from Othello.  Iago tells Emilia to go away; she does.

Iago speaks of how jealous people will consider the most trivial of things to be firm proof of their suspicions.  He will leave the handkerchief with Cassio’s things, knowing this will aid him in his vindictive purposes.  Iago gloats as he sees returning Othello, who is increasingly coming undone.

The Moor angrily demands that Iago produce proof that Desdemona is a whore.  Iago speaks of how regretful he is of his “honesty” being so ill-appreciated.  Othello says he is torn between believing his ensign and trusting Desdemona, and that his vague, unproven suspicions are tormenting him; he must have proof.

Iago says it would be nearly impossible to arrange a viewing of her in bed with Cassio, something the Moor recoils at, saying, “Death and damnation!”  But if some kind of circumstantial evidence were provided, perhaps that would be sufficient for Othello.  He will indeed accept such evidence.

Iago speaks of a night when he and Cassio were sleeping side by side: Cassio, apparently, was talking out loud in his sleep, speaking of how he and Desdemona must hide their love from the Moor.  Then Cassio wrapped his leg around Iago and began kissing him, imagining in his dream that Iago was Desdemona.  Othello grows all the more unsettled by this revelation.

To make matters worse, Iago tells him of a handkerchief, “spotted with strawberries,” that he’s seen Cassio wipe his beard with: Othello knows this to be his gift to his wife, and he is going insane with jealousy now.  He makes Iago his lieutenant; Iago says, “I am your own for ever.”

Before the citadel, Desdemona is going mad herself wondering where her handkerchief is.  She tells Emilia she would rather lose her “purse full of crusadoes” than lose Othello’s dear gift to her.

He enters, finding it difficult to hide his jealousy; she says Cassio will come and speak with him, hoping to bring about a reconciliation between the two men.  This, of course, inflames his jealous rage further.

He asks her to wipe his brow with her handkerchief, but she can only do so with another handkerchief she’s using as a temporary replacement.  Having tested Iago’s story, and dismayed to see it so seemingly confirmed, Othello demands that she produce the strawberry-patterned handkerchief.  She says she cannot find it at the moment.

He tells her that the handkerchief was a magical gift an Egyptian gave to his mother.  As long as his mother had it, his father would continue loving her; but if she were to lose it, she would lose his father’s love.  The implications of the story for Othello’s love for Desdemona frighten her.

He demands again that she find it.  She says she’ll get it later, for now she sees it as a distraction from her suit to get him to reinstate Cassio.  He keeps demanding the handkerchief while she pleads for Cassio; he curses and leaves the room.  Emilia wonders if he is jealous, while Desdemona insists he’s never been that way.  Emilia says men are all stomachs, and women their food to be belched when the eaters are sated.

Cassio gives the handkerchief to Bianca, a girl he’s been seeing; he wants her to have it copied.  She jealously suspects he’s got it from another woman.

Act Four: Iago tells Othello of a time he heard Cassio speaking of lying in bed with Desdemona; Othello gets so upset that he has an epileptic seizure.  Iago gloats to watch Othello coming so unhinged.

After the Moor has swooned and fallen on the ground, Cassio comes by, and wonders what’s wrong with Othello.  Iago tells him the Moor has “fall’n into an epilepsy.”  Cassio suggests rubbing him on the temples, but Iago insists that the epilepsy must be allowed to follow its course.  Iago asks Cassio to leave, but would have him return soon, for he has something important to talk about with Cassio.  Cassio leaves.

The Moor comes out of it, and Iago says Cassio will return; while Othello is hiding, he can eavesdrop on a conversation between Iago and Cassio, one that will confirm the latter’s guilt.  Othello hides, and Cassio returns.

First, Iago speaks of Desdemona with Cassio, and of his hopes that Othello will forgive him.  Then Iago deftly changes the subject to that of Bianca, and in a way that makes Othello think the woman being discussed is still Desdemona.  Cassio laughs, speaking of how she (Bianca, or Desdemona?) is in love with him.  Othello is snarling as he listens to this.

Then, in a turn of fortune better than Iago could have devised, Bianca suddenly appears, showing off the handkerchief so Othello can see it, and complaining jealously that Cassio is seeing another woman, the handkerchief being proof of his two-timing.  She leaves angrily.  Cassio follows after her.

Othello emerges, asking Iago how he should kill Desdemona, now that he has apparent proof of her infidelity.  Iago suggests killing her in her bed, the one she has “contaminated.”  Othello considers this a just punishment.  Iago then offers to kill Cassio.

Lodovico, Desdemona’s cousin, has arrived in Cyprus to tell Othello he is to return to Venice.  The Moor is visibly upset as he reads the letter from the Duke of Venice with his orders to return, and for Cassio to be the new governor of Cyprus.

Lodovico wonders what is troubling him; Desdemona speaks of the friction between her husband and Cassio, a problem she wishes would end, for all the love she bears to Cassio.  Othello is especially offended to hear her dare to say that in front of him, and he slaps her in front of everyone!

She knows she doesn’t deserve such abuse.  Lodovico is shocked at what he’s seen, imagining no one in Venice would believe Othello could behave in such a way.  Surely his reputation as unflappable is in question.

Later, Othello questions Emilia if she has ever seen her mistress with Cassio in an intimate situation; Emilia, of course, hasn’t, for she has never left Desdemona’s company, not even briefly to get a fan or anything.  Emilia, not believed, is told to fetch Desdemona.  The Moor insists that his wife is “a subtle whore.”  Desdemona, frightened, returns with Emilia, and must defend herself against accusations of being a whore.

Othello leaves, and Desdemona complains of her troubles with teary eyes to Emilia and Iago.  They cannot imagine why Othello would slander her so.  Emilia insists some villain has told Othello slanderous lies about his wife, then Emilia recalls how someone similarly calumniated her to Iago about having had an affair with Othello, a vicious rumour that drove Iago to near madness.  Her husband dismisses the story angrily.

Desdemona, in her sweetness, cannot even say the word “whore,” let alone be one.  Iago reasons that Othello is simply annoyed at having to return to Venice, and is thus taking his frustrations out on Desdemona.  Dinner is about to be served, and Iago tries to cheer her up with that, and with hopes that all will soon be resolved.  The women leave.

Alone, Iago is accosted by a furious Roderigo, who demands satisfaction for having been duped by Iago all this time.  Roderigo has spent all his money in his foolish, futile suit for Desdemona, having given gifts to Iago to give to Desdemona, but Roderigo has gotten no desirable results at all.  Correctly assuming that Iago has been cheating him, Roderigo demands compensation and threatens Iago if he isn’t satisfied.

Quick-thinking Iago praises Roderigo for showing his manhood, and suggests that he use his apparent strength in a fight against Cassio.  Iago will help, it seems; then when Cassio is removed, Roderigo can have Desdemona.  Gullible Roderigo agrees to this plan.

After dinner with Lodovico, Othello tells Desdemona to go to bed alone, and to dismiss Emilia as soon as she has finished getting her ready for bed.  This command is surprising both to Desdemona and to Emilia when she hears it.

In Desdemona’s bedroom, as Emilia is getting her ready for bed, Desdemona remembers a maid from Barbary whose lover went mad and abandoned her.  The maid sang a sad song called ‘Willow,’ which Desdemona then sings.

She asks Emilia if there are any wives anywhere who commit adultery; Emilia says there surely are at least a few; for women have their ways of getting revenge on the wrongs their husbands inflict on them.  Emilia is sure that some women would gladly make their husbands cuckolds if doing so might make their men kings.  (Is she implying here that she, indeed, slept with Othello in the hopes that the Moor would, in return, make Iago his lieutenant?)  Desdemona, ever sweet and innocent, still cannot imagine any wife to be unfaithful to her man.  Emilia leaves her, and she goes to bed.

Act Five: Outside on a street at night, Iago and Roderigo are waiting for Cassio to leave Bianca’s home so they can assault him.  Iago realizes that this altercation will be crucial, for both men must die if Iago is to succeed in his plans.  This night will either make him, or undo him.  Iago and Roderigo are hiding in the shadows.

Cassio appears, and Roderigo attacks him.  Swords drawn, they fight, and Cassio wounds Roderigo.  Then Iago sneaks up behind Cassio with his rapier and stabs him in the leg.  Not knowing who has attacked him, Cassio calls out for help.

Othello watches from his window, and hearing the commotion on the street (as do Lodovico and Gratiano), assumes Iago has killed Cassio.  Satisfied with the achievement of this part of his supposed revenge, Othello heads for Desdemona’s bedroom.

On the street, Lodovico and Gratiano come to help Cassio.  Iago reappears from the shadows, pretending he’s only just arrived and knows nothing of what has happened.  Cassio says his wounded attacker is back somewhere in the shadows.  Iago goes over and mortally wounds Roderigo, who curses him before dying.  Then Iago yells for help.  He binds Cassio’s wound with his shirt.

Outside, Emilia and Bianca come to help Cassio.  Bianca is hysterical with grief over her lover’s hurt, but Emilia and Iago dismiss her as a tramp, implying Cassio’s injury to have been her fault, which she denies.  Cassio is taken away to be treated for his wound.

In Desdemona’s bedroom, Othello gazes on her sleeping body, his heart full of grief over the murder he feels he must commit, for the sake of honour.  He speaks of how he won’t shed her blood, or wound her beautiful skin, as “smooth as monumental alabaster.”

Extinguishing candles by her bed, he speaks sorrowfully of extinguishing the fire of her life (Quote #10), already imagining his regret over killing her, and knowing that, while one can light a candle again after wishing one hasn’t put the fire out, one cannot resurrect the victim one rues having killed.

He reaches over and kisses her several times, the last kiss waking her up.  He asks her if she has said her prayers for the night; she has.  He is glad of this, for he doesn’t wish, in killing her, to send her soul to hell.  She asks why he has murder on his mind, and he accuses her of having an affair with Cassio, who had the handkerchief.

She vehemently denies this adultery, asking to have Cassio summoned to corroborate her story.  Othello says her alleged lover cannot attest to her denial, for he has been killed.  She weeps for Cassio’s sake, infuriating the Moor.

He approaches her to commit the murder, but she begs him to banish her instead. He picks up a pillow and smothers her with it.  There is knocking on the door; Emilia comes in, telling him of Cassio’s injury.  Othello is annoyed to know he is still alive.

Emilia, however, is shocked to see Desdemona murdered; actually, she isn’t quite dead, but her last words are ones of love for Othello.  Then she dies.

When Othello justifies his murder by saying she was unfaithful to him, Emilia refuses to believe him.  He says Iago informed him of the adultery: too horrified to imagine her husband so wicked, she asks of Iago repeatedly to make sure, causing Othello to wonder why she needs to make this “iterance”.  She insists that if Iago really accused Desdemona of infidelity, he is a liar.  Sure of Iago’s reputation for honesty, Othello cannot believe that he lied.  Emilia cries out of the bedroom for help.  “The Moor hath kill’d my mistress!  Murder!  Murder!”

Montano, Iago, Gratiano, and others come into the bedroom.  She asks Iago if he told Othello that Desdemona had had an affair with Cassio: her husband admits that he said so.  Emilia is heartbroken that Iago could tell such “a wicked lie.”  He barks at her to go home; she refuses to, insisting that she have a chance to speak.

When Othello mentions her handkerchief in Cassio’s possession, Emilia is all the more horrified, now knowing Iago’s real purpose in having it stolen.  Emilia refuses to obey her husband’s command to be quiet and go home, for she must tell all.  Iago tries to attack Emilia with a sword, but is stopped by Gratiano, who is shocked he’d try to stab a woman.

When she tells Othello she stole the handkerchief to give to Iago, the Moor finally realizes how wrong and rash he was to murder his wife.  She carries on about how foolish Othello has been, murdering such a sweet and innocent wife.  He is already agonizing over his mistake.  Iago stabs his wife, then flees the room; he is pursued.

She lies beside Desdemona, weakly singing, “Willow, willow, willow,” before dying.  Othello continues grieving over Desdemona.

Iago has been apprehended and is brought back with Lodovico, Montano, and Cassio (who is carried in a chair), and officers.   Othello takes a knife and wounds Iago, who maliciously smiles at him and says the stab isn’t fatal; the Moor, preferring death to life, is glad to let Iago live.  Othello’s sword has been taken from him.

Cassio protests his innocence to Othello, who sadly acknowledges this and apologizes to him.  Othello wants to know why Iago has thus ruined him, but the villain refuses to say any more.

Othello is to be arrested for murder, but he wants a moment to speak, since he’s done some service to Venice.  He asks the people of Venice to speak truthfully “Of one that lov’d not wisely, but too well” (Quote #11).  At the end of his speech, he produces a hidden dagger and stabs himself.  He kisses Desdemona and dies (Quote #12).

Lodovico execrates Iago for his villainy, and demands the harshest punishments for him.  Lodovico must now return to Venice and tell this sad story with a heavy heart.

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About Mawr Gorshin

I write and self-publish mostly erotic horror (find me on Amazon and Literotica), but I blog about a variety of topics, including literary and film analyses, anarchism, socialism, libertarian Marxism, and psychoanalysis.

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