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Reference Guide

Othello - Reference Guides

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Venice is at war with the Turks, who are planning to invade the island of
Cyprus • Othello is hired to lead the Venetian forces on Cyprus, which is
where most of the action takes place
There is a minor plot involving jealousy • Bianca believes that Cassio is
unfaithful, although her jealousy is not as consuming as jealousy of Othello
Act I Introduction • Main characters are seen • Relationships are exposed
(e.g., Iago’s hatred of Othello; courtship and elopement of Othello and
Desdemona; Brabantio’s mistrust of Othello; impending Turkish war)
Act II Development/rising action • Plot moves forward as moves are made
and conflicts intensify • Iago plans revenge against Othello through
Cassio (e.g., Cassio gets drunk and loses his job, and then he is
convinced to seek help through Desdemona)
Act III Climax • All conflicts have reached their respective peaks
• Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona has committed adultery
• Othello vows to kill his wife
Act IV Denouement/falling action • Although the reader hopes that Othello
will change his mind, Desdemona’s death is certain; Iago’s hold is
very strong
Act V Conclusion • Many issues are resolved after Desdemona’s death
• Emilia discovers Iagos plan (she is killed) • Othello realizes that he
has been deceived (he commits suicide) • Iago is punished; Lodovico
restores order
• Characters’ own actions work against them
• Display of tragic flaw
• Othello’s trust in appearance (e.g., Iago appears to be honest, but he is truly
deceptive; Desdemona is described to be unfaithful, but she is incapable of
being anything but honest)
• Cassio’s trusting nature, exuberant youth, and willingness to drink
• Desdemona’s innocence and trusting nature
• Iago’s evil intentions and desire to advance his own cause
• Roderigo’s gullibility and desire to possess Desdemona
• Emilia’s defense of Desdemona and revelation of Iago’s true nature
• Othello is the hero, but he is also an outsider; he does not belong in the
society in which he has chosen to live
• Othello is a Moor living in Venice (two different societies)
• Brabantio accuses Othello of seducing Desdemona; accusations are
unfounded and based on fear of the outsider
• Iago uses Othello’s foreign nature to fool him into believing that Desdemona
cannot be faithful to a foreigner (e.g., Iago plays on Othello’s lack of
knowledge regarding Venetian women)
• Othello is led to believe that he is inferior to Venetians
• Iago leads everyone to believe that he is an honest man; it becomes very
clear (at the beginning of the play to the audience, and at the end of the play
to the characters) that he is an evil man
• Othello’s failure to see through appearances leads to the murder of
Desdemona and his ultimate downfall; his mind is clouded by Iago’s
deception and jealousy
• Iago hides his evil intentions behind a mask of honesty
• Brabantio is fooled into thinking that Desdemona fears Othello, when she
really loves him
• Othello is seen as a barbarian by many characters (e.g., Brabantio); however,
he is gentle and noble (until Iagos deception drives him to murder)
• Othello suspects that Desdemona is unfaithful and deceptive, despite the fact
that she looks and acts innocent; in truth, she is innocent
• Othello feels that he has been deceived by Cassio, whom he felt was loyal
and honest; Cassio remains loyal and honest to the end
• Emilia seems like a coarse and experienced woman with little or no feelings;
however, she turns on her husband in Desdemona’s defense, which leads to
her own death (she was also fooled by Iago until the very end of the play)
• Bianca is suspected of being dishonest; she is later revealed to be a sincere,
caring woman
Jealousy is a popular Shakespearean theme; in this play, it is portrayed in its
full destructive power
• Iago’s jealousy of Othello (along with his innate evil) prompts the former to
plot the downfall of the latter
• Iago’s jealousy of Cassios position (which he covets) causes the former to
also plot against the latter; plots are intertwined (Cassio and Othello)
Iago uses sexual jealousy to inflame Othellos passions and anger
Jealousy is considered to be Othello’s tragic flaw (it is the primary cause of
his downfall)
• Roderigo’s jealousy of Othello (regarding possession of Desdemona) leads to
his ultimate downfall
• Bianca and Emilia exhibit signs of jealousy
• Desdemona and Cassio do not show jealousy; however, they are both
affected by people who are jealous
• Protagonist dies due to conflict with antagonist
• In a tragedy of character, the tragic hero is dominated by a fatal flaw in his
character, which leads to his downfall
Tragic hero is held in high standing, making the downfall more tragic for the
Written around 1604
• Based on Hecatommithi (1565) by Giraldo Cinthio
• Draws upon Philemon Holland’s English translation of Natural History (1601)
by Pliny
• Born 1564; died 1616
• Playwright, author, actor, and poet
• Usually credited with 37 plays and 152 sonnets
• Plays are divided into the early plays (e.g., The Taming of the Shrew ),
the comedies (e.g., The Tempest), the histories (e.g., Henry V ),
the tragedies (e.g., Othello ), the problem plays (e.g., Measure for
Measure ), and the romance plays (e.g., The Winter’s Tale )
• In 1471, the island of Cyprus was under the rule and protection of the
Republic of Venice
• This lasted until 1579, when Cyprus was invaded by the Turkish Empire
(Selim II)
• In 1571, Cyprus was conquered; it remained a part of the Turkish Empire for
many years to follow
• In the play, Othello is sent to Cyprus by the Duke of Venice so that he can
lead the defense against an imminent Turkish invasion
• Act I takes place in Venice; the rest of the play (Act II to Act V) takes place in
• Most of the action in Venice takes place in various streets; also includes the
Duke’s council
• Most of the action takes place in and around the government castle of
Cyprus (e.g., streets, chambers)
The play takes place over a period of 3 days
Day 1 takes place in Act I
An interval follows the first day, as a voyage is made from Venice to Cyprus
Day 2 takes place in Act II
Day 3 covers Acts III, IV, and V
A foil is a character who can be compared and contrasted to another character
• Used to clarify character traits and issues in the play
Just The Facts
Othello Protagonist • Professional soldier; servant to Venice • Moor; Moslem Negro from North Africa • Middle-aged; history of battles fought over the
years • Man of action; not inclined to fancy speech (e.g., he comments on his rude language several times) • Man of honor (e.g., when a man
loses his honor, he must win it back) • A barbarian (according to Iago); he relies on his battle instincts instead of his reason (passionate,
hot-tempered) • Gentle and romantic (e.g., he tells a poetic story about Desdemona’s courtship; early on, there is much love and devotion for his
wife) • His tragic flaw is jealousy; it causes him to believe Iago’s accusations regarding Desdemonas behavior, which is the driving force of the
main plot • Believes that things are the way they seem (e.g., he is not suspicious of Iago’s deception) • A stranger who never fits in (hired as a
mercenary to fight someone else’s war) • Naive about women (e.g., he admits to being a shy, cautious lover; he is easily fooled by Iago on the
virtues of Venetian women)
Desdemona Brabantio’s daughter, Gratiano’s niece Young and white; she disobeys her father by eloping with Othello • Love for Othello is based on his
deeds of courage (war record); she does not know him very well when they marry • Innocent of Othello’s jealousy; unaware of the cause
• Faithful to her husband to the very end (e.g., she cannot accuse her husband of her own murder) • Passive; receiver (and often undeserving)
of other characters’ actions (she is a victim of circumstance)
Iago Antagonist • Othello’s ancient (ensign), and about 28 years old; Emilia’s husband • Mysterious man (motivations for his actions are unclear);
actions could be based on purely evil intentions, jealousy, revenge or some other unknown cause • Master at pretending to be something that
he is not (e.g., he caused many people, including his wife, to believe that he was an honest man) • Cunning and crafty (e.g., he fools Othello
and Roderigo very easily); intellectual and intelligent (e.g., he knows how people will respond in certain situations, and he can adapt to different
characters) • Amoral; he never thinks twice about his actions as long as he is serving his own needs (e.g., he has no remorse for Desdemona’s
fate) • Malicious and evil (e.g., he enjoys doing wrong); cynical (e.g., he has contempt for all things decent) • Covetous and harmful; he is
extremely proud (e.g., anything that damages his self-esteem must be avenged) • Egotistical; he respects no one except himself (e.g., he mocks
Othello’s trusting nature, Cassio’s honesty, and Roderigo’s gullibility; he treats his wife like a shrew)
Cassio Othello’s servant and officer (lieutenant) • Professional soldier; immensely loyal and worthy of Othellos praise (e.g., he tries to win back Othellos
respect) • Attractive and amicable (he is a good, decent man) • No principal actions (e.g., once he is demoted, he tries to get Desdemona’s
help) • Faults are youth-oriented (e.g., he is rash, impatient, unable to commit to Bianca, and unable to handle his liquor)
Roderigo Soldier (a bad one) • Comes across as a fool (e.g., he assumes that he can buy Desdemona; he believes that Desdemona is cheating because
Iago tells him) • Serves Iago with the hope of winning Desdemona’s love (e.g., he gives Iago money and jewelry to pass along to Desdemona,
which the latter never does) • Killed by Cassio and Iago after a failed ambush of the former at the request of the latter • Never achieves
happiness; he is only a tool (e.g., he is easily controlled by Iago)
Emilia Iago’s wife; Desdemona’s servant • Experienced woman of the world (especially in the realm of sex) • Coarse and hard-boiled; she has a low
opinion of men • Gentle and loving to Desdemona (e.g., she is willing to risk death for her) • Giving Desdemona’s handkerchief to Iago is her
only wrong-doing (done in ignorance); she only wanted to please her husband • Respect for that which is right (e.g., she denounces Iago and
points him out as the evil man, even though she will lose him for doing so)
Brabantio Desdemona’s father, Gratiano’s brother; Venetian nobleman and senator • Bitter and resentful due to Desdemona’s love for Othello
(e.g., he fears that she was drugged and kidnapped by Othello, not thinking that she eloped) • Accepting of Desdemona’s love, but not gracious
(e.g., he does not allow Desdemona to stay in his home while Othello is in Cyprus) • Disappointed and hurt due to Desdemona’s actions
Duke of Venice Royal character • Appoints Othello to lead the Venetian forces against the Turks • Admires Othello (e.g., he tries to calm Brabantio regarding his
feelings towards Othello and Desdemona)
Gratiano Brabantio’s brother, Desdemona’s uncle • Along with Lodovico, he discovers Cassio, who was wounded by Roderigo
Lodovico Brabantio’s kinsman • Serves as a witness to important events (e.g., he finds Cassio injured after Roderigo’s attack)
Bianca Cassio’s mistress • She shows common jealousy, suspecting Cassio of cheating with another woman (based on Desdemona’s handkerchief)
Montano Governor of Cyprus • Othellos friend and supporter • Steps aside to allow Othello take over the forces in Cyprus
Clown Othello’s servant • Serves as a messenger between Cassio and Desdemona • Teases musicians from Cyprus about their instruments
Name Description
Othello and Iago Othello is an honest and inherently good man; Iago is very deceptive and totally evil • Othello believes in appearances; Iago causes others to
believe that he is something which he is not (honest as opposed to dishonest) • Othello is respected by the citizens for his deeds; Iago is
respected for his honesty (until the truth is revealed) • Othello is naive about women and Venetian people; Iago understands (and knows how to
use) human nature • Othello is a foreigner (a Moor) and an outsider; Iago is native to Venice and comfortable among the Venetian people
Desdemona and Desdemona is married to the protagonist, Othello; Emilia is married to the antagonist, Iago • Desdemona is sweet and pretty; Emilia is coarse
Emilia and rude • Desdemona is innocent and naive; Emilia is world-weary and experienced • Emilia is loyal to Desdemona • Both women are used by
Iago to get at Othello • Both women die at their husbands’ hands
Cassio and Cassio is Othello’s lieutenant; Roderigo follows Iago • Cassio is considered to be a very good soldier; Roderigo proves himself to be a bad soldier
Roderigo • Cassio is respected by Othello; Roderigo is used by Iago • Cassio asks Desdemona for help; Roderigo wants to possess Desdemona, but he
does not even talk to her • Iago despises Cassio, but he mocks Roderigo • Both characters are used by Iago to further his plans
Characters Relationship
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