On a street in the city-state of Venice, Italy, Roderigo, a Florentine noble, argues with Iago, the Moorish general's flag bearer. Roderigo, who loves the refined Venetian lady Desdemona, has paid large sums of money for baubles for Iago to pass to Desdemona. Roderigo expects Iago to relay the gifts to win Desdemona's love so Roderigo can marry her. The two men learn that Desdemona has left the house of her father, Brabantio, a senator, and has eloped with Othello, a black-skinned Moor from North Africa who is a mercenary military commander in service to Venice.
Roderigo fears that he has lost both his lady and his investment. Iago reveals to Roderigo that Iago takes pleasure in plotting and lying to get what he wants. An experienced soldier, Iago hates Othello for promoting Michael Cassio, an intellectual accountant, to the position of lieutenant, a post that Iago wanted for himself. Iago plans to ruin Othello for two reasons-to avenge himself on the general for the lost promotion and to gain Desdemona for Roderigo.
Iago and Roderigo knock at the senator's door and yell until Brabantio comes out onto the upstairs balcony of his residence in his night clothes. Iago informs the senator that Desdemona has eloped with Othello. The couple room at the Sagittary Inn. Brabantio, enraged, dresses and joins Roderigo in awakening kinsmen and neighbors and in organizing a search party.
Iago informs Cassio of Othello's marriage. Cassio summons Othello to an urgent state meeting about the military situation on the island of Cyprus. Iago warns Othello that there may be a legal attempt to annul the marriage. Despite personal threat on his wedding day, Othello knows his military worth to Venice. He confidently meets the Duke and senators in the council chamber.
When Brabantio's party arrives at the Duke's chambers, the senator threatens Othello and accuses him of bewitching Desdemona to win her love. The angry father believes that Desdemona would never marry a black like Othello voluntarily. Brabantio calls for Othello's arrest and imprisonment, but yields to the Duke's summons to the emergency session.
Several reports from Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean indicate a Turkish fleet advancing on the island. The reports differ in the size of the enemy navy, but the situation is obviously critical after the combined force heads for Rhodes, then changes course toward Cyprus. Othello enters the meeting with Cassio, Brabantio, Iago, and others. The Duke immediately appoints Othello to head the forces in defense of Cyprus.
Brabantio informs the Duke that a seducer has corrupted Desdemona with magic potions and minerals. In Brabantio's opinion, she would never willingly choose such an outsider for a husband. The Duke promises to support Brabantio's investigation of witchcraft, a capital crime. When the Duke realizes that the alleged seducer is Othello, he calls on the general to defend himself.
Othello describes his courtship of Desdemona in a dignified, persuasive speech. To prove that the romance is mutual, Othello asks the Duke to send for Desdemona to speak for herself. Iago leads a group to fetch her from the Sagittary Inn. When Othello finishes describing how he wooed Desdemona with stories of his many experiences, the Duke sides with Othello. The Duke admits that his own daughter would love a man who has survived enslavement. Desdemona makes a compelling argument concerning woman's duties. She owes obedience and gratitude to her father for her upbringing, but, after marriage, her loyalty passed to her husband, just as her mother appropriately left her father's care and passed to Brabantio's control. The Duke urges Brabantio to drop his opposition to the marriage.
Othello must depart immediately for Cyprus to command its defense. Desdemona requests to go as well. The Duke grants her wish. Before departing that night, Othello selects Iago to follow later in another ship, bringing Desdemona and her household. Iago's wife, Emilia, serves Desdemona as lady-in-waiting, a combination of chaperone, social secretary, and lady's maid. As Othello leaves, Brabantio warns Othello that Desdemona may trick her new husband just as she deceived her father. Othello trusts Desdemona's fidelity.
In private to Iago, Roderigo admits he has lost Desdemona and talks of drowning himself. Iago scorns Roderigo's melodrama and convinces him to go to Cyprus. Iago predicts that Desdemona will tire of Othello and look for younger, more interesting men. Because he hates Othello, Iago pledges to help Roderigo court Desdemona and reminds Roderigo to bring plenty of money to buy gifts to sway Desdemona into a sexual liaison.
In private, Iago congratulates himself for gaining Roderigo's money. In a side thought, Iago ponders a rumor that Othello has seduced his wife Emilia. Although Iago is unconvinced, he uses the rumor to justify his hatred. Iago's real aim is to seize Cassio's position as lieutenant, which Iago believes he deserves.
* * *
On the fortified island of Cyprus, Montano, the governor, awaits the Venetian forces, whom a storm delayed at sea. A messenger reports that the Turkish fleet is so damaged by wind and waves that it no longer threatens Cyprus. Cassio's ship outruns the convoy and precedes Desdemona's ship in arriving at the harbor. Her first question is for news of Othello, whose ship the storm separated from the fleet. Cassio and Desdemona pass the time in pleasantries. Iago watches, planning to damn Cassio for his winsome courtesies to women.
Othello arrives triumphant. He, Desdemona, and their company enter the fortress. The flag bearer stays behind to fetch the general's luggage. Iago uses the opportunity to tell Roderigo a blatant lie-that Desdemona is in love with Cassio. Iago convinces Roderigo to pick a fight with Cassio to cause mutiny that will ruin Cassio's career. Iago mutters to himself his hatred for Othello, whom Iago plans to drive insane.
A messenger reads a proclamation declaring a night of feasting for islanders. The festivities celebrate both the destruction of the Turkish fleet and Othello and Desdemona's recent marriage.
During six hours of dining, merrymaking, and drinking, Cassio commands the night watch. General Othello directs the soldiers to drink with moderation and to keep the peace before the 11:00 P.M. curfew. Cassio and Iago, Othello's second in command, depart to launch a security patrol. Othello and Desdemona retire to spend their first night together since their marriage.
In private to Cassio, Iago makes suggestive remarks about Desdemona, which Cassio ignores. Iago urges Cassio to drink, despite Cassio's knowledge that he gets drunk easily. Iago spurs Roderigo into a fight with Cassio, whose military skill Roderigo belittles. When others join the melee, Iago sends Roderigo to ring the alarm bell. The noise awakens Othello, who leads an armed squad to the disturbance. The general demands to know who started the fight. Iago names Cassio. Othello relieves Cassio from his post for being drunk and disorderly while on duty. Othello and Desdemona return to bed.
Pretending friendship, Iago advises Cassio to ask Desdemona to intervene with Othello to regain Cassio's appointment. Cassio agrees. Iago uses his unsuspecting wife Emilia as a go-between to arrange a private meeting between Cassio and Desdemona.
* * *
Cassio hires a group of musicians to entertain Othello. During the singing, Cassio sends a jokester to find Desdemona's lady-in-waiting. Iago dispatches Emilia from the castle to speak with Cassio. Emilia reports that Desdemona and Othello are discussing last night's street brawl. Desdemona sides with Cassio. Othello, who likes the lieutenant, promises to restore Cassio's promotion when the right moment comes.
Othello sends a ship-borne letter back to the Duke in Venice and begins inspecting the island fortifications.
Cassio asks Desdemona to intercede with Othello to restore Cassio to the rank of lieutenant. Desdemona agrees because Cassio is Othello's old friend. She promises to bring up the matter with her husband repeatedly until Othello resolves the quarrel and recalls Cassio.
When Othello and Iago enter, Cassio is embarrassed because of his drunken antics the previous night. Cassio embraces Desdemona and departs without talking to the general. Iago begins to undermine Othello's trust in his wife by interpreting Cassio's behavior as suspicious. At Desdemona's request, Othello agrees to confer with Cassio. In private to the general, Iago implies that he knows some secret evil. Othello refuses to suspect his bride of sexual infidelity.
Doubt and suspicion gnaw at Othello, who regards as faults his age and race. He agrees with Brabantio that it was unnatural for Desdemona to love him, that he was too unappealing to be loved, and that the match could not last. Iago leaves Othello, who contemplates the possibility that he married a cunning flirt who is already eyeing other men. He fears that he must wipe her out of his heart. He tries to dissuade himself from doubting Desdemona.
After Desdemona returns, Othello watches her intently for signs of betrayal. When she seeks to sooth his headache, he brushes away her handkerchief. After they go to dinner, Emilia picks up the fallen handkerchief, which Iago often urged her to steal. Emilia decides to have someone embroider a copy with strawberries to give to Iago. When he sees the handkerchief, he snatches it for his own use.
On Othello's re-entry, Iago observes the general's fevered speech. Othello believes that his wife has betrayed him and demands that Iago produce proof of Desdemona's infidelity. Iago claims that Cassio spoke in his sleep, embraced and kissed him, called him Desdemona, and cursed the general. Iago adds that he has seen Cassio wipe his forehead with a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries. Othello recognizes the handkerchief as the love token he gave to Desdemona.
Othello calls for vengeance and kneels to pledge himself to justice. Also kneeling, Iago swears to help him punish Desdemona and Cassio for their illicit affair. Iago agrees to assassinate Cassio for Othello. The general ponders how to kill Desdemona.
Desdemona sends for Cassio to tell him that she has spoken with Othello. She frets over the loss of her handkerchief. When Othello enters, he claims to have a head cold and rejects the cloth she uses to bind his forehead. He demands that she use the embroidered handkerchief. Desdemona tries to deflect his questions about the love token. Othello recounts the history of the handkerchief, which an Egyptian magician gave Othello's mother to keep Othello's father from straying to other women. Before the mother's death, she passed the handkerchief to Othello to give his future wife.
Desdemona contends that she has not misplaced the handkerchief. When she again brings up Cassio's demotion, Othello stomps out in fury. Desdemona mourns the loss of the love token and quails at the change in Othello's demeanor.
After Iago plants Desdemona's handkerchief in Cassio's lodgings, Cassio discovers it and gives it to his mistress Bianca. Cassio asks her to make a copy of it to keep after he returns the original to its owner. Bianca immediately suspects that it belongs to a woman. She berates Cassio for being apart from her for seven days and accuses him of having another mistress.
* * *
To Othello, Iago lies that Cassio has confessed to sexual dalliance with Desdemona. The general faints from rage. When Cassio enters, Iago claims that Othello has had seizures before. Rather than revive him, Iago instructs Cassio to let the fit wear off naturally and to come back later. Othello, regaining consciousness, berates himself as a husband tricked by an unchaste wife. Iago tells him to hide and observe Cassio when he returns. Iago says he will urge Cassio to relate his amorous adventures with Desdemona.
Othello withdraws in turmoil from Iago's manipulations. Iago talks with Cassio about Bianca. From a distance, Othello sees Cassio smile and laugh at the thought of marrying a street walker like Bianca. Othello believes that Cassio is joking about how much Desdemona loves him. Bianca enters bearing Desdemona's handkerchief, which she throws at Cassio. Seeing Bianca disrespect his wife's handkerchief, Othello believes that Desdemona is unfaithful. He plans to restore justice by killing both Cassio and Desdemona that very night.
Lodovico appears with news that the Duke has recalled Othello to Venice and has placed Cassio in the governorship. Because Desdemona approves the assignments, Othello slaps his wife. Lodovico is amazed at the crude behavior of a man who is usually restrained. Iago hints that Othello often acts violently.
When Othello questions Emilia, she assures him that nothing immodest has taken place between her mistress and Cassio. Othello believes Desdemona has managed to deceive even her lady-in-waiting. Speaking with his wife in private, Othello threatens to banish her. He calls her "whore" and "strumpet," charges that confuse and upset her. She immediately denies wrongdoing.
When Othello leaves, Desdemona acknowledges that he is punishing her. She ponders the cause of his rage. Emilia suspects that some villain has turned Othello against his wife and has stirred up his jealousy with gossip and lies. When Desdemona asks Iago's advice, he replies that only the business of state angers Othello.
Roderigo confesses to Iago that the quest for Desdemona is hopeless. Iago urges Roderigo to kill Cassio. Iago reasons that Cassio's death will prevent Othello returning to Venice and, therefore, will keep Desdemona in Cyprus. Roderigo hesitantly agrees to the assassination plot.
After a state dinner, Othello orders Desdemona to go to bed and to dismiss her attendant. Desdemona and Emilia discuss the unsettling turn of events. Emilia views the marriage as a mistake, but Desdemona regrets nothing. She has a premonition of death and requests Emilia to wrap her body in one of the couple's wedding sheets, which Emilia spread on the bed. Desdemona sings the "Willow Song," which the maid Barbary sang after her lover went mad and abandoned her.
In the street at night, Iago directs Roderigo to hide behind a wall and ambush Cassio. When Cassio approaches, Roderigo attacks unsuccessfully and suffers a fatal stab from Cassio's sword. Iago, from behind, stabs Cassio in the leg and runs away while Cassio cries murder. Pretending outrage, Iago organizes medical help for Cassio and arrests Bianca on suspicion of joining the ambush.
Othello, hearing Cassio's cry, believes that Iago has assassinated Desdemona's lover as planned. Following Iago's lead, Othello hardens his heart against his wife's beauty. He intends to smother her in the bed where she has betrayed him.
Desdemona lies asleep in bed when Othello enters. She wakens and calls to him. He orders her to pray at once, repenting her sins. He will wait while she confesses her wrongdoings because he does not want to prevent her soul from entering heaven. Desdemona realizes that Othello intends to murder her. She is afraid, but guiltless. Knowing that she cannot convince him of her fidelity, she weeps and begs him to banish her rather than kill her. She asks him to let her live a half hour, but he smothers her immediately.
When Emilia knocks, Othello shuts the bed-curtains and opens the door to hear the news. Emilia reports that Cassio has killed Roderigo. Desdemona revives, claiming to be wrongfully slain. Emilia calls for help. Desdemona says that she is innocent. Before she dies, she blames herself for her own murder.
Emilia confronts Othello and vows to risk her life to report his crime. Othello declares that he has killed Desdemona because of her infidelity. Emilia insists that Desdemona was faithful. Othello replies that, according to Iago, Cassio defiled Desdemona. Emilia absorbs Iago's evil while Othello pours out his heart. Emilia curses Iago, calls him a liar, and cries murder to waken the castle.
Montano, Gratiano, Iago, and others rush into the bedchamber. Emilia challenges Iago to defend himself. Iago repeats his lie that Desdemona carried on an affair with Cassio. Emilia reveals how she found the handkerchief and gave it to her husband, who had asked her to steal. After ordering Emilia to be silent and to return home, Iago stabs her and runs out. As she dies, Emilia tells Othello that Desdemona loved him. Othello realizes that Iago has tricked and manipulated him into murdering his bride.
The guard apprehends Iago. Othello and Cassio demand to know why Iago plotted so unthinkable a crime. Iago refuses to explain and says he will never speak again. Othello, watching his world unravel, asks the men to remember him clearly, his good points and his bad. After admitting that he loved Desdemona too much rather than too little, he stabs himself, falls on the bed next to her, and dies.
Lodovico takes charge, giving Othello's house and property to Gratiano, the general's next of kin by marriage. Cassio takes command of Cyprus and receives Lodovico's order to torture Iago. Lodovico will return to Venice with news of multiple violent deaths.
Excerpted from Shakespeare on the Double! Othello by William Shakespeare Mary Ellen Snodgrass Copyright © 2008 by William Shakespeare. Excerpted by permission.
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