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The Tragedy of Othello: Summary, Analysis & Quotes

The Tragedy of Othello: Summary, Analysis & Quotes
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  • 0:02 Summary of Othello
  • 3:22 Analysis of Othello
  • 5:34 Quotes in Othello
  • 8:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Diane Kampf
In this lesson, meet Shakespeare's tragic hero, Othello, and some of his friends and foes. Find out where the infamous Moor went wrong, and read some of the famous quotes from the play.

Summary of Othello

What do you get when you mix a viciously ambitious military man with a jealous newlywed and a spurned lover? A famous Shakespearean tragedy about what happens when people let their emotions get the best of them. The play opens in Venice, Italy, with Iago, the play's villain, and Roderigo, a man who is paying Iago to help him in his romantic pursuit of Desdemona, arguing about Desdemona's recent marriage to Othello. Iago assures Roderigo that Desdemona will soon become bored with Othello and then Roderigo will have his chance with her.

Iago is upset with Othello, the military commander, because he recently promoted a guy named Cassio instead of Iago to the position of lieutenant even though Iago has more military experience. Iago and Roderigo tell Desdemona's father that the only reason she married Othello is because he put some kind of magic spell on her. Desdemona's father complains to the local governing body, the Senate, and Othello offers his rebuttal, stating that he won Desdemona's love by telling her the exciting stories of his military adventures. Desdemona appears before the Senate to confirm Othello's story and tells her father that her allegiance is now to her husband.

Meanwhile, the Turks are on their way to invade Cyprus, an island just off Italy's coast, so all the major characters sail to the island to prepare to defend it. When they get there, however, they learn that the Turks' ships were all lost in a storm. With the problem of the Turks out of the way, Iago can now concentrate on a complex plan to get Cassio demoted and get revenge on Othello for promoting Cassio in the first place. When Iago notices Cassio innocently holding Desdemona's hand while he assures her that Othello's ship has made it safely through the storm, he decides to use this purely platonic gesture to frame Desdemona for adultery.

To celebrate the fact that the Turks will not be invading after all, Othello declares a night of feasting and partying. During the party, Iago gets Cassio drunk and sends Roderigo to start a fight with him. During the fray, Cassio inadvertently stabs the governor of Cyprus. Othello punishes Cassio by demoting him. Cassio complains about his demotion to Iago who tells him that if he tells Desdemona his story, she will be sympathetic and talk Othello into reinstating him as lieutenant. Iago offers to help by telling Othello he needs to check on some of the town's fortifications.

When Othello returns, Desdemona asks him to forgive Cassio and let him have his lieutenant position back. This, plus Iago's suggestions that Cassio and Desdemona are being intimate, causes Othello to become jealous and angry. He accuses Desdemona of adultery and smothers her with a pillow. Later, Emilia, who is Iago's wife and Desdemona's friend, convinces Othello that Desdemona was never unfaithful. Iago is angered by this and kills Emilia. Othello is guilt-stricken and kills himself. The authorities, realizing that Iago was behind this plot to ruin Othello, sentence him to be executed.

Analysis of Othello

Othello is unusual among Shakespeare's tragedies because much of it is set up like a typical Shakespearean comedy. A tragedy is a play that focuses on unfortunate events and that ends unhappily, while a Shakespearian comedy almost always deals with love and marriage, has a plot that hinges on deception and disguises, and has a setting that is outside of civilization where supernatural events can take place and the characters are not held to the normal rules of society. Othello contains all of the elements of a comedy, but instead of ending in marriage, the play ends in multiple deaths including that of the tragic hero, Othello.

Othello is a military hero, well-respected by the Senate, and well-loved by his new wife. At the beginning of the play, he seems calm, controlled, and eloquent. But by the end of Act IV, Othello has given himself over to raging jealousy, so much so that he suffers an epileptic fit and cannot speak. Shakespeare uses this to show Othello's progression from military hero to tragic hero.

Although Othello is the tragic figure, Iago is really the main character in the play. He has been passed up for a promotion and this apparently explains his revenge plot against Othello, but as the play progresses, it becomes apparent that Iago may simply just be a bad guy. He manipulates just about everyone else in the play and causes the deaths of several innocent characters. He even stabs and kills his own wife. Iago's plan hurts many more people than just Othello.

Most of the action of the play takes place on the island of Cyprus. In contrast to Venice, where the Senate rules and Othello is calm and well-spoken, Cyprus appears to be a place where deception, strong emotions, and lack of control abounds. Othello contains probably one of the most disturbing murder scenes in literature, that of Othello smothering his bride, possibly on their wedding night (the timing of their actual marriage is unclear during the play). Again, Shakespeare uses this act to show how far unchecked emotions, in this case, jealousy, can go.

Quotes in Othello

Here are some famous quotes from the play, along with their explanations:

'And so much duty that my mother showed

To you, preferring you before her father,

So much I challenge that I may profess

Due to the Moor my lord.' (Act I, Scene 3, Lines 213-218)

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