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This page is about the Shakespeare play, for the board game, see Othello board game. For the manga, see Othello (manga)

"Othello and Desdemona in Venice" by Théodore Chassériau (18191856)

Othello: The Moor of Venice is a tragedy by Shakespeare written around 1603. The first recorded performance of this play was on November 1, 1604 at Whitehall Palace in London.

Table of contents

Plot summary

Othello, a Moor who has just eloped with the white Desdemona when the play opens, leaves Venice to command the Venetian armies in Cyprus, accompanied by his new wife and lieutenant Cassio. The treacherous standard-bearer, Iago, plants Desdemona's handkerchief on Cassio, managing to convince Othello that his wife has been unfaithful with the lieutenant. Othello kills Desdemona out of jealousy, before Iago's wife eventually reveals that Desdemona's affair was but an invention of Iago's. Iago immediately kills his wife also, and Othello commits suicide in grief.


The plot for Othello was developed from Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi, which it follows closely. The only named character in Cinthio's story is "Disdemona", which means "unfortunate" in Greek; the other characters were identified only as "the standard-bearer", "the captain", and "the Moor". In the original, the standard-bearer lusts after Disdemona, and is spurred to revenge when she rejects him.

Shakespeare invented a new character, Roderigo, who pursues the Moor's wife and is killed while trying to murder the captain. Unlike Othello, the Moor in Cinthio's story never repents of murdering his wife, and both he and the standard-bearer escape Venice and are killed much later. Cinthio also drew a moral (which he placed in the mouth of the lady) that European women are unwise to marry the hot-blooded, uncontrollable males of other nations; Shakespeare suppressed this observation.

Iago can be seen as the driving factor or catalyst behind "Othello" he is the manipulator who plants the seeds of evil in the minds of the characters, playing on their emotions and therefore causing Othello's downfall.

Othello's race

Although the play is very much concerned with racial difference, the protagonist's specific race is not clearly indicated by Shakespeare. Othello is referred to as a "Moor"; for Elizabethan Englishmen, this term could refer to the Muslim Arabs of North Africa, or to the people we would now call "Black" (that is, people of sub-Saharan African descent). Shakespeare had previously depicted an Arabic Moor in The Merchant of Venice and a black Moor in Titus Andronicus. In Othello, the references to the character's physical features do not settle the question of which race Shakespeare envisaged. Popular consensus among average readers and theatre directors today lean towards the "black" interpretation, and Arabic Othellos have been rare.

Themes and Tropes

Signifier / Signified

Othello subverts traditional theatrical symbolism. A contemporary audience would have seen black skin as a sign of barbarism or satanism as Aaron is in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus: a "swarth Cimmerian... of body's hue spotted, detested and abominable". A white soldier would have been understood as a symbol of honesty. Iago indeed actively tries to convince other characters that Othello is a "barbary horse" that "covers" Desdemona, or a "black ram", horned and animalistically "tupping" her; and that he himself is truthful to a fault. In Othello, however, the Moor is "noble" and Christian; and the white soldier is a scheming liar.

Othello thus constantly challenges the link between a physical signifier and what is signified by it. For example, Iago – whose job as standard-bearer is to hold a sign of loyalty to Othello – says, of pretending to like the Moor: "Though I do hate him as I do hell pains/ Yet for necessity of present life/ I must show out a flag and sign of love/ Which is indeed but sign". Desdemona, too, sees a distinction between signifier and signified, saying she "saw Othello's visage in his mind" – not in his actual face. The play thus argues that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary; the plot itself hinging on the significance an utterly "made-up" sign – a handkerchief made to signify infidelity.

Othello's tragic flaw is thus that he is unable to cope with the notion that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary. For example, when Iago tells him Desdemona is an adulteress, Othello cries "Her name, that was as fresh/ As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black/ As mine own face" – leading to a suicidal conclusion: "If there be cords or knives/ Poison or fire, or suffocating streams/ I'll not endure it."

White / Black

The most basic aspects of traditional Western symbology; that white signifies purity and black signifies evil – are thus repeatedly challenged in Othello; . One example is in the character of Bianca. Her name in Italian means "white", yet, as Iago tells the audience, her name is again "but sign" of purity, as she is in fact a "hussy, that by selling her desires buys herself bread and clothes". Ironically, just before Desdemona pleads with Othello that she is not a whore, Bianca too protests to an accuser that she is "no strumpet, but of life as honest/ As you that thus abuse me" – leading the audience to realize that, just as with Desdemona, the only evidence anyone has that Bianca is a whore is Iago's word.

Heaven / Hell

Heaven nevertheless remains a signifier of truth, and hell a signifier of misrepresentation in the play. The words thus recur frequently throughout Othello, as Othello struggles to join other signifiers to them: for example he says to an innocent Desdemona: "Heaven doth truly know that thou art false as hell".

List of Characters

Persons Represented:

  • Duke of Venice.
  • Brabantio, a Senator.
  • Other Senators.
  • Gratiano, Brother to Brabantio.
  • Lodovico, Kinsman to Brabantio.
  • Othello, a noble Moor, in the service of Venice.
  • Cassio, his Lieutenant.
  • Iago, his Ancient.
  • Roderigo, a Venetian Gentleman.
  • Montano, Othello's predecessor in the government of Cyprus.
  • Clown, Servant to Othello.
  • Herald
  • Desdemona, Daughter to Brabantio, and Wife to Othello.
  • Emilia, Wife to Iago.
  • Bianca, Mistress to Cassio.
  • Miscellaneous: Officers, Gentlemen, Messenger, Musicians, Herald, Sailor, Attendants, etc.

Movie and Opera versions

Othello was also made into a movie several times, including:

The same story is the basis for two operatic versions, both called Otello, by Gioacchino Rossini and Giuseppe Verdi.

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice
Wikiquote quotations related to:

The works of William Shakespeare

Tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, Timon of Athens

Comedies: A Midsummer Night's Dream, All's Well That Ends Well, As You Like It, Cardenio (lost), Cymbeline, Love's Labour's Lost, Love's Labour's Won (lost), Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, Pericles Prince of Tyre, Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Two Noble Kinsmen, The Winter's Tale

Histories: Richard III, Richard II, Henry VI, part 1, Henry VI, part 2, Henry VI, part 3, Henry V, Henry IV, part 1, Henry IV, part 2, Henry VIII, King John, Edward III (attributed)

Other works: Sonnets, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, The Passionate Pilgrim, The Phoenix and the Turtle

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