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Plot in Othello

Set among the military and aristocratic classes of the Venetian Empire, Othello is a quintessential story of jealousy, revenge, and miscommunication. After Iago the ensign fails to secure a promotion from Othello, he hatches a plan to destroy the general. The target of Iago’s schemes is Othello’s new marriage to Desdemona, a beautiful young noblewoman. The marriage, between an aging Moorish man and a young Italian woman, is already a scandal, and ripe for exploitation. In his plot, Iago makes puppets of those around him: Emilia, his strong-willed wife; Rodrigo, a fool caught in a hopeless infatuation for Desdemona; and Michael Cassio, Othello’s second-in-command. Racial, sexual, and marital tensions heighten as the plot barrels towards its tragic conclusion. By play’s end, one wonders whether the villain is Iago or that “green-eyed monster,” jealousy.

Plot Examples in Othello:

Act I - Scene I

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"Call up her father, Rouse him:—make after him, poison his delight,..."   (Act I - Scene I)

Roderigo and Iago awaken Brabantio to tell him of Desdemona’s plans to elope with Othello. Brabantio is Desdemona’s father, and he is wary of potential suitors of Desdemona, Othello and Roderigo included.

"For if such actions may have passage free, Bond-slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be...."   (Act I - Scene II)

It is not clear whether Brabantio actually believes that Othello has committed a crime, or whether he is just threatened on a personal level. Nonetheless, Brabantio frames his condemnation of Othello as a broader act of justice. It is notable that Brabantio ends his lines, and the scene as well, with a rhyming couplet, a departure from the usual blank verse of the play. Shakespeare often uses this technique to end a scene or speech with emphasis.

"But I pray you, sir, Are you fast married? Be assured of this, That the magnifico is much beloved, And hath in his effect a voice potential As double as the Duke's...."   (Act I - Scene II)

The magnifico is the title of Brabantio, Desdemona’s father. Iago wishes to know whether Othello and Desdemona have consummated their marriage, for Brabantio has the power to separate them.

"To get his place, and to plume up my will In double knavery—How, how? —Let's see—..."   (Act I - Scene III)

Iago’s plot sets the stage for the second act. By spreading a rumor that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair, Iago hopes to accomplish a “double knavery.” Such a rumor would destroy both Othello and Cassio, the two men for whom he holds a grudge.

"These Moors are changeable in their wills:—fill thy purse with money. The food that to him now is as luscious as locusts, shall be to him shortly as acerb as the coloquintida...."   (Act I - Scene III)

Iago claims that Othello and Desdemona will tire of one another in time. As with much that comes from Iago’s mouth, it not clear whether he believes this to be the case or whether he says this to further his own ends, in this case by raising Roderigo’s hopes.

"—put money in thy purse—..."   (Act I - Scene III)

Iago repeats this request, beseeching Roderigo to put together funds to give to Iago. The idea is that with funds, Iago will execute a plan to separate Othello and Desdemona and deliver her into Roderigo’s arms.

"I saw Othello's visage in his mind, And to his honors and his valiant parts Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.(270) So that, dear lords, if I be left behind, A moth of peace, and he go to the war, The rites for which I love him are bereft me, And I a heavy interim shall support By his dear absence...."   (Act I - Scene III)

Desdemona’s argument for joining Othello on the frontlines is complex but compelling. She claims that she loves Othello for his mind and his military prowess, and to separate her from him while he exercises those qualities would be a shame.

"this Moor; whom now, it seems,(80) Your special mandate for the state affairs Hath hither brought...."   (Act I - Scene III)

Shakespeare structures this scene so that the tension and dramatic irony build and finally break in these lines. The audience can foretell how the Duke’s opinion of Othello will rapidly shift upon hearing the news regarding Desdemona. The Duke greets Othello with praise and respect, but the news of his problematic marriage to Desdemona will inevitably surface.

"We lack'd your counsel and your help tonight. BRAB: So did I yours...."   (Act I - Scene III)

Brabantio and the Duke meet with their own individual problems with which they need the other’s assistance. The Duke seeks assistance in fighting off the Turks. Brabantio seeks to undo Desdemona’s marriage to Othello. Shakespeare may have used the political conflict between the Venetians and the Turks as a parallel to the drama between Othello and his enemies.

"He takes her by the palm; ay, well said, whis- per. With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly(180) as Cassio. Ay, smile upon her, do;..."   (Act II - Scene I)

Iago’s goal is to lure Cassio into courting Desdemona. By playing the role of the irreverent knave, he has succeeded in bringing Desdemona and Cassio closer together.

"It is Othello's pleasure, our noble and valiant..."   (Act II - Scene II)

Shakespeare often inserts short, expository scenes like this one to keep the plot moving forward. It is common for theater productions to remove or cut short these moments.

"I'll pour this pestilence into his ear, That she repeals him for her body's lust; And by how much she strives to do him good, She shall undo her credit with the Moor...."   (Act II - Scene III)

Iago’s plot enters its next phase. His aim is for Cassio to plead to Desdemona for his position as lieutenant. Iago will then lie to Othello that Cassio is making sexual advances on Desdemona. The idea is that when Desdemona then approaches Othello to relay Cassio’s request, Othello will believe that Desdemona is helping Cassio out of mutual, adulterous infatuation. Once again, Iago constructs the next phase of his scheme at the act’s end so as to executes it in the next.

"She's a most exquisite lady. IAGO: And, I'll warrant her, full of game...."   (Act II - Scene III)

In this dialogue, Iago and Cassio share slightly different opinions on Desdemona’s character. Cassio views Desdemona with admiration and respect, referring to her as “exquisite,” “fresh and delicate.” Without disagreeing, Iago adds a sexual tone, calling Desdemona provocative and “full of game.” Iago’s goal is to compel Cassio to make advances on Desdemona.

"but he protests he loves you, And needs no other suitor but his likings To take the safest occasion by the front(50) To bring you in again...."   (Act III - Scene I)

According to Emilia’s report, Othello has mixed feelings about Cassio’s reinstatement. On the one hand, Cassio attacked Montano, a man of high repute, and thus shamed himself. On the other hand, Othello loves Cassio and has the power—”needs no other suitor but his likings”—to return Cassio to his rank.

"Masters, play here, I will content your pains; Something that's brief; and bid “Good morrow, general.”..."   (Act III - Scene I)

The opening of Act III finds Cassio working to undo the damage he did in Act II. Here he sets a group of musicians to play in front of Othello’s house in an attempt to regain favor with his general.

"These letters give, Iago, to the pilot; And by him do my duties to the Senate: That done, I will be walking on the works; Repair there to me...."   (Act III - Scene II)

Othello asks Iago to deliver letters to the ship captain who will in turn report to the Venetian Senate. By “walking on the works,” Othello means that he will be visiting and surveying the fortifications, preparing for battle. The purpose of this short scene is to heighten the plot’s tension.

"Make me to see't; or at the least so prove it,(405) That the probation bear no hinge nor loop To hang a doubt on; or woe upon thy life!..."   (Act III - Scene III)

For the first time in the play, Othello directs his anger towards Iago, calling him “villain.” It is a shallow label; Othello does not understand the depths of Iago’s villainy. Rather, he projects his confusion and rage about the possibility of Desdemona’s faithlessness onto Iago, demanding “the ocular proof.”

"O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!..."   (Act III - Scene III)

Iago cleverly employs personification here, identifying not Cassio as the foe but rather jealousy itself. This continues Iago’s tactic of withholding the specific accusation of Cassio, allowing the thought to emerge in Othello’s mind. This moment represents the beginning of the play’s climax. Now that Othello knows of the fictional adultery, the rest of the play is devoted to the unfolding consequences.

"Would take no notice, nor build yourself a trouble(170) Out of his scattering and unsure observance. It were not for your quiet nor your good, Nor for my manhood, honesty, or wisdom, To let you know my thoughts...."   (Act III - Scene III)

Iago cleverly frames his thoughts as untrustworthy and beyond his own control. He claims that his thoughts about Cassio might be unnecessarily upsetting. All the while, Iago builds Othello’s anticipation.

"Why, this is not a boon;(85) 'Tis as I should entreat you wear your gloves, Or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you warm, Or sue to you to do a peculiar profit To your own person...."   (Act III - Scene III)

As if to quell Othello’s concerns about her intentions, Desdemona assures him that her case to reinstate Cassio is not a “boon,” or personal favor. Rather, it is in Othello’s best interests.

"I prithee, name the time, but let it not(70) Exceed three days. In faith, he's penitent;..."   (Act III - Scene III)

Desdemona stresses the immediacy of Cassio’s case because of Cassio’s fears that Othello might leave him behind entirely after too long. From Othello’s perspective, Desdemona may be stressing the urgency of the case out of her feelings for Cassio.

"Whatever shall become of Michael Cassio, He's never anything but your true servant...."   (Act III - Scene III)

This exchange between Cassio and Desdemona places Desdemona in a higher tier of importance than Othello. Not only does she claim to have the power to reinstate Cassio, Cassio himself pledges to be her servant, not Othello’s.

"Take me this work out...."   (Act III - Scene IV)

At this line, Cassio gives Bianca the handkerchief that has been left in his chambers. Bianca immediately suspects that Cassio has taken another lover, a “newer friend.” It is thus clear that the relationship between Othello and Desdemona is not the only one marked by jealousy.

"That handkerchief Did an Egyptian to my mother give..."   (Act III - Scene IV)

The English writer William Somerset Maugham criticized the plot of Othello as follows in his 1946 volume A Writer's Notebook:

I don’t know why critics expect writers always to do as well as they should have done. The writer seldom does what he wants to; he does the best he can. Shakespearian scholars would save themselves many a headache if when they come across something in the plays that is obviously unsatisfactory, instead of insisting against all reason that it is nothing of the kind, they admitted that here and there Shakespeare tripped. There is no reason that I can see to suppose that he was not well aware that the motivation in certain of the plays is so weak as to destroy the illusion. Why should the critics say that he didn’t care? I should have said that there was evidence that he did. Why should he have put into Othello’s mouth those lines beginning 'That handkerchief did an Egyptian to my mother give . . . ' unless it was because he was aware that the episode of the handkerchief was too thin to pass muster? I think it would save a lot of trouble to conclude that he tried to think of something better, and just couldn’t.

"Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate Call all in all sufficient? This the nature Whom passion could not shake? whose solid virtue(285) The shot of accident nor dart of chance Could neither graze nor pierce? IAGO: He is much changed...."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Iago’s plan is coming to fruition. Lodovico, a Venetian nobleman, has seen the results of Othello’s rage and will spread the word of Othello’s apparent insanity. Iago, always calculated in his speech, reveals as little as he needs to in order to reinforce Lodovico’s perspective. His reply of “He is much changed” is technically true, but it does not tell the whole truth. The audience understands the irony nonetheless.

"Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate Call all in all sufficient? This the nature Whom passion could not shake? whose solid virtue(285) The shot of accident nor dart of chance Could neither graze nor pierce? IAGO: He is much changed...."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Iago’s plan is coming to fruition. Lodovico, a Venetian nobleman, has seen the results of Othello’s rage and will spread the word of Othello’s apparent insanity. Iago, always calculated in his speech, reveals as little as he needs to in order to reinforce Lodovico’s perspective. His reply of “He is much changed” is technically true, but does not tell the whole truth. The audience understands the irony nonetheless.

"Ay, let her rot, and perish, and be damned tonight, for she shall not live. No, my heart is turned to stone; I strike it, and it hurts my hand. O, the world hath not a sweeter creature. She might lie by an emperor's side, and(195) command him tasks...."   (Act IV - Scene I)

In this exchange, we can see how Othello struggles with his shifting view of Desdemona. He begins with “Ay, let her rot” but loses this steely edge when he says “O, the world hath not a sweeter creature.” Indeed, after each of Othello’s lines, Iago must renew the general’s anger for Desdemona with a “Nay, you must forget that” or a “Nay, that’s not your way.” Despite the evidence of adultery before him, Othello’s feelings for Desdemona are mixed.

"Alas, poor caitiff!..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

“Caitiff” means “coward” and comes from “captivus,” the same Latin root as “captive.” In the previous line, Iago cleverly lowers his voice before making mention of Bianca but after bringing up Desdemona. Thus, Othello believes that Cassio is referring to Desdemona, and he becomes enraged.

"Now will I question Cassio of Bianca, A housewife that by selling her desires Buys herself bread and clothes. It is a creature That dotes on Cassio, as 'tis the strumpet's plague(110) To beguile many and be beguiled by one...."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Iago claims that Bianca is a prostitute: a “strumpet” in Middle English. As he puts it, Bianca draws in many men but loves only Cassio. Iago plans to use this relationship between Cassio and Bianca to his own ends. Iago will encourage Cassio to talk about Bianca while the eavesdropping Othello will believe that Cassio is discussing Desdemona.

"Do but encave yourself, And mark the fleers, the gibes, and notable scorns, That dwell in every region of his face;..."   (Act IV - Scene I)

Iago brings Othello in on the next phase of his plan: to draw out Cassio’s stories of seduction in front of a hidden, “encaved” Othello. Iago asks Othello to search for the expressions of bravado in Cassio’s face. The word “fleer,” of Scandinavian origin, indicates a look of mockery. A “gibe” is an insult, and a word derived from the French “giber”—to shake.

"Come, stand not amazed at it, but go along with me; I will show you such a necessity in his death that you shall think yourself bound to put it on him...."   (Act IV - Scene II)

Iago responds to Rodrigo’s doubts by pulling him deeper into his plans. Iago’s next step is to have Othello killed. Iago hopes to manipulate Rodrigo into committing the murder for him.

"Hath she forsook so many noble matches, Her father and her country and her friends, To be call'd whore? Would it not make one weep?..."   (Act IV - Scene II)

Emilia gets to the heart of Desdemona’s suffering. Desdemona sacrificed a great deal in order to marry Othello. She abandoned her family and her status for her husband, only to be abandoned by him now as well.

"Get you to bed on the instant; I will be returned forthwith: Dismiss your attendant there; look it be done...."   (Act IV - Scene III)

Othello’s command to Desdemona to go to bed and dismiss Emilia is suspicious, and it foreshadows events to come. It is curious, too, that Desdemona follows these orders without question despite her recent dispute with Othello. This is evidence of her continued, if unwise, devotion.

"This is the night That either makes me or fordoes me quite...."   (Act V - Scene I)

Each of Shakespeare’s plays follows a five-part plot structure that unfolds over the course of its acts. The five parts are: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. As the resolution of the play’s events draws near, Iago senses the coming consequences. Because of his deep involvement in every detail of the plot, he understands that he will either succeed or perish.

"Do you perceive the gastness of her eye? Nay, if you stare, we shall hear more anon. Behold her well; I pray you, look upon her.(120) Do you see, gentlemen? Nay, guiltiness will speak, Though tongues were out of use...."   (Act V - Scene I)

Iago finds a means to pin Cassio’s death on Bianca. His strategy is to frame her look of shock upon witnessing Cassio’s death as evidence of her guilt. Iago also preemptively discredits her words, saying “guiltiness will speak,/Though tongues were out of use.”

"I am maim'd forever. Help, ho! Murder! Murder!..."   (Act V - Scene I)

When Iago sees the outcome of the altercation—that Cassio has beaten Rodrigo—he intervenes and delivers a blow to Cassio. To complicate matters, Cassio does not die, and his cries attract the attention of Othello.

"I have rubb'd this young quat almost to the sense, And he grows angry. Now, whether he kill Cassio, Or Cassio him, or each do kill the other, Every way makes my gain...."   (Act V - Scene I)

“Quat” is an antiquated word that means both “pimple” and “young person.” Iago uses both definitions here, teasing Rodrigo for his sensitivity. As Iago tells us, he wants both Rodrigo and Cassio to die. Rodrigo is a problem because he wants his money back; Cassio is a problem because “the Moor may unfold [Iago] to him.” In other words, if Othello and Cassio were to meet and talk, they could unravel Iago’s schemes.

"It makes us, or it mars us; think on that, And fix most firm thy resolution...."   (Act V - Scene I)

Iago coaxes Rodrigo into killing Cassio and reminds him of the stakes of the situation. In a clever, alliterative phrase, Iago claims that this moment “makes us, or mars us.” Iago, manipulative as ever, attempts to be as uninvolved in the murder as possible.

"Not Cassio kill'd! Then murder 's out of tune, And sweet revenge grows harsh...."   (Act V - Scene II)

Having heard the news that Cassio has not died, Othello realizes that his murder of Desdemona is premature. After all, Cassio knows the truth of the adultery (or lack thereof). Shakespeare plays on the old saying that “revenge is sweet,” giving its flavor a sour turn.

"For to deny each article with oath Cannot remove nor choke the strong conception That I do groan withal. Thou art to die...."   (Act V - Scene II)

At this point, Othello commits to his course of action. He will kill Desdemona, no matter the evidence she offers in her own defense. The metaphor of “chok[ing]” the conception of her guilt adds a connotation of violence to the exchange. He also foreshadows the method by which he kills her.

"Think on thy sins. DESD: They are loves I bear to you...."   (Act V - Scene II)

As Desdemona looks back on her actions, her only misdeed was her decision to marry Othello. Those “loves” she bears to Othello are sinful in the sense that their marriage is considered scandalous to many. The tragedy here is that her choice to commit the sin of loving Othello has led to her undoing.

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