Othello at a glance: Last minute revision notes

November 21, 2018

Video summary:

Before reading the detailed breakdown of the play, the summary, themes and symbols - do check out a video I had recorded on the play here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3WQD5S6RKw&t=279s.


Context

The play takes place in Venice, around the same time Shakespeare is alive (late 1500s).

Othello was written around the same time as Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth. 

The timing means the play takes place during the wars between Venice and Turkey in the 1570s. 

Race tension was prominent back then, and racism becomes a theme in this play. Othello is one of the first black heroes in a play, though we are never told exactly where he is from.

 

Summary 

Othello takes place in Venice. 

Roderigo, a wealthy man, is fighting with Iago. 

Iago is helping Roderigo woo Desdemona, for a hefty sum. 

Roderigo has just learned that Desdemona has married Othello, a general that Iago works for. 

Iago tells him that he hates Othello, who gave a job he expected to another soldier named Michael Cassio. 

Iago and Roderigo anonymously tip off Brabanzio that his daughter (Desdemona has been stolen by Othello).

Brabanzio gathers officers to go find them. 

The scene goes to Othello’s home, where Cassio comes to tell him that the Turks are invading Cyprus. Othello goes to speak to the Duke. 

Brabanzio arrives with Roderigo to tell Othello he has stolen his daughter. When he finds him gone, he goes to the senate to accuse him of using witchcraft to woo her. 

The Duke and senate are sympathetic to Othello. 

Desdemona testifies that he did not use witchcraft to win her over, and that she loves him. 

The Duke asks Othello to go to Cyprus, and Desdemona accompanies him. 

The scene switches to Cyprus, where two men are with Montano, the governor of Cyprus. 

Cassio’s ship arrives, followed by Iago, Roderigo, and Desdemona. 

They go to shore and await Othello. 

Cassio speaks to Desdemona, and Iago tells the audience that he will find a way to ensnare Cassio. 

Othello arrives and announces that the Turks have sank. They will celebrate that night. 

Roderigo complains to Iago, but Iago assures him that Desdemona will lose interest in Othello. 

He warns that he’s afraid she will go for Cassio though. 

He tells Roderigo that he should start a fight with Cassio, to ruin his image. 

They get Cassio drunk, and Roderigo picks a fight. 

Montano tries to hold him down, but Cassio stabs him. 

Iago sends Roderigo to raise alarm. 

Othello comes, and asks Iago how the fight started. Iago pretends to defend Cassio, but says it was him. 

Othello strips Cassio of his rank. 

Cassio goes to Iago, begging for his help to restore his rank and trust. 

Iago tells him they will get him back in Othello’s good graces via Desdemona. 

Cassio begins speaking to Desdemona, who says she will try to get Othello to reconsider. 

Othello seems them talking often, and becomes suspicious and moody, and Iago suggests that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. 

One day, Desdemona finds Othello unwell at the table, and offers him a handkerchief. She drops it and they leave. 

Emilia, Iago’s wife, picks it up. 

Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio’s room, and tells Othello he saw it there. 

Othello goes to Desdemona and demands to see it. She says she does not have it. 

Cassio gives it to a prostitute named Bianca and asks her to make a copy. 

Iago tells Othello to hide while he asks Cassio about the affair. 

Iago asks Cassio about Bianca, and Othello can only hear him laugh and look happy. 

Bianca enters with the handkerchief, followed by Desdemona and another solider who has a letter for Othello, asking him to return home and making Cassio the leader in Cyprus. 

Othello strikes Desdemona. 

Othello tells Desdemona she is a whore. Iago tells Othello he will ensure Cassio is killed. 

Iago tells Roderigo he must kill Cassio. He manages only to wound him and runs away. Othello hears this cry, and assumes Cassio is dead. 

Iago finds Roderigo and murders him, pretending to avenge Cassio. 

Meanwhile, Othello goes to kill his sleeping wife. 

She wakes up and begs him to spare her. He doesn’t listen, and smothers her. 

Emilia enters to say Roderigo is dead, and Cassio safe. 

Othello tells Emilia he killed Desdemona for her infidelity, which Iago showed him. 

Iago enters and Emilia realizes what he has done. 

Emilia tells Othello that she found the handkerchief. 

Othello tries to kill Iago, but Iago kills Emilia and flees.

They are all caught and arrested, and the guards say Othello must go to trial for killing his wife. 

Othello kills himself, and Iago is ordered to be executed. 

 

Themes 

 

Jealousy 

In this play, jealousy is fueled by lies, but still has devastating effects. 

Iago uses jealousy to ruin Othello, but this is ironic given that Iago’s jealousy over Cassio is part of what started everything. 

Jealousy in this play comes in many forms—romantic, professional.

 

Race

Othello is one of the earliest black heroes in English literature. 

He has risen to power through his skills and hard work. 

Despite his rank, he is still judged and mistreated for his race. 

Desdemona’s father believes that Othello must have used witchcraft to win her over (not that she could genuinely love him). 

 

Gender

The men in this play cause most problems because of their jealousy and anger over women and women’s sexuality. 

Both women in the play are murdered by their husbands. 

It doesn’t take much convincing for Othello to believe his wife is cheating on him. 

 

Analysis and Symbols

 

Handkerchief 

The handkerchief is the main symbol throughout the play. 

For Desdemona, it symbolizes her husband’s love, for Othello, it symbolizes her fidelity. 

When Othello sees that Cassio has it, he assumes she is noth faithful. 

It also symbolizes Desdemona’s virginity—it is white with red strawberries. So in a way, her losing it is like her losing her innocence to another man. 

The handkerchief also symbolizes how something very small can lead to major problems. 

 



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