A Brief Summary of the Plot
Othello, also known as the Moor, is a well reputed general. He falls in love and marries Desdemona, a Venetian noblewoman. Her choice to marry Othello meets her father’s disapproval, yet despite so she defies him and marries Othello nonetheless. The tragedy is full of intrigues and conspiracies, mostly enacted by Iago, who is the villain. Iago is jealous of Cassio’s brillian career and despises the Moor for having frustrated his ambitious designs, so he plans revenge. First he gains Othello’s trust, who, in fact considers Iago his great friend and believes every single word he tells him. Iago then fools Othello into thinking that his beloved wife, Desdemona, is having an affair with Cassio and pushes Othello towards murder. That of his wife.
How Does Iago succeed in deceiving Othello?
Shakespeare underlines human frailty and in his description of Othello, the protagonist; he highlights the weaknesses of a good-natured man, who is so insicure of himself that he gives in to his most dreadful fears rather than analysing the situation he is facing with reason. Therefore, his hero is not at all the typical strong and confident man, on the contrary he is full of doubts, he questions his position, his wife’s dedication and easily falls in Iago’s trap, these characteristics embody the modern man way before its time, making Shakespeare knowledgeable of human nature and deep psychological insight.
Notice what an important role the use of words and rhetoric has in Shakespeare, as a matter of fact, as we will see in the excerpts chosen, Othello says that he has won over Desdemona’s love by fascinating her with stories of his past, troubled youth; just as it is Iago’s conniving words that trick the Moor into thinking that his wife has betrayed him. Iago, points out to Othello that just as Desdemona has betrayed her father in order to marry him, why then wouldn’t she fool him by having an affair with Cassio?
Iago cleverly places the evidence (a handkerchief, a treasured gift of Othello) of Desdemona’s deception in Cassio unknowing hands and has Othello fully mislead. Never for a moment does Othello think that Iago might be lying because he is deeply convinced that he doesn’t deserve Desdemona. Furthermore, Othello is so centred on himself that he is easily beguiled by Iago who shows him total dedication, admiration, yet it is only appearance, deep down Iago is deadly furious with Othello for not having promoted him and favoured Cassio instead. But the Moor, who is a poor oberserver of others, being so self-centred, has no notion of what the true feelings of Iago towards him are, he doesn’t even suspect Iago of such treachery.
O! beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.
Othello murders his wife by wrongly accusing her, jealousy triggers his fatal actions. He is uwilling to listen to her attempts to show him he is wrong, she pleads to call for Cassio so that he can explain how he has come into possession of the handkerchief because, of course she is sure there is a simple explanation that would save her, but Othello is so blinded by his lack of confidence, he is so spellbinded by Iago’s words that he refuses to listen, to trust her. Jealousy is his downfall. Desdemona an innocent victim.
Desdemona is one of Shakespeare’s most peculiar female characters
Desdemona is described by Shakespeare as a strong willful woman, not at all as the passive type that was so common in his time. She has her way when she chooses to marry the Moor despite her father’s disapproval and she also defies social conventions by marrying Othello who was, albeit a powerful general, nevertheless an outcast, a foreigner with dark skin, thus often subject to racism, as he himself tells her when speaking of his past. She chooses to share with him his fate and sacrifices the social status that her birthright would have certainly assured her had she chosen to marry someone of her own station.
It can take a lifetime to earn a reputation – and only a few well-placed whispers to destroy one.
The excerpts below are meant to show the three major moments that exemplify Shakespera’s tragedy.
ACT I, SCENE III
|Othello here reveals that he’s won over Desdemona’s love by telling her of his life story|
She’d come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse: which I observing,
Took one a pliant hour, and found good means
To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart
That I would all my pilgrimage dilate,
Whereof by parcels she had something heard,
But not intentively: I did consent,
And often did beguile her of her tears,
When I did speak of some distressful stroke
That my youth suffered. My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs:
She swore in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wonderous pitiful:
She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man: she thanked me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story,
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake:
She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
and I loved her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have used:
Here comes the lady; let her witness it.
ACT 3, SCENE 3
Iago meets his wife who gives him Desdemona’s handkerchief and plans his terrible plot.
EMILIA: (…) Wooed me to steal it, but she so
loves the token (For he conjured
her she should ever keep it) That
she reserves it evermore about her
To kiss and talk to. I’ll have the
work ta’en out And give ’t Iago.
What he will do with it Heaven
knows, not I. I nothing but to
please his fantasy.
IAGO: How now! What do you here
EMILIA: Do not you chide.
I have a thing for you.
IAGO: A thing for me?
It is a common thing—
IAGO: To have a foolish wife.
EMILIA: Oh, is that all? What will
you give me now For the same
IAGO: What handkerchief?
EMILIA: What handerkerchief?
Why, that the Moor first gave to
That which you so often bid me steal.
IAGO: Hast stolen it from her?
EMILIA: No, but she let it drop
by negligence And, to th’ advantage,
I being here, took ’t up.
Look, here it is.
IAGO: A good wench, give it me.
EMILIA: What will you do with ’t,
that you have been so earnest
To have me filch it?
IAGO: Why, what is that to you?
EMILIA: If it be not for some
purpose of import, Give ’t me again.
Poor lady, she’ll run mad
When she shall lack it.
IAGO Be not acknown on ’t,
I have use for it. Go, leave me.
I will in Cassio’s lodging lose this
napkin And let him find it.
Trifles light as air Are to the jealous
confirmations strong As proofs
of holy writ. This may do something.
The Moor already changes with
my poison. Dangerous conceits are
in their natures poisons Which at
the first are scarce found
to distaste, But with a little act upon
the blood Burn like the mines of
ACT 5, SCENE 2
Bedchamber at the castle, Desdemona is asleep
OTHELLO: It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental albaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore.
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have puck’d the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree.
DESDEMONA: Who’s there? Othello?
OTHELLO: Ay. Desdemona.
DESDEMONA: Will you come to bed, my lord?
OTHELLO: Have you pray’d to-night, Desdemona?
DESDEMONA: Ay, my lord.
OTHELLO: If you bethink yourself of any crime
Unreconciled as yet to heaven and grace,
DESDEMONA: Alas, my lord, what do you mean by that?
OTHELLO: Well do it and be brief; I will walk by:
I would not kill thy unprepared spirt;
No; heaven forfend! I would not kill thy soul.
DESDEMONA: Talk you of killing?
OTHELLO: Ay, I do.
DESDEMONA: Then heaven
Have mercy on me!
OTHELLO: Amen, with all my heart!
DESDEMONA: If you say so, I hope you will not kill me.
DESDEMONA: And yet I fear you; for you are fatal then
When your eyes roll so: why I should fear I know not,
Singce guiltiness I know not; but yet I feel I fear.
OTHELLO: Think of thy sins.
DESDEMONA: They are loves I bear to you.
OTHELLO: Ay, and for that thou diest.
DESDEMONA: That death’s unnatural that kills for loving.
Alas, why gnaw you so your nether lip?
Some bloody passion shakes your very frame:
These are portents; but yet I hope, I hope,
They do not point on me.
OTHELLO: Peace, and be still!
DESDEMONA: I will so. What’s the matter?
OTHELLO: That handkerchief which I so loved and gave thee
Thou gaves to Cassio.
DESDEMONA: No, by my life and soul!
Send for the man, and ask him.
OTHELLO: Sweet soul, take heed,
Take heed of perjury; thou art on thy deathbed.
DESDEMONA: Ay, but not yet to die.
OTHELLO: Yes, presently:
Therefore confess thee freely of thy sin;
For to deny each article with oath
Cannot remove nor choke the strong conception
That I do groan withal. Thou art to die.
DESDEMONA: Then Lord have mercy on me!
OTHELLO: I say, amen.
DESDEMONA: And have you mercy too! I never did
Offend you in my lfe; never loved Cassio
But with such general warranty of heaven
As I might love: I never gave him token.
OTHELLO: By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in’s hand.
O perjured woman! thou dost stone my hear,
And makest me call what I intend to do
A murder, which I thought a sacrifice:
I saw the handkerchief.
DESDEMONA: He found it then;
I never gave it him: send for him hither;
Let him confess a truth.
OTHELLO: He hath confess’d.
DESDEMONA: What, my lord?
OTHELLO: That he hath used thee.
DESDEMONA: How? unlawfully?
While Othello is stifling his wife, Emilia is knocking at the door bringing news of a murder, Cassio has killed a a young venetian Roderigo, but Othello is expecting Cassio to be murdered. In the mean time Emilia hears a moan and asks what is the matter with her lady and as she runs to Desdemona she is aghast and learns that it was her husband behind this terrible deed so she reveals to Othello the truth of his conniving nature.
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© L. R. Capuana