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....... Othello, a black Moor, is a general in the service of Venice. Because he has conquered the Turks, the Venetians esteem him highly as a military leader. Iago, Othello's ensign, aspires to rise in the ranks. But when Othello promotes the Florentine Michael Cassio to the position of personal lieutenant, Iago smolders with deadly anger for being passed over. Immediately he begins a campaign to poison Venice against Othello. On a Venetian street, Iago tells the gullible Roderigo, a gentleman of the city, that Cassio is untested in battle; his soldierly abilities consist of “mere prattle, without practise” (Act I, Scene I, Line 26). ” In other words, Cassio is all talk, no action. Iago says that he himself, on the other hand, has proved his military prowess in battles at Rhodes, Cyprus, and elsewhere against Christian and heathen alike. Apparently, he says, Othello promotes his men on the merits of their political and personal connections, not on their soldierly skills. The goal of Iago’s plot against the highly respected Moor is not only to gain revenge; it is also to do what he most enjoys: evil.
....... When Othello elopes with Desdemona, daughter of Senator Brabantio, Iago realizes he has the perfect opening to get back at Othello. He enlists Roderigo, a former suitor of Desdemona, to awaken Desdemona's father late at night. Then Iago–using crude racist metaphors–Then Iago–using crude racist metaphors–inflames Brabantio against Othello:
....... ....... For shame, put on your gown;
....... ....... Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
....... ....... Even now, now, very now, an old black ram...................... [ram: Othello]
....... ....... Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise;....[tupping: covering, mating with; ewe: Desdemona]
....... ....... Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
....... ....... Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you:
....... ....... Arise, I say. (Act I, Scene I, Lines 86-92)
....... Outraged, Brabantio complains to the Duke of Venice, claiming Othello used spells and charms to win Desdemona's favor. How else could a vile black man have won her favor?
.......When a fleet of Turks threatens Cyprus, the Venetian Senate decides to send Othello to Cyprus to defend it and become the new governor. During the senate meeting, the duke listens to Brabantio's charges against Othello. But after hearing Othello speak of his love for Desdemona, the duke finds in favor of Othello, and Brabantio relinquishes his daughter to the Moor. She decides to follow him to Cypress. Unaware that Iago was behind Brabantio's earlier protests against the elopement, Othello orders Iago to accompany his wife. Roderigo goes along at the urging of Iago, who tells Roderigo that Desdemona will eventually tire of Othello. However, Iago also tells Roderigo they must first act to discredit Cassio to prevent Desdemona from taking up with him.
.......Meanwhile, a raging storm devastates the Turkish fleet, upending its attack, although the ships from Venice arrive safely at Cyprus. A celebration follows.
.......On the evening of the first night in Cyprus, Iago--implementing his plan to discredit Cassio--gets Cassio drunk, then has Roderigo start an argument with him. Montano, the outgoing governor of Cyprus, intervenes, and Cassio wounds him.
.......After Othello arrives at the scene of the commotion, he asks: “Honest Iago, that look'st dead with grieving / Speak, who began this?” (Act II, Scene III, Lines 177-178). Playing the innocent, Iago replies: “I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth / Than it should do offense to Michael Cassio'' (Lines 222-223). Having duly established himself as an unbiased onlooker, he then says, ''Yet, I persuade myself, to speak the truth. . .” (Line 223). Iago recounts for Othello what happened during the fray, implicating Cassio. Othello tells Cassio that he will never more serve as the Moor's officer. Lovely Desdemona appears and inquires about the disturbance. Othello tells her all is well, and they go off to bed. Montano is led away for treatment of his injury. Cassio, now alone with Iago, says he regrets his behavior. Iago tells him he can yet regain favor with Othello by having Desdemona intercede on his behalf.
.......When Cassio presents his case to Othello's wife, she agrees to speak with her husband on Cassio's behalf. When she does so in an innocent attempt to be helpful, she arouses Othello's jealousy. After all, Cassio is far younger than Othello–and terribly handsome. Is it not reasonable to believe that Desdemona has a thing for Cassio?
.......Meanwhile, Iago's wife Emilia has found a handkerchief dropped by Desdemona. Othello had given it to his wife as a gift. When Emilia shows it to Iago, he sees an opportunity to advance his scheme and snatches it away. Iago then plants the handkerchief in Cassio's room and tells Othello that Cassio has come into possession of it. When Othello asks his wife for the handkerchief and she cannot produce it, he tells her that it was a valued heirloom given to his mother by an Egyptian woman. He says his mother, in turn, gave the handkerchief to him as she lay dying, requesting that he give it to his future wife.
.......“I did so,” Othello says, “and . . .to lose't or give't away were such perdition / As nothing else could match” (Act III, Scene IV, Lines 65, 67-68). When he further presses Desdemona to produce the handkerchief and she cannot, he becomes convinced that she gave it to Cassio and has been having affair with him. Othello then tells Iago he plans to poison Desdemona, but Iago persuades him to strangle her in the bed she “contaminated” (Act IV, Scene I). As for Cassio, Iago says, ''Let me be his undertaker'' (Line 224). .......Letters from the Duke of Venice arrive with Lodovico, recalling Othello to Venice and naming Cassio the new governor of Cyprus. Kind-hearted Desdemona praises Cassio. For this seemingly untoward gesture, Othello strikes and berates her. To further his plan, Iago again uses the hapless Roderigo, persuading him to kill Cassio for him. On a dark street Roderigo thrusts at Cassio but fails to kill him. Cassio in turn wounds Roderigo. Iago, darting by unseen, wounds Cassio in the leg.
.......Othello arrives to observe from a distance. Believing Iago has been good to his word, that he has killed Cassio, the Moor goes back to the castle for the awful task of executing his wife. As others are drawn to the scene of the fray between Roderigo and Cassio, Iago returns with a lantern as if he is just discovering the melee. At an opportune moment he steals aside and finishes off Roderigo with a dagger thrust. Cassio is taken away for treatment.
.......Othello, still in love with his wife, kisses her awake, asks her to prepare her soul for death, and–after an exchange of accusations and denials–chokes or smothers her with a pillow. (The stage directions say “stifles her.”) As Desdemona lies dying, Emilia arrives to report the death of Roderigo. Desdemona cries out, “A guiltless death I die” (Act V, Scene II, Line 122), then breathes her last. Othello reveals that he killed his wife because she was carrying on an affair with Cassio. Iago, he says, can verify her infidelity. Emilia, shocked, says Desdemona was always “heavenly true” (Line 135) to Othello. If Iago reported otherwise, she says, he is a liar.
.......Emilia calls for help, and Montano, Iago, and others respond. Emilia immediately impugns Iago: “You told a lie, an odious damned lie; / Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie” (Act V, Scene II, Lines 180-181). Othello, still convinced of Desdemona’s guilt, brings up the matter of the handkerchief, saying Desdemona gave it to Cassio, as Iago can attest. Emilia then discloses that she found the handkerchief and gave it to her husband at his insistence. At long last, Iago’s whole sordid plot unravels.
.......When Othello lunges at him, Iago stabs his wife and runs off. Montano and others pursue him. Emily dies and Montano returns. With him are Lodovico, Cassio (carried on a chair), and Iago (held as a prisoner). Othello strikes at Iago with a sword and wounds him. When Cassio declares that he never wronged Othello, the Moor says he believes him and asks his pardon. Lodovico presents letters found in Roderigo’s pocket that disclose further details of Iago’s nefarious plot.
.......Despondent with self-recrimination, Othello stabs himself, falls on the bed, and dies. Iago is held for punishment. “The time, the place, the torture” (Act V, Scene II, Lines 370-371), Lodovico says, are up to the new governor of Cyprus, Cassio.
Protagonist: Othello Antagonist: Iago
Foils of Othello: Michael Cassio, Iago
Othello: Black Moor who is the greatest army general in Venice. He is intelligent, courageous, and honorable. His marriage to beautiful Desdemona, the daughter of a prominent Venetian, provokes racial slurs against him. But he carries on with nobility and dignity as he leads an army against Turks on Cyprus. His dedication to duty is eclipsed only by his dedication to Desdemona, who follows him to Cyprus. So passionately does he love her that he cannot endure the thought of another man even looking at her. And therein lies his Achilles' heel, jealousy.
Iago: Military officer who schemes against Othello because the Moor did not promote him. He is evil through and through, taking great pleasure in bringing down the great Othello.
Desdemona: Daughter of Brabantio, wife of Othello, and victim of Iago's machinations and Othello's jealousy. She is the noblest and most unselfish character in the play.
Michael Cassio: Othello's lieutenant, who is manipulated by Iago. Cassio is a hinge on which the play turns. On the one hand, it is his promotion that arouses Iago's jealously. On the other, it is his alleged (but nonexistent) love affair with Desdemona that arouses Othello's jealousy.
Duke of Venice: Ruler who finds in favor of Othello when Desdemona's father attacks Othello's character.
Brabantio: Senator and father of Desdemona. A bigot whose racism is inflamed by Iago, he despises Othello.
First Senator, Second Senator
Gratiano: Brabantio's brother.
Lodovico: Brabantio's kinsman, who bears a message from the duke recalling Othello to Venice.
Roderigo: Venetian gentleman and former suitor of Desdemona. He is manipulated by Iago.
Montano: Othello's predecessor in the government of Cyprus.
Clown: Servant to Othello.
Emilia: Wife of Iago. She is blind to his evil until she discovers that it was he who plotted against Othello and Desdemona.
Bianca: Cassio's mistress.
Minor Characters: Sailor, messenger, herald, officers, gentlemen, musicians, attendants.
The action begins in Venice (in northern Italy) and Cyprus (an island in the eastern Mediterranean about 40 miles south of present-day Turkey). The time is 1570-1571, when the Ottoman Turks attacked Cyprus, a Venetian possession, and Venice rallied to defend Cyprus. It is interesting to note that Venice is the setting for both major Shakespeare plays dealing in part with racial prejudice--Othello and The Merchant of Venice. As one of the world's leading sea powers, Venice was the center of commercialism and materialism and, therefore, corruption and conflict arising from avarice, social status, and fierce competition. Cyprus--as a strategically located island which yielded substantial harvests of olives, grapes and various grains--was much prized throughout its history. Assyrians, Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, and Byzantines all fought over and occupied it. England's King Richard I, the Lion-Hearted, conquered Cyprus in 1191 but later ceded it to the French. Venice inherited the island from the French in 1489 and in 1571 the Ottoman Turks brought Cyprus under its control.
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