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Ira Aldridge Othello 1846

Othello: The Moor of Venice

Summary of William Shakespeare's Othello: Iago manipulates literally everyone. Othello gets really jealous. (Almost) everyone dies.

Act I

Before Othello begins, Roderigo has been pursuing Desdemona, a Venetian noblewoman. One night, he hears from his soldier friend, Iago, that Desdemona has secretly married his General, the Moorish Othello. Iago bears a grudge against Othello, who overlooked Iago for a lieutenant position and chose Michael Cassio instead; Iago now only has the low rank of ensign. Iago urges Roderigo to continue his pursuit of Desdemona, knowing that the Senator Brabanzio, her father, will greatly dislike having Othello as a son-in-law. Late at night, they wake Brabanzio, and on hearing their news, he angrily summons the militia to arrest Othello. At this moment, however, officers arrive to summon Brabanzio to an urgent meeting of the Senate. They are concerned about the imminent threat of a Turkish invasion fleet on Cyprus. Brabanzio goes to the council full of fury. 

Royal Shakespeare Company, 1999
Royal Shakespeare Company, 1999

Brabanzio interrupts the council, claiming vengeance against Othello, who is there because he has just been put in command of the forces to repel the Turks. Othello explains how his stories of military prowess have helped to earn him Desdemona's love (good storytelling is the most important trait in a companion, after all); and afterwards, Desdemona is called to reinforce the tale. Following Desdemona's defence, her father disowns her and she chooses to accompany Othello on his campaign. She plans to travel in the care of Lieutenant Cassio, and with Emilia,  Iago's wife.

Act II

In Cyprus, Montano and his soldiers greet Cassio, Iago, Desdemona, and Emilia as they disembark. Othello soon arrives with news that storms at sea have dispersed the Turkish fleet, and a night of celebration is proclaimed. After Roderigo confesses doubts about his potential to woo Desdemona, Iago assures him that there is hope. He urges Roderigo to challenge Cassio to a duel that night, since (as Iago claims) Desdemona is actually falling in love with him. When the night comes, Iago makes Cassio drunk, Roderigo incites his anger, and Montano is stabbed during his attempt to contain Cassio. Othello is angered by the fight and blames Cassio, stripping him of his recently conferred officer status. 

1846 Othello Playbill featuring Ira Aldridge
1846 Othello Playbill featuring Ira Aldridge


The next day, Iago convinces Cassio to ask Desdemona for help in regaining his post, and Desdemona innocently agrees. Meanwhile, Iago has sown seeds of jealousy in Othello’s mind, suggesting that Desdemona is overfond of Cassio. Not suspecting Iago of any bad intentions, Othello begins to watch his wife, and becomes angry when Desdemona accidentally loses the first gift (a handkerchief) he had ever given her. The handkerchief is embroidered with strawberries and is especially important to Othello. Emilia has found and taken the handkerchief on Iago's instructions and he has hidden it where Cassio will find it. When Desdemona urges her husband to reconsider Cassio’s position, Othello suspects her of infidelity and becomes extremely jealous.

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster

— Othello, Act 3 Scene 3

Act IV

Iago continues to inflame this jealousy, and encourages Othello to listen in on, and misinterpret, part of a conversation between Cassio and his mistress, Bianca. They discuss the manner in which Cassio obtained the embroidered handkerchief he has given her to copy. Othello’s agitation at what he hears brings on an epileptic fit. After recovering, he orders Iago to kill Cassio. Desdemona cannot understand Othello's change of attitude towards her, particularly after he strikes her in the presence of her relative, Lodovico, who has arrived as an ambassador from Venice. As she prepares for bed, she talks with Emilia, sorrowfully singing to relieve the distress she feels at losing the trust of her husband. 

Royal Shakespeare Company Othello, 1961
Royal Shakespeare Company Othello, 1961

Act V

Meanwhile, Roderigo has begun to suspect Iago is not quite the friend he seems, but is persuaded to attack Cassio that night (again, to be able to court Desdemona). In the fight that ensues, Iago wounds Cassio while undetected, and enters again as himself to accuse and kill Roderigo for the act. 

Othello comes to his sleeping wife's bedroom, intent on murdering her as punishment for her supposed adultery. He smothers her with a pillow as she asserts her innocence. Emilia alerts the household, causing Iago and others to come to the scene. Othello defends himself, mentioning the handkerchief as evidence, when Emilia realises and betrays Iago‘s plots against Othello. Iago, reacting to his wife's accusations, stabs and kills her. Iago is arrested and sent to trial after Othello wounds him (he doesn't even die). Othello, facing the inevitability of his own trial, uses a hidden weapon to commit suicide, and the play ends with Cassio reinstated and placed in command as Governor of Cyprus.

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