The scene opens on a street in Venice. Roderigo and Iago are discussing Iago’s superior, Othello and his marriage to the Desdemona, the daughter of a senator. Iago is bitterly complaining that a tactician, Michael Cassio, is promoted to lieutenant over him. Iago laments the current state of affairs, that one no longer rises through the proper ranks but relies on connections. Roderigo suggests that Iago should stop following Othello, but Iago replies that the reason he continues to serve Othello is purely selfish. At this point, it is advantageous to Iago to ride the coattails of Othello’s influence and wealth. He continues to serve so that he can have his revenge. They then decide to go to Brabantio, Desdemona’s father and inform him about the Othello’s treachery. Roderigo is also in love with Desdemona and jumps upon this opportunity to win her father’s approval. They rouse Brabantio and the man is furious. He raises the alarm and they set off together to find the couple.
Iago slips away first to find Othello. He pretends to be warning and advising Othello. He describes the restraint he could barely muster when he heard Brabantio’s ravings against Othello. He then suggests that Othello hide in the inn but Othello refuses to do so. Cassio and several servants of the Duke appear and deliver a message from the duke. There is trouble brewing on Cyprus and the senate requests Othello’s presence as a military officer. Just as they are about to leave, Brabantio shows up. He immediately draws his sword and accuses Othello of poisoning and bewitching his daughter. Othello calmly rebuffs his attempts and informs him of the duke’s summons. Brabantio agrees that all should report to the senate and they leave.
The Duke and Senators are talking about the possible Turkish invasion of Cyprus. A Sailor enters with news of a feint towards Rhodes and another messenger enters with news that the Ottomites are nearing Cyprus. Brabantio, Othello, Iago, Roderigo, and the other Officers come in and Brabantio complains of Othello’s actions. The Duke asks Othello for his side of the story, and Othello replies that he eloped with Desdemona for love and that love is mutal. The Duke calls in Desdemona to confirm or disprove Othello’s claim; Othello recalls how he told his adventures to an enthralled Desdemona.
Desdemona enters and proclaims her love for Othello to her father. The Duke closes the subject and returns to the urgent problem at hand – the war. They ponder over where Desdemona will stay while Othello is gone. In the end, instead of staying at home with her father, she decides to accompany Othello to Cyprus. Othello entrusts her care to his ensign Iago, who outwardly is subservient and friendly but inwardly despises Othello. All leave, except Iago and Roderigo who stay behind. Roderigo wishes to commit suicide because he loves Desdemona but Iago counsels him otherwise. Iago tells Roderigo to obtain as much wealth as possible because on day, Desdemona will tire of Othello and leave him. Iago has great control over Roderigo and manages to completely reverse his thinking. Iago ponders how he will exact revenge upon Othello.
Montano, the governor of Cyprus, and several gentleman discuss a tempest that struck the area. They speculate that the Turkish fleet was probably wiped out by the storm. Cassio arrives to confirm the story but he is unsure whether Othello’s ship survived. Immediately thereafter, Iago, Emilia, and Desdemona arrive. As they wait for Othello, Cassio and Desdemona lightly tease Emilia for being overly talkative. Iago begins a tirade against women in general. Cassio wishes to speak privately to Desdemona and takes her hand. Iago muses that he will be able to use this to undermine Othello’s trust in Cassio and Desdemona. Othello finally arrives and greets Desdemona with a kiss. He orders Iago to unload the ship and the company goes to celebrate the drowning of the Turkish fleet. Roderigo is depressed because of the obvious affection between Desdemona and Othello. Iago reassures him but cautions that when she tires of Othello, she will turn to Cassio first. Iago convinces Roderigo to pick a fight with Cassio later that night so that Cassio will lose favor with Othello. Iago, alone, discusses his plans for revenge.
A herald announces that Othello has proclaimed a feast to celebrate the defeat of the Turks and his marriage to Desdemona.
Othello charges to Cassio to stay on guard during the night while the others are celebrating. Unfortunately, Iago cajoles Cassio into making a toast to their commander. When Cassio finally goes out to stand guard, he is completely drunk. Iago discusses Cassio’s drinking problem with Montano and voices his concern that Cassio should not be given so much responsibility.
As decided earlier, Roderigo goes to provoke Cassio to a fight. Cassio draws his sword and chases after Roderigo. When Montano tries to stop the fight, he gets stabbed by Cassio. All the commotion wakes up Othello and he stops the fight. He demands to know what happened. Iago makes a show of reluctance so Othello will think that he is protecting Cassio by making the story less serious. He dismisses Cassio for disgraceful behavior and tends to Montano’s wounds. Iago and Cassio are left alone and Iago comforts Cassio. Iago counsels him to speak with Desdemona and ask her to persuade Othello on his behalf. After Othello leaves, Iago contemplates how his advice for Cassio will actually result in his downfall.
Cassio sends a troop of musicians to play outside Othello’s window in an effort to win back Othello’s approval. The general sends his clown to tell the musicians that their music is terrible and to send them away. Cassio asks the clown to deliver a message to Emilia that he wishes to speak with her in order to get an audience with Desdemona. Iago enters and promises to get Emilia right away and occupy Othello in order for Cassio to speak privately with Desdemona. Iago leaves and Emilia comes to deliver news to Cassio. She says that Desdemona and Othello have been discussing his situation and Desdemona has pleaded for him. However, Othello worries that the people will not approve of Cassio’s reappointment because of Montano’s influence on the island. Emilia invites Cassio in and tells him to wait as she gets Desdemona.
Othello, Iago, and a gentleman walk outside the castle. Iago is given some letters to deliver and Othello and the gentleman take a walk to see the town’s defenses.
Cassio, Desdemona, and Emilia are discussing how best to reinstate Cassio and Desdemona promises to speak to her husband on his behalf. When Iago and Othello enter, Cassio leaves quickly. Othello sees Cassio as he leaves and Iago exclaims that Cassio would never sneak away so guiltily. Desdemona immediately pleads with Othello to reappoint Cassio as lieutenant and though Othello promises to speak with Cassio, he avoids Desdemona’s insistent questions about a meeting time. When the women leave, Iago subtly voices suspicions about an affair between Cassio and Desdemona. He asks questions about whether Cassio knew about Othello and Desdemona’s love. He feigns reluctance until Othello angrily tells him to speak his mind. Iago pretends that he is Cassio’s friend and asks Othello to drop the subject but it is too late. Othello is already convinced that Desdemona has left him because he is a Moor and not courtly or handsome.
Desdemona and Emilia return to tell Othello that dinner is to be served, but he complains of a headache. Desdemona offers to bind his head with her handkerchief but Othello pushes her away. In the process, she drops the handkerchief. After the couple leaves, Emilia picks up the handkerchief and remembers how often Iago has asked her to steal that very piece of cloth. She gives it to Iago, who is ecstatic and plots to plant it in Cassio’s rooms. Othello reenters after Emilia leaves and angrily screams at Iago. He is tormented and charges Iago to obtain proof. Othello then warns him that if the accusations are false, his life is forfeit. Iago says that one cannot actually catch the Cassio and Desdemona in the act of adultery but he heard Cassio cry out Desdemona’s name, kiss him, and throw his leg over his in a dream. He then says that he saw Cassio wiping his beard with the handkerchief that Othello gave Desdemona. Othello, thoroughly convinced by this “proof,” vows revenge upon both Desdemona and Cassio. He promotes Iago to lieutenant.
Desdemona sends a message to Cassio that she has attempted to speak with Othello but the suit may take some time. Othello enters and takes her hand. Her hand is moist and Othello says that moist hands on a woman mean that she has casual sexual relationships with many men. Then, he asks to borrow her handkerchief and she is unable to produce it, he tells the history of that particular handkerchief. It was a magical gift from an Egyptian sorceress to his mother to win his father’s love. If the handkerchief was lost, his father would no longer be faithful to his wife. Desdemona, frightened by the story, says that she merely does not have the handkerchief on her person, but Othello will not believe her. She tries to change the subject by bringing up Cassio in the face of Othello’s anger. Othello storms off at the mention of Cassio’s name and Iago and Cassio enter.
Cassio immediately goes back to the subject of his reappointment and Desdemona says that now is not a good time as Othello is in a bad mood. Emilia ventures that he is jealous but Desdemona maintains that he has matters of state on his mind. Iago goes to appease his master and the women leave. Bianca, a prostitute and Cassio’s mistress, enters and complains that Cassio has not visited her in a long time. Cassio asks her to copy the embroidery on Desdemona’s handkerchief but Bianca accuses him of sleeping with other women. He tells her that he found the handkerchief in his room and makes plans to meet later that night.
Iago taunts Othello with continued insinuations against Desdemona, arguing that it is no crime for a woman and a man to sleep together naked as long as nothing happens and that a handkerchief once given to another is hers to do with as she pleases. Othello gets worked up into a frenzy and when Iago finally says concretely Cassio and Desdemona lay together, Othello has an epileptic seizure. When Cassio enters, Iago tells him to stay out of the way and promises to speak with him when Othello awakens. When Othello comes out of the fit, Iago says that he has arranged to speak with Cassio and tells Othello to hide and watch Cassio’s reactions as Iago questions him about his affair with Desdemona. In actuality, Iago questions Cassio not about Desdemona but about Bianca. Cassio laughs at Bianca’s pursuit of him and Othello grossly misinterprets.
Just as the men are belittling Bianca, the prostitute enters again brandishing the handkerchief and accusing Cassio. Cassio runs out after Bianca but Othello has seen the handkerchief and considers how he will punish his lieutenant and his wife. Othello laments his loss of the beautiful, cultured, and elegant Desdemona and is confused about how such a woman could be so unfaithful. He considers poisoning her but Iago suggests that he strangle her on their bed to make the revenge even sweeter. Iago promises to arrange Cassio’s death. Desdemona then enters with Lodovico, a man from Venice and kinsmen to Desdemona. He bears a message from the Duke: Othello is called back to Venice and Cassio will govern in his place. Desdemona expresses her joy in returning to Venice and Othello strikes her. Lodovico is taken aback by the change in Othello. Othello orders Desdemona to go to their chambers and storms off.
Othello questions Emilia about Desdemona’s behavior with Cassio and refuses to believe her when she says that nothing suspicious has ever occurred between them. He then summons Desdemona and reproaches her for her adultery though she repeatedly denies his accusations and assures him of her honesty. Othello leaves and Desdemona asks Iago what has happened to make her husband accuse her of infidelity. Ironically, Iago says that some villainous person must be trying to hurt Othello. He is, in fact, referring to himself though none know it but he. He says that Othello is troubled by official business. After Emilia and Desdemona leave for dinner, Roderigo enters with complaints for Iago. He plans to reveal his love to Desdemona and demand his jewels, which Iago supposedly gave her, back if she rejects him. Iago convinces him not to do this by saying that Cassio is being promoted to Iago’s place and Othello is being sent to Africa. He alo lies that the only way to prevent this is to kill Cassio.
Othello sends Desdemona to bed after dinner and himself takes a walk with Lodovico. Their wedding sheets are laid upon the bed and Desdemona seems to know what is going to happen to her. She says to Emilia that if she should die, she would like to use the wedding sheets as her shroud. She then sings the “Willow” song that tells the story of a woman whose lover leaves her. The naïve Desdemona asks Emilia if she would cheat on her husband for anything. Emilia answers that jewels and riches would not make her unfaithful but there are other, more weighty things that might. She speculates that women have the same desires as men and if an unfaithful man’s wife also commits adultery, it is only his fault. Desdemona reproaches Emilia for her thoughts, showing her purity and innocence. She prepares herself for bed.
In a street outside of the brothel where Cassio meets Bianca, Iago convinces Roderigo to kill Cassio. Iago considers the double bonus of Cassio and Roderigo killing each other, thereby ridding him of an extra burden. When Cassio comes out, Roderigo stabs him but does not pierce his armor. Cassio wounds Roderigo and Iago darts in to stab Cassio in the leg. Cassio does not see his assailant and cries murder. Othello hears it and assumes that Iago has carried out his orders. All is set for his own act of murder. Lodovico, Gratiano, and Iago enter upon hearing Cassio’s cries. Iago immediately takes control, saying that Roderigo must be the man who wounded Cassio and kills him before the others even realize what is going on. Iago then insinuates that the attack has something to do with the whore Bianca and arrests her. Finally, Iago contemplates that this night is the night upon which his Fate depends.
Act V Scene ii
Othello prepares to kill Desdemona as she sleeps. However, when he gives her a final kiss, she wakes up. He tells her of his intent to murder her and Desdemona frantically asks his motivation and begs for her life. Othello will not hear her proclamations of innocence and smother her with a pillow. Desdemona is not yet dead when Emilia enters bearing news that Cassio is wounded and Roderigo killed. Realizing that Cassio is not dead and that his plans have been foiled, he becomes mad. Desdemona cries that she has been murdered and Emilia calls for help. Montano, Gratiano, and Iago enter upon her call. Iago’s deceit is slowly unraveled in Emilia’s recount of past events. Iago stabs her in an attempt to silence her and runs away.
Montano goes after him and Othello is left alone with the bodies of two women. He finds another sword and hides it on his person. Gratiano, Montano, Lodovico, and Iago, who is a prisoner, return to the bedroom. Othello immediately stabs Iago but only wounds. Iago refuses to speak, but a letter is produced, found on Roderigo’s person, that reveals all. Othello’s sword is taken away and Lodovico proclaims that he is stripped of his governorship and will be taken to Venice for a trial. Othello asks for a final word, begging the Venetians to speak of his bravery and not his folly, then stabs himself with the hidden dagger. Lodovico angrily tells Iago to observe the bloody result of his evil, installs Cassio as governor, gives Gratiano all of Othello’s property as closest kin, and leaves himself for Venice to inform the Duke and Senate of all that has occurred.