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Othello | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Plot Summary

Professor Bradley Greenburg of Northeastern Illinois University explains the plot summary in William Shakespeare's play Othello.

Othello | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The introduction of the play is set in Venice, during a time of conflict between the Ottoman Empire and Venice. As the play begins, the Ottoman Turks are preparing for war against the Venetians and are likely to attack either Cyprus or Rhodes. Othello, a Moor from North Africa and a successful Venetian general, has eloped with a young Venetian noblewoman named Desdemona.

When the news gets out, Roderigo, a gentleman who is in love with Desdemona, complains to Iago, Othello's ensign, about the secret marriage. Iago has agreed to help Roderigo court and win Desdemona, but only if Roderigo keeps him supplied with money. Iago is angry at Othello for promoting another man, Michael Cassio, to lieutenant. At play's opening, Iago and Roderigo cause a ruckus at Brabantio's home and reveal that Brabantio's daughter Desdemona has eloped with Othello. Iago leaves before his identity is known and goes back to Othello. Cassio joins them, bringing a message from the Duke of Venice that Othello is required to turn back the Turkish attack on Cyprus. Othello hurries to the Duke, Brabantio following along, intent on confronting Othello about Desdemona.

The Duke, however, takes Othello's side in the matter, partially due to Othello's earnest professions of love for Desdemona and his description of how they fell in love. Desdemona arrives and supports Othello's argument, and Brabantio is forced to accept the marriage. Othello makes arrangements to leave right away for Cyprus, and Desdemona plans to accompany him.

The next day, Desdemona, Iago and his wife, Emilia, Roderigo, and Cassio arrive on Cyprus before Othello. Cassio holds Desdemona's hand for a moment in greeting, and this small gesture gives Iago an idea of how to get back at both Cassio and Othello. Then Othello arrives. Miraculously, the Turkish ships on their way to invade Cyprus have been destroyed by a storm, so they celebrate this turn of events at a banquet that evening. At the celebration, Iago convinces Cassio to get drunk and then encourages Roderigo to fight Cassio. Montano tries to break it up, and Cassio stabs him in the leg. When Othello finds out, he strips Cassio of his rank. Iago suggests Cassio appeal to Desdemona, who can go to Othello on his behalf. When Cassio leaves, Iago reveals to the audience he plans to make Othello think Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. As Cassio approaches Desdemona, and she asks Othello to reconsider Cassio's case, Iago plants the seeds of suspicion in Othello's mind.

When Desdemona accidentally drops her handkerchief, Emilia picks it up and gives it to her husband. Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio's room, and Cassio finds it. Later, Iago stages a scene with Cassio meant to convince Othello, observing from a hidden place just out of earshot, that Cassio is sleeping with Desdemona. As a result, Othello becomes wild with jealousy.

While Iago orchestrates another fight between Cassio and Roderigo, then ends up killing Roderigo, Othello plans Desdemona's death. That night, in the climax of the play, he smothers Desdemona in her bed. Emilia realizes it has been her husband all along, and Othello realizes he has been manipulated. He tries to kill Iago, but Iago kills Emilia instead. Then Othello kills himself, and Iago is arrested.

Othello Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Desdemona elopes with Othello, a Moor and Venetian general.

Rising Action

2 Desdemona goes with Othello and his soldiers to Cyprus.

3 Iago plots to convince Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful.

4 Iago gets Cassio drunk. Cassio is demoted.

5 Cassio asks Desdemona to speak to Othello; she agrees.

6 Desdemona loses a handkerchief given to her by Othello.

7 Emilia finds the handkerchief and gives it to Iago.

8 Iago uses the handkerchief to show Desdemona's infidelity.


9 Othello commits to killing Desdemona.

Falling Action

10 Othello kills Desdemona.

11 Emilia betrays Iago, who kills her; Othello kills himself.


12 Iago is arrested.

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