Shakespeare's Othello broken down into seven key scenes

Iago (Antony Sher) and Othello (Sello Maake Ka-Ncube) in Gregory Doran's 2004 production of Othello
Iago (Antony Sher) and Othello (Sello Maake Ka-Ncube) in Gregory Doran's 2004 production
Photo by Manuel Harlan © RSC – Image Licensing

1. Resentment and redress (Act 1, Scene 1)

In Venice, the gullible Rodorigo, an unsuccessful suitor to the senator’s daughter Desdemona, is persuaded by the wily Iago to help overthrow their common enemy, Othello. Iago has been passed over for promotion by Othello, a Moorish military commander employed by the Venetian state, in favour of the inexperienced Cassio. Iago tells Rodorigo that he hates Othello but will pretend to love him while plotting his downfall.

In the middle of the night, Rodorigo and Iago wake Brabantio with the news that his daughter, Desdemona, has eloped with Othello. When the disbelieving Brabantio discovers that his daughter really has gone, he accepts Rodorigo’s offer to take him to where Othello and Desdemona are staying.

2. Talk of love and war in Venice (Act 1 Scene 3)

In Venice, the Duke and his senators are concerned that the Turks have sent a fleet to invade the strategic island of Cyprus. Mistakenly, the Duke thinks Brabantio and Othello have arrived to discuss the military situation but instead Brabantio accuses Othello of abducting his daughter. Othello explains how he wooed Desdemona unintentionally when he recounted his past life whilst a guest at Brabantio’s. When summoned by the Duke, Desdemona confirms this version of events and since she is married to Othello, her father is told to make the best of it.

The Duke orders Othello to go to Cyprus immediately to deal with the Turkish threat. Othello tells ‘honest’ Iago to escort Desdemona, who pleads to be allowed to accompany her husband. A despairing Rodorigo, thinking he has lost Desdemona forever, is urged by Iago to obtain more money and follow them to Cyprus where he will have the opportunity to cuckold Othello. Once alone, Iago reveals that he will convince Othello that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. His bitter grievances include the suspicion that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia.

3. Cassio carouses in Cyprus (Act 2 Scene 3)

With the Turkish fleet destroyed in a storm, the Venetian forces in Cyprus can celebrate. Before Othello retires to his marriage bed with Desdemona, he leaves Cassio in charge of the guard. The scheming Iago, mindful that Cassio is alcohol-intolerant, deliberately plies him with drink. A tipsy and quarrelsome Cassio, having been incited by Rodorigo, becomes embroiled in a furious brawl during which he attacks Montano when he tries to stop him pursuing Rodorigo.

The fight is stopped by Othello, who has left the bridal chamber. Iago pretends to defend Cassio but Othello strips Cassio of his officership. Iago pretends to reassure the devastated Cassio and offers to bring about reconciliation with Othello through his wife, Emilia, who will ask Desdemona to intervene.

4. “The green-eyed monster” jealousy is aroused (Act 3 Scene 3)

Desdemona tells Cassio that she will speak to Othello on his behalf. As they approach, Iago suggests to Othello that Cassio is leaving in a guilty manner. Despite Desdemona’s entreaty, Othello refuses to recall Cassio. Once alone with Othello, the subtle Iago continues to insinuate that there is something going on between Desdemona and Cassio. Othello begins to have doubts about his wife’s fidelity.

On her return, Desdemona senses that Othello is unwell so offers him a handkerchief, his first gift to her. Othello pushes the handkerchief away and it drops to the floor, where Emilia finds it and hands it to her husband, Iago, who has been eager to obtain it.

An agitated Othello returns and demands that Iago give him proof of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness. Iago tells Othello that, once, when he shared a bedroom with Cassio, he overheard him plotting with Desdemona in his sleep. Furthermore, he says he has seen Cassio wiping his beard with the handkerchief. An enraged Othello vows that he will tear Desdemona apart and makes Iago swear to kill Cassio.

5. Othello receives ‘proof’ of his wife’s infidelity (Act 4 Scene 1)

Iago stokes the flames of jealousy until Othello collapses in an unconscious fit. When Cassio appears, Iago tells him that Othello has epilepsy and if roused will be enraged, so Cassio agrees to return later. As Othello revives, Iago urges him to hide and overhear his conversation with Cassio.

Iago and Cassio laugh and joke about Bianca, who loves Cassio, but Othello has been primed by Iago to think they are discussing Desdemona. To make matters worse, Bianca angrily returns the special handkerchief to Cassio, who has previously given it to her, having discovered it in his chamber, where Iago had secretly planted it.

This charade convinces Othello of Desdemona’s guilt and he vows to kill her. Iago suggests Othello should strangle her in bed and he promises to kill Cassio. When Desdemona arrives with news from Venice, she inadvertently ignites Othello’s fury by referring to her regard for Cassio, for which he strikes her.

6. A deadly attack on Cassio (Act 5 Scene 1)

Under cover of darkness, Iago hides, while Rodorigo strikes the approaching Cassio with his sword but fails to kill him. In defending himself, Cassio seriously wounds Rodorigo. Iago secretly stabs Cassio in the leg. His cries are heard by Othello, who thinks Iago has fulfilled his promise of killing Cassio. Delighted, Othello leaves to deal with Desdemona. Iago reveals himself and pretends to respond to the commotion. He finds Rodorigo and kills him in the darkness. Then he attends to Cassio and accuses Bianca of being behind the attack. Finally, he instructs Emilia to inform Othello and Desdemona.

7. Smothering love and exposing villainy (Act 5 Scene 2)

A resolute Othello approaches the sleeping Desdemona, bends over the bed and kisses her. When she wakes, he urges her to pray because he is about to kill her Desdemona professes her innocence, insisting she doesn’t love Cassio and never gave him the handkerchief. Othello tells her that Cassio is dead but her tears at this news provoke him to smother her. Emilia pleads to be let in to the chamber and eventually Othello obeys. Emilia informs Othello that Rodorigo has been killed by Cassio, who is still alive.

Desdemona revives temporarily and Emilia hears her cries. Her dying words affirm her innocence and she insists that Othello is not to blame. Othello and Emilia argue about Desdemona until she reveals he has been deceived by her husband, Iago. Emilia calls for help and when Montano and Gratiano arrive with Iago, she accuses Othello of murdering Desdemona and Iago of being a liar.

Gratiano brings news from Venice that Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, has died from grief as a result of her marriage to Othello. Emilia confirms that she gave the handkerchief to Iago. Othello tries to kill Iago, who fatally stabs Emilia before escaping. The truth discovered, Othello mourns his innocent Desdemona. When Iago is brought back as a prisoner, Othello stabs him but fails to kill him. Iago resolutely refuses to say anything. Othello’s command in Cyprus is given to Cassio, so he is ruined professionally as well as personally. Othello stabs himself with a sword he has previously concealed then kisses the lifeless Desdemona and dies. It is left to Cassio to decide Iago’s punishment.