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Analysis of the plot of “Othello”

Updated on August 5, 2014
Othello | Source

Time of this play:

The time of the play “Othello” is the last decades of 16th century, during the commencement of war between the Turkey and Venice.

Place of this play:

In first act, the place is Venice. Then, in the island of Cyprus.

Main character:

Othello, the Moor, the General of Venice.

Main antagonist:

Iago, an army officer under Othello.

The main plot:

The plot of Othello has been called “completely simple with no sub-plot and no distractions”. The overall plot of Othello is:-

An ensign, expecting to be promoted to the post of a lieutenant, feels annoyed when his general appoints another man over his head. The ensign decides to revenge his supersession by plotting the ruin of both his general and his rival. By a series of skilful moves he is able to convince the general of the adultery of the general’s wife with the lieutenant. As a result the general kills first his wife and then himself. But the ensign fails in the second part of his design since the plot is disclosed and the lieutenant receives yet another promotion while he himself faces trial and torture.

The sub-plot:

Nothing could be simpler than the plot as outlined above. But it would not be precisely true to say that there is neither any sub-plot nor any distraction whatsoever. Iago’s intrigue against Roderigo definitely constitutes a sub-plot, even though this sub-plot is brought into a very close relationship with the main plot.

Iago’s principal motive against Roderigo is to extract money (and jewels) from him. But though he sends Roderigo to Cyprus with this principal object (“put money in thy purse”) he finds that Roderigo can also be used as a tool, first to draw Cassio into a quarrel which will discredit Cassio, and then to engage him in a combat with Cassio so that both of them might be killed. lago's extracting money from Roderigo is absolutely extraneous to the main plot though it certainly serves another purpose, namely to emphasize Iago’s villainy. Iago’s intrigue against Roderigo serves also as a kind of a humorous element, because the duping of Roderigo has certainly something comic about it.

Othello in theater
Othello in theater | Source

The distraction:

The clown’s first appearance is definitely a distraction. The humor provided by him at this time is not only feeble but entirely uncalled for because we have already had “comic relief” in the brief meeting of Roderigo with Iago who dismisses him unceremoniously. The humor in the clown’s other appearance, though feeble, is not out of place because it serves to relieve the tension that has been built up in the “temptation scene”.

This second appearance is, indeed, a comic interlude between the tension of the temptation scene and the distressing interview that follows between Othello and Desdemona.

The climax:

The climax appears in ‘Act 3’, scene 3. Iago misguided Othello about Desdemona and misguidedly show proofs. Othello is now almost convinced of his wife’s infidelity. It leads Othello to kill her wife, Desdemona.

Plot according to Acts:

Act 1:

Apart from these minor and almost negligible considerations, the plot-construction of Othello is faultless. The opening scene reveals the characters of lago and Roderigo and especially the feelings of Iago — his hatred, jealousy and hypocrisy — which constitute the chief motive of the whole action, while Brabantio’s grief and the rage throw a dark shadow over the love of Othello and Desdemona at the very commencement of the play. The scenes which follow partly acquaint us with Othello’s heroic exploits in the past and his towering military position in the present, and partly describe the depth and intensity of the love between Othello and Desdemona, pointing at the same time towards their destruction (as planned by Iago in his soliloquy at the end of ‘Act 1’).

Act 2:

‘Act 2’ contains the threads with which the complication of the play is woven: the arrival of Cassio, lago, Desdemona, Emilia and Roderigo in Cyprus; Iago’s mocking comments on the female sex, which throw a significant light on Emilia’s character: the announcement of celebrations at the destruction of the Turkish fleet, and festivities in honour of the marriage of Othello; Cassio’s drunkenness and his dismissal; lago’s advice to Cassio to seek Desdemona’s intervention: and lago’s soliloquy revealing his terrible designs.

Act 3:

The threads indicated in ‘Act 2’, and the threads are woven in ‘Act 3’ into a net in which Othello is trapped. From the beginning of ‘Act 3’ the plot moves with great rapidity and without much of a pause. Everything points towards the one inevitable goal. The temptation scene is soon followed by the scene of Desdemona’s interrogation by Othello regarding the handkerchief, and Othello is now almost convinced of his wife’s infidelity.

Act 4:

In ‘Act 4’, Iago contrives that Othello shall overhear a conversation between Cassio and himself; in which, while they talk of Bianca, Othello is made to believe that the conversation pertains to Desdemona. This shock puts a finishing touch to the business and, thoroughly convinced of Desdemona’s disloyalty, Othello determines to put her to death.

Act 5:

In ‘Act 5’, Othello carries out his murderous intention but not before he has directly accused her of her supposed crime. Meanwhile Iago, using Roderigo as his tool, lays a plot to kill Cassio. The plot miscarries and Iago is taken prisoner. lago's villainy is exposed and the tragedy ends with Othello’s killing himself in remorse for his murder of Desdemona.

Other views of this play:

  • There are no digressions in the play, no irrelevancies and no superfluity.
  • The play comes very near to observing the three unities: time, place and action.
  • The entire action at Cyprus takes not more than thirty three hours.
  • The number of important characters is just seven.
  • By means of the observance of the unities, the short list of principal characters, the scanty comic relief, and the very nature of the plot Shakespeare achieves a powerful effect and a tension greater than in any of his other plays.


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    • Shah mustafa profile imageAUTHOR

      Shah Obaidul Mustafa 

      4 years ago from Dhaka, Bangladesh

      Thank you for comment.

    • triciapilates profile image


      4 years ago

      Good to see this clear outline. We saw Othello last week at the Cambridge Shakespeare festival. Great atmosphere in the college grounds.


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