The play is set primarily in Cyprus. However, the opening act takes place in Venice, providing us with an understanding of the authoritarian government controlled by the Venetian senators. Also, we begin to understand Othello?s tenuous standing in Venice, as well as Desdemona?s privileged background. The first scenes introduce the primary plot, beginning outside Brabantio?s house with Iago already intent upon manipulation and trouble-making. He encourages Roderigo to rouse Brabantio, Desdemona?s father, and tell him of her elopement with Othello. Iago makes the announcement as alarming and disruptive as possible. Both Iago and Roderigo reveal their motivation: Roderigo?s passion for Desdemona and Iago?s appetite for revenge on Othello for choosing Michael Cassio over him as his second in command. Although Brabantio and Othello had been friends, or at least amiable acquaintances, Brabantio?s first thought is that his daughter would never have done this of her own free will?Othello must have used witchcraft and potions. The secondary plot, introduced in the following scene, is that the Turks have taken a ?eet to Cyprus, and the senators want to send Othello as the best and most experienced general to defend it. The Turks? threat to Venetian civilization echoes Brabantio?s concerns about what he interprets as Othello?s barbarian threat to his civilized daughter; he wants the powerful senators to condemn Othello for wooing her. However, Desdemona declares that her love for the Moor is free of any external influence.
After Desdemona?s declaration all attention is returned to the attack on Cyprus. Othello is ordered to leave Venice immediately. Ironically, he commends Desdemona into Iago?s keeping and requests that she be allowed to come to him in Cyprus. Brabantio warns Othello that if Desdemona deceived her father she could also be false to her husband. At the end of the act, Iago persuades Roderigo to abandon his plans to kill himself over Desdemona and come to Cypress disguised and ready to seek revenge on Cassio and Othello.
The next act opens with a conversation that tells of the Turks? drowning in a storm, thus ending their threat to Cyprus. Cassio arrives, and we learn that Othello?s ship is still at sea. Desdemona and her entourage, including Iago, appear shortly thereafter; all await news of Othello. Othello appears and a tender moment of reunion with Desdemona ensues. Iago is ordered to take over the watch of the city.
He seeks Roderigo?s help in his plot to undo Cassio. The plan works smoothly?Cassio gets drunk and fights with Roderigo and one of the Cypriot leaders. The fight arouses Othello. Based on Iago?s explanation, Othello dismisses Cassio and names Iago his replacement. Iago, encouraging Cassio to seek Desdemona?s assistance in returning to Othello?s favor, begins slowly poisoning Othello?s mind by making him think that Desdemona is illicitly involved with Cassio.
In Act III Iago?s plot progresses. Cassio asks Desdemona to plead his case to Othello. She freely and happily accepts his suit and pledges herself to urge his case relentlessly. In the meantime Iago continues to poison Othello?s mind. Othello demands visual proof:
?Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore
Be sure of it; give me ocular proof;
Or, by the worth of mine eternal soul,
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my naked wrath.?
(III, iii, 356-360)
Iago quickly seizes the opportunity. Othello has given Desdemona a special handkerchief, a family heirloom passed down from his mother to his bride. Iago gets the handkerchief from Emilia, his wife and Desdemona?s attendant. Emilia is unaware of her husband?s intent. Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio?s rooms. At Iago?s urging Othello asks Desdemona for it. Worried because it seems to mean so much to her husband, Desdemona lies and says she doesn?t have it at the moment. This arouses Othello?s doubt and distrust.
The next act opens with Iago plotting with Roderigo to kill Cassio. Iago continues to manipulate both Othello and Roderigo, pushing each of them to murder?even persuading Othello to strangle rather than poison Desdemona. An overwrought Othello has a seizure that Cassio witnesses. Iago uses this as an opportunity to call Othello?s reason into question with visitors from Venice, one of whom is Desdemona?s relative. Othello can no longer contain his passionate anger towards Desdemona and publicly chides her and strikes her. Unable to get an admission of guilt from his wife, he turns to her attendant. When Othello questions Emilia about her mistress?s habits, she staunchly defends Desdemona?s virtue, but Othello will not accept her testimony.
The final act climaxes in the revelation of Iago?s multi-faceted scheme. Emilia, Roderigo, and Desdemona are its early casualties. Cassio, though intended to die, survives. Othello finally confronts the truth about Iago?s manipulation and Desdemona?s innocence and kills himself. The story ends with the witnesses contemplating the tragic tale they must tell the Venetian court.