Iago, a Venetian soldier and ensign, is passed over for promotion by Othello, a Moorish nobleman who has reached the pinnacle of his career: he is general of the Venetian army and has secretly married Desdemona, daughter of an important statesman in Venice. Partly to be avenged for this slight and partly because of his dark nature, Iago has determined to destroy Othello’s happiness.
His first attempt in this villainy is in awakening Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, and telling him of his daughter’s marriage to the black Moor. Enraged, Brabantio appeals to the duke of Venice to punish Othello but gives up in his efforts when he realizes that Desdemona truly loves her new husband. Iago, however, is not so easily defeated; and he soon enlists the help of Roderigo, a rejected suitor of Desdemona, in his future attempts to ruin Othello.
When Othello is sent from Venice to defend Cyprus from the Turks, Desdemona sails to join him, in the safekeeping of Iago and his wife, Emilia. A storm disperses the Turkish fleet, ending the threat to Cyprus, and Othello is quickly reunited with Desdemona on the island. Now, Iago begins to scheme in earnest. He gets Cassio, whom Othello promoted ahead of Iago, drunk while on duty, thereby prompting Othello to dismiss the dishonored Cassio from his service and make Iago his lieutenant. Then Iago goads Othello into believing that Desdemona is Cassio’s lover.
Othello soon becomes obsessively jealous and willing to believe anything he is told about his innocent wife. Iago’s final “proof” of Desdemona’s infidelity revolves around the loss of a special handkerchief Othello had given her during their courtship. Iago tricks his wife, Emilia into stealing the handkerchief, then convinces Othello that Desdemona has given it to Cassio as a love token. When Desdemona cannot produce the handkerchief, Othello is certain she has been unfaithful and swears an oath of vengeance on his wife and Cassio. That evening, Othello orders Desdemona to await him alone in bed. As she prepares for sleep and fearing Othello’s dark mood, she sings “A Willow Song,” a wistful song taught to her about a maid who was forsaken by her lover.
In Desdemona’s bedchamber, Othello gazes down at the innocent beauty of his sleeping wife. She awakens, and despite her pleas for life, Othello smothers her with a pillow. A horrified Emilia enters, and Othello justifies himself, citing the handkerchief as proof. Recognizing the handkerchief as the one she stole for her husband, she is stunned and reveals Iago’s guilt. Iago enters the scene, kills Emilia, is arrested, and is almost killed by Othello, who now is horrified as he understands the truth. Despite demands for an explanation of his treachery, Iago remains silent and is condemned to a tortuous death.
Before Othello can be led away to face his justice, he begs his listeners to speak of him “as one that lov’d not wisely but too well.” He then draws a concealed weapon, stabs himself, and kisses Desdemona as he dies.