The play’s protagonist and hero. Othello is the highly respected general of the armies of Venice, although he is not a native of Venice but rather a Moor, or North African. He is an eloquent and powerful figure, respected by all those around him. In spite of his elevated status, Othello is nevertheless easy prey to insecurities because of his age, his life as a soldier, and his self-consciousness about being a racial and cultural outsider. He possesses a free and open nature that his ensign Iago exploits to twist Othello’s love for his wife, Desdemona, into a powerful and destructive jealousy.
The daughter of the Venetian senator Brabantio. Desdemona and Othello are secretly married before the play begins. While in some ways stereotypically pure and meek, Desdemona is also determined and self-possessed. She is equally capable of defending her marriage, jesting bawdily with Iago, and responding with dignity to Othello’s incomprehensible jealousy.
Othello’s ensign (a senior position also known as “ancient” or “standard-bearer”), a twenty-eight-year-old military veteran from Venice. Iago is the villain of the play. Although he is obsessive, relentless, bold, and ingenius in his efforts to manipulate and deceive the other characters—particularly Othello—Iago’s motivations are notoriously murky. At various points in the play, he claims to be motivated by different things: resentment that Othello passed him over for a promotion in favor of Michael Cassio; jealousy because he heard a rumor that Othello slept with Iago’s wife, Emilia; suspicion that Cassio slept with Emilia too. Iago gives the impression that he’s tossing out plausible motivations as he thinks of them, and that we’ll never understand what really drives his villainy. He hates women and is obsessed with other people’s sex lives.
Othello’s lieutenant, or second-in-command. Cassio is highly educated but young and inexperienced in battle. Iago resents Cassio’s high position and dismisses him as a bookkeeper. Truly devoted to Othello, Cassio is ashamed after being implicated in a drunken brawl on Cyprus and losing his place as lieutenant. Iago uses Cassio’s youth, good looks, and flirtatious manner with women to play on Othello’s insecurities about Desdemona’s fidelity.
Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s attendant. A cynical, worldly woman, Emilia is deeply attached to her mistress and distrustful of her husband.
A jealous suitor of Desdemona. Young, rich, and foolish, Roderigo is convinced that if he gives Iago all of his money, Iago will help him win Desdemona’s hand. Repeatedly frustrated as Othello marries Desdemona and then takes her to Cyprus, Roderigo is ultimately desperate enough to agree to help Iago kill Cassio after Iago points out that Cassio is another potential rival for Desdemona.
A courtesan, or prostitute, in Cyprus. Bianca’s favorite customer is Cassio, who teases her with promises of marriage but laughs at her behind her back.
Desdemona’s father, a somewhat blustering and self-important Venetian senator. As a friend of Othello, Brabantio feels betrayed when the general marries his daughter in secret.
Duke of Venice
The official authority in Venice, the duke has great respect for Othello as a public and military servant. His primary role within the play is to make Othello tell his story of how he wooed Desdemona, and then to send Othello to Cyprus.
The governor of Cyprus before Othello. We see Montano first in Act Two, as he recounts the status of the war and awaits the Venetian ships.
One of Brabantio’s kinsmen, Lodovico acts as a messenger from Venice to Cyprus. He arrives in Cyprus in Act Four with letters announcing that Cassio is to replace Othello as governor.
Brabantio’s kinsman who accompanies Lodovico to Cyprus. Amidst the chaos of the play’s final scene, Graziano mentions that Desdemona’s father has died.
Othello’s servant. Although the clown appears only in two short scenes, his jokes reflect and distort the action and words of the main plots: his puns on the word “lie” in Act Three, scene 4, for example, anticipate Othello’s confusion of two meanings of that word in Act Four, scene 1.
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