Othello: Plot Summary
Masterpiece Theatre's Othello is an adaptation of Shakespeare's famous tragedy. The screenwriter, Andrew Davies, set aside traditional Shakespearean language and placed the story in modern-day London. The elements he retained will be quickly recognizable: the major characters; the outline of the plot; specific lines and speeches that recall the original version. You may want to download and distribute this plot summary of the play before viewing the film, so students can compare and contrast the two versions.
In the opening scene, Iago complains that Othello, his Commander, has passed him over to promote handsome Cassio to be his Lieutenant. He vows to get revenge. Iago first asks his friend Roderigo to tell Desdemona's father Brabantio that his daughter has left to marry Othello, a marriage Brabantio opposes because Othello is a Moor (an African). Brabantio confronts Othello, and they take their argument to the Duke, who has summmoned Othello to ask him to sail to Cyprus to stop a Turkish invasion. Convinced by Othello and Desdemona that they love each other deeply despite their differences, the Duke gives Desdemona permission to travel with Othello. By the time they reach Cyprus the foreign threat is gone.
Iago has Roderigo get Cassio drunk and draw him into a street fight. Iago has his revenge on Cassio when Othello strips Cassio of his rank for misbehavior. Then Iago decides to make Othello believe his wife is unfaithful. He encourages Cassio to ask Desdemona to plead with Othello to be reinstated. Iago suggests to Othello that Desdemona is Cassio's lover. Trusting Iago and mad with jealousy, Othello promotes Iago and asks Iago to help him kill Cassio and Desdemona.
Iago plants Desdemona's handkerchief in Cassio's room. Cassio gives it to his mistress, Bianca. Othello believes Bianca's possession of the handkerchief is proof that Desdemona and Cassio are lovers. He verbally abuses his wife in front of others, who are shocked at the change in the noble and powerful man.
Iago has manipulated Roderigo into trying to kill Cassio. The attempt goes wrong, and Cassio wounds Roderigo; Iago stabs Cassio in the leg. Othello hears Cassio cry out and thinks Iago has killed him. He returns home, ready to kill Desdemona. Meanwhile, Iago "finds" the wounded Cassio and accuses Bianca of causing Cassio's injury. Iago quietly kills Roderigo and sends Emilia (Iago's wife) to Desdemona with news of what has happened.
Othello reaches the sleeping Desdemona first. Othello kisses her, wakes her, and accuses her again. Over her protests that she loves him and is innocent, he smothers her. Emilia enters and Desdemona revives for a moment, declaring herself guiltless but saying, as she dies, that Othello is innocent of her death. Iago and others enter, and Emilia defends Desdemona's innocence, recognizing that Iago is behind the tragedy. Othello sees the truth and tries to kill Iago. Iago kills Emilia and flees; Othello condemns himself and commits suicide. Iago is seized and taken away.
Before viewing, have students read these quotes from Shakespeare's play aloud in class. Then have each student select four quotes and record them on a fresh sheet of paper, leaving space below each quote. As they watch the film, ask students to listen for echoes of these famous lines in the adapted screenplay, noting the specific line or scene. After viewing, turn this activity around: find lines in Shakespeare's play that parallel moments, lines, and themes in the screenplay.
innocence and evil
"When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows"
[Iago, II, iii, 371-72]
"If she be false, O then heaven mocks itself!"
[Othello, III, iii, 278]
"Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on."
[Iago, III, iii, 195-97]
"Trifles light as air
Are to the jealous confirmations strong
As proofs of holy writ."
[Iago, III, iii, 370-73]
"And she, in spite of nature,
Of year, of country, credit, everything,
To fall in love with what she feared to look upon!"
[Brabantio, I, iii, 114-116]
"O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours,
And not their appetites!"
[Othello, III, iii, 309-11]
Teaching The Merchant of Venice and Othello
The Merchant of Venice: Plot Summary | Before Viewing
Othello: Plot Summary | Adapting Shakespeare
Adapting Shakespeare: Activities | On Race and Religion
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