—From The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble.
Othello, the Moor of Venice, a tragedy by *Shakespeare, written between 1602 and 1604 when it was performed before James I at Whitehall. It was first printed in quarto in 1622, and again in a different version in the *Folio of 1623. The story is taken from *Cinthio, which Shakespeare could have read in Italian or French.
The play's first act (which *Verdi's opera Otello omits) is set in Venice. Desdemona, the daughter of Brabantio, a Venetian senator, has secretly married Othello, a Moor in the service of the state. Accused before the duke and senators of having stolen Brabantio's daughter, Othello explains and justifies his conduct, and is asked by the Senate to lead the Venetian forces against the Turks who are about to attack Cyprus.
In the middle of a storm which disperses the Turkish fleet, Othello lands in Cyprus with Desdemona, Cassio, a yhoung Florentine, who helped him court his wife and whom he has now promoted to be his lieutenant, and Iago, an older soldier, bitterly resentful of being passed over for promotion, who now plans his revenge. Iago uses Roderigo, 'a gull'd Gentleman' in love with Desdemona, to fight with Cassio after he has got him drunk, so that Othello deprives him of his new rank. He then persuades Cassio to ask Desdemona to plead in his favour with Othello, which she warmly does. At the same time he suggests to Othello that Cassio is, and has been, Desdemona's lover, finally, arranging through his wife Emilia, who is Desdemona's waiting-woman, that Othello should see Cassio in possession of a handkerchief which he had given to his bride. Othello is taken in by Iago's promptings and in frenzied jealousy smothers Desdemona in her bed. Iago sets Roderigo to murder Cassio, but when Roderigo fails to to this Iago kills him and Emilia as well, after she has proved Desdemona's innocence to Othello. Emilia's evidence and letters found on Roderigo prove Iago's guilt; he is arrested, and Othello, having tried to stab him, kills himself.
According to *Rymer one of the play's morals was 'a warning to all good wives that they look well to their linen'. *Coleridge in a famous phrase described Iago's soliloquy at the end of I. iii as 'the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity'.