Plots and sub-plots

Main plot

Othello has two acting parts of similar leading stature – although the play is named after one protagonist, in fact the other (Iago) has more lines. Thus the ‘main plot’ is in fact the interweaving of their two narrative arcs.

The downfall of a hero

Othello starts the play as a noble and respected commander, wise and calm and happily married to a new bride. By the end of the drama he has lost his valour, reason, love and the respect of those around him, finally to lose his pitiable life.
A soldier all his life, Othello allows himself to fall into the snare of a malevolent fellow-soldier and become suspicious about the fidelity of his wife and a serving officer. Listening to no-one else’s opinion, his fervid imagination replaces calm assessment. Unable to bear the uncertainty and provided with circumstantial evidence, he temporarily loses his wits and then the man of action forgets patience and is persuaded towards a violent solution. He loses his sense of appropriate behaviour, striking and publically belittling his wife. Confident that he is acting from higher motives, he deliberately expels his tender feelings: he orders the death of his lieutenant, then murders his wife. At last his foolishness and violence is exposed, leading him to despair, physical timidity (compared to the past) and arrest. The great horizons of his life which so attracted Desdemona have shrunk to the point of the weapon by which he commits suicide.

Iago’s motivation

In Othello, the unpromoted ensign Iago plans revenge against both Othello (his commanding officer) and Cassio (the lieutenant promoted instead) but must do so secretly so as to keep his job. He takes the audience into his confidence so that they can experience the tension of seeing his plans work out. At first, Iago is unsure how to proceed but by Act 1 Scene 3 he has decided on his course of action:
Cassio’s a proper man. Let me see now,
To get his place, and to plume up my will
In double knavery – how, how? Let’s see.
After some time to abuse Othello’s ears
That he is too familiar with his wife;     
In Act 2 Scene 1, he states that he also wants to get even with Othello because he suspects that Othello has slept with Emilia, Iago’s wife (as even Cassio may have). As he humiliates and then usurps Cassio, Iago will meanwhile fool Othello into being grateful and appreciative: 
I’ll have our Michael Cassio on the hip,
Abuse him to the Moor in the rank garb - ..
Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me
For making him egregriously an ass, (Act 2 Scene 1)     

Iago’s technique

Iago adopts whichever persona suits each of his victims and lies to everyone. He manages everyone and hurries the plot along so that he can keep them from communicating directly with each other. 
He succeeds in making Othello believe that Cassio is a drunkard, that the lieutenant and Desdemona are lovers, and in making the Venetian nobles believe that Othello has uncontrollable fits of anger. By the end of Act 3 Scene 3 he has secured Othello’s determination to kill both Desdemona and Cassio. This proves Iago’s undoing as the murder of Desdemona provokes his wife Emilia to speak the truth and expose Iago’s treachery. Thus Iago suffers the fate of the unmasked criminal who will suffer untold tortures as his punishment. Ironically, Iago’s rival Cassio survives to become the next governor of Cyprus. Iago’s plot is thus only partially fulfilled, though it has brought about near universal misery.

The sub-plots: Roderigo’s quest

The vain suitor

Roderigo is desperate to win Desdemona’s love but has been rejected as a suitor by both her and her father. Aiming to make money out of the situation, Iago convinces him that the way to her heart is by sending her regular gifts of money, passed to her through Iago. Even though Desdemona has married Othello, Roderigo is persuaded that he can still win her. Iago convinces him that she only wanted Othello for her bodily lusts and will soon tire of him:
She must change for youth. When she is sated with his body, she will find the error of her choice. Therefore put money in your purse. (Act 1 Scene 3)
When they all arrive in Cyprus, Iago makes the outrageous suggestion that Desdemona has already tired of Othello, but fallen in love with Cassio. Iago suggests there is hope for Roderigo as Desdemona clearly has a strong sexual appetite, which will be flattered by more gifts from Roderigo. Giving yet more money to Iago, Roderigo is persuaded to hasten his possession of Desdemona by murdering Cassio: 
If thou the next night following enjoy not Desdemona, take me from this world with treachery, and devise engines for my life. …knocking out his brains. (Act 4 Scene 2)     
When Roderigo fails and only wounds Cassio, he no longer serves Iago’s plans so Iago kills the defrauded fool, blaming him for Cassio’s wound. However, Roderigo’s death is not instant and he is finally able to provide evidence which implicates Iago, leading to his punishment.

Dramatic function

This sub-plot provides some light relief as the fool Roderigo never evokes much sympathy from the audience, due to his ridiculous gullibility, vanity and weak will. Indeed, the audience might almost feel complicit in Iago’s duping of him. However, the subplot echoes the more tragic deaths of the main plot by demonstrating the dreadful consequences of Iago’s machinations. 

The sub-plots: Cassio, the gallant

Cassio’s relationships

Cassio is adept at the sophisticated repartee expected of officers in female company. He almost idolises Desdemona, who comes from his social circle, and might hope to marry someone like her in the future, as befits his social standing. Meanwhile however, he satisfies his desires for sex and female affection by an occasional relationship with a good time girl called Bianca. His habitual courtesy wins her true affections, even though she is realistic that he may not be serious. 

Dramatic function

Structurally, this sub-plot is used by Iago to support his manipulation of Othello, as when Othello observes Cassio’s casual attitude to Bianca (thinking he refers to Desdemona) and apparent ownership of the handkerchief. Then, when Bianca appears just after Cassio is injured, this allows Iago to blame her for the attack, thus avoiding suspicion himself. 

Thematic function

Casio and Bianca’s relationship also serves as a counterpoint to the grand passion of Othello for Desdemona and the bitter, loveless marriage of Iago and Emilia:
  • All three women are let down by their partners
  • Bianca’s genuine concern for Cassio reflects Desdemona’s true love
  • Her realism echoes Emilia’s clear-eyed awareness of male faithlessness, though not Emilia’s cynicism
  • Her jealousy causes her distress and anger as Othello’s does.
However, compared to the other, more emotionally charged, relationships in the play, Cassio and Bianca are more accepting and forgiving and, whilst not romantic, do demonstrate genuine concern for one another. They represent a more worldly, attainable kind of happiness with which the audience can identify.
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