Othello is a combination of greatness and weakness, in his own words, "honorable assassin." The general is in the Venetian defense forces and, although a foreigner from Africa, he won this place with his excellence in warfare. He has courage, intelligence, command skill, and respect for his troops. Under pressure, he utters an inspirational speech. When the colony near Cyprus threatens, the duke and the senate turn to the "brave" Othello to lead the defense.
After many years of warfare, Othello came to live in Venice, among the sophisticated people of the city. Senator Brabantio invited him to his home. He is blinded by a pleasant life, a learned conversation, a civilization. He appoints Cassio, eager for military knowledge, as his lieutenant. He suddenly sees opportunities for himself that he has never aspired to before.
Othello is an outsider who is intelligent and confident in military matters, but socially insecure. He leads an intense life, swaying between triumph and fear. He differs from those around him, because of his origins and his life history, but shares their values and patriotism. More importantly, he is visibly different because of his skin color, so even though he lives among other people, he is separated from them. Whenever they look at his black face, no matter how ingenious their general is, he knows the others are thinking, "Yes, but he's not really one of us." Shakespeare presents this fact in dialogue and also in the staging of the play: Othello is a black face among a sea of white faces, constantly called "Moor", a representative African, while others go by their personal names and see themselves as independent individuals. When other characters call him "black", they refer to his face, but also to the notion of the symbolism of color in Elizabethan morality: white signifies honor, and black evil; white is innocence, black is guilt.
Othello tells Desdemona his life story, and she sees him through his words. A life of early separation from home and family, accompanied by danger and adventure, maybe the life story of thousands of men at the age of becoming soldiers and ending at an early age as dead bodies in ditches, reckless, unpaid, and unmemorable. Othello's achievement is not so much in surviving this unpromising life, but in surviving it in such a spectacularly successful way, in the end, one of the most powerful men of the Venetian defense forces.
On the battlefield, Othello is skillful and victorious; but in other fields insecure (for example when Desdemona takes the lead and encourages him to tell his life story). Desdemona, like Othello, turns a secret marriage into a social success with her skillfully crafted defense.
Othello feels that his marriage is at the peak of his life. He wins in war and love, a hero in his greatest moment. Such a triumph, in tragedy, cannot last.
Othello, however, is aware of the uncertain nature of success and happiness. "But I do love thee! and when I love thee not, Chaos is come again." These are the words of a man who knows chaos and believes that love saved him from himself. The love he feels brings order, peace and happiness to his mental world, which would otherwise fall back into chaos. He grew up in slavery, danger and despair, now as a professional soldier he lives among the chaos on the battlefield, but he should no longer have it in his inner being because he has love. Chaos is the old concept of Hell, where everything suffers terribly, and Desdemona is the angel who saved Othello with his love.
When confronted with the perspective of managing love and marriage, Othello's inexperience undermines his self-confidence. Iago can easily make Othello jealous and think that Desdemona loves another man because she already feels that her love for him is too good to be true. Othello sees Cassio as a man with a position that Desdemona wants to marry and, therefore, as a man she would turn to if she stopped loving her husband. In a way, he is waiting for that to happen - for Desdemona to realize that she was wrong when she married him.
Othello's insecurities are so close to the surface that a few of Iago's words and hints can tear apart his confident exterior and expose his fears, desires, and propensity for violence. Othello cannot bear the uncertainty; it forces him to destroy his reason. However, once he makes a decision, he is again a soldier, determined to act. Iago just has to push Othello into believing that Desdemona betrayed him.
Fate is cruel to Othello and, like ancient Greek tragedies and Greek heroes, Othello can face this fate only with the best part of his humanity. In his last speeches, Othello again shows a flash of his former greatness: his military glory, his loyalty to Venice, the intensity of his love and his terrible realization that by killing Desdemona he destroyed the best in himself. No man has complete control over his life, but man can judge himself, execute, and die with his love.
Desdemona is full of spirit and intelligence. According to all the claims in the military stories of some other characters, Desdemona is the most direct and sincere speaker in the present. Her speeches are not as long as others, but her every word has an echo.
For Desdemona, Othello is the hero of many exciting and dangerous adventures, who also has the appeal of an orphan child in need of love. Add to that the fact that he is now an honorable and powerful man in his own country, what young woman would not find him attractive? As Brabantio says, "I think this story would win over my daughter too."
In Cyprus, in charge of her household, Desdemona continues to fulfill her duties, receiving applicants as the wife of the commander and being a hostess at official receptions. Her marriage brought her position and happiness, so much so that it was unbearable for her to think that her husband had turned against her. This stiffness lasts until he sees that he actually intends to kill her; when she tells him a brave defense insisting on her innocence. In despair that he has lost his love, she continues to defend him from the consequences of his actions, but he sees nothing clearly: that she is fully committed to her love for him and that she cannot live without his love.
Shakespeare presents Iago as a collection of unsolvable riddles. Every sentence Iago says is a cause for concern. He claims a reputation for honesty and open speech but invents complex lies to exploit and manipulate other people. He treats others as fools and has no time for tender feelings, and yet he is a married man and probably loves his wife. He doesn't care about anyone, and yet he dedicates his entire life to revenge, not omission. He believes in cheating and lying for his own gain, but Shakespeare puts some of the most beautiful words in Iago's mouth.
Iago has a reputation as an honest, reliable man of direct speech. Othello and the others in the play constantly call him "honest Iago". He rose through the ranks in the army with merits and achievements, and Othello, whose military verdict was excellent, took another as his captain because of his qualities. In it, Shakespeare shows us a character who works against his reputation. It is possible that Iago was always a villain and a sorcerer who created a false reputation for honesty. Alternatively, he may be a man who has been honest in the past but has chosen to give up this virtue.
Shakespeare built his character from an idea that already exists in the theatrical culture of his time: the devil in religious morality, which evolved into a villain in Elizabethan drama and tragedy. Iago says "I'm not what I am", which can be interpreted as "I'm not what I look like". But it is also reminiscent of a quote from the Bible that Shakespeare might know: when God gives his laws to Moses on Mount Sinai, and Moses asks God what his name is. God answers, "I am what I am." If "I am what I am" means God, then Iago's self-description of "I am not what I am" is the direct opposite. Iago is the opposite of God, i.e. he is the devil.
In this play, Iago has the qualities of the devil in medieval and renaissance moral games: he is a liar, he tells imaginative stories to manipulate people and lead them to destruction, and he sees the greatest vulnerabilities of others and uses them to destroy them. Iago does all this not for any good reason, but out of love for evil.
Iago is surrounded by bitter irony: he is not what he seems, people rely on him many times, and he betrays them. He loves when others unconsciously work to serve his goals. But because of all this, as his conspiracy against Othello begins to unravel, he loses control of it and has to take risks to prevent it from collapsing.
Iago is a man with an obsession for control and power over others who have allowed that obsession to take over his entire life. Necessity forces him to do things he might not have done - in order to destroy Othello, he must also destroy Roderigo, Emilia, Desdemona, and finally himself. The only man who survived Iago's assassination attempt is Cassio, the only main character left at the end of the play.
Emilia is Iago's wife, and Desdemona's maid, a woman of practical intelligence and emotional resilience. She follows her husband's ex officio, but during the play, she develops a strong devotion to Desdemona and eventually renounces Iago's lies in defense of Desdemona's reputation. She speaks contemptuously of men, but, until the last scene, she supports her husband when necessary. When he finally sees the truth, Emilia abandons all devotion to Iago and verbally attacks him for being the villain he is. In response, he silences her by killing her. She believes that most men are stupid, vicious or sick, and nothing she experiences during the show refutes her assessment.