There are thirteen named characters in Othello, plus various other roles, such as senators and soldiers. However, you do not need to refer to many of these and, depending on your task, you might just focus on one or two characters. The starting point is to sort out who they are, how they develop and how they relate to each other.
We know that Othello is an important general. He is powerful and put in charge of Cyprus by the government. He issues orders to others and even when is preparing to take his own life Othello reminds us that he has played an important role for the state. However, he is also a 'Moor' - he is most probably from the north west of Africa. His actual ethnic origin is unclear but it is important that he is not white. It marks him out from the other characters, both as someone who is powerful but also as someone who is a stranger.
Othello is clearly in love in Desdemona, and she loves him too. Their marriage was secret, probably because Desdemona's father would not have approved of it. This is one way in which Othello is discriminated against - he is viewed as someone from another world, with different standards and who cannot be trusted. Othello perhaps takes a similar view of Desdemona - she is not from his world and soon he becomes insanely jealous of her.
This change, from a proud, calm and noble leader to a jealous, suspicious and tormented man, is a vital aspect of the play. Othello is powerful but he also has weaknesses - he trusts Iago, he trusts what he thinks he sees and he can be made jealous.
Knowing the facts about a character is only the start - we need to be able to use these effectively. One way to do this is to have details or quotes from the play to support our ideas. For instance:
|Othello is powerful||He is a general and is put in charge of Cyprus|
|He is calm and polite||He calls the senators 'noble' and 'masters'|
|He is an outsider||He is called 'The Moor'|
|He loves Desdemona||He calls her 'my soul's joy'|
|He is manipulated by Iago||He asks for and believes 'the proof' Iago gives|
|Othello is jealous||He calls Desdemona 'the fair devil'|
|Othello changes in the play||He was happy then talks of the 'curse of marriage'|
|He becomes unstable||He trembles at news of an affair between Cassio and his wife, then 'falls in a trance'|
|He regrets killing his wife||He asks to be 'roasted in sulphur' as punishment for killing her|
Iago is the other central figure in Othello. In fact he has the most lines of any character in the play and we can make the same sorts of points and evidence as we did for Othello.
|Iago is angry with Othello||Cassio has been promoted and Iago ignored|
|He plans against Othello||'I follow him to serve my turn upon him'|
|He is secretive||'I am not what I am'|
|He seems to hate women||He says they 'rise to play and go to bed to work'|
|He manipulates Othello||He tells Othello to 'forget' that Desdemona was a 'fair woman'|
|He lies||He invents a story about Cassio talking in his sleep|
|He is ruthless||He doesn't mind who is killed because 'Every way makes my gain'|
|He is cowardly||He doesn't fight fairly - he stabs Roderigo when he's injured and kills his wife 'from behind' then runs away|
There are a number of other characters you might want to look at and the following section gives a brief outline of their characters and relationships.
Desdemona is Othello's wife. She is young, beautiful and from a rich family. She has secretly married Othello and is faithful and obedient, but also strong. She defends herself against her father's accusations and shows that she is quick-witted. She is capable of persuading Othello and tries to have Cassio re-appointed. She remains obedient to the end, and blames herself for her death rather than blaming Othello.
Roderigo is young, rich and in love with Desdemona. He tried to propose to her before she married Othello and he still hopes she will run away with him. He still sends her presents via Iago (of course, Iago is so dishonest he doesn't pass these on). Roderigo is naïve and easily manipulated into agreeing to kill Cassio, but when he fails, Iago kills him.
Emilia is Iago's wife and Desdemona's attendant. She is loyal to Desdemona and is friendly and helpful. However, she is not very close to her husband and has a low opinion of men in general. At the end of the play she insists on telling everyone what her husband did, and so is killed by him.
Cassio is a young soldier. He has been promoted by Othello and is very friendly with him. He is also on good terms with Desdemona. He is inexperienced in fighting and in life, so Iago can get him drunk easily, and that leads to him being dismissed. Cassio stays completely loyal to Othello and at the end is put in charge of Iago's punishment.