Detailed Summary of Othello, Act 5, Scene 1

Page Index:

Enter Iago and Roderigo:
It's a dark night and we see Iago telling Roderigo, "Here, stand behind this bulk; straight will he come. / Wear thy good rapier bare, and put it home" (5.1.1-2). A "bulk" is the projecting wall of a shop stall. Roderigo is supposed to hide behind the bulk, his sword out, then jump out and stab Cassio before he knows what's happening. Iago urges Roderigo to hurry and to keep his courage up. He also promises to be at Roderigo's elbow, but he stands aside to observe.

Roderigo, as he waits for Cassio, talks to himself: "I have no great devotion to the deed; / And yet he [Iago] hath given me satisfying reasons: / 'Tis but a man gone. Forth, my sword: he dies" (5.1.8-10). Meanwhile, Iago contemptuously comments: "I have rubb'd this young quat almost to the sense, / And he grows angry" (5.1.11-12). A "quat" is a pimple or pustule, and to rub it "to the sense," is to rub it raw. It would seem that Roderigo the pimple is hardly the man to trust with the job of killing a soldier, but Iago hasn't thought everything through very clearly. He says, "Now, whether he kill Cassio, / Or Cassio him, or each do kill the other, / Every way makes my gain" (5.1.12-14). If Roderigo lives, Iago says, he'll want those jewels that were supposed to be given to Desdemona, and if Cassio lives, "He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly; and, besides, the Moor / May unfold me to him" (5.1.19-21). In other words, Iago is just plain jealous of Cassio, and if Othello should happen to confront Cassio about the things that Iago has said, Cassio's side of the story could cast serious doubt on Iago's truthfulness. We can see that Iago needs to have both Cassio and Roderigo dead, but Iago doesn't have a plan to make that happen. In this scene he's not much of a criminal genius.

Enter Cassio:
Cassio appears and Roderigo makes a thrust, but cuts only Cassio's coat. Roderigo isn't so lucky; Cassio draws his sword and wounds Roderigo so badly that he cries out, "O, I am slain!" (5.1.26). At this moment Iago is behind Cassio, but he doesn't have enough courage, or presence of mind, or whatever it takes to do what he needs to do. He swings his sword at Cassio, cutting his leg, then runs away.

Enter Othello:
As Iago is running away from the carnage he has caused, both Roderigo and Cassio are crying out in pain. Now Othello appears in the dark and identifies Cassio by his voice, saying, "The voice of Cassio: Iago keeps his word" (5.1.28). Believing that Cassio is dead, Othello praises Iago and promises Desdemona (who is at home in bed) that "Thy bed, lust-stain'd, shall with lust's blood be spotted" (5.1.36).

Exit Othello. Enter Lodovico and Gratiano:
Othello is so intent on killing Desdemona that he leaves before he hears Cassio cry out, "What, ho! no watch? no passage? murder! murder!" (5.1.37). Cassio wants help, and he is hoping that the night watchmen (the "watch") or passers-by ("passage") will come to his aid. Two passers-by, Lodovico and Gratiano, have heard him, but they also hear Roderigo, and they are afraid to follow the voices into the dark. Lodovico thinks some thugs might be trying to lure them into danger, and he advises Gratiano, "let's think't unsafe / To come in to the cry without more help" (5.1.43-44).

As Lodovico and Gratiano are trying to decide what to do, Iago reappears, and Gratiano says, "Here's one comes in his shirt, with light and weapons" (5.1.46). In Shakespeare's time a "shirt" was an undergarment, worn under a waistcoat (a kind of vest) and a doublet (a tight-fitting jacket). Iago has taken the time to remove some clothes, so that it will look like he was in bed when he heard noises and hurried out to investigate. In the dark, Iago doesn't recognize Lodovico and Gratiano, but they recognize him, perhaps his "light" (probably a lantern) shines on his face. Therefore Lodovico and Gratiano are witnesses, and Iago has to be careful.

Iago goes to Cassio, who tells him that he has been set upon by villains, and that he thinks that "one of them is hereabout, / And cannot make away" (5.1.56-57). Cassio is referring to Roderigo, whom he has severely wounded. Iago calls out to Lodovico and Gratiano, "What are you there? come in, and give some help" (5.1.59). By this we know that Lodovico and Gratiano are still at some distance from Cassio, and further from Roderigo, who makes the mistake of calling out for help. Iago answers Roderigo's appeal by rushing over to him, shouting "O murderous slave! O villain!" (5.1.61), and killing him. Roderigo ends his life saying, "O damn'd Iago! O inhuman dog!" (5.1.62).

(Why didn't Iago kill Cassio, too? Probably because the witnesses, Lodovico and Gratiano, are closer to Cassio than to Roderigo. Also Cassio, even though he is crippled by his wound, would have put up more resistance than Roderigo.)

Enter Bianca:
After finishing off Roderigo, Iago makes a show of looking for more villains and calling out for help. Then he asks Lodovico and Gratiano who they are. Lodovico identifies himself, and they begin to tend to Cassio's wound. Just then, Bianca having heard all the noise, enters, asking "What is the matter, ho? who is't that cried?" (5.1.74). Iago sees an opportunity to divert attention from himself by casting suspicion on Bianca, so he echoes her words, "Who is't that cried?" (5.1.75), as though she is the one who knows perfectly well what's going on.

Seeing Cassio, and seeing that he is hurt, Bianca cries out, "O my dear Cassio! my sweet Cassio! O Cassio, / Cassio, Cassio!" (5.1.76-77). As she tries to comfort Cassio, Iago tends to his business. He binds Cassio's wound, calls for a chair (the kind that is carried as we carry a stretcher), pretends to be surprised that Roderigo is the dead villain, and twice more tries to throw suspicion on Bianca.

Enter Emilia:
When the help that Iago called for arrives, Cassio and the body of Roderigo are taken away. Just then Emilia enters, asking "Alas, what's the matter? what's the matter, husband?" (5.1.111). Iago explains, of course without mentioning that he caused it all, then again tries to pin everything on Bianca. He tells Emilia to go find out where Cassio had supper, then asks Bianca, "What, do you shake at that?" (5.1.118). Bianca, however, isn't buffaloed and answers, "He supp'd at my house; but I therefore shake not" (5.1.119). And when Emilia calls her a "strumpet," she replies that she's just as honest as Emilia and Iago. Nevertheless, she has to go with Iago to answer questions.

Iago sends Emilia to deliver the news to Othello and Desdemona. (Just as though he doesn't know that Desdemona might already be dead.) He tells Lodovico and Gratiano that they will all go to visit Cassio while his wound is attended to. Lodovico and Gratiano leave, and Iago pauses for a final thought: "This is the night / That either makes me or fordoes me quite" (5.1.128-129). He means that, depending on how things turn out this night, he will either be set for life, or his life will be ruined.

His statement creates a sense of crisis as we approach the last scene of the play, but it also shows that he is not a criminal genius. With Cassio alive and Desdemona about to die there are many questions to be answered and problems to be solved before Iago can be set for life. Bianca certainly isn't going to take the blame for the attack on Cassio, and the truth about that could come out. Othello is going to want to know why Cassio isn't dead. Many are going to want to know why Desdemona is dead. All along, Iago has made up his schemes as he has gone along. Now his lack of long-range planning is about to do him in.