As the play’s title indicates, Othello is the protagonist. At the beginning of the play, Othello occupies a complex position within Venetian society. He is well-respected for his military valor, and when the Duke learns about the impending threat posed by the Ottoman fleet, he immediately turns to Othello for help, imploring “Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you” (1.3.). However, Othello’s race makes him a target of prejudice and distrust: when Roderigo complains that Othello has successfully wooed Desdemona, he refers to his rival as “thick-lips” (1.1.), mocking a facial feature stereotypically associated with people of color. Brabantio is so appalled to learn that his daughter has married Othello that he assumes she must have been bewitched, accusing Othello “damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her” (1.2.). Othello’s behavior throughout the play is influenced by the knowledge that many of the characters around him do not truly trust or accept him due to his racial difference; they tolerate his presence because he serves a purpose, but do not truly think of him as an equal.
Othello at first wants to simply live a contented life with his new bride; as he movingly tells Desdemona, “If it were now to die / ’Twere now to be most happy” (2.1.). However, due to Iago’s poisonous influence, Othello’s desires shift significantly over the play. He comes to desperately want certainty about whether or not Desdemona is faithful. Once he is convinced of Desdemona’s guilt, Othello’s desires shift to wanting revenge: “To furnish me with some swift means of death / For the fair devil”(3.3.). At the start of the play, Othello is a confident, self-assured man who is calm in a crisis and gracious to everyone around him; for example, he remains calm when Brabantio is rudely insulting him, and immediately accepts the Duke’s command that he go to Cypress to fight the Ottomans. By the end of the play, Othello is dangerously impulsive; once he has become convinced Desdemona is unfaithful, he vows that “thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust’s blood be spotted” (5.1.). Iago’s psychological torment has broken Othello to the point where he no longer knows what to believe, and cannot distinguish truth and lies.