Act I, scene i: Venice. A street.
Othello begins in the city of Venice, at night; Roderigo is having a discussion with Iago, who is bitter about being passed up for a military post. Though Iago is seasoned in battle, Cassio, a man of strategy but little practical experience, was named Othello's lieutenant. Iago says that he only serves Othello to further himself, and makes shows of his allegiance only for his own gain; he is playing false, and admits that his nature is not at all what it seems. Iago is aware that Desdemona, the daughter of Brabantio, a Venetian nobleman of some stature, has run off with Othello, the black warrior of the Moors. Brabantio knows nothing of this coupling; Iago decides to enlist Roderigo, who lusts after Desdemona, to awaken Brabantio with screams that his daughter is gone.
At first, Brabantio dismisses these cries in the dark; but when he realizes his daughter is not at home, he gives the news some credence. Though Roderigo speaks to Brabantio, Iago is there too, hidden, yelling unsavory things about Othello and his intentions toward Desdemona. Brabantio panics, and calls for a search party to find Desdemona. Iago leaves, not wanting anyone to find out that he betrayed his own leader.
The relationship between Roderigo and Iago is obviously somewhat close. Iago "hast had [Roderigo's] purse as if the strings were thine"; the metaphor shows how much trust Roderigo has in Iago, and also how he uses Iago as a confidante (I.i.2-3). Does Iago share the same kind of feeling? As far as Roderigo knows, Iago is his friend, but Iago reveals his manipulative nature in this first scene.
Iago trusts Roderigo with the knowledge that he serves Othello only to achieve his own goals. It is thus ironic that after Iago's lengthy confession of duplicity, Roderigo still does not suspect anything untoward in his request. Appearance vs. reality is a crucial theme in Iago's story; throughout the play, he enacts a series of roles, from advisor to confidante, and appears to be helping people though he is only acting out of his twisted self-interest.
Iago seems to do a great deal of character analysis and exposition for the audience. "These fellows" that flatter for their own purposes "have some soul," Iago says (I.i.54). Contrary to his underhanded self-flattery, Iago seems to have no soul; he never repents, never lets up with his schemes, and never seems to tire of the damage he causes. His statement, "In following [Othello] I follow but myself" emphasizes that he is acting completely out of his own self-interest (I.i.58). Iago will thus hide his motivations and convey only falsehood. If he were to "wear [his] heart upon [his] sleeve", he would be torn apart (I.i.64). Honesty would destroy him.
Even when he is at his most honest, in this scene with Roderigo, Iago misrepresents just how evil he truly is. Iago parallels another Shakespearean character, Richard III, in his self-awareness of his villainous character, and lack of remorse and use of false representations. In this first scene, Iago has foreshadowed the great deceptions that he will engineer.
Already, the racial issues and themes at the core of Othello are beginning to surface. When Roderigo refers to Othello, he calls him "the thicklips", using a synecdoche that highlights only Othello's foreignness and belies Roderigo's distrust of Othello based solely on his color (I.i.66). Roderigo and Iago are not the only characters to display racism when referring to Othello; racism is a pervasive theme within the work, one that is evident even from the first scene of the play.
Another element that surfaces repeatedly in the play is the use of animal imagery; "an old black ram is topping your white ewe," Iago yells to Brabantio from the street (I.i.88-9). Animal imagery is used to convey immorality, or, here, a bestial desire or illicit passion. Iago later compares Othello to a "Barbary horse" coupling with Desdemona, reinforcing a lustful picture of Othello (I.i.111). Iago's statement is doubly potent, since it not only condemns Othello for his alleged lust, but also plays on Brabantio's misgivings about Othello's color, and outsider status. The juxtaposition of black and white, in connection with the animal imagery, is meant to make this image very repellent, and to inflame Brabantio to anger and action.
Iago especially mentions the devil many times in the text, beginning in the first scene. He implies Othello is devil-like, with his lust, indiscretion, and strangeness to Venice; the irony is that Iago is so quick to make others out to be evil, when it is he who is the center of blackness and foul deeds in the play. The devil often takes disguises, just as Iago does.
The setting of night is important to the play. Like in the first scene of Hamlet, the darkness introduces a eerie feel, and a certain disorder rules over the proceedings. With Brabantio's call for light, there is a corresponding call for some kind of order; darkness vs. light and order vs. disorder are important juxtapositions within the play. This theme will appear again at the end, as the play returns to darkness, and also to chaos.
Act I, scene ii: Another street.
Iago has now joined Othello, and has told him about Roderigo's betrayal of the news of his marriage to Brabantio. He tells Othello that Brabantio is upset, and will probably try to tear Desdemona from him. Cassio comes at last, as do Roderigo and Brabantio; Iago threatens Roderigo with violence, again making a false show of his loyalty to Othello. Brabantio is very angry, swearing that Othello must have bewitched his daughter, and that the state will not decide for him in this case. Othello says that the Duke must hear him and decide in his favor, or all is far from right in Venice.
Iago continues his deliberate misrepresentation, swearing to Othello that he could have killed Roderigo for his actions. Iago is a very skilled actor; he is able to successfully present a contrary appearance, and get away with it. Iago alludes to Janus, the two-faced god, in his conversation with Othello. Since Iago himself is two-faced, Janus seems to be a fitting figure for Iago to invoke.
Iago's duplicity is again exhibited in this scene as his tone swings from friendly to backbiting as soon as Othello steps away, and then back to friendliness when Othello returns. Whereas Iago pretended to be supportive of Othello's marriage to Desdemona, when Cassio enters, he uses a rather uncomplimentary metaphor to describe the coupling. "He tonight hath boarded a land carack," Iago tells Cassio; his diction and choice of metaphor make Othello into some kind of pirate, stealing Desdemona's love, while reducing Desdemona into a mere prize (I.ii.50). But, this tone is carefully calculated; Iago will soon want Cassio to think of Desdemona as an object to be taken, and to believe Othello to be less honorable than he is.
Othello's pride first becomes visible here; he is exceptionally proud of his achievements and his public stature, and pride is an overarching theme of Othello's story. He is also proud of Desdemona's affection for him, which leads him to overstate their bond; he would not give her up "for the seas' worth," (l.ii.28). Othello is very confident in his position, and in the respect he commands; if the leaders of the city decide to deny a worthy man like him his marriage to Desdemona, then he believes "bondslaves and pagans shall our statesmen be" (I.ii.99). This statement illustrates Othello's faith in the state and in the Duke's regard for him.
Again, the issue of race comes to the fore, as Brabantio confronts Othello about his marriage to Desdemona. Desdemona never would have "run from her guardage to the sooty bosom of a thing such as thou," Brabantio says (l.ii.70-71). Brabantio assumes that Desdemona must have been "enchanted" to marry Othello because she could not desire a Moor. Brabantio ignores all of Othello's good qualities, allowing only for his prejudice to influence his judgment. Magic is another recurring theme, and here it is linked to stereotypes of Africans as purveyors of black arts or paganism.
During the time period when Othello was written, there were in fact free blacks in England, however, racism was even more pronounced in Shakespeare's England than it is in the play. A person like Othello could not have risen to such ranks in England at the time. Othello manages to avoid stereotyping more effectively than other Shakespearean characters, like Shylock, who represents the anti-Semitic views of his time. Though Othello is constantly confronted by stereotypes, he manages to evade them through his nobility and individuality.
Act I, scene iii: A council-chamber.
It is reported that Turkish ships are heading towards Cyprus to challenge the Venetian stronghold of the island. Defensive actions will be necessary. Brabantio and Othello meet with the senators who are discussing the battle, and Brabantio announces his grievance against Othello for marrying his daughter.
Othello addresses the company, admitting that he did marry Desdemona, but wooed her with stories and not witchcraft. Desdemona comes to speak, and she confirms Othello's words; Brabantio's grievance is denied, and Desdemona will indeed stay with Othello. Othello is called away to Cyprus and he begs that Desdemona be able to go with him, since they have been married for so little time. Othello and Desdemona win their appeal, and Desdemona is to stay with Iago, until she can come to Cyprus and meet Othello there.
Jealous Roderigo is upset that Desdemona and Othello's union is allowed to stand. But Iago assures him that the match will not last long, and at any time, Desdemona could come rushing to him. Iago wants to break up the couple, using Roderigo as his pawn.
Brabantio again accuses Othello of bewitching his daughter, and airs his racially-charged grievances. He believes nature has made some mistake. Brabantio likens his grief to a flood that "engluts and swallows other sorrows, and is still itself" (I.iii.57-58). His strong objection foreshadows a confrontation between him and his daughter, and if Desdemona does choose to stay with Othello, it seems likely she will risk her father's love.
Othello's appointment to Cyprus marks the true beginning of his tragedy; for, when he is away from Venice, a place of familiarity, order, and law, Othello will be much more vulnerable to Iago's vicious attacks. This battle between order and chaos is a theme running throughout the play, and as Othello sinks deeper into distrust of Desdemona and is consumed by his jealousy, chaos increases and threatens to devour him.
The Duke's words of advice to Othello and Desdemona foretell trouble between the couple if they do not let grievances go, which indeed contributes to Othello's fall. Here, the change of the verse into couplets signals the importance of the advice being offered. The words of the Duke, and Brabantio's words that follow, are emphasized by this technique; the reader is notified, through the couplet rhyme, which hasn't appeared before in the text, that these are words that must be marked.
Although Othello pretends to be poorly spoken, the only magic he possesses is in his power of language. His language shows his pride in his achievements, and also allows him to make himself into a kind of hero. Othello portrays himself as a tested, honorable warrior, and indeed is such. However, this view of himself will prove troublesome when he is unable to acknowledge his jealousy and lust; his inability to reconcile himself with these two aspects of his personality means that his comeuppance is almost certain. Pride goes before his fall.
Othello's speech before the assembly shows what he believes Desdemona's love to be; he thinks that Desdemona's affection is a form of hero-worship, and she loves him for the stories he tells, and the things he has done. He believes it is his allusions to strange peoples and places, like the "Anthropophagi," that fascinate her, and this youthful fascination forms the core of her affections. Indeed, his powers of language successfully win the Duke over, and soften Brabantio's disapproval.
Light and dark are again juxtaposed in the Duke's declaration to Brabantio: "if virtue no delighted beauty lack, your son-in-law is far more fair than black" (I.iii.290-291). Here, black is associated with ugliness, sin, and darkness, and, by extension, blacks are assumed to embody these traits. The Duke plays down Othello's race, saying he is more "fair" - light or just - than "black". This does not mean the Duke is forward-thinking, only that he can vouch for Othello, who does not seem to have the characteristics of his race. It's a backhanded compliment. Light/white/fairness all convey innocence, goodness, etc.; any symbol that is white has these qualities. The juxtaposition of black and white, light and dark shows up again and again in the play, as the colors become symbolic within the story.
Because Iago is a very good judge of human nature, he is able to manipulate others with ease - and, this cleverness also means that he is a source of wisdom in the play, no matter how wickedly he chooses to use this knowledge. Iago tells Roderigo, "Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners" (I.iii.322-323). Iago knows one can choose to cultivate vice or virtue. Othello, Roderigo, and Cassio do have vices that they allow to grow in themselves, but they also have aspects of themselves which balance these vices out. Iago's knowledge of this allows him to do away with this balance and set chaos into motion, which leads to tragedy.
Here, Iago's purpose becomes plain; he sees that Othello and Desdemona's marriage is less than solid, and seeks to use his powers to break this marriage apart. Iago is again "honest" about his intent, but only to a person whose involvement will help him greatly. The words "honest" and "honesty" appear repeatedly in the play, used primarily by Iago, or in reference to him; ironically, Iago is the only person in the play whom Othello trusts to judge who is and is not honest, and the only one whose integrity is not questioned until it is too late.
Honesty becomes an important question, and theme, in the story; characters repeatedly ask themselves who is honest, who can be trusted, and Iago indeed plays on their honesty to make them believe falsely. The word "honest" is often used in an ironic context, or to indicate that someone or something cannot be trusted. Under Iago's influence, honesty becomes a difficult liability, and speeds the downfall of many good characters.