Act II, scene i: A Sea-port in Cyprus. An open place near the quay.
A terrible storm has struck Cyprus, just as the Turks were about to approach. The Turkish attack may have been quelled, but it also bodes badly for Othello's ship. A messenger enters, and confirms that the Turkish fleet was broken apart by the storm, and that Cassio has arrived, though Othello is still at sea. They spot a ship coming forth; but Iago, Desdemona, and Emilia are on it, not Othello.
Cassio greets them all, especially praising Desdemona; somehow, Iago and Desdemona enter into an argument about what women are, and Iago shows how little praise he believes women deserve. Othello arrives at last, and is very glad to see his wife arrived, much earlier than expected; he and Desdemona make public signs of their love, and then depart. Iago speaks to Roderigo, convincing him that Desdemona will stray from Othello, as she has already done with Cassio. He convinces Roderigo to attack Cassio that night, as he plans to visit mischief on both Othello and Cassio.
Storms are always of great significance in Shakespeare; here, the storm is a symbol of unrest and the discord to come. The storm marks the end of the peaceful part of the play, a signal that Iago's mischief is about to begin. The storm is also a great example of Shakespeare's deft use of language. The characters that comment on the storm are mariners, alluding to Ursa Minor and stars used for navigation; this is a testament to Shakespeare's ability to craft credible dialogue for a great diversity and range of characters.
Just as every character has their own manner of speech and expression, Cassio has a very polished, courtly way of speaking, especially of ladies. He describes Desdemona as one who "excels the quirks of blazoning pens"; he calls her "divine Desdemona," but at the same time, wishes Othello much joy of her (II.i.62, 72). As Iago learns that Cassio has no love for her, though much respect; so it is with much irony that Cassio is charged as being Desdemona's lover, when he is perhaps the only male figure in the play who has no feelings of passion for her. It is Cassio's courtly manner that makes him Othello's lieutenant; for Othello sees Cassio as a model Venetian, all poise and polish, which is something Othello wants to be, but thinks he is not. Othello's insecurities mean that Cassio is promoted over Iago, but also lead Othello to hold Cassio at a distance.
Though Iago is married, he does not have as favorable an impression of women as Cassio does. Women are "wildcats in your kitchens, saints in your injuries, devils being offended"; he even declares that they "rise to play, and go to bed to work" (II.i.110-114). Iago's perception of women as deceptive, dominating, and lusty colors the way he portrays both Emilia and Desdemona; both are good women, Desdemona exceedingly so, yet he is able to convince other men that they are anything but what they are.
"My invention comes from my pate as birdlime does from frieze," Iago says, though his analogy misrepresents his quick wit and subtle intelligence (II.i.125-126). Iago misrepresents himself throughout the play as honest, faithful, good-hearted, and here, as both foolish and jocular. But even as he minces words with Desdemona, he is observing her and Cassio, and plotting how to make a fictional affair between them look convincing. "With as little a web as this I will ensnare as great a fly as Cassio," he says; indeed, the simile speaks truly of his intent, and of his true powers of "invention" (II.i.168-169).
Misrepresentation is a theme that surfaces often through Iago's villainy; already, he makes Desdemona seem like a fickle, lusty woman, which he will soon try to convince Othello of. Iago's speech also plays on Othello's insecurities perfectly; he speaks of Othello's age, race, and manners as reasons why Desdemona will grow tired of him, which are also reasons why Othello fears he might lose her. Iago is a master of temptation; he is able to figure out exactly what people want, and then drive them to it, often by his mastery of speech. He is able to persuade Roderigo of Cassio and Desdemona's attachment by painting an innocent gesture as a sign of familiarity; yet, all the power that is in his words is in their interpretation, for Iago is also able to say everything and nothing at once, depending on the inclination of the hearer.
Though Iago seems grieved by Cassio's promotion over him, this does not seem to be his main, or only, motive. Iago mentions the promotion to Roderigo, to convince him that he hates Othello; but Iago also cites his suspicions that Emilia and Othello have had an affair as another reason for his enmity. But, at the same time, Iago is not a man to be consumed with sexual jealousy; though rumors about his wife may hurt his pride, they seem but an excuse for the misery he is about to cause. Iago's motives could be all of these reasons and more, or they could be none; indeed, Shakespeare leaves the root of Iago's malignancy unexplained, while showing the fruits of his evil in full.
Act II, scene ii: A street.
Othello's herald enters, to proclaim that the Turks are not going to attack. All should be joyful, and Othello is celebrating the happiness of his recent marriage.
Act II, scene iii: A hall in the castle.
Iago and Cassio are on the watch together; Iago gets Cassio to drink, knowing that he cannot hold his liquor. Iago also tries to coax Cassio's feelings about Desdemona, and make her seem tempting to him; but his intentions are innocent and friendly, so this approach fails. Cassio leaves, and Iago says that he intends to get Cassio drunk, which will hopefully cause a quarrel between Cassio and Roderigo, who has been stirred up against Cassio. Iago wants to see Cassio discredited, so that he may take Cassio's place as lieutenant.
Montano and others come, and Iago entertains them with small talk and song; soon, Cassio is drunk, and Roderigo has approached. Cassio fights offstage with Roderigo, and comes forth, chasing him; Montano tries to hinder Cassio, but Cassio just ends up injuring him. All the noise wakes Othello, who comes down to figure out what has happened. Montano tells what he knows, and Iago fills in the rest - making sure to fictionalize his part. Cassio is stripped of his rank, and all leave Cassio and Iago alone.
Cassio laments that he has lost his reputation, which is very dear to him. Iago tries to convince him that a reputation means little; and, if he talks to Desdemona, maybe he can get her to vouch for him with Othello. This will help Iago hint that Desdemona and Cassio are together, which will enrage Othello. Iago then gives a soliloquy about knowing that Desdemona will speak for Cassio, and that he will be able to turn that against them both.
"Honest" emerges as a key word in this scene, a constant reminder of the dramatic irony of Iago's dealings. None of the characters in the play have any idea of Iago's plans and evil intentions; Othello and Cassio are especially unaware of this knowledge. Yet, the audience knows exactly what Iago is up to, and is able to see his deceptions for what they are. Tension lies in whether or not Cassio and Othello will come to know as much as the audience does about Iago's deviance.
When Othello addresses his wife before a crowd in this scene, his words are all of a financial nature. His use of the terms "purchase" and "profit" make it seem like Othello is trying to make his diction suitable for the crowd listening to him, and his tone is also less personal and more declarative. Othello's self-consciousness is apparent in these words to Desdemona. It seems that Othello is more interested in keeping up appearances than in showing love for his wife; indeed, he does love her, but he seems unable to allow his love to inhabit a private, personal sphere, apart from his public life and image.
Iago begins his attempt to corrupt Cassio in this act, by trying to get him to admit to impure thoughts about Desdemona. He speaks of Desdemona as being "sport for Jove," and "full of game" (II.iii.17-19); his depiction of Desdemona rings false, as does his attempt to insinuate lust into Cassio's mind. Iago's tone is highly suggestive and even transparent, but once again, a character is blind to Iago's machinations.
Cassio's flawed honor and courtliness are juxtaposed in this scene with Iago's manipulativeness and deceptiveness. Cassio stands in especially sharp contrast to Iago when Iago speaks lustfully of Desdemona; Cassio is full of honor when it comes to women, and the ideals of a courtier as well. "He's a soldier fit to stand by Caesar," Iago acknowledges. (II.iii.122). However, Iago strikes gold when he figures out Cassio's weakness for drink; it is this flaw that makes Cassio finally seem human, and tarnishes his golden, polished image. "He'll be as full of quarrel and offense as my young mistress' dog" (II.iii.51-52). Iago understands that liquor can separate even the best man from himself, and do great damage to his reputation, as "His vice tis to his virtue an equinox, one as long as th' other" (II.iii.123-124).
Iago, much more than anyone else in the play, is always aware of what his status and his chances are; he is sharp enough to know when his plans are going to work, and when he needs to change his approach. "If consequence do but approve my dream, my boat sails freely, both with wind and stream" (II.iii.63-64). Perceptiveness is yet another motif in the play; it helps Iago do all of his dirty deeds, yet condemns Othello and Cassio when they cannot muster up enough of it to see that Iago is up to no good. Iago takes advantage of this flaw, and sets the quarrel in motion.
When Othello breaks up the quarrel, he asks, "are we turn'd Turks" (II.iii.170). Indeed the Turks are the enemy in Cyprus, but it is interesting that Othello uses language that conveys otherness. Much like the stereotypes that are hurled his way, Othello contrasts the "barbarous" behavior with the "Christian" brotherhood of the Venetians. His language dehumanizes the Turks and makes them seem animal, echoing Brabantio's dismissal of Othello in front of the Duke. This is a common tactic in times of war, to foment national pride while denigrating the enemy. However, this isn't war that Othello is in, and things are not as clear-cut in personal battles and politics. Othello considers all of his men in Cyprus to be friends, since they are allies; this is another example of Othello's confusion between the worldly and the personal spheres. Hence, Iago is again able to successfully misrepresent himself; this time, he pretends that he is there merely to settle the quarrel, when he is the engineer of the whole affair.
Cassio mourns the demise of his "reputation" above all else. Iago also knows the importance of reputation, which is why he makes sure that people see him as "honest" above anything else. "Reputation is a most idle and false imposition," Iago says; but this statement is a false consolation (II.iii.268-269). Cassio tries to find a villain in all that has happened; "invisible spirit of wine...let us call thee devil" (II.iii.282-283). Of course, he misses the identity of the real devil in the situation, Iago. Good vs. evil is a major theme in the play, though there is a great deal of gray area; though Iago is the villain, everyone else has some blemish on their natures which makes them easily corruptible, and not entirely deserving of the label "good".
The rest of Iago's plan at last falls into place after his discussion with Cassio. "I will turn her virtue into pitch," he says of Desdemona, hearkening back to the light/dark imagery earlier in the act. He will "out of her own goodness make the net that shall enmesh them all" (II.iii.361-363). Once again, Iago closes the act with a speech addressed to the audience; although Othello is the title character, and his dilemma is central to the play, Iago is even more central to the events of the play, and to the audience.