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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
ACT I, SCENE I
The opening scene introduces us to three of the play's major themes: 1) the contrast between appearance and reality; 2) society's treatment of the outsider; and 3) jealousy.
It's the middle of the night. Outside Brabantio's house an argument is taking place that's just a small sample of many tense confrontations to come.
The argument is between two young Venetians, Iago and Roderigo. For some time, Roderigo has been paying Iago for a peculiar service: Iago has promised that he would make sure that Roderigo would get Desdemona, a lovely young woman, for his own. Whether Iago has promised Roderigo marriage or just sex with Desdemona isn't clear. Whatever the actual bargain, though, it appears that Roderigo has been throwing away his money. Desdemona has eloped with Othello, a powerful Moorish general.
A Moor is a native of North Africa, part Berber, part Arab. Readers throughout the years have argued about Othello's skin tone-black or brown, light or dark-but what is important to the play is that he's a foreigner and a man of another race. Shakespeare's audiences would have looked on a Moor with suspicion, as do many of the characters in this play.
Iago swears to Roderigo that he knew nothing of Desdemona's marriage. And he may well be perturbed that he'll no longer get easy money from Roderigo. What kind of person is Iago that he makes such a deal with Roderigo? And what about Roderigo, who has to pay someone to help him win a woman's interest? Shakespeare has captured our interest in a very short time.
It's important to know early in the play that Iago isn't to be trusted. We must question everything he says to other characters. In this instance, we don't know for sure if he was unaware that Othello planned to marry Desdemona. He may be feigning surprise in order to fool Roderigo into believing he's on his side. When Iago is alone on stage, his soliloquies represent his true feelings. But when he speaks to someone else, he must always be suspected of dishonesty.
Iago tells Roderigo that he hates Othello. It's a statement we'll hear often from Iago, and here we learn one of his reasons-or at least the reason Iago is willing to admit. Othello has overlooked Iago for promotion to lieutenant, or second in command. (Iago is an ensign, the lowest rank of commissioned officer.)
If you've ever been passed over for a job or an honor you felt you deserved, you might have some sympathy with Iago at this point. He feels he's been loyal to Othello and fought by his side in battle; yet he's been ignored. Worse yet, he's lost the job to the Florentine Michael Cassio, who, Iago claims, has read about more battles than he's actually fought.
Is Iago justified in hating Othello? Is it ever right to fight one injustice with another? Whatever your answer, we'll see that Iago's wounded feelings are just the tip of the iceberg where his hatred of Othello is concerned; his motives are much more complicated than he allows Roderigo to know.
Roderigo says that if he were Iago, he'd simply leave Othello's service. Iago's reply tells us a great deal about his complex personality. He says he intends to stay with Othello, not out of loyalty, but in order to turn on him. Iago openly admits to being a hypocrite; in serving himself while he pretends to serve Othello, he is only following his true nature. Iago is loyal only to Iago.
Have you ever met anyone who lived only for his or her own needs? Iago's two-faced behavior is a recognizable human trait-we've probably all been hypocritical at times. But Iago is particularly interesting because he is proud of the false image he presents to the world. His line, "I am not what I am," is important because it is a short, dear statement of his personal philosophy. Iago isn't the type to wear his heart on his sleeve.
Why does Roderigo trust Iago after hearing him boast of this false image? We shall see that Iago is very good at gaining people's trust when he wants to. Also, Roderigo isn't very smart and sees in Iago his only hope to win Desdemona.
Instead of waiting until morning, or even knocking politely, Roderigo and Iago scream at the top of their lungs that thieves have invaded the house.
What do they hope to accomplish? Perhaps, since they're not sure that the wedding has taken place, they hope that Brabantio can stop the ceremony. Or maybe Iago is just interested in stirring up trouble for Othello.
Brabantio is, not surprisingly, angry at being awakened so rudely. His first response at seeing Roderigo is to think that the young man has come again to make a pest of himself over Desdemona.
Iago keeps out of sight, calling to Brabantio from the shadows. He makes sure that Brabantio doesn't see him. That way, he can't identify him later as Othello's enemy.
What a picture Iago paints as he shouts from his hiding place! He calls Othello "a black ram," "the devil," "a Barbary horse." By emphasizing Othello's strangeness, Iago hopes to arouse Brabantio's suspicion and fear.
And notice how Iago exploits Othello and Desdemona's sexual relationship. He uses images of a ram mounting a ewe, a horse fathering human children, and "a beast with two backs," a vivid picture of a couple having intercourse. Iago knows that a father is sensitive to thoughts of his daughter going to bed with someone. By painting a picture of the two as rutting animals, Iago knows how to strike a nerve.
While Iago slips away, Brabantio discovers that Desdemona is indeed gone, and he is devastated, nearly hysterical. Brabantio has been influenced by Iago's talk of barbarousness. He even tells Roderigo that he wishes he had married her. A few moments before Brabantio was accusing Roderigo of "malicious knavery". Now, in contrast to the "foreign devil," Roderigo seems the better choice!
Brabantio calls for weapons and the help of his neighbors in this crisis. Obviously Brabantio considers Othello a powerful opponent.
Shakespeare wastes no time in creating an atmosphere of excitement in this scene; mistrust, jealousy, deception, and sexuality hang thickly in the air. We have yet to meet Othello, but most of the scene is constructed to whet our appetite. Is Othello a hero? a crazed animal? a magician? What does Iago have up his sleeve, and will he succeed in carrying out his plan? After this scene, we can hardly wait to find out.
NOTE: Already Shakespeare has touched on his major themes:
Appearance and Reality
Shakespeare is fascinated by people who display one face in public and another in private. He often examines the impossibility of knowing if someone is lying or telling the truth. As an actor, he must have known how easily one can blur the line between appearance and reality. In Iago, he creates his most interesting and dramatic example of the person who hides his worst flaws behind a mask of sincerity and honesty. Iago's speech about deceiving Othello is the first of several situations where the issue is raised. The theme becomes increasingly important as the play continues.
Society's Treatment of the Outsider
Iago creates tension and fear in this scene by insisting that Othello isn't to be trusted because he is a foreigner. As a man from a different country and race, Othello is open to the hostility that many outsiders face, even today. As we shall see, Othello's role as an outsider will have a great deal to do with how he is treated and how he behaves.
It's important to know that Shakespeare's audience would have sympathized with these doubts about Othello. The play was first performed in 1604, and the war that serves as its background (between the Venetian and the Turks) took place in 1570. Most Elizabethans would have seen the characters in Othello as near contemporaries, and the treatment of foreigners as a modern problem.
Othello deals with other issues besides racial prejudice, but it is a theme that's especially important as you try to understand the Moor.
Iago's resentment of Cassio is the first reason we are given for Iago's behavior. Iago is jealous that this man has something he feels he himself deserves. Yet Iago has more than simple jealousy on his mind, and he's not the only character in the play to be infected by jealousy's sting. The intention of jealousy in the first scene tells us that it's crucial to the development of Shakespeare's scheme.