Analysis: Act I, scenes i–ii
The action of the first scene heightens the audience’s anticipation of Othello’s first appearance. We learn Iago’s name in the second line of the play and Roderigo’s soon afterward, but Othello is not once mentioned by his name. Rather, he is ambiguously referred to as “he” and “him.” He is also called “the Moor” (I.i.57), “the thick-lips” (I.i.66), and “a Barbary horse” (I.i.113)—all names signifying that he is dark-skinned.
Iago plays on the senator’s fears, making him imagine a barbarous and threatening Moor, or native of Africa, whose bestial sexual appetite has turned him into a thief and a rapist. Knowing nothing of Othello, one would expect that the audience, too, would be seduced by Iago’s portrait of the general, but several factors keep us from believing him. In the first place, Roderigo is clearly a pathetic and jealous character. He adores Desdemona, but she has married Othello and seems unaware of Roderigo’s existence. Roderigo doesn’t even have the ability to woo Desdemona on his own: he has already appealed to Brabanzio for Desdemona’s hand, and when that fails, he turns to Iago for help. Rich and inexperienced, Roderigo naïvely gives his money to Iago in exchange for vague but unfulfilled promises of amorous success.
The fact that Iago immediately paints himself as the villain also prepares us to be sympathetic to Othello. Iago explains to Roderigo that he has no respect for Othello beyond what he has to show to further his own revenge: “I follow him to serve my turn upon him” (I.i.42). Iago explicitly delights in his villainy, always tipping the audience off about his plotting. In these first two scenes, Iago tells Roderigo to shout beneath Brabanzio’s window and predicts exactly what will happen when they do so. Once Brabanzio has been roused, Iago also tells Roderigo where he can meet Othello. Because of the dramatic irony Iago establishes, the audience is forced into a position of feeling intimately connected with Iago’s villainy.
In many ways, Iago is the driving force behind the plot, a playwright of sorts whose machinations inspire the action of the play. His self-conscious falseness is highly theatrical, calculated to shock the audience. Iago is a classic two-faced villain, a type of character known in Shakespeare’s time as a “Machiavel”—a villain who, adhering all too literally to the teachings of the political philosopher Machiavelli, lets nothing stand in his way in his quest for power. He is also reminiscent of the stock character of Vice from medieval morality plays, who also announces to the audience his diabolical schemes.
After having been prepared for a passionate and possibly violent personage in Othello, the quiet calm of Othello’s character—his dismissal of Roderigo’s alleged insult and his skillful avoidance of conflict—is surprising. In fact, far from presenting Othello as a savage barbarian, Shakespeare implicitly compares him to Christ. The moment when Brabanzio and his men arrive with swords and torches, tipped off to Othello’s whereabouts by Othello’s disloyal friend, vividly echoes John 18:1–11. In that Gospel, Christ and his followers are met by officers carrying swords and torches. The officers were informed of Christ’s whereabouts by Judas, who pretends to side with Christ in the ensuing confrontation. When Othello averts the violence that seems imminent with a single sentence, “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust ’em” (I.ii.60), he echoes Christ’s command to Peter, “Put up thy sword into the sheath” (John 18:11). However, whereas Christ’s calm restraint is due to his resigned acceptance of his fate, Othello’s is due to his sense of his own authority.
Brabanzio twice accuses Othello of using magic to seduce his daughter (in I.i.172–173 and I.ii.73–80), and he repeats the same charge a third time in front of the duke in Act I, scene iii. Even though Shakespeare’s audience would have considered elopement with a nobleman’s daughter to be a serious, possibly imprisonable offense, Brabanzio insists that he wants to arrest and prosecute Othello specifically for the crime of witchcraft, not for eloping with his daughter without his consent. Brabanzio’s racism is clear—he claims that he simply cannot believe that Desdemona would be attracted to the Moor unless her reason and senses were blinded. Yet, it is possible that Brabanzio is not being sincere. He may feel that he needs to accuse Othello of a crime more serious than elopement because he knows the duke will overlook Othello’s infraction otherwise.
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