Othello, Act 1


I’m struck first of all by the risk that Shakespeare took in beginning the characterization of Othello with so much negative discourse as we get from Iago and Roderigo, then from Brabantio, right up into the first third of scene 3. Othello does speak to Iago with some confidence of his personal claims in scene 2 — “My services, which I have done the signiory,/ Shall out-tongue his complaints” –  but he’s generally rather taciturn about his defense until he describes his wooing of Desdemona in scene 3. A contemporary audience’s expectations, whether they know the play well or not, go in a different direction; we know that Othello is the heroic center of the play, famous for being Black and noteworthy for achievement, and that Iago is a nasty piece of work.  But Elizabethans, late in Elizabeth’s reign, didn’t have the benefit of all that stage history, and there’s a good deal of emphasis on his being over-sexed, animalistic, and barbarian, as well as a practitioner of dark magic, right up to the end of the act. Shakespeare must have had a great deal of confidence in Richard Burbage to convey a dignified and powerful figure even in his low-key presence early in the play.

That line, “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them,” may signal the first indication of his strength and authority. It’s also the first indication of what G. Wilson Knight memorably called “the Othello music,” his use of a language that suggests something exotic and remote. Nothing exotic here, but the idea of Venetian fog being a danger to metal, itself dangerous, seems oddly imaginative. Othello’s language often contains strange words — anthropophagi, chrysolite, antres — that seem to suggest that it has been learned, and in being learned prizes the odd gem-like words or combinations of words that distinguish his speech. He claims “Rude am I in my speech,” but even at this moment the phrases are delicate and balanced in such a way that suggest a foreigner’s wonder at the acquired language. By contrast, Iago’s language seems quick and colloquial. We tend to associate him with phrases like “the beast with two backs” and “old black ram tupping your white ewe,” “gross clasps of a lascivious Moor,” and such-like.

A lot has been written about where exactly Othello is from, and a lot has depended, it seems, on how black he is. There’s enough in the play, I think, to suggest he has black African features as well as complexion. And this seems to affect the characters in the play in different ways. But it probably doesn’t finally make any difference. Shakespeare seems to have been at pains  to make Othello attractive and noble early in the plays, and what he becomes later is something we’ll grapple with.

In 1.3 the Venetian council seem basically sympathetic to Othello and inclined to remonstrate with Brabantio. The Duke speaks in rhymed couplets at 1.3.203ff to try to reconcile Brabantio to the situation; rhymed couplets seem necessary for sententious wisdom. And Brabantio speaks rhymed couplets back to the Duke to express doubt.

Before this there’s an odd distraction in what the sailor brings in about the Turks, that they are changing course for Rhodes, but then supplemented by the messenger who says they are actually coming toward Cyprus. Does this mean anything?

Desdemona’s plea to go with Othello of course advances the plot, and the Duke doesn’t have any opinion of the matter. Brabantio’s parting advice/curse looms over the action.

What to make of the parting dialogue between Iago and Roderigo? Iago has a very “modern” mechanistic sense of human nature, rather like Edmund in King Lear, and easily manipulates Roderigo. His repeated “Put money in thy purse” seems strange, except that it’s what Iago is counting on. And its reductive (and repetitive) character leads us to a sense that everything can be reduced to the lowest level, that Roderigo’s ambitions and Iago’s motive of revenge are all that counts against the high-flown language and love between Othello and Desdemona. Iago’s stated suspicion that Othello has, between the sheets, done Iago’s “office,” must at this point seem entirely invented. This doesn’t seem Othello, as we’ve seen him, but does seem Iago.

Off to Cyprus and the molestation on the enchafed flood.


What strikes me is that from the beginning of Act 1 we learn of the central conflict in the play — Iago hates Othello —  and of Iago’s essential nature: “I follow but myself . . . I am not what I am.” There’s also irony here, since Roderigo doesn’t fully register what Iago has said or imagine that Iago might well be using him.

Since we know from the outset that Iago hates Othello, that Roderigo is a disappointed suitor, and that news of Othello’s marriage catches Brabantio unawares, do we credit what Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio say about Othello? I think Desdemona’s testimony leads us to discredit Othello’s enemies/rivals.

I like your idea that Othello is a Black African with African features, and that his English (or Italian, or whatever he is imagined to speak) is acquired, somewhat formal, and deliberate. He seems to take sober delight in speaking. As for the “Othello music,” did Iago perhaps give G. Wilson Knight the hint for that term, when he says in 2.1 that he will distort the music that Othello and Desdemona make?

The private business of Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio gets interrupted by the public business of the Turkish threat to Cyprus, so any plotting against Othello must be set aside while Othello is assigned the task of opposing the Turks. Everybody sails off to Cyprus, “a town of war.”

I am not sure what to make of the dialogue between Iago and Roderigo at the end of the act. The business about money and purses, which you flagged, comes up right away, at the beginning of 1.1.  When Roderigo says Iago has “had my purse,” is he speaking metaphorically? Does he just mean that Iago knows all Roderigo’s private concerns, or does he really mean that Iago has access to Roderigo’s money? Does “put money in thy purse” mean something figurative, e.g., pay attention to your own interests, or literal: be prepared to spend money in order to get what you want. I don’t think Iago is particularly interested in money.

His soliloquy — the first of many in the play — suggests that he does not have a plot fully worked out. He improvises as he goes, as things unfold. It’s as if he is thinking aloud.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell