Act 5, scene 1 of Othello is filled with action-packed chaos controlled by master manipulator Iago. Its tone, pace, language, and plot/action all culminate in a pivotal episode displaying Iago’s machinations; his schemes drive the play to its tragic ending, all while temporarily concealing his true deceit. This scene begins one night as Iago and Roderigo wait outside of Bianca’s home in order to ambush Cassio and kill him. Shakespeare sets a foreboding tone as the audience and characters await their attack on unsuspecting Cassio. The scene’s tone is one of anticipation, anxiety, violence, and even comedy (albeit black comedy as multiple characters appear and disappear or fall down injured).
The characters’ many entrances and exits break up act 5, scene 1 into shorter segments, dividing it into quick episodes and creating a fast pace. In rapid succession, the following action occurs: Iago and Roderigo wait; Iago steps aside; Cassio enters and is attacked by Roderigo; Cassio wounds Roderigo; Iago stabs Cassio in the leg and exits; Othello enters to praise Iago and then exits to kill Desdemona; Lodovico and Gratiano enter but see nothing in the dark night; Iago re-enters with a light, frames Roderigo for stabbing Cassio, and quickly kills Roderigo before he can be exposed; Bianca enters and is implicated by Iago; injured Cassio and dead Roderigo are carried off; Emilia enters, believes Iago, and curses Bianca; Iago sends Emilia to Othello, has Bianca arrested, and—after everyone exits—closes the scene alone with
This is the night
That either makes me or fordoes me quite.
This scene’s almost frenetic pace belies the smooth calmness with which Iago choreographs all actions and subterfuge.
All of the characters speak in tense, quick, and short lines. The only exceptions are Othello when he praises Iago and, most importantly, Iago when he reveals to the audience his thoughts and plotting. For example, early in the scene Iago admits that no matter who is killed—Roderigo or Cassio—any outcome is a win for him.
I have rubb'd this young quat almost to the sense,
And he grows angry. Now, whether he kill Cassio,
Or Cassio him, or each do kill the other,
Every way makes my gain
Iago also delivers short but multi-line speeches to other characters to explain (erroneously) what is happening. Later, he tells Lodovico and Gratiano
Gentlemen all, I do suspect this trash
To be a party in this injury.
Patience awhile, good Cassio. Come, come;
Lend me a light. Know we this face or no?
Alas my friend and my dear countryman
Roderigo! no:—yes, sure: O heaven! Roderigo.
Iago accuses Bianca of participating in the plot to kill Cassio and then feigns surprise and horror that the slain “villain” who attacked Cassio is none other than his “friend” Roderigo.
Act 5, scene 1 contains not only abundant physical action but also mental, emotional, and social action engineered by Iago. Iago manipulates jealous Roderigo to attack Cassio, alters their fight’s outcome by surreptitiously stabbing Cassio, secretly kills Roderigo to silence him and pass him off as the villain, and entangles Bianca in his scheme. Iago’s machinations also influence innocent bystanders (Lodovico, Gratiano, and Emilia) into believing his version of the scene’s physical events.