What is the dramatic importance of Act 1, Scene iii in Shakespeare's Othello?
The scene commences with the Duke of Venice discussing serious military matters with two senators. There is much urgency in their talk since they have been informed of a threat to Cyprus, a property of Venice, by a Turkish fleet that seems intent on invading the island. Reports about the size of this fleet are unclear because various reports provide conflicting information.
The sense of urgency and danger is heightened by the arrival of a sailor who cries out loudly to draw attention. He informs the gathering that reports indicate the Turkish fleet assembled close to Rhodes, which is well-defended. The duke and senators surmise the Turks' strategy is to distract attention from their actual goal -- to attack Cyprus. A messenger confirms their reasoning but informs them the fleet of thirty sails was steering its way to join another fleet in Rhodes. The messenger then says the fleet was making an obvious journey toward Cyprus. The duke then seeks to send a very urgent message to Marcus Luccicos, who is in Florence. We can assume he is an important military strategist whose advice will be needed to fend off the Turks.
At this point, Brabantio, Othello, Iago, Roderigo, and some officers enter. The duke greets Othello by stating that his services are immediately required in Cyprus. He then greets Brabantio, who informs him of a most vile crime that has been committed against his daughter Desdemona. Brabantio says Desdemona has been abducted and abused by someone who used witchcraft and potions to drug her. Upon further inquiry, the duke accuses Othello because Iago and Roderigo convinced him that Othello committed this crime.
The drama revolves around Othello, who must defend himself against such a terrible accusation. When he addresses those gathered, Othello speaks about his soldiership and the fact that he is not good with words. He acknowledges his elopement with Desdemona, but provides reasons for his actions:
Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver
Of my whole course of love; what drugs, what charms,
What conjuration and what mighty magic,
For such proceeding I am charged withal,
I won his daughter.
Brabantio insists that Othello drugged his daughter because he believes Desdemona, as a humble and morally upright person, would not willingly submit to Othello. The duke tells Brabantio that making such accusations is not enough proof, whilst a senator asks Othello to defend himself by explaining how he won Desdemona's affection.
Othello requests that Desdemona be summoned so she can speak in the presence of her father. Furthermore, he states that all his titles can be removed and he can be executed if Desdemona should speak ill of him. The duke then sends for Desdemona. Othello asks Iago to accompany the officers because he knows where Desdemona can be found.
Othello then proceeds to explain how he and Desdemona became so attached. He was a regular guest in Brabantio's house, where he relayed his history to his host. Desdemona eavesdropped on this conversation and was enthralled by Othello's dramatic tales. She later asked Othello to repeat his stories to her alone, which he did. Othello said it was then that Desdemona fell in love with him, because:
She loved me for the dangers I had pass'd,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have used:
Here comes the lady; let her witness it.
When Desdemona arrives, she vouches for Othello's claims. In the process, she tells her father:
My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty:
To you I am bound for life and education;
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you; you are the lord of duty;
I am hitherto your daughter: but here's my husband,
And so much duty as my mother show'd
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.
Desdemona's loyalty to Othello is evident here. She clearly states that, just as her mother had been more dutiful to her husband Brabantio than she was dutiful to her father, Desdemona was showing the same preference for her husband, Othello. Brabantio is devastated by Desdemona's honesty and feels betrayed. He bitterly accepts what she has said and tells the duke that he is done.
The duke advises Brabantio not to be overcome by grief over what has transpired since it will not profit him. The utterly distraught Brabantio, who, in his accusation against the Moor, and his belief in Iago and Roderigo's lies, has shown his prejudice and racism, asks the duke to continue discussing affairs of state. At this point, Othello asks that accommodation be provided for Desdemona when he leaves for Cyprus. When the duke recommends her father's place, the embittered Brabantio rejects her outright and refuses to provide her with lodging.
Desdemona declares she will not reside at her father's home because she would continuously face his resentful stares. She asks permission to accompany Othello. Othello promises Desdemona's presence will not distract him from his duties. The duke says Othello must leave at nine the next morning because the matter in Cyprus needs urgent intervention, and says he will decide whether Desdemona can go to Cyprus soon. Until a decision is made, Othello elects to leave Desdemona in Iago's care.
Brabantio tells Othello:
Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father, and may thee.
These words inadvertently plant a pernicious seed in Othello's mind which will later fester and grow into an insidious and destructive force.
The scene ends with Iago and Roderigo plotting Roderigo's journey to Cyprus in disguise. When Roderigo leaves, the malevolent ancient exclaims that he has formulated a malicious plot that will bring about chaos and death:
I have't. It is engender'd. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light.
This scene foreshadows the terrible events which are to follow later. The disruption and threat of the Turks become symbols of the perfidy and malice Iago plans to spread.