Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1734
The play opens in the middle of a conversation between Roderigo and Iago. Roderigo is upset with Iago. Iago has withheld information from Roderigo (specifically that Othello and Desdemona have married), despite the fact that Roderigo feels that they are close friends, so much so that Roderigo has given Iago gifts of money on several occasions. Iago defends himself, saying that he has just learned of this information. Roderigo accuses Iago of not hating “him” (him refers to Othello, although this is revealed later), and Iago details why he does, indeed, hate Othello.
Othello has recently promoted a Florentine named Michael Cassio to the rank of lieutenant, even though Iago feels he himself is a better man for the job. Even though Iago has proven his mettle in several battles, he is only Othello’s flag bearer. Having provided reason for hating the general, Iago tells Roderigo that by serving under Othello, he can take advantage of him. Many servants, he tells Roderigo, spend their lives serving one master, only to grow old and be fired without a penny to their names. Others, by pretending to be devoted, can save enough money to become their own masters. Iago claims to be this type of person—one who is good at hiding who he truly is.
They visit Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, in an attempt to turn Desdemona’s family against Othello. Outside of Brabantio’s house, Iago yells that he is being plundered by thieves. Brabantio, roused from his sleep, comes to check on the commotion, and Iago tells him that he has been robbed of his daughter and that Othello, “an old black ram,” has taken her away. Brabantio recognizes Roderigo and reminds Roderigo that Desdemona does not want to marry him. Brabantio then asks the two to leave.
Iago and Roderigo claim that they have come in good will to warn him that Othello and Desdemona have eloped. Eventually, Roderigo asks Brabantio to check Desdemona’s bed as proof that she is missing. Brabantio complies, and Iago leaves, claiming that he must maintain the appearance of loyalty to Othello. After Iago leaves, Brabantio reappears, claiming that Desdemona is, in fact, missing. He asks if she and Othello are already married, and Roderigo affirms this. Brabantio suspects that Othello must have used some sort of witchcraft to woo her. Roderigo asks Brabantio to gather a group of armed men to apprehend Othello, and they leave.
Scene 2 opens with Othello and Iago speaking. Iago relays the previous events to Othello, but painting himself as a hero. He says that he considered murdering Brabantio for all of the slanderous things he said about Othello. He then asks if Othello’s marriage to Desdemona is “secure,” because he predicts that Brabantio will attempt to annul the marriage and perhaps retaliate against Othello through other legal means. Othello is confident that his service to Venice will keep Brabantio from exercising too much power. Additionally, Othello notes that he is from Moorish nobility, on par with Desdemona’s noble family, and that he loves Desdemona deeply.
At that moment, several men with torches appear. Iago tells Othello to go inside because it is likely Brabantio, but it is Cassio with a group of officers. Cassio explains that the Duke of Venice would like to see Othello; a number of warships have sent messages from Cyprus, an island currently under Venetian control. A group of senators have already assembled a council with the Duke, and they are waiting for Othello.
Though Othello is ready to go, Brabantio, Roderigo, and a troupe of others arrive with torches. Brabantio accuses Othello of thievery, and both sides draw their swords. Othello tells everyone to stand down, and Brabantio accuses him of enchanting his daughter. Othello suggests that rather than fight, he would like the opportunity to respond to these accusations. Othello explains that he is on the way to the Duke’s council, and Brabantio, sensing that the Duke will side with his cause, goes with Othello to the council meeting.
The third act opens with the Duke and senators discussing how the reports from Cyprus have been inconsistent. Some say that about one hundred Turkish warships are approaching, whereas others say two hundred. Even so, the Duke and senators agree that this is cause for alarm. A messenger appears and tells the council that the Turks are headed for Rhodes. This news confuses the council, because Cyprus would be much easier to attack than Rhodes. Another messenger comes to tell them that the Turks have joined up with another fleet near Rhodes, have turned around, and are now approaching Cyprus. At that moment, Othello, Brabantio, and their followers enter.
The Duke begins to tell Othello about the Turks, but he notices Brabantio and greets him. Brabantio explains that he has come on personal business, as his daughter has been “abused, stol’n… and corrupted by spells and medicines.” The Duke states that whoever has seduced Desdemona will be severely punished. Brabantio accuses Othello, and while Othello claims that it is true that he has married Desdemona, he asks for a moment to speak of the love that they share. Brabantio states that a girl of Desdemona’s proper upbringing must have been drugged or enchanted, as there is no way she could love a Moor, but the Duke counters that such accusations need evidence. Othello asks for them to fetch Desdemona, and in the meantime, he tells the story of how they fell in love.
Othello explains that he has been a warrior from an early age. He would often visit Brabantio and speak about his history in Africa. Desdemona would also listen, and sometimes she would find Othello alone and ask for more details about his past. After many such encounters, they eventually professed their love for each other. Desdemona enters and corroborates Othello’s tale, telling Brabantio that she must be loyal to her husband.
Brabantio reluctantly blesses their marriage. The Duke tells Brabantio that a positive attitude is the best way to deal with loss, but Brabantio retorts that if this is the case, the Duke should be positive about losing Cyprus to the Turks. Brabantio asks that the Duke not waste his time on empty words. The Duke explains that Cyprus is under attack by the Turks and asks Othello to lead the defense. Othello agrees, and Desdemona insists on accompanying her husband to Cyprus. Othello leaves for Cyprus immediately and asks Iago to bring Desdemona in the morning. All exit except Roderigo and Iago.
Roderigo states that without love, he might as well kill himself, but Iago chides him and says that most men don’t know what real love is or how to love properly. Instead, Iago tells Roderigo to sell his lands and raise as much money as he can. Desdemona, he claims, will get tired of Othello, and when she does, Roderigo can be ready to claim her. Iago affirms that he hates Othello and thinks it will be fun to see Roderigo steal his wife. Before he leaves, Iago makes Roderigo promise that he won’t kill himself. After he leaves, Iago shares a brief soliloquy in which he reveals that he is trying to steal all of Roderigo’s money. He also reveals that he is going to convince Othello that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair.
From the beginning of the play, the theme of trust and deception appears, primarily centered in the character of Iago. He claims that “I am not what I am,” and at the end of the first act, he reveals that he is attempting to play all sides, profiting from anyone willing to trust him. Additionally, he makes no attempt to defend himself when Brabantio accuses him of being a villain. Instead, Iago simply responds with “you are a senator,” as though they are volleying a series of facts at one another. It becomes clear that Iago cannot be trusted, and yet he confides this to the audience of the play. In this way, there is a kind of bond made between the audience and the villain, as he allows them to be privy to his deception. Readers, in this way, have a kind of bird’s-eye view of the characters, and they are allowed to judge with full knowledge who is and is not trustworthy.
Similarly, in an instance of foreshadowing, Brabantio warns Othello that Desdemona is capable of deceit, as it was her deception that allowed her to marry Othello in the first place. Othello responds, “my life upon her faith,” cementing a trusting relationship. As his relationship and trust in her dwindles, it is the more objective view that the audience has been provided that makes Othello both a sympathetic and abominable character—and which ultimately paints “honest Iago” as one of the most conniving of Shakespeare’s villains.
We also see the issue of race appearing early in the play. The label “Moor,” as applied to Othello, signifies his Moorish origins in North Africa. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Othello is that of a noble, although readers do not see Othello before scene 2. In scene 1, readers only receive Roderigo’s, Iago’s, and Brabantio’s account of Othello, who is not actually even referred to by name in this scene. Roderigo calls Othello “the thick-lips,” and shortly thereafter, Iago refers to him as “an old black ram” who is making a “beast with two backs” with Desdemona. Iago tells Brabantio that if he has Black grandchildren, then "the devil will make a grandsire of you.” Further, Brabantio believes the only way his daughter could fall for a Moor is through drugging and witchcraft.
There is a clear suggestion that Blackness is considered undesirable in this world. While Othello is presented as an articulate, intelligent, and honorable man—a stark contrast to the way that he has been characterized in the first scene—the Duke’s statement about him is telling: “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.” Here, although the Duke’s appraisal of Othello is meant to be complimentary, Othello is virtuous and fair despite his Blackness. The suggestion is that Blackness and virtuousness are mutually exclusive qualities and that it is rare to find one who embodies both.