Othello Act I, Scenes 1-3 Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Act I, Scenes 1-3 Summary and Analysis

Act I, Scene 1
New Characters:

Iago: newly appointed ensign to Othello, Moor of Venice

Roderigo: gentleman, disappointed suitor to Desdemona

Brabantio: Venetian Senator, father to Desdemona

One night on a street in Venice, Iago discloses to Roderigo the nature of his hatred for Othello, the Moor of Venice. It seems that in spite of the petitions of three influential Venetians, Othello has by-passed Iago for promotion to lieutenant. Instead, he has chosen Michael Cassio, a Florentine, and has appointed Iago to the less important position of ensign. Iago then enlists the aid of Roderigo, a disappointed suitor to Desdemona, in waking Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, with the disturbing news that his household has been robbed. Roderigo then proceeds to inform Brabantio that Desdemona has eloped with Othello. Brabantio recognizes Roderigo as the suitor he forbade to come to his home. Iago interjects Roderigo’s information with images of animal lust and leaves telling Roderigo it would not be politic for him to stay, since he is officially Othello’s inferior in rank.

When Roderigo responds to Iago by saying, “Thou told’st me thou didst hold him in thy hate,” it is clear that Iago has previously mentioned his hatred for Othello. Consequently, Iago weaves an intricate plot to undo the Moor. What drives Iago throughout the play is a manipulative duplicity which is inherent in his nature. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called this aspect a “motiveless malignancy,” since as the play progresses, Iago seems to be motivated by his pure evil rather than by any external factor or reason he may give for his actions.

The first pawn he enlists in his plan is Roderigo, who had been previously denied courtship of Desdemona by Brabantio. Playing on Roderigo’s frustration, Iago gains his trust by telling him that he hates the Moor because Othello preferred to promote Michael Cassio as his honorable lieutenant.

We learn that in spite of the “personal suit” of three influential Venetians who interceded on Iago’s behalf, Othello chose “a great arithmetician / One Michael Cassio” as his lieutenant. The biting tone Iago uses to describe Cassio reflects the contempt he feels for him. Moreover, Iago feels that Othello, “loving his own pride and purposes,” chose to ignore the petitions of the noblemen and made his choice with “a bombast circumstance.” The implication here is that Othello did not make his decision on appropriate grounds. Consequently, throughout his speech to Roderigo, Iago reveals not only his hatred for Othello, but also for Cassio. Iago feels that he has been denied promotion to lieutenant by a man “that never did set a squadron in the field, / Nor division of a battle knows.” In addition, he ignores the fact that Othello chose Cassio precisely for this expertise as a tactical soldier and theorist. Iago’s contempt for Cassio is evident in the way he demeans Cassio’s abilities without recognizing that Othello’s choice for lieutenant did not necessarily depend on field experience. Iago offers his own experience in battle “At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds” as concrete evidence that he should have been chosen lieutenant. This same jealousy and hatred for Cassio lends credibility to Iago’s desire to include Cassio in the plan of destruction that emerges in the play.

Iago’s speech also reveals his contention that “preferment goes by letter and affection” rather than by ability. Using himself as an example of how the system works, Iago professes his belief about duty and service. He believes that “we cannot all be masters, nor all masters / Cannot be truly followed,” suggesting that Othello is not a master to be followed. In doing so, he begins to justify to himself all that he eventually does to undo the Moor. Iago reveals his contempt for what he sees as “many a duteous and knee-crooking knave” who spends his military career in service to an officer. Then, he indicates his...

(The entire section is 3,210 words.)