Examine the presentation of Othello in Act One
Othello is a play showing the disintegration of the mind of the main character, Othello - Examine the presentation of Othello in Act One introduction. From being a trustworthy, sensible, calm and collected soldier, Othello becomes convinced his wife, Desdemona, is having an affair, all through the words and actions of Iago. Iago is a scheming, two-faced liar who cleverly twists what others say so that Othello will believe something which is not true. When Othello was first performed, in the Elizabethan times, it proved very controversial to the opinions and beliefs of the Elizabethans in the way that Shakespeare presented Othello, who has dark skin or, as the Elizabethans would say, is a ‘moor.’
The term moor could have been applied to Africans, Indians, or purely those from North Africa so it is difficult to pinpoint Othello’s origin. The Elizabethans believed that moors in general were not as civilised as themselves, even monstrous, and Shakespeare uses these views when he presents Othello through other characters at the beginning of Act One, even though Othello is not at all like this.
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The play begins with Iago, and his ‘friend’ Roderigo talking about Othello. Roderigo is silly and impressionable and is in love with Desdemona, and has just received news that Othello has married Desdemona. The play begins half way through their conversation, immediately grasping the audiences attention who want to find out what they have been and are talking about. After a few lines Iago is already criticising Michael Cassio, suggesting early on that Iago is one to be suspicious of. ‘Without practise is all his soldiership’ says Iago about Cassio, because he is cross that Cassio has been chosen as Othello’s officer instead of him. We learn that Othello is black and that he is an important officer. Iago’s next speech also makes him appear slightly untrustworthy, as he says ‘I follow him to serve my turn upon him’ ie he is only following Othello so he can turn upon him later.
He also says ‘I am not what I am,’ reinforcing the fact that he may be untrustworthy, and suggesting that he may be two-faced, which we later discover he is. From the conversation between Iago and Roderigo, and even more so when Brabantio enters, we get the impression that Othello is an untrustworthy, irrational and not particularly liked. However the fact that Iago appears to be sly and cunning means that the audience feel that perhaps his view cannot be trusted. It is Iago who turns Othello into the person he becomes by Act Five, and learning early on that Iago is untrustworthy and deceitful makes the play more interesting.
Once we meet Othello in Act One we realise he is not the man that Roderigo and Iago have described him as. However, throughout the remainder of the rest of the play Othello descends into many of the things Iago and Roderigo describe him as; he becomes irrational, untrustworthy where Desdemona is concerned and wild, all because of the words and actions of Iago. Iago causes Othello to think that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Othello’s speeches in Act One are rational, calm and well-spoken, but by Act Four he has descended into broken and fragmented speeches. For example, his long speech in Act One Scene Three is well-structured and organised:
‘She [Desdemona] loved me for the dangers I had past;
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This is the only witchcraft I have used:’
He successfully convinces the Duke and Senators that he has not bewitched Desdemona, whereas in Act Five Scene Two, when he speaks with Emilia after killing Desdemona his speech is fragmented and difficult to understand:
‘I think she stirs again- no- What’s best to do?
If she come in, she’ll sure speak to my wife:
My wife! My wife! What wife! I have no wife.
O, insupportable! O heavy hour!’
Othello can no longer think rationally or calmly. When speaking with Desdemona in Act Five he begins to speak in the same way as Iago- never quite getting to the point so to build up suspense, which Iago constantly uses. For example, in Act Fours Scene One, Iago speaks in very fragmented sentences such as ‘Faith, that he did- I know not what he did.’ This allows Othello’s paranoid mind to get to work and hype up the facts without Iago actually saying them.
Othello uses this style of speech when he is accusing Desdemona of having an affair with Cassio in Act Five: ‘He hath confest…’ At this point he pauses, allowing Desdemona to worry further about what she is being accused of, and question him. It also means that Othello himself becomes more worried as his mind races over the situation- something which Iago has changed in him to Iago’s advantage. Although Othello is not quite as sly as Iago, his speech is nearing the same style, making it clear his character has completely changed because Iago has such an effect in him.
Each of the people that berate Othello- Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio- each have a personal reason to criticise and jeer at Othello. Iago is angry that Othello has not chosen him as his officer, Roderigo is jealous that Othello has Desdemona’s love, and Brabantio is furious that he has married his daughter. This means that what they’re saying is of course biased, and not a fair judgement of Othello: the way that other characters describe Othello in Act One is very important throughout the remainder of the play. The way that Roderigo, Brabantio and Iago talk about him means that he has the audiences sympathy and added interest when he enters and proves them wrong In scene three Brabantio accuses Othello of marrying Desdemona by putting her under a spell in court:
‘She is abused, stolen from me, and corrupted
By spells and medicines.’
The Duke is at first, keen to punish the man, beginning threateningly: “Whoe’er he be that hath beguiled you daughter…”. But then, when he hears it is Othello, he changes his mind and says “To vouch this, is no proof.” The Duke and Senators think that Othello is wonderful because he is going to defeat the Turks, and do not say a word against him. While Brabantio is biased against Othello, the Duke and Senators are biased for Othello because they need him to fight in the battle and so they are not going to put him in jail or punish him. Othello says that Brabantio often invited him over,
‘Still question’d me the story of my life
From year to year- the battles, sieges, fortunes
That I have passed’
Othello claims this is how he met Desdemona who enjoyed the stories, and we have no reason to doubt him. But, much as he likes Othello, Brabantio does not want his daughter married to a black person, reminding us of the status of black people in those days. If it was the Dukes own daughter he would probably react differently, for it was one thing to befriend a ‘moor’ and another to marry them.
Although in Act One Othello demonstrates he is not as Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio describe him, would the Elizabethans really have changed their views of ‘moors’ during the play? They would have agreed with Iago and Roderigo at first, however the fact that Othello was an honest, collected person unlike the descriptions of him in the first scene might have made them like him even more. But perhaps the fact that Othello murders Desdemona at the end of the play would just confirm their views of ‘moors’. Many of them would probably have sympathised with Brabantio for they themselves would have disliked their daughters to marry a black person.
This may have led to them disliking Othello- but of course they would have reacted in different ways to the play. The fact that Elizabethans would have agreed with Iago at first and then been surprised at what Othello was actually like would probably have made the play more interesting to watch for them. The controversy surrounding it does not exist today, and the mystery of what black people were like was an added interest to the play.
The way Othello is presented to us, the audience, in Act One is very important in relation to the rest of the play. Othello’s death does not really affect anyone much for Desdemona is already dead, and so without the interest about how other characters see Othello the play would not be as exciting. The fact that he becomes near to what he was described as at first is a clever twist that Shakespeare has used- he descends into an irrational and jealous creature which Iago indicates, when with Roderigo, that he might be, and what the Elizabethans thought that ‘moors’ were like.
The way that Othello descends into a completely different person means that the opinions of the Elizabethans may have been justified- Othello does turn out to be a bit monstrous as some Elizabethans considered black people. Othello’s presentation of himself and by other characters makes the play much more entertaining and enjoyable, even today, because it highlights the prejudices that existed when the play was written.