Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’, believed to have been written in 1604, is one of his most popular plays, with a long and successful stage history and was one of the first plays to be performed after the theatres were reopened in 1660. As with all of Shakespeare’s other plays, he had various sources of inspiration and transformed them for his own dramatic purposes, ‘Othello’ being no exception.Whilst his concept of a heroic Moor as the protagonist of a tragedy was an unusual one, Shakespeare set about to explore and challenge the medieval stereotypes of the black man, where they were associated with the devil, lust, sin and death.
The plot of ‘Othello’, whilst inspired by, and closely aligned to, a series of short stories by the Italian writer Giambattista Cinzio Giraldi, ‘the Hecatommithi’, there are significant differences between this story and Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’.Othello’ differs from Shakespeare’s other great tragedies, ‘Macbeth’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Hamlet’, in several ways: the action is more concentrated in time, and after the first act (effectively a prologue) has a single location. ‘Othello’ has no secondary plot which, arguably, can lead to a unique emotional intensity in the play, but also gives problems to the actors in sustaining it. Though ‘Othello’ is certainly partly to blame, how much is a subject of critical debate, the contribution of Iago to the tragedy is certainly greater than that of any other of Shakespeare’s tragic villains.
This play has a distinctive structure in terms of the five acts: the first act, set in Venice, serves as a prologue to the tragedy which follows, presenting Othello’s relationship with Desdemona, and indicating Iago’s malice, and general motivation. Time on stage is fairly close to “real” time, as the three scenes of the first act are more or less continuous, as for example, Brabantio’s conversation with Roderigo allows Iago to re-join Othello. Act I’s opening scene takes place at night, on a deserted street in Venice, with Iago and Roderigo deep in conversation.The opening of the play in mid-sentence was a common device used by Shakespeare to grab the audience’s attention and to allow them to work out what is going on, a device also used in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’.
With the play opening at night, in an unfamiliar setting, a mood of confusion and intrigue is established. What is noticeable is that it is hard for the audience to grasp what and who Iago and Roderigo are talking about because Othello is not referred to by name, however, although this is true, we quickly become aware of their dislike for the Moor.The audience senses that Roderigo is unhappy with Iago and we gradually discover that he feels he has been deceived, because the woman who he is in love with, Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian aristocrat, has married Othello, a Moor, when he had paid Iago to promote marriage between himself and Desdemona. The fact that the play opens with two characters engaged in disagreement, Roderigo being indignant that his money has been wasted by Iago, implies that from the start ‘Othello’, the scene is set for conflict.
This is one of the most assured openings, theatrically, of any of Shakespeare’s plays: we seem to be in the middle of an argument; Roderigo’s interest in Desdemona (for Iago merely a means to tap Roderigo for money, and make his “fool” into a “purse”) is dropped as soon as mentioned, while Iago describes Othello and Cassio; though clearly the speech of an embittered man, what Iago says, allowing for some bias, seems most plausible, especially his portrayal of the “arithmetician”; when we later find this speech to be inaccurate, we will begin to weigh Iago’s words more carefully.What one can establish from the first scene of Act I is that Iago is the malcontent figure, and as the audience can note his hatred for those who wear their hearts on their sleeves, and other “honest knaves” who are careless where their affairs are concerned. It clear that Iago admires men who are skilled in the art of exploitation and line their own pockets by pretending to be honest and trustworthy. Iago embodies this when he stresses that he only follows Othello to “serve my turn upon him” and is “not what I am”.
This line uttered by Iago has been the subject of much debate as it is not entirely clear as to what he means and so has been open to interpretation. One critic has suggested that it has Biblical undertones owing to God saying “I am what I am” and therefore Iago’s remark is the antithesis of this. Iago’s energetic speeches are full of arrogance, resentment and disgust. We learn of his delight in making trouble at his suggestion to Roderigo to rouse Brabantio, and whilst Roderigo is polite in speaking to the senator Brabantio, it is Iago’s crude insinuations of Othello “tupping your white ewe” that exemplify his character.
His use of animal imagery when speaking of Desdemona’s sexual union with Othello can be connected to his earlier sneer at Cassio as being “damned in a fair wife” and is also linked to his role as matchmaker for Roderigo. The idea of Iago being unable to understand love or loving relationships is established in the first scene and is developed later in the play. He is skilled in persuasion; he talks Roderigo out of his indignation easily, leading him by the nose throughout the opening scene of Act I and Iago is equally successful in alarming Brabantio.Act I Scene I establishes Iago as a manipulative figure who instigates chaos and also proves himself able of getting himself out of trouble.
Structurally, the brief reference to Roderigo’s “suit”, what he has asked Iago to do for him and is what is to help him win Desdemona’s love, leads to Iago’s description of Othello and his own disappointment regarding the lieutenancy; this leads to Iago’s praise of himself, followed by the rousing of Brabantio, when the two men reach the senator’s house.As we have yet to meet Othello and Cassio, we have, at this point, no reason to doubt that Iago’s comments on each are substantially true. Modern audiences may know that Iago is evil, but this would not have been so for the Jacobean audience. When we meet the characters Iago refers to, we may judge for ourselves.
Where language is concerned in Act I, Scene I, as the audience, we are impressed by the fluency and plausibility of Iago, and the venom of his insults, the eloquence of which contrasts with the stupidity of Roderigo’s calling Othello “the thick lips”.As Othello will originally have been played by a white actor, such detail must be given verbally, of course. Iago has not exhibited especial interest in Othello’s race in his speech to Roderigo (which seems to reflect his own concerns) but is well aware of Brabantio’s, Desdemona’s father, attitude to Othello’s colour, and makes much of the Moor’s physical size and Desdemona’s vulnerability, as he speaks of the “old black ram..
. tupping” Brabantio’s “white ewe”. It seems that Iago is crude here as a matter of policy.As we shall find, Iago has no consistent voice; in every situation he adopts the tone and manner which suit his purpose.
He switches readily from blank verse to prose; the latter gives the impression to others of the frankness of “honest” Iago, but he uses this typically when he is deceiving people. Iago’s “revenge” is insanely disproportionate but here and again in Act I, Scene III there is an attempt to justify it briefly, Othello has failed to reward Iago’s loyal service, has shown favouritism to a more elegant man, and has promoted a bookish Florentine over a practical and experienced Venetian.A second motive, less certain but perhaps as harmful to Iago’s standing in the barracks, is the rumour of his cuckolding by Othello, “it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets / He’s done my office. ” Act I Scene II also opens halfway through a conversation, again involving Iago, again with a sense of conflict.
Iago recounts the events of the previous scene to Othello, emphasising the insults spoken by Othello’s father-in-law Brabantio in reaction to his daughter’s sudden marriage.Hypocritically, Iago claims that he wishes to seek revenge for the insults delivered about Othello, however, Othello himself dismisses these concerns and is seemingly unperturbed by Iago’s claims. When Iago warns him of Brabantio’s popularity, Othello is unfazed, assured that his services to the state, his reputation and his royal breeding, “From men of royal siege”, will “speak unbonneted” for him, as will his deep love for Desdemona.Structurally, Act I Scene III readily divides into four parts; first we see the Duke and his senior officers in council, awaiting Othello’s arrival; this is followed by Brabantio’s accusation and Othello’s defence; Desdemona arrives later still (with Iago) to confirm Othello’s story and ask to accompany him to Cyprus; and finally Iago consoles the disappointed Roderigo.
In narrative terms this scene explains why Othello must go to Cyprus: the council’s convening at night indicates the urgency of the situation; though the reports are confused, their general sense is clear – an invasion fleet is heading for Cyprus.The scene also introduces an idea which is important throughout the play: Othello’s balancing of public duty and private concerns. That his wife may distract him from his work is obvious, but Othello is confident in assuring the senate this will not happen. The Duke cannot simply snub Brabantio, but his ignorance of the meeting shows him not to be important to Venetian foreign policy in the way that Othello is.
The Duke briefly hears the old senator’s complaint, but rules in favour of Othello (he seems sincere, but may be motivated more by a pragmatic awareness of Othello’s value and Brabantio’s irrelevance).This done, he is able to attend to the business in hand, and despatch Othello to his ship without delay. In turn Othello and Desdemona , publicly, but both are sincere, give the audience a clear idea of their character and purposes whilst Iago shows more of his spite and gives hints of his line of attack on Othello and Cassio. The audience see him as he is, as usual, in soliloquy.
After the movement of the previous scene ,the abortive arrest of Othello, this scene is more formal and static. The great number of persons present indicates the importance of the occasion and makes Brabantio’s exclusion all the more pointed.The Duke addresses Othello first, then excuses himself by claiming he “did not see” Brabantio. The frequent arrivals of message-bearers convey the sense of military crisis, as does the dropping of names of people and places such as Montano, who appears in Act II.
Brabantio’s indignant and implausible accusation of witchcraft contrasts with Othello’s composure: he waits to speak, he apologizes disingenuously for his lack of eloquence, before delivering a beautiful and moving account of his courtship.Desdemona speaks more briefly, but in a similar vein. Roderigo (whose presence is explained by his being with Brabantio’s arresting party) has seen and heard enough, and realizes his case is desperate: there is some humour in Iago’s success in dissuading him from giving up his hopes even while milking him for further funds. Othello’s integrity in persuading the council with truthful rhetoric is thus balanced, at the end of the scene, by the lying rhetoric of “honest” Iago.
The directness of the speakers who open Act I Scene III, and the brevity of their remarks, create a sense of bustle and some confusion, which they do well to sort out. This works excellently as a prelude first to the near-raving of Brabantio’s fantastic charge of witchcraft, another smear on Othello’s background, though the handkerchief he has given Desdemona is alleged to have magical properties, then to Othello’s moving account of himself, his courtship and Desdemona’s returning of his love.Notably, the speeches are longer, more stately and measured. When Iago speaks it is in prose: this informality is precisely one of the reasons why he is thought “honest” (his speech is not marked by the qualities of public rhetoric which Othello deals in, but he has his own tricks of persuasion, which are no less effective, not least because they pass unnoticed).We should note that when Iago is being genuinely honest (or as near as he ever comes to this), that is, with himself, the “honest” simplicity of prose is dropped: Iago’s pentameters are fluent, and sometimes vigorous, usually in the choice of insults, but show his obsession with himself, his enemies and his revenge: there is no trace here of the wonder and generosity which characterize Othello’s view of the world, and which we have admired earlier in this scene.