Act 1 analysis


William Shakespeare's Othello begins with a comprehensive view of the root of Iago's hatred, as well as the laying out of his grand plan to cause the destruction of the protagonist, Othello:

Othello: He has done my office: I know not if't be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. He holds me well;
The better shall my purpose work on him…

The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are.
I have't. It is engender'd. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light. (1.3.388-404)

In this passage, we see how Iago was able to take on the role of the “puppeteer,” which he does by playing on the other characters' weaknesses. With Othello's “free and open nature,” he was easily convinced that Iago was an ally (Iago: “he holds me well” 1.3.390) when in fact, he was getting his revenge against Othello for not appointing him as lieutenant (as on 1.1.11) and for “possibly” sleeping with his wife (as on 1.3.388-390).

Throughout the Act, we see the same technique being masterfully enforced to drive other people to share in his goal. It can be asserted that “asses,” as used on 1.1.402, can also refer to the other characters in the play. Roderigo's almost blinding longing for Desdemona, for example, was taken advantage of such that Iago was able to steal his possessions (originally meant for Desdemona). Brabantio, on the other hand, was easily influenced when Iago harped on his deep grief over the loss of his daughter to Othello. Both characters were made to believe that Iago took a back seat as a mere supporter of their motives against Othello when in fact, he is actually the one driving his fall. To emphasize on Iago's wickedness, the readers find out in the same Act that this is only the beginning of his manipulative ploys (Iago: “I have't. It is engender'd. Hell and night/Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light!” 1.3.403-404).

Aside from this passage, we also find several metaphors that illustrate the theme of the Act. There is Shakespeare's use of the “unowned purse” (Roderigo: “That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse/As if the strings were thine” from 1.1.2-3) which signifies Iago's total control of Roderigo. The readers find Roderigo getting better manoeuvred, as the play progresses. When he has already exhausted all his funds to make sure Desdemona falls for him, the readers see him going to the lengths of selling his land in 1.3.382.

Another metaphor found in this Act is the introduction of the puzzling Turks, as discussed in the earlier part of Scene II. The Duke of Venice and his advisors were trying to understand why the Turks would want to go for Rhodes instead of Cyprus when it was clearly the less intelligent option. The readers also witness the group having a hard time getting to know their enemies:

First Senator: Indeed, they are disproportion'd;
My letters say a hundred and seven galleys Duke : And mine, a hundred and forty. Second Senator: And mine, two hundred! (1.2.2-4)

This brief introduction to the Turks is a metaphor for Iago's motives and schemes. Like the Turks being able to fool the Venetians about their route, Iago led the people around him to believe that his intentions were pure. And similar to the advantage enjoyed by the Turks, Iago greatly benefited from the vagueness of his true identity.

Shakespeare also used magic as another metaphor in this Act. It was what Brabantio charged Othello with on Scenes II and III:

Brabantio: She is abus'd, stol'n from me, and corrupted
By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks;
For nature so preposterously to err,
Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense,
Sans witchcraft could not. (1.3.60-64)

This is a metaphor of how Iago plans to bring about the fall of Othello. The real magician, Iago, will use his charms and curses to corrupt the minds of the characters in order to get his way— the same way he did to Roderigo, Brabantio, and in the following Acts, the other characters.

It is very interesting how the novel takes the point of view of the villain and not the protagonist. The readers get to witness his mind at work and even if Iago's words are meant to deceive the other characters, the readers are fully aware of his real plans. Shakespeare makes sure of this through a soliloquy and through Iago's choice of words, which change depending on who he is addressing. Based on these, the readers find out the following things about Iago:

* He is deceptive/manipulative and sees kind-heartedness as a weakness

Iago: The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, 'tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am (1.1.62-65)

* He is driven by jealousy

Iago: As masterly as he: mere prattle, without practise,
Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had the election:
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be be-lee'd and calm'd
By debitor and creditor: this counter-caster,
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I--God bless the mark!--his Moorship's ancient (1.1.26-33)

* He is conceited

Iago:I know my price, I am worth no worse a place (1.1.11)

* He only thinks of himself

Iago: In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end (1.1.60)

· He's exploitative and thus, feeds on the weaknesses of others

Iago: He holds me well;
The better shall my purpose work on him (1.3.390-391)

This is in wide contrast to the character of Othello, who is described as having an ideal character. As a husband, he loves his wife sincerely. As a warrior, he is brave and honourable (Othello: “My parts, my title and my perfect soul/Shall manifest me rightly” 1.2.31-32). Though certain of a favourable outcome because of his excellence in war, we even see him preventing a swordfight between Cassio's and Brabantio's soldiers. This shows his prudence:

Othello: Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.
Good signior, you shall more command with years
Than with your weapons. (1.2.59-61)

At least in this Act, we see the strength of his character unfaltering. What may bring about his downfall is the ease by which he trusts others (Othello: “So please your grace, my ancient;/A man he is of honesty and trust./To his conveyance I assign my wife” 1.3.283-285).

The characters of the other people in the play were not as well-established as that of Othello and Iago in this Act. What the readers know about Roderigo is that he is rich and is deeply passionate about making Desdemona love him, which he does by wooing her with material presents. As for Brabantio, Shakespeare develops him as someone who deeply loves his daughter and wants the best future (in his view) for her. Brabantio also discriminates people based on race, which is why he was the first to introduce the possibility of Othello enchanting his daughter. Not enough from this Act can be established to describe Desdemona and Cassio, since most of their descriptions come from other people describing their physical appearances:

Iago: Cassio's a proper man: let me see now:

To get his place and to plume up my will

In double knavery — How, how? Let's see: —

After some time, to abuse Othello's ear

That he is too familiar with his wife.

He hath a person and a smooth dispose

To be suspected, framed to make women false. (1.3.392-398)

The readers also get to know about Cassio's inexperience in battle through Iago's discussion with Roderigo on Scene I.

There is an even stronger emphasis on the physical appearance of Desdemona, much of which will be described on the latter part of this analysis. Aside from these descriptions, though, we also get to know that unlike her father, Desdemona is more attracted to the valour of a person than his physical appearance (1.3.167 and 1.3.252-254). We also get to know about her deep love for Othello— enough for her to want to go with him in battle.

Throughout the Act, we find many recurring images, the most important of which is the sharp contrast between Othello and Desdemona. Othello has been described for his race as a “Moor” and we see that this is done in the derogatory sense, as it has been used in conjunction to thick lips (1.1.66), old black ram (1.2.88), and Barbary horse (1.1.111). His race and age were the reasons why it was easy for Brabantio to think that Othello stole Desdemona by means of enchantment (as on 1.1.171-174). On the other hand, Desdemona was consistently described as “tender” (1.2.66), “young maid” (1.3.112), “white ewe” (1.1.89), “fair lady” (1.3.125), “gentle” (1.2.25) and of good breeding (1.3.239). These directly opposing descriptions make for a suspicious coupling, which is why Brabantio was led to say:

Brabantio: If she in chains of magic were not bound,
Whether a maid so tender, fair and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunned
The wealthy curled darlings of our nation,
Would ever have, to incur a general mock,
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom
Of such a thing as thou — to fear, not to delight! (1.2.65-71)

Another recurring image is the use of the “purse,” where Roderigo puts jewellery for Desdemona to lure her into loving him (1.3.354-358). This symbol is very well emphasized on 1.3.339-353, though it has been mentioned since the introductory lines of Scene I. This purse is very symbolic of Iago's deception of the characters and thus, may also be the reason why it will also be present in the next Acts.

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