Detailed Summary of Othello, Act 1, Scene 2

Page Index:
Enter Othello, Iago, and Attendants with torches:
In this, the second scene of the play, we see Othello for the first time, and we see his grace under pressure.

Iago and Othello are in front of the inn where Othello and Desdemona are staying. (In the previous scene Iago told Roderigo it is the "Sagittary.") There are a few attendants with torches, indicating that it's later that same night. While pretending to warn Othello about Brabantio, Iago is doing his best to make Othello lose his self-control. Iago says, "I lack iniquity / Sometimes to do me service: nine or ten times / I had thought to have yerk'd him here under the ribs" (1.2.3-5). He's probably poking Othello in the ribs while he says that he just barely resisted the impulse to stab Brabantio. Of course he's lying. What he really wants is for Othello to feel the impulse to kill Brabantio. Because Brabantio is a senator, and the Senate employs Othello, any move Othello might make against Brabantio will get him into deep trouble.

Othello says it's a good thing that Iago didn't do anything, but Iago presses on, saying that Brabantio used "scurvy and provoking terms / Against your honour" (1.2.7-8). (If you go back to the previous scene, you will see that it was Iago who used the "scurvy and provoking terms"; Brabantio talked only of his daughter.) Then Iago reminds Othello that Brabantio is politically powerful. Othello, says Iago, needs to know that Brabantio will get the marriage annulled or create other legal problems.

For the moment, however, Iago's efforts to provoke Othello fail. Othello says that what he has done (as general of the Venetian army) for Venice will outweigh anything that Brabantio can say: "Let him do his spite: / My services which I have done the signiory / Shall out-tongue his complaints" (1.2.17-19). Othello is not only confident in his worth as a military man, he is also sure that he deserves Desdemona in every way. He says that though he hasn't bragged about it, "I fetch my life and being / From men of royal siege" (1.2.21-22). "Siege" means "seat," and Othello means that members of his family have sat on thrones. His family is just as good as Brabantio's and his own merits can speak on equal terms "to as proud a fortune / As this that I have reach'd" (1.2.23-24). And he loves Desdemona. For her he has given up some precious freedom. He says, "But that I love the gentle Desdemona, / I would not my unhoused free condition / Put into circumscription and confine / For the sea's worth" (1.2.25-28).

At this point, Cassio and some others appear. For a moment, the dark makes it impossible to make out anything but the torches that the men carry, but Iago says, "Those are the raised father and his friends: / You were best go in" (1.2.29-30). From Iago's point of view it would be good if Othello ran and hid like a guilty man. Better yet would be an angry confrontation with Brabantio, especially if the confrontation turned violent. Iago is probably using a little reverse psychology -- as he often does later in the play -- and calculates that telling Othello to hide is likely to have the opposite effect. About this, Iago is right; Othello is not about to hide. He says, "I must be found: / My parts, my title and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly" (1.2.30-32). This statement sums up what Othello has just been saying about himself. His "parts" are his merits, his worth; his "title" is his position as general of the Venetian army; his "perfect soul" is his clear conscience in his marriage to Desdemona. These will "manifest" him, show what he really is. He has no reason to hide.

Iago, however, was wrong about who is carrying the torches. It's Cassio and some of Othello's men, sent by the Venetian Senate, which is meeting with the Duke. There is a crisis in Cyprus, a Venetian outpost, and Othello is needed right away. In fact, there are three other messengers looking for him. Othello goes back into the inn for a moment, presumably to tell Desdemona where he is going. While he's gone, Cassio asks Iago what Othello is doing at the inn. Iago replies with a metaphor that suggests that Othello is a kind of pirate: "'Faith, he to-night hath boarded a land carack: / If it prove lawful prize, he's made for ever." (1.2.50-51). A "carack" is a wealthy trading ship, and a ship is a "prize" when it is boarded and taken by force. (However, this is the only time that anyone, even the lying Iago, suggests that Othello is interested in Desdemona's money.) Cassio doesn't understand the metaphor, and asks again, whereupon Iago tells him that Othello is married. Then, before Iago can name Desdemona, Othello comes out onto the street and starts off for the Senate.

Enter Brabantio, Roderigo, and Officers with torches and weapons:
Now comes the climatic confrontation of the scene. There are two groups of men with torches and weapons, one on Othello's side, and one on Brabantio's. Once more, Iago tries to spook Othello, saying, "It is Brabantio. General, be advised; / He comes to bad intent" (1.2.55-56). "Advised" means "on your guard," and Iago would like nothing better than to see Othello resist Brabantio with force of arms. Instead, Othello says to Brabantio's men, "Holla! stand there!" (1.2.56). "Stand there" is an order meaning "stop right where you are." On the other side, Brabantio gives an order, too, "Down with him, thief!" (1.2.57). He wants his men to rush Othello, but Othello is the better commander, and swords are drawn, but no one moves. Trying to get things stirred up, Iago leaps forward with his sword out, yelling, "You, Roderigo! come, sir, I am for you" (1.2.58). "I am for you" is Elizabethan slang that means what we now mean when we say "you want a piece of me?"

Iago is trying to instigate a brawl, but it doesn't happen because Othello says, "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). This is the kind of thing that many men fantasize about; with a few well-chosen words, the hero calms an angry crowd. "Keep up your bright swords" means "put your bright swords back in their sheaths," and "the dew will rust them" is a bit of gentle sarcasm. Othello is reminding the men he's facing that their swords will be quite useless. He and his men are soldiers. Brabantio's men are policemen and civilians. Also, Othello subtly tells Brabantio that he should remember that he's old; Othello respects his "years," not his "weapons."

Finding that his weapons won't do him any good, Brabantio vents his anger in words. He demands to know where Othello has hidden Desdemona, but doesn't give him a chance to answer. Instead, he accuses Othello of using magic on Desdemona. To Brabantio's way of thinking, that's the only thing that makes sense. She was innocent, happy, and so opposed to marriage that she "shunned / The wealthy curled darlings of our nation" (1.2.68). Brabantio is a little scornful of the "darlings," but to him it seems natural that Desdemona would be attracted to them. (After all, this is an age in which men wore lace and used curling irons on their long hair, so everyone thought an attractive man had the sort of juvenile sweetness that inspires American 13-year old girls to say "he's really, really, cute!") But it's unnatural, says Brabantio to Othello, for Desdemona to run from her home "to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou -- to fear, not to delight" (1.2.70-71). Therefore it's obvious to anyone in the world, plain to see, that Othello has used magic and drugs that cloud the mind. In Brabantio's words: "Judge me the world, if 'tis not gross in sense / That thou hast practised on her with foul charms, / Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals / That weaken motion" (1.2.72-75). Having made these charges, Brabantio tries to have Othello put under his arrest, and tells his followers to seize him.

Maybe one or two of Brabantio's men step forward as if to carry out the arrest, but Othello is still in control of the situation. He says, "Hold your hands, / Both you of my inclining, and the rest: / Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it / Without a prompter" (1.2.81-84). He then asks Brabantio what he intends to do with him when he's arrested. Brabantio answers that he'll go to prison. Othello then informs him that he's been called to meet with the Duke and the Senate, and they'll be disappointed if he doesn't go. One of the officers with Brabantio confirms this, and adds that he's sure that Brabantio himself has been called to the Senate, too. At this news, Brabantio sees a new course of action: he'll present his case to the Senate. Expressing confidence that his fellow senators will see things his way, Brabantio leaves for the Senate, and the rest follow.