Detailed Summary of Othello, Act 1, Scene 3

Page Index:
Enter Duke, Senators and Officers:
The Duke and senators are facing a crisis. If this scene were done with a modern setting, we'd probably see a war room with red lights flashing on a map of the world. The Duke is trying to figure out just what is happening, but the various reports are so different that he doesn't know if he can believe any of them. He says, "There is no composition in these news / That gives them credit" (1.3.1-2). One report says that there are 107 warships, while others give the numbers as 140 and 200. The only thing that everyone can agree on is that there is a very large Turkish fleet approaching Cyprus, a Venetian possession. However, just as the men start to think that they can be sure of that much, a sailor rushes in with the news that the Turkish fleet is headed for Rhodes, not Cyprus. First Senator mulls this over -- aloud -- and comes to the conclusion that the Turks must be making a diversionary feint towards Rhodes. Cyprus is more important and less well-defended, and the Turks aren't stupid. Just as the Duke is agreeing with this reasoning, a messenger comes with the news that the Turkish fleet near Rhodes has now joined with thirty more warships, and the whole force is plainly headed to Cyprus. Hearing this, the Duke sends someone flying out of the room to get in touch with Marcus Luccicos.

We don't know who Marcus Luccicos is, and we never will find out because he's never mentioned again. However, we don't need to know who he is because we can see the situation clearly. A dangerous military crisis is rapidly reaching a boil, and the Duke needs help.

Enter Brabantio, Othello, Iago, Roderigo, and Officers:
When Brabantio, Othello, and the others enter the Duke's council chamber, Othello's importance is made clear. Although Brabantio's name is announced first, the Duke greets Othello first, saying, "Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you / Against the general enemy Ottoman" (1.3.48-49). Only then does the Duke notice Brabantio and say to him, "I did not see you; welcome, gentle signior; / We lack'd your counsel and your help tonight" (1.3.50-51). Brabantio, however, demands attention. He says he didn't come out of concern for the general welfare, but because of personal grief "of so flood-gate and o'erbearing nature / That it engluts and swallows other sorrows" (1.3.56-57). The Duke asks what's the matter, and Brabantio cries out "My daughter! O, my daughter! "(1.3.59) in such a way that the other senators think she must be dead.

Brabantio then repeats the accusations that he previously made against Othello. Desdemona has been "abused, stol'n from me, and corrupted / By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks" (1.3.60-61). ("Mountebanks" were quack peddlers of fake elixirs, but they were also reputed to sell poisons and magical potions.) Brabantio also repeats his reasoning: Desdemona's love is so unnatural that it must have been caused by unnatural means. Her nature could not make such a mistake -- unless it was defective, or blind, or senseless -- without the help of witchcraft. In Brabantio's words: "For nature so preposterously to err, / Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense, / Sans witchcraft could not" (1.3.62-64). The Duke promises that whoever is responsible will be punished, and that Brabantio himself will decide the punishment, but when Brabantio points out Othello as the perpetrator, there are shocked murmurs from everyone. This is not something that they expected from Othello, and it looks as if they might be deprived of his services just when they need them the most.

Now it's Othello's turn to speak. Rather than just plunging right in, as Brabantio did, Othello first pays his respects to all present, addressing them as "Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors, / My very noble and approved good masters" (1.3.76-77). Then Othello judiciously distinguishes truth from fiction. He says, "That I have ta'en away this old man's daughter, / It is most true; true, I have married her: / The very head and front of my offending / Hath this extent, no more" (1.3.78-81). By "head and front of my offending," Othello means the very worst that can be said of him. The phrase is a bit ironic; Brabantio has made all kinds of accusations, but the only thing that Othello has really done is marry Desdemona. Othello then says he can't give a good speech, since he has been a soldier from the age of seven, but he will "a round unvarnish'd tale deliver" (1.3.90) of his love. Again being ironic, he also says that he will give an account of "what drugs, what charms, / What conjuration and what mighty magic" (1.3.91-92) he used to win Desdemona's heart.

Brabantio understands Othello's irony and so repeats his charges. Desdemona, he says, was "A maiden never bold; / Of spirit so still and quiet, that her motion / Blush'd at herself" (1.3.94-96), and so it would be impossible for her to love Othello "in spite of nature, / Of years, of country, credit, every thing" (1.3.97). Here again he says that such a love is unnatural, and adds that she would not ignore the age difference between herself and Othello, would not marry a foreigner, and would not risk her reputation ("credit") to "To fall in love with what she fear'd to look on!" (1.3.98). Therefore Othello must have used some kind of magical drugs on her.

Although he has promised Brabantio that the offender will be punished, the Duke is now clearly skeptical. He says to Brabantio, "To vouch this, is no proof, / Without more wider and more overt test / Than these thin habits and poor likelihoods / Of modern seeming do prefer against him" (1.3.106-109). In other words, just making the charge doesn't prove the charge; so far the only "proof" that Brabantio has is "modern seeming"— current assumptions and prejudices. The Duke won't buy the assumption that Desdemona could not have possibly fallen in love with a black man.

At this point First Senator has a crucial, if obvious, question for Othello: "Did you by indirect and forced courses / Subdue and poison this young maid's affections? / Or came it by request and such fair question / As soul to soul affordeth?" (1.3.111-114). There are two possibilities presented here. The first is what Brabantio has been saying, that Othello poisoned Desdemona's heart by trickery. The second possibility is that Othello and Desdemona have a true love, and First Senator's question defines true love. Love is obtained by asking nicely ("request") for everything from a moment alone to a hand in marriage. And love is mutual; it grows by conversation ("fair question") which is honest and respectful, "as soul to soul affordeth."

In a moment, Othello will respond with a speech which will demonstrate the truth of his and Desdemona's love, but first he asks that she be sent for. If she says as her father says, Othello is willing to give up both his position and his life. The Duke gives the order for Desdemona to be fetched, and Iago leads some attendants out of the room. Then Othello promises to tell the story of their mutual love as honestly as he confesses his sins to heaven.

"Say it, Othello" (1.3.127), says the Duke, and Othello begins an eloquent story of true love. "Her father loved me; oft invited me; / Still question'd me the story of my life, / From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes, / That I have passed" (1.3.128-131). So it turns out that Brabantio, who is so angry about his daughter's marriage to Othello, treated Othello as a friend and often invited him over to the house to tell stories of his adventures. (Brabantio may remind us of the sort of white man who says, "Some of my best friends are black," but who doesn't want his daughter to marry one of "them.") As Othello continues, we can see why Brabantio, who has probably lived all of his life indoors, liked to hear Othello talk. Othello has had a life of adventure. He has fought many battles and often barely escaped death. He has been captured and enslaved, then ransomed out of slavery. He has found himself in immense caves and empty deserts. He has seen cannibals and "men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders" (1.3.144-145). (Later in the play, Iago will characterize such tales as lies, but they are certainly not. In Shakespeare's time more than half the world was unknown to Europeans, and the reports of men whose faces were in their chests were as believable as reports of huge beasts who noses dragged on the ground -- elephants.)

"This to hear / Would Desdemona seriously incline" (1.3.145-146), says Othello. However, no matter how much she was interested, Desdemona could only hear parts of Othello's stories because household duties came first. (There is no mention of Desdemona's mother, and it appears that Desdemona was the woman of Brabantio's household.) Othello noticed Desdemona's interest, and says that he "found good means / To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart / That I would all my pilgrimage dilate" (1.3.151-153). "Prayer" means "sincere request," and "dilate" means "tell in detail." Othello doesn't say exactly what his "good means" were, but it's clear that he used words, not drugs or magic.

When Desdemona heard Othello's stories, she often shed tears for his sufferings, and when his stories were done, she took the next step in their relationship:
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs:
She swore, in faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange,
'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful:
She wish'd she had not heard it, yet she wish'd
That heaven had made her such a man: she thank'd me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story.
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake:
She loved me for the dangers I had pass'd,
And I loved her that she did pity them.  (1.3.159-168)

"She wish'd / That heaven had made her such a man" does not mean that she wanted to be such a man; it means she wished that heaven had made such a man for her. She then told Othello that if he had a "friend" that loved her, all he would need to do for his "friend" would be to teach that "friend" how to tell her the stories he has just told her, and that would make her love that "friend." "Upon this hint I spake," says Othello, but editors of the play often put in a nervous little footnote saying that "hint" means "opportunity," so we shouldn't get the idea that she is dropping a hint. But of course -- certainly, absolutely -- she was indeed dropping a very large, very heavy hint.

The end of Othello's story is, "She loved me for the dangers I had pass'd, / And I loved her that she did pity them." Because their love depends so much on who he is, and on what she sees in him, it may seem unbalanced to us, but it is both noble and mutual. It's not the result of drugs, magic, or witchcraft.

Enter Desdemona, Iago, and Attendants:
Just as Othello finishes his story, Desdemona appears at the door. As she enters the room, the Duke says to Brabantio, "I think this tale would win my daughter too" (1.3.171), and then he tries to persuade Brabantio to make the best of the situation. Brabantio, however, won't accept this word to the wise; he says "I pray you, hear her speak: / If she confess that she was half the wooer, / Destruction on my head, if my bad blame / Light on the man!" (1.3.175-178). He is apparently clinging to the hope that Othello's story has all been a big lie, and he calls upon his daughter to choose between himself and Othello. He asks her, "Do you perceive in all this noble company / Where most you owe obedience?" (1.3.179-180).

As soon a Desdemona speaks, it is clear that she has not been drugged or enchanted. She respectfully acknowledges her father's claim on her, saying, "My noble father / I do perceive here a divided duty: / To you I am bound for life and education; / My life and education both do learn [teach] me / How to respect you" (1.3.180-184). But then Desdemona claims the traditional rights of a wife. She continues, saying,
I am hitherto your daughter: but here's my husband,
And so much duty as my mother show'd
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge
[assert] that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.   (1.3.185-189)
Hearing this, Brabantio knows that he has lost his case. It is obvious that Desdemona knows her rights and has acted on her own free will. He says he is done and tells the Duke that they should proceed to affairs of state, but he can't resist the temptation to vent his anger and frustration. First he says, "I had rather to adopt a child than get [beget] it" (1.3.191). The idea is that if Desdemona were adopted, then she could be written off as the child of bad seed. Then (perhaps joining their hands) Brabantio gives Desdemona to her husband, but only because Othello already has her. Otherwise, he says, he would do everything in his power to keep her away from Othello. Finally, Brabantio says to Desdemona, "For your sake [because of what you have done], jewel, / I am glad at soul I have no other child: / For thy escape would teach me tyranny, / To hang clogs on them"(1.3.195-198). "Clogs" are heavy blocks of wood tied to prisoners to keep them from running away. Brabantio knows that only a tyrant would use clogs on his child, but since his "jewel" has run away from him, he would use them on another child, if he had one.

At this point we might feel almost as sorry for Brabantio as he feels for himself, if it weren't for the fact that he rejects good advice. The Duke says to him, "Let me speak like yourself, and lay a sentence, / Which, as a grise [stage] or step, may help these lovers / Into your favour" (1.3.199-201). "Let me speak like yourself" means "let me speak as you should," and a "sentence" is a maxim -- a saying that reminds us of age-old truths. The Duke then proceeds to deliver a series of such maxims, all of which can be briefly summed up with our maxim, "It's no use crying over spilled milk." Brabantio, however, mocks the Duke's maxims and concludes that "words are words; I never yet did hear / That the bruised heart was pierced through the ear" (1.3.218-219). Brabantio is of course speaking of his own "bruised heart," and saying that nothing anyone can say can possibly make it feel any better.

Once again, Brabantio tells the Duke that it's time to turn back to affairs of the state, and the Duke does so. Half-apologizing to Othello, the Duke tells him that public opinion demands that he personally deal with the Turkish threat. Therefore, Othello must go, even though he's just married. Othello replies that he's used to the hardships of war and ready to go. He has just one request: "I crave fit disposition for my wife. / Due reference of place and exhibition, / With such accommodation and besort / As levels with her breeding" (1.3.236-239). An "exhibition" is an allowance of money, and "besort" is suitable company; in other words, Othello is asking for everything that would allow his wife to continue to live the life of a lady.

The Duke's reply to this request is casually matter-of-fact: "If you please, / Be't at her father's" (1.3.239-240). Apparently he thinks that Brabantio's anger is just silly and will soon blow over. But he's wrong. Brabantio, Othello, and Desdemona all immediately reject the idea. Then Desdemona makes a request of her own. She begins by saying, "That I did love the Moor to live with him, / My downright violence and storm of fortunes / May trumpet to the world" (1.3.248-250). What she has done in eloping with Othello is "downright violence" in the sense that it has violated social norms; she has not let her father arrange her marriage or even asked his permission to marry. And the phrase "storm of fortunes" portrays her as fiercely independent. She has taken her fortune by storm, as a warrior would take a castle by storm. Desdemona continues, saying,
My heart's subdued
Even to the very quality of my lord:
I saw Othello's visage in his mind,
And to his honour and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.   (1.3.250-254)
"Subdued" means "in harmony with" and Othello's "quality" is both his character and his profession as a warrior. Desdemona is asserting that she is very much like her husband and belongs with him, even in war. Also, by saying "I saw Othello's visage in his mind," Desdemona shows that she understands and rejects the bigotry that is directed at him. A person's "visage" is his face, and she understands that most Europeans consider black to be ugly, but she saw past his face to his honor and courage, which she adores. If she is left behind, she will be desolate. She wants to go with him.

Othello seconds Desdemona's request. He declares that he wants her with him not because of sexual appetite, "But to be free and bounteous to her mind" (1.3.265). He goes on to assure the Duke that love would never interfere with his business. If it did, he's willing to let housewives use his helmet for a frying pan, "And all indign and base adversities / Make head against my estimation!" (1.3.273-274). In other words, if his relations with his wife took anything away from the performance of his duties, any of many small problems ("adversities") would be enough to ruin his reputation ("estimation").

The Duke has heard enough, and tells Othello and Desdemona that they can decide between themselves whether she will stay or go. In any case, the Turkish threat must be dealt with immediately, and Othello must depart that very night. Tomorrow morning at nine the Senate will meet again to draft the various official documents that Othello might need, and then send them after him in another ship. Othello quickly agrees to all of this, and appoints Iago as the one to carry the documents and also to escort Desdemona to Cyprus, because "A man he is of honesty and trust" (1.3.284). The Duke agrees to this, and says goodnight to everyone, then has one last word for Brabantio: "And, noble signior, / If virtue no delighted [delightful] beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black" (1.3.288-290). "Fair" means "white," but also "beautiful" and "good." The Duke's point is that Brabantio would be much wiser to quit focusing on Othello's color and start appreciating his virtue. First Senator chimes in, saying to Othello, "Adieu, brave Moor, use [treat] Desdemona well" (1.3.291), but Brabantio remains vindictive, and bitterly warns Othello that Desdemona may turn out to be a slut: "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: / She has deceived her father, and may thee" (1.3.292-293).

Othello answers, "My life upon her faith!" (1.3.294), then asks Iago to let his wife accompany Desdemona, and bring them both to Cyprus. Iago doesn't say anything, but Othello's request is like a command, and so it's settled. Othello then leads Desdemona away, telling her they have only an hour together before he must leave.

Exeunt Othello and Desdemona:
After Desdemona and Othello have gone, Roderigo is alone with Iago, and he's feeling rather sad. The woman he loves has married another, and there is no hope that the marriage can be broken up. He asks Iago, "What will I do, thinkest thou?" (1.3.303). Iago tells him to forget about it, to go home and sleep, but Roderigo says that he will drown himself. Roderigo imagines himself to be a heroic lover, one who cannot live without love, one who is capable of committing suicide when he loses his love. (Only in Romeo and Juliet did Shakespeare portray such a love sympathetically; in his romantic comedies he always makes fun of the idea of killing yourself over lost love.) In actuality, Roderigo doesn't have enough strength of character to be a heroic anything; but at the moment he claims that he has a right to die, since life is now a living torment.

Roderigo's silliness inspires Iago to apply some tough-guy therapy. He tells Roderigo to have some self-respect, and says of himself, "Ere I would say, I would drown myself for the love of a guinea-hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon" (1.3.314-316). A "guinea-hen" is a kind of large, spotted, noisy chicken, and Iago uses the word the way we use "dumb cluck." Roderigo snivels "What should I do? I confess it is my shame to be so fond; but it is not in my virtue to amend it" (1.3.317-318). "Fond" means "foolish" as well as "affectionate," and "virtue" means "natural ability" as well as "goodness." Poor Roderigo just can't help himself! He doesn't have the natural ability to stop himself from moping over Desdemona.

Iago scoffs at poor Roderigo, saying, "Virtue! a fig! 'tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners" (1.3.319-321). In other words, Roderigo should stop talking about what he can't do, because we can all do whatever we decide to do. It is our will that should control our lives. Iago then proceeds to expound on the ability of reason (which is not quite the same thing as will) to control our natural impulses. He says, "we have reason to cool our raging motions [appetites], our carnal stings, our unbitted [uncontrolled] lusts, whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect or scion" (1.3.329-332). A "sect" is a cutting, such as a gardener takes in order to grow a new plant, and a "scion" is an offshoot of a main branch. Iago's point about love is that it's only lust in high heels.

This bit of cynical philosophy shocks Roderigo, who exclaims "It cannot be!" (1.3.333), but Iago insists that love is "merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will" (1.3.334-335). Iago not only insists, he keeps on talking until he wins Roderigo over to his way of thinking. Iago tells Roderigo that he is his friend, and then starts to spin out a plan of action. He tells him that the first thing is to "Put money in thy purse" (1.3.339-340). Roderigo should also disguise himself in a false beard and go to Cyprus because Othello and Desdemona will fall out of love as quickly as they fell in. "These Moors are changeable in their wills" (1.3.346-347), and Desdemona is young, so that "when she is sated with [had her fill of] his body, she will find the error of her choice" (1.3.350-351). And Iago is sure that he's smart enough to find a way for Roderigo to have Desdemona. All Roderigo has to do is make sure he has plenty of money. (Iago makes the point about the money five times in this speech; he's planning to con Roderigo out of that money.) As for drowning himself, Roderigo should forget that. If Roderigo wants to die, a better way to do it would to be hanged in the attempt to get Desdemona into bed.

To all of this, Roderigo answers with a question for Iago, "Wilt thou be fast to my hopes, if I depend on the issue?" (1.3.362-363). "Fast to" means "eternally supportive of," and "depend on the issue" means "count on a successful outcome." Unless Iago is going to stick with him all the way, poor Roderigo doesn't want to get his hopes up, but it doesn't seem to matter that his grand passion for Desdemona has now been reduced to the simple desire to sleep with her.

Iago reassures Roderigo that he hates Othello and that it will be a pleasure to get revenge on him by helping Roderigo cuckold him. Before that happens there are many things to do, but all Roderigo has to worry about is getting that money, and they'll talk again tomorrow. Roderigo eagerly agrees, promises to meet Iago early in the morning, and exits saying, "I'll sell all my land" (1.3.382).

Exit Roderigo:
Now Iago is alone, and he turns his charm on us. (His speech is a soliloquy, but on stage it's much more effective if he speaks to the audience rather than just to himself.) First there's a sneer at Roderigo: "Thus do I ever make my fool my purse" (1.3.383). He goes on to assure us that Roderigo is beneath contempt, "For I mine own gain'd knowledge should profane, / If I would time expend with such a snipe. / But for my sport and profit" (1.3.384-386). A snipe is a bird notorious for its flightiness and its tendency to run right into traps. If the actor who plays Roderigo has been skillful enough, Iago can get a laugh at this point, because Roderigo is indeed a snipe.

Then Iago turns his attention to bigger game -- Othello. He hates Othello, "And it is thought abroad, that 'twixt my sheets / He has done my office" (1.3.387-388). "Abroad" means "everywhere," and Iago's "office" (function) between his sheets is to have sex with his wife. Iago is saying that everyone thinks that Othello is having an affair with Iago's wife. The rest of the play makes it clear that none of this is true; Othello and Iago's wife are not even vaguely interested in one another, and no one thinks otherwise. Iago is lying again, both to us and to himself, and he knows it, but that doesn't change his attitude towards Othello. He says, "I know not if't be true; / But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, / Will do as if for surety" (1.3.388-390).

Now Iago mulls over the situation and improvises a plan. Othello trusts him, and that will help. Then, "Cassio's a proper man" (1.3.392). By "proper" Iago means "handsome," which in Iago's jealous mind is one more strike against Cassio. If he could get Cassio's job while tearing down Othello, that would be even better. He turns it over in his head a little more, and then everything comes together: "After some time, to abuse Othello's ear / That he [Cassio] is too familiar with his wife" (1.3.395-396). This plan pleases Iago and he goes back over the elements that will make it work. Cassio is handsome and charming, the kind of man who naturally tempts women, and Othello is a trusting soul who "will as tenderly be led by the nose / As asses are" (1.3.401-402). Iago will be able to turn the good qualities of these men against them, and he is pleased with himself. He ends the scene saying, "I have't. It is engender'd. Hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light" (1.3.403-404).