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Philip and Weller hugging

Welcome to my web site, now under development for more than twenty years.   
-- Philip Weller, November 13, 1941 - February 1, 2021
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.


Detailed Summary of Othello, Act 1, Scene 1

Page Index:
Enter Roderigo and Iago:
Being a dramatic genius, Shakespeare is able to begin with a rush, but still provide -- or imply -- a lot of background information.

As the scene opens, Roderigo is pouting, and exclaims, "Tush! never tell me; I take it much unkindly / That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse / As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this" (1.1.1-3). The "this" is the elopement of Othello and Desdemona. Roderigo loves Desdemona, but he's also a twit -- gullible, spoiled, and stupid. In fact, he's such a twit that Brabantio, Desdemona's father, has told him to stay away from the house. Roderigo, however, can't quit, so he has been using Iago as a go-between to deliver gifts and messages to Desdemona. He's also been giving Iago money for his trouble, which is what he means when he complains that Iago "hast had my purse / As if the strings were thine." Iago is Roderigo's opposite -- self-possessed, cynical, and very smart. He's one of Shakespeare's most frightening villains, because he's the sort who can look you in the eye, lie through his teeth, and make you believe he's your best friend on earth. At the moment he is in a little difficulty with Roderigo, who assumes that Iago must have known about Othello's plans, but Iago quickly talks his way out of the difficulty and takes command of the situation.

Iago declares that the elopement was a complete surprise, and Roderigo answers, "Thou told'st me thou didst hold him in thy hate" (1.1.7). This gives Iago a chance to talk about himself, which he loves to do. To prove his hatred of Othello, he tells the story of how he was passed over for promotion to lieutenant. He says that three very important Venetians very humbly asked Othello to give the job to him: "Three great ones of the city, / In personal suit to make me his lieutenant, / Off-capp'd to him" (1.1.8-10). Maybe these three "great ones" just happened to take a personal interest in Iago's career, but it seems more likely that Iago tried to pull some strings. He declares that "I know my price, I am worth no worse a place" (1.1.11), so it must have been painful to him to see his hopes dashed. Sarcastically, he describes Othello as a pompous ass who uses military jargon to deliver the message that he has already chosen another man.

With more sarcasm (he can be quite entertaining) Iago describes the man chosen as "a great arithmetician, / One Michael Cassio, a Florentine, / (A fellow almost damn'd in a fair wife), / That never set a squadron in the field" (1.1.19-22). This is the only mention of the wife of Cassio, who never acts like a married man. Whatever, we get the picture. In Iago's eyes, Cassio is the effete geek from Florence. On the other hand, Iago describes himself as one who has served Othello in numerous battles, and as one who could really use the money. He is "be-lee'd and calm'd / By debitor [bookkeeper] and creditor" (1.1.30-31). A ship is "be-lee'd and calm'd" when the wind is taken out of its sails, and this is how Iago feels. It rankles that Cassio, a "counter-caster"(1.1.31) (our phrase is "bean counter"), has the job Iago wanted, while Iago has to keep on being "his Moorship's ancient [ensign] " (1.1.33). "His worship," is a term of respect, so Iago's pun, "Moorship," mocks both Othello's race and his character.

Iago's verbal artistry is effective, and makes Rodrigo sympathize. He says, "By heaven, I rather would have been his hangman" (1.1.34). Iago answers that it can't be helped, because "Preferment goes by letter and affection" (1.1.36), which means that promotions are decided on the basis of letters of recommendation and personal contacts. The current phrase for this is "It's not what you know, but who you know." It's not like the good old days, Iago adds, when seniority was respected. Then, to make sure he has made his point, Iago says to Roderigo, "Now, sir, be judge yourself, / Whether I in any just term am affined / To love the Moor" (1.1.38-40). Roderigo, however, sees a little hole in Iago's argument, and says, "I would not follow him then" (1.1.40). In other words, Roderigo is asking -- in a cautious way -- why Iago is still working for a man he hates.

This question brings another flood of words from Iago. He starts by saying, "O, sir, content you; / I follow him to serve my turn upon him" (1.1.41-42). He goes on to point out that there are many men who loyally serve their masters all their lives, for just room and board, and then get fired. "Whip me such honest knaves" (1.1.49), he exclaims. But he's not one of those who deserve whipping for doing what's right. There are others who serve their masters only to get what they can, "and when they have lin'd their coats / Do themselves homage" (1.1.53-54). We would call such persons embezzlers or worse, but Iago sees them in another light: "These fellows have some soul; / And such a one do I profess myself" (1.1.54-55). He adds, "It is as sure as you are Roderigo, / Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago" (1.1.56-57). This is a little puzzling, but it seems to mean that if he had Othello's position as general of the Venetian army, he wouldn't have to pretend to be a loyal follower of anyone. Iago goes on to express contempt for all those who are not the kind of hypocrite that he is, and concludes with a statement that sums up a great deal of his character: "I am not what I am" (1.1.65).

At this point, Roderigo falls into simple pouting, saying, "What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe [own] / If he can carry't thus!" (1.1.66-67). Iago, however, has a bright idea. "Call up her father, / Rouse him: make after him, poison his delight, / Proclaim him in the streets" (1.1.67-69). When Iago says "him," it's not clear whether he's referring to Othello or Brabantio, but it doesn't much matter. This is pure vindictiveness, the psychological equivalent of relieving frustrations with an assault rifle. This appeals to Roderigo, who says, "Here is her father's house; I'll call aloud" (1.1.74). (Thus we see one of the advantages of Shakespeare's theatre; because there are no sets, people are where they say they are.) Iago eggs Roderigo on, telling him to yell as though there's a fire. Roderigo shouts out Brabantio's name, but that's not strong enough for Iago, and he shouts, "Awake! what, ho, Brabantio! thieves! thieves! thieves! / Look to your house, your daughter and your bags! / Thieves! thieves!" (1.1.79-81).

Brabantio appears above:
The shouting brings out Brabantio "above." "Above" (which is the only stage direction Shakespeare wrote for Brabantio's appearance) indicates the second level of the Globe, the same place used for the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. Iago probably stands directly under this balcony, so that Brabantio can't possibly see him. It's dark out, but Iago wouldn't want to take any chances, and a little later in the scene he tells Roderigo that no one must know that he has spoken against Othello. So here, as throughout the play, Iago is the instigator, hidden in the shadows, but pulling all the strings.

If we were awakened in the middle of the night by a siren wailing ten feet from our window, we'd probably ask the same questions Brabantio does: "What is the reason of this terrible summons? / What is the matter there?" (1.1.82-83). For a second the two men tease Brabantio a little, asking him if his family is at home and if his doors are locked, but then Iago gets down and dirty. Out of the dark comes his voice:
'Zounds, sir, you're robb'd; for shame, put on your gown;
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you:
Arise, I say.   (1.1.86-91)
Iago is a genius, of a kind. He puts many kinds of poison into one nasty package. He makes Brabantio out to be a dupe, so much a fool that he needs to put on his gown to cover his nakedness. Then he appeals to Brabantio's love for his dear daughter and makes use of pornography, shouting "now" three times to make Brabantio see Othello "tupping" her. (The word "tupping" — or "topping" — is not exactly the same as our "f" word, but Iago uses it to the same effect, because it is a word that is normally used only to describe animals.) The image of the lecherous black man tupping the innocent white girl is meant to inflame Brabantio's racial prejudice. Finally, Iago does his best to make Brabantio panic, by showing him a world of uncaring people who will keep on snoring ("snorting") peacefully unless he rings the alarm bell.

Despite all of the emotional charge of Iago's speech, the essential message hasn't gotten through, so Roderigo identifies himself. Upon hearing this, Brabantio thinks he has it figured out: It must be that Roderigo has gotten himself drunk and full of false courage, and so has come to destroy Brabantio's peace of mind. In Brabantio's words: "Upon malicious bravery, dost thou come / To start my quiet" (1.1.100-101). Brabantio goes on to threaten consequences and it looks like he's not going to give Roderigo a chance to say a word, so Iago bursts out, "'Zounds, sir, you are one of those that will not serve God, if the devil bid you" (1.1.108-110). Then comes more pornography. Iago tells Brabantio that he'll let his daughter be "covered with a Barbary horse" (1.1.111), so that all of his relatives will be horses, too. And when Brabantio asks who's speaking, Iago answers, "I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs" (1.1.115-117). Enraged, Brabantio tells Iago that he's a villain, but Iago has the last word. He answers, "You are -- a senator" (1.1.118). When performed, this usually gets a laugh. Iago is a villain, and a more dangerous one because he can be funny and charming.

Brabantio again threatens consequences, but Roderigo promises to accept any consequences after he delivers the news, and Brabantio lets him speak. Offering a kind of sarcastic self-justification, Roderigo tells Brabantio that Desdemona has run away in a gondola (a Venetian taxi) to be in the "gross clasps of a lascivious Moor" (1.1.126), but that if Brabantio approved of this, then Roderigo owes him an apology. Then Roderigo tells Brabantio to look for himself, and if he finds that Desdemona is at home, Roderigo will accept punishment. This speech has its desired effect. Brabantio rushes back indoors, calling for help and saying that he had a bad dream of just this sort of thing.

Knowing that Brabantio will find that Desdemona has indeed run away, Iago decides it's time to go. If he stays, someone will ask him to testify against Othello, and that will be useless, because Othello is not about to lose his job. No matter what he has done with Desdemona, Venice doesn't have anyone besides Othello who is capable of dealing with the war that's about to begin in Cyprus. Therefore, Iago is going to return to Othello and pretend loyalty. However, this does not mean that Iago is going to let the matter drop. To make sure that Othello is found by Desdemona's angry father, Iago tells Roderigo to lead Brabantio to the Sagittary, an inn.

As soon as Iago has taken off, Brabantio comes onto stage, accompanied by servants carrying torches. He has found that his daughter is indeed gone, and he's preparing to go after her. He's also feeling sorry for himself. He says, "It is too true an evil: gone she is; / And what's to come of my despised time / Is nought but bitterness" (1.1.160-162). He asks where Roderigo saw Desdemona and how he knew it was her, but doesn't give him a chance to answer. Instead he complains that being a father only means pain, and that no father should trust his daughter. Then it occurs to him that his daughter is not really at fault, and asks Roderigo, "Is there not charms / By which the property of youth and maidhood / May be abused?" (1.1.171-173). "Charms" are magic spells, and "the property of youth and maidhood" is the natural innocence and vulnerability of a girl. He thinks that perhaps his daughter didn't betray him after all, that perhaps Othello used magic on her. By the next scene this idea will have developed into a certainty in Brabantio's mind, and he will accuse Othello of using both magic and drugs on Desdemona. At present he is so desperate that he even expresses the wish that Roderigo had had her. What he never considers is the possibility that Desdemona could be happily in love with a good man.

Brabantio sends out search parties and then asks Roderigo if he knows where Desdemona and Othello might be. Roderigo replies that if Brabantio will get together a party of armed men, he can probably lead them to the place. Brabantio, a man of power and influence, is sure he can do that, and so off they go to hunt down Othello. We're looking forward to seeing who Othello really is. In this scene, he's been portrayed as a pompous, oversexed, thieving alien, but the portrayal has been created by his enemies -- a fool, a hypocrite, and a father who thinks his daughter is his property.