Detailed Summary of Othello, Act 2, Scene 1

Page Index:
Enter Montano and two Gentlemen:
In the last scene we learned that Othello, Desdemona, Iago, and Roderigo were all going to Cyprus. This scene opens near the docks of the harbor of Cyprus. Montano, an important man in Cyprus, and two other gentlemen are awaiting the arrival of the Venetian fleet and talking about the terrible storm that is raging out at sea. As the scene progresses we will discover that the storm brings peace to Cyprus, because it breaks up and drives away the Turkish fleet. It also provides a romantic background for the reunion of the heroic lovers, Othello and Desdemona.

As with all of Shakespeare's atmospheric effects, the sense of the storm is created through words. Montano asks one of the gentlemen, "What from the cape can you discern at sea?" (2.1.1). At the cape, out beyond the mouth of the harbor, the gentleman should have been able to see if any ships were coming, but he says that in the furious storm nothing could be seen between the sea and the sky. Montano adds that "the wind hath spoke aloud at land; / A fuller blast ne'er shook our battlements" (2.1.5-6). Even on land the wind roared ("spoke aloud") like cannons, shaking the walls of the fortifications. If the storm is as terrible on the sea as it was on the land, the oaken ribs of any ship must break apart, and Montano wonders "What shall we hear of this?" (2.1.9). He's asking his companions what the storm will do to the ships that are out in it. At this, Second Gentleman hopefully guesses that the storm will cause "A segregation [breaking up] of the Turkish fleet" (2.1.10). He says that someone standing on the beach can see the waves rise through the clouds to the north star.

Montano agrees that if the Turkish fleet hasn't found a harbor it will be drowned, and just then a third gentleman enters with the good news that the "The desperate tempest hath so bang'd the Turks, / That their designment halts" (2.1.21-22). The wreck of the Turkish fleet was witnessed by a Venetian ship that has just put in. Also, "Michael Cassio, / Lieutenant to the warlike Moor Othello, / Is come on shore: the Moor himself at sea, / And is in full commission here for Cyprus" (2.1.26-29). The phrase, "is in full commission" means that Othello will not only command the military forces, but also be the governor of the island. Montano says of this, "I am glad on't; 'tis a worthy governor" (2.1.30). However, the gentleman says, Cassio is worried about Othello, because when he last saw Othello's ship, it was fighting the storm.

Enter Cassio:
Montano is about to lead everyone else to the shore to keep an eye out for Othello's ship when Cassio appears and says to them, "Thanks, you the valiant of this warlike isle, / That so approve the Moor!" (2.1.43-44). "Approve" was a stronger word in Shakespeare's time than it is now; it meant "praise" and "admire." The fact that Cassio immediately thanks them for their approval of Othello indicates that he has already heard that approval from other citizens of Cyprus. In short, everyone on Cyprus is glad that Othello is going to be their governor. They are, however, all worried about Othello's safety at sea.

Montano asks if Othello is on a good ship; Cassio answers that he is, and that the ship has a good pilot, too. Just then they hear the shouts of a crowd, and a fourth gentleman enters to tell them that everyone in town is standing on a hill overlooking the sea, and they have just seen a ship come in. Cassio hopes it is Othello, and then they hear a cannon's salute which tells them that the ship is a friendly one. Montano sends one of the gentlemen to see what ship it is. The gentlemen goes, and in the brief interval of waiting, Montano asks Cassio, "But, good lieutenant, is your general wived?" (2.1.60), and Cassio answers that he is, that "he hath achieved a maid / That paragons description and wild fame" (2.1.61-62). By saying that Desdemona "paragons description and wild fame," Cassio means that she is more beautiful than any possible description of her beauty, more beautiful than the wildest story of any woman's beauty.

In his description of Desdemona we begin to see Cassio's character. He is a highly appreciative of feminine beauty, and he is a romantic. Desdemona is indeed beautiful, but Cassio shows more enthusiasm for her beauty than most men would show when talking of another man's wife. As Cassio is speaking, the gentleman that Montano sent to the docks returns with the news that Iago has arrived. Knowing that Desdemona is on the same ship as Iago, Cassio rejoices, and declares that the jagged rocks and dangerous sands "As having sense of beauty, do omit [forget] / Their mortal [deadly] natures, letting go safely by / The divine Desdemona" (2.1.71-73). In other words, Desdemona's beauty is so great that even the rocks and sands are in awe of it, and let her ship pass safely.

Montano hasn't heard Desdemona's name before, and asks who Cassio is talking about. Cassio answers that she is "She that I spake of, our great captain's captain"(2.1.74), and that her ship has arrived a week before it was expected. (When it suits his purposes, Shakespeare plays fast and loose with time, but in this case the storm could easily account for the early arrival of the ship carrying Iago and Desdemona.) Cassio then launches into a kind of melodramatic prayer, in which he calls upon Jove to fill the sails of Othello's ship, "That he may bless this bay with his tall ship, / Make love's quick pants in Desdemona's arms, / Give renew'd fire to our extincted spirits / And bring all Cyprus comfort!" (2.1.79-82).

Enter Desdemona, Iago, Roderigo, Emilia, and Attendants:
As Cassio finishes the recitation of his vision of the reunion of brave Othello and beautiful Desdemona, the lady herself appears. Iago, Roderigo, and Iago's wife, Emilia, come on shore, too, but Cassio has words only for Desdemona. He cries, "O, behold, / The riches of the ship is come on shore!" (2.1.82-83), and demands that the men of Cyprus kneel as he greets her, saying "Hail to thee, lady! and the grace of heaven, / Before, behind thee, and on every hand, / Enwheel thee round!" (2.1.85-87).

Cassio is practically swept away by the high romance of the moment. In contrast, Desdemona is quite down-to-earth. She simply thanks Cassio, then asks about Othello. She says, "I thank you, valiant Cassio. / What tidings can you tell me of my lord?" (2.1.87-88). Cassio tells her that he's still at sea, but that he's safe and will soon come into port. Desdemona asks when Cassio last saw Othello's ship, and Cassio starts to explain about the storm, but then the crowd (which we can't see) and the cannon announce the arrival of another ship. Cassio sends a gentleman for the news, and everyone seems to relax for a bit.

In the time of waiting for the news of the ship that's coming in, we are introduced to Emilia, Iago's wife, whom we have heard was to be Desdemona's companion. We also get a clearer picture of the characters of Desdemona and Cassio. As soon as the gentleman has gone for the news of the next ship, Cassio does something that draws everyone's attention to him -- he kisses Emilia.

Cassio welcomes Iago and Emilia, and then says of the kiss: "Let it not gall your patience, good Iago, / That I extend my manners; 'tis my breeding / That gives me this bold show of courtesy" (2.1.97-99). After this speech, editors usually put in the stage direction "Kissing her," but it may be that Cassio kisses her first and then says this to Iago. So either Cassio tells Iago that he shouldn't mind while watching his wife being kissed, or Cassio sees that Iago doesn't like to watch his wife being kissed, and semi-apologizes. Either way, Cassio is making a big point of what a charmer he is. His basic explanation of his action is that "'tis my breeding"; in other words, he did it because that's the way he was brought up and that's what he always does. Still, he feels the need to explain himself to Iago.

Iago keeps his cool by passing off the embarrassment to his wife. He jokes, "Sir, would she give you so much of her lips / As of her tongue she oft bestows on me, / You would have enough" (2.1.100-102). He's saying that if Emilia kissed Cassio as much as she nags Iago, Cassio would have more than enough kissing. Apparently Emilia is quite flustered by all of this, and Desdemona comes to her defense, saying, "Alas, she has no speech" (2.1.102), but Iago insists that Emilia keeps him awake nights with her nagging, and is quiet only because she's with Desdemona. Emilia finally speaks up, saying that Iago has no reason to say that, but this only encourages Iago to reel off a sarcastic list of the things that are wrong with women in general:
Come on, come on; you are pictures out of doors,
Bells in your parlors, wild-cats in your kitchens,
Saints in your injuries, devils being offended,
Players in your huswifery, and huswives in your beds. (2.1.109-112)
According to Iago, women are "pictures" because they paint make-up all over their faces. They are "bells" because their tongues ring constantly. They are saints in their injuries because when they do someone an injury they pretend they're doing it for a saintly reason, but they never give anyone else the benefit of the doubt, so they are devils when they are offended. Finally, they only pretend to be housewives, but are really hussies. (The word "huswife" is the ancestor of both "housewife" and "hussy.") This makes Desdemona exclaim, "O, fie upon thee, slanderer!" (2.1.113), to which Iago answers with an emphatic rhyme, "Nay, it is true, or else I am a Turk: / You rise to play and go to bed to work" (2.1.114-115). In other words women only play at the housewife thing; they really earn their livings on their backs.

Though he probably believes everything he's saying, Iago's trash-talking is delivered as a joke, and that's the way Desdemona takes it, but she presents him with a challenge, saying, "What wouldst thou write of me, if thou shouldst praise me?" (2.1.117). Desdemona thus encourages Iago to keep on joking, but it also looks like she doesn't think that she is like those women whom he has just described.

Iago expresses some reluctance to answer Desdemona's challenge, but Desdemona keeps after him until he starts in again. He says, "If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit, / The one's for use, the other useth it" (2.1.129-130). He means that a woman who is both smart and beautiful will be smart enough to know how to use her beauty to get what she wants. Because Iago is still talking about women in general, this isn't exactly what Desdemona asked for, but she plays along, asking him, "How if she be black and witty?" (2.1.131). "Black" can mean "brunette," just as "fair" can mean "blonde," but here Desdemona is asking about a woman who is smart and ugly. Iago answers, "If she be black, and thereto have a wit, / She'll find a white that shall her blackness hit" (2.1.132-133). The word "white" is a pun on "wight" (a person, a man), and also on the "white" (the center) of an archery target. "Hit" has the same sexual connotation as it does in modern phrases such as "hit on her." Iago is saying that no matter how ugly a woman is, she can use her intelligence to attract a handsome man.

Emilia then gets into the game and asks, "How if fair and foolish?" (2.1.135). Iago answers, "She never yet was foolish that was fair; / For even her folly help'd her to an heir" (2.1.136-137). "Folly" is another word that has a sexual meaning, and Iago's point is that beautiful women can't really be foolish, because their sexual attractiveness will get them what every woman wants, a man and a child. Desdemona comments, "These are old fond [foolish] paradoxes to make fools laugh i' the alehouse" (2.1.138-139). She's certainly right about that. People joke about what they fear, so men have made these kinds of jokes about women since before Shakespeare's time. Still, she continues to egg him on, and asks what he has to say about a woman who is both stupid and ugly. He replies, "There's none so foul and foolish thereunto, / But does foul pranks which fair and wise ones do" (2.1.141-142). In other words, all women are all the same.

At this, Desdemona may laugh, but she certainly does not accept the premise that women are all the same. She can't see herself in Iago's portrayal of women, and asks what he would say of a "deserving woman indeed" (2.1.145). Iago's answer to this is fairly famous:
She that was ever fair and never proud,
Had tongue at will and yet was never loud,
Never lack'd gold and yet went never gay,
Fled from her wish and yet said "Now I may,"
She that being anger'd, her revenge being nigh,
Bade her wrong stay and her displeasure fly,
She that in wisdom never was so frail
To change the cod's head for the salmon's tail;
She that could think and ne'er disclose her mind,
See suitors following and not look behind,
She was a wight, if ever such wight were,--  (2.1.158)
The part about exchanging "the cod's head for the salmon's tail" looks obscure, but it probably means that the woman being described has enough common sense to know which side is up. As for the rest of the speech, it describes a perfect woman. This woman is good-looking, but not stuck on herself; she has interesting things to say, but doesn't try to dominate every conversation; she knows when to maintain her self-discipline and when to indulge herself. There's more to the list, but the general pattern is the same throughout: every good quality is balanced by another good quality. Such a person is not only a perfect woman, but a perfect human being. Such a balance of characteristics is wholly admirable in anyone, man or woman. However, the whole speech is a series of introductory clauses to the punch line of Iago's joke, which Iago dangles in front of Desdemona by saying "She was a wight, if ever such wight were,--" and then pausing significantly. Desdemona bites. She asks, "To do what?" (2.1.159), and Iago delivers the punch line: "To suckle fools and chronicle small beer" (2.1.160). In other words, a perfect woman is perfectly suited to nurse babies and keep track of the groceries.

When Iago delivers his punch-line, Desdemona exclaims, "O most lame and impotent conclusion!" (2.1.161), and maybe she laughs. After all, it's a pretty good joke if you're in a macho mood. She then asks Emilia and Cassio if they don't agree with her, and Cassio takes the opportunity to have a little conversation with the beautiful Desdemona. As he is doing so, Iago delivers an aside. An "aside" is a speech which other characters on stage can't hear, and asides are often delivered to the audience, but Iago is speaking to Cassio, who doesn't hear how Iago mocks and mimics him. Cassio is playing his part as the charming ladies' man, holding Desdemona's hand, smiling, blowing kisses to her. Iago, in his aside, tells Cassio that his little charming tricks are going to cost him his job. Cassio blows a kiss to her again, and Iago finishes his aside by saying "Yet again your fingers to your lips? would they were clyster-pipes for your sake!" (2.1.177-178). "Clyster-pipes" are enema tubes, and Iago's opinion is that Cassio is so full of sh-- that he needs a good cleaning-out.

Enter Othello and Attendants:
After Iago finishes his nasty aside about how he is going to make Cassio suffer for being gallant to Desdemona, we hear trumpets announcing the arrival of Othello, and before the trumpets have died away, Othello is holding Desdemona in his arms and saying, "O my fair warrior!" (2.1.182). His joy is so great that he feels their reunion is a kind of miracle. He says, "It gives me wonder great as my content / To see you here before me. O my soul's joy!" (2.1.183-184). He declares that if such happiness can come after every storm he'd be willing to see the winds blow until they had awakened death, and the waves rise to heaven and fall to hell. If he were to die now, he says, he would be happy because he doubts that he could feel more happiness from anything to come in life. Desdemona responds that there is ever more and more happiness to come. She says, "The heavens forbid / But that our loves and comforts should increase, / Even as our days do grow!" (2.1.193-195).

To this, Othello says "amen" and then says that he is so choked up with joy that he can't say enough of it. Then they kiss, and he says of the kisses, "And this, and this, the greatest discords be / That e'er our hearts shall make!" (2.1.198-199). Observing the perfect harmony between the two lovers, Iago comments in an aside, "O, you are well tuned now! / But I'll set down the pegs that make this music, / As honest as I am." (2.1.199-201). The "pegs" to which he refers are the tuning pegs on a stringed instrument. Their love is the instrument on which Iago is planning to loosen ("set down") the pegs until the harmony is turned into discord. And to accomplish his purpose he's planning to use his reputation for being "honest."

Othello is now ready to go to the governor's castle. He tells everyone that the war is over because the storm has drowned the Turkish fleet, and he greets old friends. Calling her "honey" and "sweet," Othello assures Desdemona that the natives will be friendly to her, and says he's so happy he's talking too much. Then he sends Iago to the ship for the luggage and tells him to bring back the master of the ship, too, because he should be honored. With this he and Desdemona leave the stage.

Exeunt Othello, Desdemona, and Attendants:
Nearly everyone else follows the happy couple, and Iago tells a remaining attendant to meet him at the harbor. The attendant leaves, whereupon Iago calls out to the one remaining man, "Come hither. If thou be'st valiant,-- as, they say, base men being in love have then a nobility in their natures more than is native to them--list [listen to] me" (2.1.214-216). He's speaking to Roderigo, who is looking even more ridiculous than usual in his false beard and mustache, and who has been lurking around the fringes of the activity ever since Desdemona's ship came in.

After challenging Roderigo to show his courage, Iago tells him that Cassio will be the officer on duty that evening. Then Iago realizes that before they proceed against Cassio, Roderigo must be told why. He says, "First, I must tell thee this--Desdemona is directly in love with him" (2.1.218-219). Roderigo doesn't believe it's possible, but Iago overwhelms him with his arguments. Desdemona, he says, fell in love with Othello because of his "bragging and telling her fantastical lies" (2.1.223), but "Her eye must be fed; and what delight shall she have to look on the devil?" (2.1.225-227). (In Shakespeare's time, devils were depicted as black, not red, as they are now.) When Desdemona has had her fill of sex with Othello, she will find that he is too old, too black, too barbaric to renew her desire. Then she'll start looking around for someone else. When she starts looking, says Iago, she will see Cassio, who can talk the pants off a woman. And he will be looking her way because he has an eye "that can stamp and counterfeit advantages, though true advantage never present itself" (2.1.242-244). (Perhaps Iago is thinking of how easy it was for Cassio to find an excuse to kiss Emilia.) Besides, Cassio is young, handsome, and has all the qualities needed to attract a lusty woman. He's a "pestilent complete knave; and the woman hath found him already" (2.1.247-248).

Roderigo seems shocked, and says, "I cannot believe that in her; she's full of most blessed condition" (2.1.249-250). Iago scornfully replies, "Blessed fig's-end!" (2.1.251). Here Iago is probably referring to the obscene gesture, not the fruit. (To "make a fig," slide your thumb between your first two fingers. To understand how dirty this is, think of what male and female body parts you are representing with your thumb and fingers.) Iago adds that she's just like other women, and if she had been blessed, she wouldn't have loved the Moor. Besides, Roderigo must have seen her holding hands with Cassio. Roderigo replies that he did see it, but she was only being courteous.

"Lechery, by this hand; an index and obscure prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts" (2.1.257-258), Iago emphatically replies. He goes on in the same way, overwhelms Roderigo's doubts, and starts telling him what must be done next. Cassio doesn't know Roderigo, so Roderigo is the one who must carry out the next step of the plan. This very night, Iago will get him a place in the "watch," the group of men who will serve under Cassio to keep the peace. Roderigo must look for some opportunity to make Cassio lose his temper, and when he does, Iago will find a way to make everyone in Cyprus so angry at Cassio that he will lose his place as lieutenant to Othello. Once Cassio is out of the way, Roderigo will have a clear shot at Desdemona.

One of the facts of the play is that Desdemona has long ago rejected Roderigo, and wouldn't have him if he were the last man on earth, so Iago's plan doesn't make good sense. But Roderigo is such a fool that he goes along with it.

Exit Roderigo:
As soon as Iago has gotten Roderigo to agree to his plan, he dismisses him and tells him he'll meet him later. Alone, Iago praises himself. He has just made up the stuff about Desdemona being in love with Cassio, but he tells himself that it could be true: "That Cassio loves her, I do well believe it; / That she loves him, 'tis apt and of great credit" (2.1.286-287). As for Othello: "The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not, / Is of a constant, loving, noble nature, / And I dare think he'll prove to Desdemona / A most dear husband" (2.1.288-291). Iago is making a cruel pun on the word "dear"; it means both "beloved" and "expensive." Because Othello is "constant, loving, noble" he will be outraged when he discovers Desdemona's infidelity, and she will pay a high price. (By the end of the play she has paid with her life.)

After praising himself for his understanding of his intended victims' minds, Iago speaks of his own motivations. He says, "Now, I do love her too; / Not out of absolute lust, though peradventure / I stand accountant for as great a sin, / But partly led to diet [feed] my revenge" (2.1.291-294). This is a rapist's kind of love, one part lust and nine parts power-hunger. He wants revenge for his own suspicion that Othello has gone to bed with Emilia. It's eating at his gut and he won't be satisfied "Till I am even'd with him, wife for wife, / Or failing so, yet that I put the Moor / At least into a jealousy so strong / That judgment [reason] cannot cure" (2.1.299-302). The phrase "even'd with him, wife for wife," seems to mean that he has some notion that he might have sex with Desdemona, but it's not the sex that's important. Othello must feel that same poisonous jealousy that Iago feels.

Iago then previews what's going to happen next. If Roderigo carries through with his part of the plan,
I'll have our Michael Cassio on the hip [off balance],
Abuse him to the Moor in the rank garb--
For I fear Cassio with my night-cap too--
Make the Moor thank me, love me and reward me.
For making him egregiously an ass
And practising upon his peace and quiet
Even to madness. 'Tis here, but yet confused:
Knavery's plain face is never seen till used.   (2.1.305-312)
The words "rank garb" are clarified in the next line, "For I fear Cassio with my night-cap too." Iago's paranoia makes him suspect that Emilia, in addition to having sex with Othello, is also doing it with Cassio, and in his mind Iago sees a picture of Cassio wearing his night-cap. To him this is "rank" -- it is has a disgusting stench. Othello must be made to feel that same way about Desdemona and Cassio. Iago will enjoy that, especially because Othello will be thanking Iago for opening his eyes, even as he's going mad with jealousy. At the very end of the speech, Iago says of his plan, "'Tis here, but yet confused," but he doesn't mean that he's confused about his plan; he just needs to work out some details. He will do that as he goes along. He's a master of evil ("knavery") and can improvise.