On a street in Venice, there is an argument between Roderigo, a nobleman, and Iago, an ancient (captain) in the defense forces. Roderigo, in love with the noble lady Desdemona, has paid large sums of money to Iago, on the understanding that Iago would give her gifts from him and praise him to her. Roderigo hopes to win Desdemona's love and marry her. However, they now have news that Desdemona has left the house of her father, Brabantio, a Senator, and eloped with Othello, a Moor (an African) who is a General in the defense forces.
Roderigo fears he has lost both his lady and his money. Iago reveals to Roderigo that it is in his (Iago's) nature to plot and tell lies to get what he wants and that he has a plan. He hates Othello for promoting Cassio to the position of lieutenant, a position that Iago wanted for himself. Iago plans to bring about Othello's downfall, and Roderigo will have Desdemona. First, they must wake Brabantio and cause an outcry. They bang and shout until Brabantio comes out onto the balcony. Iago tells him in inflammatory words that Desdemona has run away with Othello, and Brabantio, enraged, joins Roderigo to wake the neighbors and organize a search party.
The play begins with a quarrel of sorts between Iago and Roderigo, and, as such, it serves several functions. Its tone easily catches our interest, and it reveals Iago's wily nature; he must make amends to Roderigo for failing to arouse Desdemona's interest in him. After all, Iago intends to keep a hand in this wealthy nobleman's pocketbook, which, Roderigo says, belongs to Iago, "as if the strings were thine" (3). Iago apologizes profusely for failing Roderigo and claims that he never dreamed that such an elopement might occur: "If ever I did dream of such a matter," he says, "Abhor me" (5-6).
Exactly how long Iago has been capitalizing upon the gullibility of Roderigo, we do not know, but it is clear that Iago has no respect for Roderigo's intelligence. The guile he openly uses to stay in Roderigo's good stead is not even particularly crafty; blatantly, for example, he tells Roderigo, "I am not what I am" (65). Besides this statement being a capsule condemnation of Iago, it serves to point out that Roderigo trusts this man. Thus Roderigo gains a measure of our pity; he is a weak figure, probably victimized by everybody, not only in this matter of deceit.
Far more important, however, than catching our interest and establishing Iago's basic character, this opening scene sets forth the key elements of the tragedy's conflict: It reveals Iago's deep resentment toward Othello. There are at least a couple of interpretations of Iago's feelings toward Othello. One is that Iago had expected to be promoted to the rank of Othello's first lieutenant and tells Roderigo that three influential Venetians ("Three great ones of the city"), in fact, had recommended him to Othello. Instead, Othello chose Cassio, a man, Iago tells Roderigo, whose military ineptitude is an insult to Iago's proven superiority on the battlefield. The other interpretation is that Iago was never in contention for the position and that he makes up this entire set of circumstances including the unnamed "great ones" in order to convince Roderigo of his hate for Othello. This argument is bolstered by the facts that none of the other characters, including Othello and Emilia (Iago's wife), ever mention or allude to these facts, and, indeed, Iago never mentions them again.
Iago further points out to Roderigo that Cassio, the newly appointed lieutenant, is not a true soldier. He is not even a Venetian, Iago says, but, of course, neither is Othello. Cassio is a Florentine, Iago reminds Roderigo, which is a damning epithet condemning the city's reputation as being a collection of financiers and bookkeepers. What knowledge Cassio has of the battlefield, according to Iago, he gained from textbooks; in other words, he is a student, not a practitioner of battle. Even a spinster, Iago says, knows more of the "division of a battle" (23) than this "bookish theoric" (24). Compare this assessment of Cassio's military ability with the one Iago gives when he is talking to Montano, "He [Cassio] is a soldier fit to stand by Caesar / And give direction" (II, iii, 122).
Iago rankles at being Othello's ancient — that is, his ensign. Furthermore, there is nothing Iago can do about the situation: "there's no remedy" (35). He realizes that "preferment goes by letter and affection" (36) and not by "old gradation" (37) (the traditional order of society). But he will continue to appear to "serve" Othello so that eventually he can "serve [his] turn upon him" (42). Iago, however, is not bent on mere revenge. The extent and depth of his hate for Othello and his desire and willingness to totally destroy him require a motivation more compelling than having been passed over for this promotion. That motivation lies in the racial attitudes identified in the conversations, references, and defamatory images of the characters in this scene. This hatred for Othello consumes Iago, yet his motivations are less important to the plot and themes of the plan than the outcomes of his evil manipulations. In this scene, Iago reveals himself to Roderigo and the audience as a self-seeking, malicious individual who will use every device in order to attain his "peculiar end" (60).
Roderigo is the first to surface this racist attitude when he refers to Othello as "the thick-lips" (66); then, Iago, unsatisfied with Roderigo's ability to incense Brabantio, refers to Othello as "an old black ram" (88) who "is tupping your white ewe" (89) (Desdemona), "a Barbary horse" (111) and "the lascivious Moor" (126). And finally, in this scene, after having told Roderigo that he is not a welcome suitor for Desdemona, Brabantio learns that his daughter has eloped with Othello and says to Roderigo, "O, that you had had her!" Brabantio's sudden preference for Roderigo, who has already been proven somewhat a fool over Othello, has no obvious or logical base now or at anytime in the play other than the continually implied racism.
We learn that Brabantio has warned Roderigo "not to haunt about my doors" (96); "my daughter is not for thee" (98). Thus another dimension of this situation presents itself. Roderigo is not just a rich, lovesick suitor who is paying Iago good wages to further his case with the senator's daughter. Roderigo has been rejected by Brabantio as a candidate for Desdemona's hand — a fact that offers an interesting parallel: Iago has been denied his chance to become Othello's lieutenant, and Roderigo has been denied his chance to become a recognized suitor of Desdemona. Rejection and revenge, then, are doubly potent ingredients in this tragedy.
Iago is quick to realize that the timid Roderigo will never sufficiently raise the ire of Desdemona's father and, for this reason, he interrupts his patron and heaps even more insults on Othello. Yet — and this fact is important — Iago has still not named Othello as being the culprit, as being the man who kidnapped Desdemona and eloped with her. For example, Iago shouts out that Desdemona, at this moment, is being mounted by a "Barbary horse" (112). Brabantio's nephews, he says, will neigh, and, likewise, Brabantio's cousins will be "gennets" (113) (black Spanish horses). Still, however, he has not identified Othello by name; nor does he stress that it is Venice's General Othello who has absconded with Brabantio's daughter. This neglect on Iago's part — his failing to identify Othello — is dramatically important. Because Brabantio seems dense and uncomprehending, Iago can continue to curse Othello's so-called villainous nature and, thereby, reveal to the audience the depths of his (Iago's) own corruptness.
Iago's brazen assertions and Roderigo's timorous apologies for awakening Brabantio are finally effective. Brabantio comprehends what Iago and Roderigo are saying and, in fact, recalls a dream that foretold of just such a calamity. Dreams and omens of this sort are common in literature of this time and create the sense that fate somehow has a hand in the tragic events about to follow.
As Brabantio moves into action, calling for more lights and arousing members of his household, Iago steals away, but not before explaining his reasons for doing so: It must not be public knowledge that Iago himself is an enemy of Othello; if Iago's machinations are to be successful, he must outwardly "show out a flag and sign of love, / Which is indeed but sign" (157-158). Thus he will manage to stay in Othello's good graces. For this reason, he must go and rejoin his general.
In addition to this speech reminding us of Iago's dangerous, diabolical treachery, it also serves to inform us about Othello's significance to Venice. Othello is a superior public figure, one who will soon be summoned to end the Cyprian wars and a man upon whom the Venetian state depends for its safety. This fact is contained in Iago's comment that "another of his fathom they have none / To lead their business" (153-154). Othello is a man of high position, as well as one of high honor and one who is, therefore, worthy of being considered a tragic hero.
'sblood (4) [Obsolete] euphemism for by God's blood; used as an swearword.
bookish theoric (24) the student, not practitioner.
affined (39) [Obsolete] under obligation; bound.
cashiered (48) dismissed (but not necessarily without honor).
trimmed (50) [Obsolete] dressed up.
peculiar (60) private.
compliment extern (63) outward appearance.
daws (65) jackdaws or crows; here, fools.
thick-lips (66) the Moor.
Zounds (86) [Archaic] by God's wounds.
distemp'ring draughts (99) intoxicating drinks.
grange (106) an isolated farmhouse.
gennets for germans (113) Spanish for relatives.
accident (142) an occurrence.
Sagittary (158) the name of an inn.
deserve (183) reward.