Summary and Analysis
Act I: Scene 3
Several reports have come in from Cyprus, all calling attention to a Turkish fleet that is expected to attack. The reports differ in the size of the fleet, but all speak of the danger as the combined force has turned back toward Cyprus. Othello enters the meeting with Cassio, Brabantio, Iago, and others, and the Duke immediately appoints Othello to lead the forces to defend Cyprus.
At this point, the Duke notices Brabantio, who believes that his daughter has been corrupted with magic potions because, according to him, she wound never willingly marry such a man as she did. Initially, the Duke promises him support in a prosecution for witchcraft, a capital crime, against the man who has seduced his daughter, but when the Duke realizes the seducer is Othello, he calls on the general to defend himself.
Othello describes his courtship of Desdemona in a dignified and persuasive speech (76-93 and 127-169) and asks the Duke to send for Desdemona so that she may speak. Iago leads the group that goes to fetch her. When Othello finishes speaking, the Duke declares in favor of Othello: "I think this tale would win my daughter too" (170). Desdemona then speaks, gently outlining an argument so strong that it finishes the whole debate: She owes obedience and thanks to her father for her upbringing, but now that she is married, her loyalty is to her husband, just as her mother's loyalty was to Brabantio. Fathers must give way to husbands.
Othello must go immediately to Cyprus to command its defense, and Desdemona requests to go as well. The Duke grants her wish, and Othello, who must leave that night, delegates Iago to follow later in another ship, bringing Desdemona and whatever else is needed. Iago's wife, Emilia, will look after Desdemona as her maid. As Othello leaves. Brabantio warns Othello, "She has deceived her father, and may thee" (289), but Othello is certain of Desdemona's faithfulness.
Iago and Roderigo are left on stage. Roderigo is downcast and talks of drowning himself. Iago replies with scorn that such misery is silliness and convinces Roderigo to go to Cyprus and wait for Desdemona to come to him, as she will surely soon become bored with Othello. Iago, because he hates Othello, says he will help Roderigo have Desdemona and reminds Roderigo to bring plenty of money.
Iago, alone on stage, considers the situation: He has consolidated his source of money, and he has heard a rumor that Othello has had sex with his wife, Emilia. Although he does not believe the rumor, he will act as though he does to feed his hatred. Also Iago will aim to get Cassio's position of lieutenant, which he thinks should have come to him.
During the military discussion, the audience discovers that Cyprus is of supreme value to the Venetians, and it is vital that it remain under Venetian control for protection of sea trade. Therefore, when command is conferred on Othello, the Duke is making a public statement that Venice relies on him completely. Othello rightly feels confident; whatever his marriage arrangements, he knows that the Senators will back him because they need him.
After they deal with the military crisis, the Senators consider how to avenge an injustice done to one of their members: Brabantio. By the time he arrives at the emergency meeting, Brabantio's rage has turned to grief, and the Senators treat Brabantio's grief as a personal loss, rather than a public matter. They think his daughter must have died, and, for Brabantio, it is as if she had died. He believes that she has so gone against nature that witchcraft must be to blame. The Duke, speaking with sympathetic indignation, promises Brabantio that he shall judge the offender, even if it were the Duke's own son: "the bloody book of law / You shall yourself read in the bitter letter / After your own sense" (68-69). This declaration is significant because witchcraft was a capital crime; the law on this topic was indeed "bloody" dealing with how a witch was to be tortured and eventually executed. Yet the Duke's rash promise to Brabantio immediately rebounds when Brabantio points to Othello: "Here is the man: this Moor" (71). Suddenly the commander appointed to save Venice from her enemies is under risk of execution. The Senate risks losing a war to satisfy one man's desire for revenge, so the Duke hopes that Othello can justify his actions.
Othello's defense speech is in two parts: the first (76-93) establishes him as a soldier successful in the service of Venice and respectful of the great men of the city, and the second (127-169) describes how stories of his adventures won Desdemona's interest and then her love.
Othello begins with words of respect for the Senate; "Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors, / My very noble and approved good masters" (76-77) and then acknowledges the obvious: He has married Brabantio's daughter. He declares he is a soldier with no skill in making speeches: "Rude am I in my speech / And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace" (81-82). This is an extraordinary declaration, appearing as it does within a very dignified and elegantly expressed speech that shows that Othello does indeed know how to express himself. Othello's elegant speeches come at psychologically important moments in his life: When he is under pressure, he summons up his strength, faces his situation, and presents his case in beautifully expressed images. The ability to compose himself and to give a speech under pressure has been a valued quality in a military leader. Othello uses that military ability here in defense of his private life.
Othello fills in the background: he has been a soldier in the field from the age of seven until nine months ago, when he came back to Venice. He says: "I will a round unvarnished tale deliver / Of my whole course of love" (90-91), round being a natural shape, like a stone or an apple, and unvarnished, without ornamentation. As he is charged with using magic, he will tell what magic he used, knowing that he used none.
At this point Shakespeare breaks off Othello's awaited speech for Brabantio's reflections on Desdemona and a discussion of court procedure. By making the audience wait once again to hear how the lady was won, Shakespeare increases the tension, making Othello's final speech all the more impressive.
Brabantio is not the first father to have an unrealistic view of his daughter and to be shocked when she seeks a lover or a husband that does not meet his image or expectations. He assumes with no evidence that a black face is "what she feared to look on" (98). He is blinded by his own prejudices, and he ascribes them to Desdemona, painting the picture of a daughter who could not possibly fall in love with a black man. His reasoning here seems to go thusly: racially mixed, intimate relationships are evil and entered into by good people through witchcraft; his daughter is good and shares his views; therefore, she was forced into this relationship with Othello by witchcraft.
The Duke responds with relief, recognizing that Brabantio's evidence is tenuous and that he has produced no actual proof of witchcraft. He sees Brabantio's evidence as "thin habits (insubstantial outward appearances) and poor likelihoods" (108). The Senator follows this up with a direct question: Did Othello use witchcraft to win the lady's love, or did he court her in the usual way, "as soul to soul" (113)?
All attention is now on Othello, who introduces his defense with endearing simplicity: "So justly to your grave ears I'll present / How I did thrive in this fair lady's love, / And she in mine." Othello explains that, when Brabantio invited him into his house, he would have a glimpse of family life in a cultured Venetian household, a strong contrast with the rough and ready life of a soldier on campaign. Brabantio put him at his ease and encouraged him to speak of his life and adventures. Although Othello has said that he cannot speak easily, it is as a speaker that Brabantio and his daughter appreciated him.
Othello tells the story of his life. A fighter since his early years, he was "taken by the insolent foe / And sold to slavery" (136). Shakespeare makes Othello's story rich in visual detail, but he distorts geographic facts for dramatic effect. Slave trading was part of general trade along the shipping routes of East and North Africa, and many slaves were sold in markets in the cities of the Middle East. Othello was redeemed from slavery — by whom and for what reason are not revealed — and was left far from his homeland, facts which probably contributed to his career choice as a professional soldier. Othello also describes his adventures fighting on sea and land.
Othello's speech helps us — and the Senators — understand why Desdemona has fallen in love with him. He capably presents to the Duke and the others a portrait of himself as a man who has spent almost all of his life in the field as a successful, active soldier. He asserts that Desdemona would hear these stories and she would "devour up my discourse" (149). Then, Othello explains, following an intimate tale of "some distressed stroke / That my youth suffer'd" (157-158) and bringing her to tears weeping in sympathy at stories so strange and pitiful, she declared that "she wish'd / That heaven had made her such a man" (162-163). Desdemona's intention is clear in telling Othello that his story could win her love: "[I]f I had a friend that lov'd her, I should but teach him to tell my story, and that would woo her" (164-166). This is a transparently disguised declaration of her love for him and her encouragement for his proposal.
This description of Desdemona, depicting a young woman who knows exactly what she wants and reaches out for it, contrasts markedly with Brabantio's fond notion of a quiet, still small daughter. Othello knows what she will say and speaks confidently and directly: "Here comes the lady, let her witness it" (170). Even before Desdemona speaks, it is clear that Othello has successfully defended himself when the Duke says: "I think this tale would win my daughter too" (171). Brabantio is stunned by the Duke's revelation and attempts to buttress his position when he remarks, "If she confess that she was half the wooer, / Destruction on my head, if my bad blame / Light on the man!" (176) In fact, Brabantio does not put the pertinent question to her. He retreats to a more formal position and asks her to whom she owes most obedience. This question places the debate in the abstract realm of perceptions and customs about the proper relationship between young women and the men in their lives. Brabantio can expect that the Senators will side with fathers in matters of disobedient daughters and that their opinion will turn to his advantage.
Considering that the play is set approximately in the late sixteenth century, Desdemona's defense of her actions is remarkably forthright, spirited, and courageous. Her ten brief lines are models of concise rationale. Hers, she says, was and is a "divided duty": She remains bound to her noble father for her "life and education"; he remains her "lord of duty," and she will always honor him as such. Now, however, she has a husband, and she will give all her loyalty to her husband, just as her mother gave her loyalty to Brabantio. "And so much duty as my mother show'd / To you, preferring you before her father, / So much I challenge, that I may profess, / Due to the Moor my lord" (186-188). In other words, fathers must give way to husbands.
Desdemona's argument, which sweeps personal matters into general principles, carries the day, and Brabantio abandons his accusation. He does not concede that he was wrong, only that he cannot answer it. He never puts to question her participation in the courtship or the matter of witchcraft, which was his original accusation. Nor does he ask her how she could marry a man whom he thinks should disgust her. Simply he gives up, "I have done" (189 and 198) and abandons Desdemona and the whole idea of fatherhood. Brabantio's stubbornness is an integral part of his personality. He is not a fool, however: He is a man who is losing power, and there is no way he can accommodate that loss while retaining his self respect. The Duke's attempts at conciliation fall on deaf ears.
Desdemona, having embarked on marriage with Othello, wishes to accompany him into the field of war as a faithful wife. " . . . [I]f I be left behind, / A moth of peace, and he go to the war, / The rites for which I love him are bereft me, / And I a heavy interim shall support, / By his dear absence. Let me go with him" (255-259). The word "dear" here means "closely felt." Desdemona longs to be with her husband, for the rites of marriage, for sexual intimacy, and she finishes with a direct request: let me go with him. The directness of this request takes even Othello by surprise. Of course he wants his wife with him, and for the same reasons, and he supports her request, expressing it in a more socially acceptable manner: " . . . I therefore beg it not / To please the palate of my appetite, / Nor to comply with heat, . . . But to be free and bounteous of her mind" (261-265).
The Duke tells Othello that he can make what arrangements he likes. The important thing is that he must leave this very night because "th' affair calls [for] haste" (277). Desdemona is somewhat taken aback by this order. But notice the Moor's reply: He loves her "with all [his] heart" (279). Truly, as the Duke notes to Brabantio, Othello "is far more fair than black" (291). Immediately, there remains only for the Moor to leave some trusted officer behind, one who will see that Desdemona is brought to Cyprus safely. Tragically, Othello chooses the very man whom he can trust least in all the world — "honest Iago" (295).
Brabantio is crushed; he is a defeated man who realizes that the Moor neither stole nor bewitched his daughter. However, he will never understand how his "jewel" (195) renounced all his paternal guidance and secretly married a man of a different race and nation. He leaves with a parting warning to Othello: "Look to her, Moor, have a quick eye to see: / She has deceiv'd her father, may do thee." (292-293). These last words to Othello in this scene are important. They are packed with irony and provide, in part, an example of dramatic presaging. Desdemona does not deceive Othello, but before long Othello will be so convinced that she has deceived him that he will murder her. Othello's reply to Brabantio is likewise ironic: He vows, "my life upon her faith!" (295). Shortly, he will take his own life because of his lack of faith in her faith — in her innocent, chaste fidelity.
In a soliloquy that ends the act, Iago introduces a second motive for his hatred of Othello; he says that it is common gossip that the Moor "'twixt my sheets . . . [has] done my office" (393-394) and, for Iago, "mere suspicion . . . will do . . . for surety" (395-396). It need hardly be pointed out here that we are listening to a man whose mind is poisoned. There is not the slightest bit of evidence anywhere in this play to indicate that Othello has had an affair with Emilia. Iago also reveals his next malicious plan of action. Aware that Othello trusts him, he will convince the Moor that Cassio is "too familiar" (402) with Desdemona. Othello, he says, "is of a free and open nature" (405); precisely, in Iago's words, Othello is an "ass" — naive, in other words, and we recall that Othello himself has already admitted that he knows "little of this great world . . . [except that which] pertains to feats of broils and battle" (86-87). In the final couplet, which contains the reference to "hell and night" (409) and to "monstrous birth" (410), we sense Iago rubbing his hands in glee; we see all too clearly the unnaturalness and the diabolical elements of his plans to destroy the union of Othello and Desdemona.
The witchcraft accusation raises the question, What constitutes evidence and proof of wrongdoing and what does not? Othello survived an accusation made by a man who believed the facts supported his accusation, simply because his inflamed prejudices allowed him no other possible explanation. Brabantio made the accusation of witchcraft against Othello with no solid evidence, and on the basis of Desdemona's testimony the charge was dismissed. Later in the play, Othello will commit the same error incited much for the same reasons by making a baseless accusation with equal conviction that he is right.
Othello defends himself against Brabantio's accusation by personal statement and by calling Desdemona to testify. This strategy saves him from the false condemnation. Yet later in the play, as he accuses Desdemona without specifying the accusation until too late, he will deny her the opportunity to speak to defend herself or to call on Cassio to testify. Othello, blinded by emotion, has not learned from his own experience, and the consequences will be disastrous.
Act I, Scene 3 is the first of the very long scenes, where much detailed development happens. Event after event is presented in quick succession, giving the impression of accelerated movement and excitement. Time in Othello is presented as passing very quickly, but a careful examination shows almost no markers to indicate what day it is or how each scene relates to the others in terms of time. There are three such long scenes in Othello: this one; Act III, Scene 3, in which Iago makes Othello jealous; and Act V, Scene 2, which contains the murder and explanations. Their emotional intensity structurally unites the drama.
In Europe between the fourteenth and the end of the eighteenth centuries, three unity issues for drama were developed and debated, based on Aristotle's "Unity of Action" theory: (1) unity of time, meaning that all the episodes or actions happen within very close time frame of a day or so; (2) unity of place, meaning the episodes or actions happen near or in close proximity to each other; and (3) unity of action, meaning each episode or action relates to episodes and actions preceding and following it. These unity issues never became rules or standards that playwrights had to or did particularly follow, but they were known and may help the reader understand the relationship of the scenes in Othello.
composition (1) consistency.
jump (5) agree.
article (11) substance.
assay (18) a test.
in false gaze (19) looking the wrong way.
brace (24) stance of defense.
Ottomites (33) Turks.
restem (37) steer again.
frank appearance (38) no attempt to conceal.
engluts (57) [Archaic] devours.
mountebanks (61) charlatans who sell quack medicine.
rude (81) unpolished.
credit (97) reputation.
portance (139) [Archaic] one's bearing or demeanor; behavior.
anters (140) [Archaic] caves.
idle (140) barren.
Anthropophagi (144) man-eaters; cannibals.
grise (200) a degree or step.
fortitude (222) fortification.
besort (238) suitable company.
quality (251) profession.
a moth of peace (256) A useless creature living a luxurious life.
defend (266) forbid.
indign (273) [Obsolete] unworthy.
hyssop (323) a fragrant herb.
sequestration (347) separation.
coloquintida (351) a bitter fruit.
plume up (396) to gratify.