Literature Study GuidesOthelloAct 1 Scene 1 Summary

Othello | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Othello | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Shakespeare wrote Othello in five acts, further divided into scenes. This study guide provides summary and analysis for each scene.

Summary

The play opens on a street in Venice in the latter half of the 16th century; Roderigo is arguing with Iago, an ensign (or ancient, the third in command) under Othello's command. Roderigo is a silly young gentleman who has been trying unsuccessfully to court Desdemona. Iago has been taking Roderigo's money and promising him help to win over Desdemona (and her father). But Roderigo has just heard of the elopement Desdemona and Othello, and he is outraged. Iago plays along with the outrage, saying he hates the "Moor" (Othello) for promoting Cassio to lieutenant ahead of him. Iago convinces Roderigo he can still win Desdemona, if he keeps letting Iago help.

Iago suggests to Roderigo that they should work together to get back at Othello. They first go to the home of Desdemona's father, Brabantio, and from the darkness outside, crudely describe how Othello has made away with Desdemona, enraging Brabantio. Iago leaves before his identity can be revealed, because he wants to keep up appearances that he is Othello's friend. Brabantio confirms that Desdemona has run away and insists on going with Roderigo to find her and Othello.

Analysis

The first scene establishes the situation and setting of the play, as well as the character that will drive the action of the play. An event previous to the first scene is very important to the situation, or context, of the plot: Brabantio's daughter, Desdemona, has eloped with a "Moor" who has not yet been named aloud (but is Othello of the title). This inciting event sets into motion the rest of the play, as Othello's relationship with Desdemona becomes the focus of the drama.

Setting is very important in this play, especially because it begins with an expansive setting (as characters move easily from place to place) and ends in a very constricted one. The play begins outdoors, in the public sphere: on a street in Venice.

Finally, right away in the play the audience meets Iago, one of Shakespeare's most famous villains. He tells the audience what he is up to: "I am not what I am," he says, drawing upon the biblical description God gives himself in the book of Exodus (Exodus 3:14), "I am who I am" (New Revised Standard version). Adding not to this formula suggests Iago is a Satan figure, and so he proves to be. Iago never identifies himself to Brabantio. As his identity is concealed, his true self is concealed.

Iago's method of villainy is also revealed in this scene. He appeals to different people by pretending to have something in common with them, or by framing himself as a trusted friend, helper, and confidante. He finds what motivates them—what drives them to act—and leverages it for his own ends. He commiserates with Roderigo's sense of outrage and envy, by explaining that he, too, has been wronged by Othello. He appeals to Brabantio's paternalism and racial prejudice, comparing Othello to an animal and using the crudest language to cause Brabantio to visualize Othello and Desdemona having sex: "an old black ram/is tupping your white ewe" and "your daughter and the Moor are (now) making the beast with/two backs." Iago will continue to show a flair for quickly identifying what will cause a person to take the action he desires.

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