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Literature Study GuidesOthelloAct 1 Scene 1 Summary

Othello | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Act 1, Scene 1

Professor Bradley Greenburg of Northeastern Illinois University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 1, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare's play Othello.

Othello | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary


Othello is composed of five acts, further divided into scenes. This study guide provides summary and analysis for each scene.


The play opens on a street in Venice. Roderigo, who's been courting Desdemona, is talking to Iago, who's been taking his money and promising to help him win her over. Iago has just informed him that Othello, his commanding officer, has just eloped with Desdemona. Roderigo is outraged, and Iago confides in him that he hates the Moor for promoting Michael Cassio to lieutenant ahead of him. We find out that it's late at night and they're in front of Desdemona's house. Iago reassures Roderigo that they will work together to get back at Othello. Together they shout at Brabantio, Desdemona's father, using sexually suggestive, racist language to warn him that his daughter has run away. Brabantio comes to the window and is outraged at such wild accusations, until he checks and finds her gone. Iago leaves before his identity is revealed so that he can stay in Othello's good graces. Brabantio raises a search party and Roderigo goes along.


The opening scene establishes the setting and initial conflict of the play, as well as the characters who will drive its action. Beginning in the wake of Othello and Desdemona's elopement, Shakespeare creates strong forward momentum as characters react to this precipitating event. This relationship—between Othello, the dark-skinned outsider, and Desdemona, the desirable young Venetian woman—is at the center of the drama. The setting of act one, Venice, is crucial. Only in such a cosmopolitan city could a Moor risk such a marriage. Iago is characterized from the very beginning as a resourceful villain. He gulls Roderigo into doing his dirty work and he fools Othello into believing he's his most honest, loyal follower. Perhaps most intriguing is Iago's insistence that he's only leading people to follow their natural inclination. His method of villainy is also revealed in this scene.

Iago appeals to different people by feigning loyalty, or by framing himself as a trusted friend and confidante. He discovers what motivates them and leverages it for his own ends. For example, he commiserates with Roderigo's 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.

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