In the opening act of the play, Shakespeare creates suspense and excitement, at once immersing the observer in intrigue and conspiracy. Shakespeare throws his audience directly into a conversation, introducing some of the major themes and concerning issues of the play. Furthermore, by centering the dialogue and action around the characters of Othello and Desdemona, without yet having presented them to the audience in person, Shakespeare increases our desire to become more engrossed in the play.
Shakespeare’s decision to make a black man a tragic hero was bold although not original. In this play, Othello is the black man in a white man’s society – the notion of black and white being the best contrast between the two characters, although the notional colours are inverted in the play (Othello/good = white; Iago/evil = black). It is true to say that in Elizabethan times, most theatre-goers would probably never have seen a black person, and the concept of such a person in a powerful position, let alone a powerful position in a white society, would have been totally alien to them.
From the outset, we find Iago manipulating Roderigo – the only character to which he speaks frankly. He clearly understands people’s weaknesses, and has no compunction in exploiting those weaknesses to the full. Through the initial dialogues, we discover that Iago is a great speaker, and all good speakers need an audience. Roderigo (Iago’s audience) appreciates the villainous qualities of his colleague. However, Shakespeare permits Iago to entice us with his charm and energy, and almost traps us into admiring his evilness and manipulation. As this develops the audience have to bear in mind his plainly spoken words; “I am not what I am.” And by the end of the first act we realise the true nature and position of Iago as; “..I do hate him as I do hell-pains/Yet for necessity of present life.”
Othello, on the other hand, doesn’t have Iago’s speaking qualities, but instead, relies on his honesty and openness to win people over. He has nothing to hide. Iago is the skilled politician who avoids a direct answer to a question, whereas, Othello is the administrator/monarch – loved and respected by his people, but unable to communicate succinctly. In his opening lines, his speech seems to come from a man who wastes no words, but who can make each word sound full of purpose and it can almost be said that Othello is, perhaps a bad speaker. However, at the play’s beginning, Othello’s gifts for articulate speech equal his military prowess, which symbolize confidence and when faced with the charge of witchcraft, Othello reveals his passive, yet effective, abrupt nature;
“She’ld come again, and with a greedy ear/Devour up my discourse…”
When at last, we meet Othello, it is in Iago’s company, but it is a very different Iago from the one to whom we are initially introduced. If the audience had not had some hint of Iago’s real nature, they could consider his opening words to Othello, as those of a decent, honest, courageous and loyal man.
“Nine or ten times/I had thought t’have yerked him here, under the ribs.”
Throughout the play, the characters follow the biased thoughts of a white society towards black people – which is the same, some 400 years later. Othello is often accused of witchcraft and unnatural powers – possibly the only weapon an ill-educated society possesses to use against someone whose culture we do not quite understand. In response to his accusers, Othello replies using the language associated with him. His calm reasoning and studied delivery counter-balances that of the wicked Iago. Shakespeare’s masterly use of the language, immediately gives Othello a modest and sympathetic behaviour, which, on the one hand, increases the audiences’ sympathy towards his tragic downfall. This (almost) simplicity of line helps to establish his powerful presence as a black man in white man’s society;
“Keep up your bright swords, for the dews will rust them.”
It is almost as though Iago cannot help himself from becoming involved in intrigue. Does he really wish to become the governor of Cyprus, or is he simply addicted to causing mischief?
“Even now, now, very now an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe.”
Shakespeare uses the theme of racial tension to teach his audience to be more tolerant of things that are strange to us. This proves to us that nothing is new in the world. The prejudices of modern society have hardly changed since Shakespeare’s time. It is introduced in the crudest way possible. This is linked to the bestial imagery of which we come to identify with Iago’s way of looking at the human world. We already start to feel the confidence, energy and wit, which combine to form the essential elements of Iago’s personality. The rhythm of his lines contrasts greatly with the constant whining of Roderigo and as he continues, the tones and implications of Iago’s speech become more serious and almost contain an essence of evil;
“We cannot all be masters, nor all masters/Cannot be truly followed.”
Shakespeare’s scene, Act 1 scene 3 reaches a tragic climax where, as the audience will come to witness, at the end of the play, Othello becomes the accuser, and the criminal. At present Iago is explaining his trade, falls slowly into metaphors connected with the violent floods, a metaphor that eventually turns into a storm in Act 2;
“It engendered./Hell and night/Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.”
Incidentally, the imagery of sea was one that was linked with Othello earlier on in the play and traditionally this is associated with power, mystery and strangeness, ironically attributes of Iago.
In conclusion, after the clamour and tension of the test of Othello, the act ends with a quiet discussion between Roderigo and the ‘honest’ Iago, a word that he himself has built up, for his own purposes. Iago appears to be completely convinced that he knows what makes him so superior to everyone else. Above all, the solution to every problem is to ‘put money in thy purse’. Iago plainly states to the audience, ‘I hate the Moor’ and to declare this hatred, Iago proceeds to say that he will have his revenge on the Moor, regardless of whether the reason he has given is right or not.
The first Act is merely there to provide intrigue to the audience to continue watching the play. Shakespeare introduces the play, much like his other, in mid conversation, immediately gripping the audience. The first Act is the exposition for the whole play; the introduction of both protagonists, Iago and Othello, as well an insight into some of the major themes that result in Othello’s downfall, themes portrayed in a way that would have shocked the Elizabethan audience – shocked, but intrigued. Consequently the first Act sees the entrance of Iago, who essentially writes the play’s main plot, takes a key part in it, and gives first-hand direction to the others, most notably to the noble Moor, Othello.