This opening passage is very insightful of many aspects of the play. This including characters, themes and issues. It is a great introduction for the audience to get a critical insight of Othello, and the villainous Iago, and what the play holds later.
During this section the audience get a perfect persuasion and deviousness of the character Iago. This is the first example of the manipulation of events and perceptions of others during the play.
He has already succeeding in colouring Roderigo’s view of Othello’s marriage to Desdemona, doing so gaining his assistance.
‘Even now, now, very now, and old black ram is tupping your white ewe.'(1.1.89-90)
This vulgar and very graphic language turns Roderigo to a very racist terminology of Othello.
This is reflected when Roderigo uses a similar racist description; ‘To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor-‘ (1.1.13)
This is a perfect example of how the manipulative language of Iago rubs off onto other characters. This reflects a later example, Iago’s animalistic imagery, ‘goats and monkeys’, being reflected in the vocabulary of Othello later in the play.
‘O, I see that nose of yours, but not that dog I shall throw it to!’ (4.1.137-38)
Iago’s description and opinions of women also seem to brainwash Othello, he transforms Othello from describing his deep feelings for Desdemona, ‘How I thrive in this fair lady’s love,’ (1.3.125), to calling her appalling names, ‘Impudent Strumpet!’ (4.2.79)
This shows how Iago can contaminate characters with his vocabulary, the start of this being Roderigo and his opinions of black people, mixed race relationships and Othello as an individual. Even slight words can twist and manipulate.
Within these examples it is clear to see race and sex are going to be important issues in ‘Othello’. Lucille P.Fultz agrees with this statement claiming “By opening the play with Iago’s base commentary on Othello’s marriage, Shakespeare foregrounds marriage as the thematic and discursive issue in the play. Commenting on Iago’s influence and Othello’s vulnerability as an alien in Venice.”
However, although he may have physical and cultural differences surely this is no excuse for not asking Desdemona if she if being unfaithful. This would be a natural, worldly feeling, not affected by culture or physicality.
G.M.Matthews agrees with this stating Othello is “a great human being who …recognizes (within the limits of social role) only universal humane values of love and loyalty,”
In objection to the idea that Othello should have the same values as the Venetian characters, Iago puts doubt into Othello’s universal humane values through telling him it is typical for Venetian women to be unfaithful.
“I know our country disposition well: In Venice they do let God see the pranks They dare not show their husbands. Their best conscience Is not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown.” (3.3.203-206)
Also, this is not the first time he has been told of this type of behaviour. He was warned by her own father on trusting her.
“Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has deceived her father and may thee.”(1.3.288-29)
This shows how he would be unsure, and also how lines in the beginning of the play have significant meanings later on in the play.
However, Iago’s description of Othello may tell the audience more about him than Othello, because we are aware of his hatred towards Othello.
‘Though I do hate him as I do hell pains,’ (1.1.43)
We know he is plotting against him, which would make him a typical villain.
‘Yet for necessity of present life, I must show out a flag and sign of love.’ (1.1.45)
When looking at Iago it is not only what he says to persuade people but also how much he says. Richard Griffiths, a teacher at Bolton School Boys’ Division explains, “Someone analysing this extract from the point of discourse would be more interested by how much Iago says, rather than what he says. Shakespeare has a reason for allowing Iago to speak so much at the opening of this scene-it gives the audience an insight into the hatred for Othello that drives his scheming for the entire play-but it also reveals something about Iago’s position in this opening scene.”
This is not describing just the language Iago uses, but the fact he has so much to say about Othello shows how much he hates him.
Perhaps race is not the only objection Iago has to the union of Desdemona and Othello, the text suggests their maybe other reasons too. Iago’s responses to the feminine reveal a mixture of fear and loathing. Perhaps his hatred for Othello is the thought that Desdemona has power, she and Othello even managed to be married without his knowledge. However he is able to exact his revenge as later he and Othello have a symbolic marriage, which symbolises the end of any chance Othello and Desdemona have of surviving Iago’s plan.
“Witness that here Iago doth give up The execution of his wit, hands, heart, To wronged Othello’s service. Let him command, And to obey shall be in me remorse, What bloody business ever.” (3.3.465-69)
This quote is full of dramatic irony, the word ‘execution’ being associated with the heart especially. The idea of Iago offering his heart to Othello is absurd, he has no heart to be executed. For ‘Othello’s service’, he has shown no service to Othello, this would be loyalty and friendship, the exact opposite of Iago. The only truthful part of what Iago has said is “What bloody business ever.” This is very true however Othello gives little credence to the prophecy that Iago offers.
His sneering references to Desdemona as being the general’s “general” (2.3.310), he cannot bear the fact that a female can exert power; he despises Othello for giving into feminine emotions such as love. Later he overpowers Desdemona’s true love and replaces it with his false love by making her seem untrustworthy in Othello’s eyes and making him doubt her.
“Look to your wife, observe her well with Cassio; Wear your eyes thus: not jealous, nor secure.” (3.3.200-01)
This extract reveals Iago’s ability to improvise: he sets pace and controls the drama. It was his idea to wake up Brabantio earlier in the scene, and he continues this control by beginning the conversation with Brabantio in a rude and racist tone.
‘I am one, sir, that comes to tell your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.’ (1.1.2-3)
He starts as he means to go on, controlling characters and situating them for the benefit of his plan.
The discussion of race in ‘Othello’, which is opened in this scene, would have been normal for the audience. However, the difference would be Elizabethan audiences were used to black characters being villains; presentation of a new Moor must have raised many questions. Some critics have argued a black hero created by Shakespeare is to offer difference, on the other hand others claim it is to make Othello an outsider.
The idea of showing signs of love and loyalty to Othello but really having a plot against him is not foreign to Shakespearian tragedies. During ‘Macbeth’ Lady Macbeth has very similar concepts of this idea.
‘Look like the innocent flower but be the serpent underneath it.’ This idea has the name of the Machiavellian concept. This is the idea of knowing how to be deceitful but hiding it completely. This includes avoiding being hated by five qualities; mercy, honesty, humanness, uprightness and religiousness. So Lady Macbeth and Iago are part of typical Shakespearian tragedies to deceive and instigate their plans. Many similarities can be found in Macbeth and Othello, as they fit Aristotle’s definition of the Tragic Hero. Both are characterised by good and evil, they have a tragic flaw, (Othello jealousy and Macbeth ambition) a hubris, (Iago and Lady Macbeth) a journey, (Venice to Cyprus for Othello and Macbeth a return from battle and to and from the witches), someone people relate to, (because their tragic flaw, everyone has one), and the tragic hero always falls in the end, (Othello and Macbeth die, but also other main characters).
Other key features can be seen in ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Othello’ from order to disorder and they both go mad
The chaotic nature of the disruption in this scene has already lets the audience know that Othello and Desdemona’s marriage will be a future focal point for further disruptions, as these three characters react so strongly and perceive the union so negatively.
‘Belief of it oppresses me already,’ (1.1.31). The very thought leaves Brabantio disillusioned.
This opening scene is laced with dramatic irony, all of which centres on Iago. Roderigo fails to see that a man who admits he is a selfish fraud, and Brabantio is unaware how apt he is when he states, “Thou art a villain” (1.1.116)
Iago reveals himself very early and we watch him manipulate others. Although we hear racist remarks about Othello, and the length at which Iago talks about him (Richard Griffiths), we also hear of how he is a brilliantly effective soldier and the Venetian senate rely on him for this,
“For I know the state, However this may gall him with some check, Cannot safety cast him; for he’s embarked With such loud reason to the Cyprus wars, Which even now stands in act, that, for their souls, Another of his fathom they have none” (1.1.145-51).
Imagery of the sea and military heroism is often used to describe Othello. Also, the sea can represent his rough journey of love,
“To the Pontic Sea Whose icy current and compulsive course Ne’er feels retiring ebb but keeps due on To the Propontic and Hellespoint: Even so my bloody thoughts with the violent pace Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love” (3.3.456-61).
This scene represents the discord and contrasts that will follow. These contrasts are reflected in the imagery and setting, which show important themes and ideas in Othello; social disruption, black and white, delusion and knowledge and male and female sexuality.
At first glance this passage may not obviously offer much answers about future developments in the play. Supporting this idea, only three characters are presented in this passage, and the first scene. The main character, whose name is the title of the play, is not even present in it. However, when looking deeper the audience get one viewpoint of Othello that does make the audience more critical and wondering what their judgement will be of him. The contrasts through out this passage are reflected in the imagery and setting. Setting being the difference of a dark night with two different levels (balcony and ground), show how different class boundaries and a feeling of chaos, which is echoed later with the order of Venice being exchanged for the chaotic Cyprus.
The whole focal point of this section is the disruption caused by the marriage of Othello and Desdemona, which shows how this will be a large part of the play to come, as the three characters in this passage make such an event about it.
The urgency and initial confusion here underlines the idea this play is going to focus on conflict of some kind, centring on this black stranger. The audience is left wondering how this tension will be resolved, as we know there is evident dislike to Othello. Iago the villain has had already had success in getting his view of the Moor accepted, without the other characters even realising. Now the audience want to see this character for themselves. The depth of Iago’s character is so quickly displayed, with his clever vocabulary, imagery and even length of speech has such a large influence. Minor words or implications in this passage are signs of the developments that are to come in the play, but they are so discrete it is not a conscious clue, but when reflecting the key themes are present in the tone, language and imagery.