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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
ACT II, SCENE I
The action moves for the rest of the play to the island of Cyprus.
Fear and anticipation grip the people of Cyprus. A violent storm is raging off the coast. Montano, the governor of Cyprus whom Othello will replace, looks anxiously out to sea. Will the Turkish fleet make it to port, or will the storm destroy their ships?
The good news arrives soon: the war is over! The Turkish fleet, badly damaged by the storm, is retreating, and the threat to Cyprus is over.
It may seem strange that Shakespeare makes so much of the war in Act I and then drops it after the first few lines of Act II. We saw how the war is used to show Othello's importance to the Venetian government. It also provides Shakespeare with a good excuse to move the main characters-particularly Desdemona-away from Venice, where much of the rest of the story will depend on her isolation and vulnerability. Now that we have accepted Othello's good standing in the community, Shakespeare can continue his story without the interruptions the war-or Desdemona's family-might bring.
Cassio arrives. His ship was separated from Othello's in the storm, and no one's certain that Othello's safe. Cassio prays for the general's safety and describes Desdemona admiringly to Montano.
This is our first real look at Cassio, since he had little to do or say in Act I. What is your first impression of him? He seems sincerely concerned for Othello and loyal to him. He also seems a good choice for lieutenant, especially as compared to Iago, who's cynical and slippery. In short, Othello has probably made a wise choice in Cassio.
Cassio's description of Desdemona shows him to be polite and respectful of her. There's no hint, as Iago will later claim, that Cassio has a sexual interest in her; his admiration comes from distance, and is full of worship, not lust.
Desdemona arrives with Iago, Emilia, and a disguised Roderigo. Desdemona's first words are to inquire about her husband. Imagine her disappointment when she learns that Othello is still at sea. Cassio is offering her words of comfort when another ship is spotted.
As the group waits to see if the ship is Othello's, they pass the time by bickering playfully about women and men's attitudes toward them. The discussion begins when Cassio (who seems a charming but harmless flirt) politely kisses Emilia. Iago comments sarcastically about her bad temper and chattering tongue, and Desdemona asks him to make up some rhymes about different kinds of women. Although it's all in the spirit of fun, Iago's poems show that he's as cynical about women as he is about people in general.
Ironically, Iago-the ultimate hypocrite-accuses women of behaving pleasantly in public and unpleasantly at home. Desdemona accuses him of lewd thoughts, but it's clear that everyone expects this attitude from Iago.
Iago hasn't forgotten his evil purpose, for all the fun he seems to be having. When Cassio courteously takes Desdemona's hand and kisses it, Iago sees that his job-making Othello jealous of Cassio-will be easy.
At last Othello arrives, and what joy the lovers feel at being reunited after long and dangerous voyages! Their first words to each other express how much they care. Othello says that if he were to die now, it would be at the peak of his happiness. Can anyone doubt this couple is in love?
To them it must seem as if the future holds nothing but promise. The war is over, they are together in Cyprus-a place where Othello is respected and loved-and their long-delayed honeymoon is about to begin. They don't suspect their most trusted friend is moving to disrupt their harmony.
Iago moves quickly. He pulls Roderigo aside and begins to convince him that Desdemona is already planning an affair with Cassio. Roderigo can't believe it. He can see as well as anyone that Desdemona and Othello are in love.
Iago takes up his old argument. The relationship between them is unnatural and therefore doomed. Desdemona will soon get tired of this unattractive older man and begin to look for someone young and handsome. Who better than Cassio? Iago points to Cassio's polite kiss as proof that their adulterous affair has already begun.
Roderigo accepts Iago's lies because he desperately wants to believe that he has a chance with Desdemona. His eyes tell him she's virtuous, but Iago swears she isn't. Roderigo sees the truth behind the mask: Desdemona looks pure, and she is. But Iago eventually convinces Roderigo that the mask is a lie.
The plot moves a step further. Cassio is scheduled for guard duty tonight. If Roderigo can pick a fight with him, Cassio will be disgraced, and the people of Cyprus will demand that he be fired. The result?
Desdemona will turn to Roderigo after Cassio is gone, and Iago will see Cassio-whose job he covetshumiliated. Roderigo agrees to the plan.
Alone, Iago thinks over his plot. Remember that he's a great improviser, and makes up a lot of details as his whim and opportunity allow. He isn't even sure of the outcome; he only knows he wants to hurt Othello.
Iago reveals more of what's on his mind. 1) He's certain that Cassio and Desdemona love each other. (We've seen that he thinks all women cheat on their husbands.) 2) He loves Desdemona himself, not simply out of lust, but because of the rumors that Othello has slept with Emilia! These rumors have so gnawed away at Iago's imagination that he feels he should sleep with Desdemona as an act of revenge. Or, if that's impossible, he wants to make Othello crazy with jealousy. 3) Iago suspects that Cassio and Emilia have slept together, too. Disgracing Cassio and convincing Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful will mean revenge on two people Iago thinks have hurt him.
What are we to make of Iago now? What's happened to his original claim that he hates Othello because of losing the lieutenantship to Cassio? Was that just an excuse to cover the real truth, a truth his pride wouldn't let him admit-that Othello once slept with Emilia? We have seen that Iago doesn't treat
Emilia very well, although that wouldn't keep him from resenting Othello for having taken his place in Emilia's bed.
And does Iago truly suspect Cassio of having been to bed with Emilia, or does his suspicious nature move him to distrust everyone?
Many readers feel that Iago grabs at any excuse to defend his evil deeds, that he is a naturally wicked man whose actions can't be fully explained. Like many villains in literature, he seems to love evil for its own sake and for the damage it can bring to others. The excuses he offers sometimes seem contradictory because he is at loss to explain his behavior to himself.
Other readers feel that he is motivated primarily by an intense, singleminded hatred of Othello. There are several explanations for this hatred: 1) Othello's race; 2) Othello's achievements; 3) his success with Desdemona; 4) his open and trusting nature, which Iago sees as a human character flaw.
Both of these theories can be defended by the text. Iago is fascinating because he's so complex. There's no single, simple way to view him.
Whatever theory you choose to explain Iago (and it may be a combination of these or one of your own), you will agree that he is clever and determined. We watch Iago as we would a snake devour a mouse-with fascination and repulsion.