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Free Study Guide-Othello by William Shakespeare-Free Online Booknotes
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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

Act I, Scene 1

Summary

The play opens late at night on a street in Venice. Roderigo, a wealthy Venetian gentleman, is discussing the marriage of Desdemona, the daughter of Brabantio. Earlier in the evening, she had eloped with Othello, a Moor who is a respected General in the Venetian army. Roderigo is angry with Iago, for he has paid him a handsome sum to win the love of Desdemona for himself and to keep him informed of her love life.

Iago, like Roderigo, is a frustrated man. Othello has overlooked him for a promotion, giving the post of lieutenant to Cassio. Iago continues only as Othello’s standard bearer and an ensign in the navy. As a result, he has a grudge against both Othello and Cassio and vows to have revenge upon both of them.

At Iago’s suggestion, he and Roderigo go to wake up Brabantio and tell him about the elopement of his daughter. Iago is very bawdy in his descriptions. The old Venetian Senator is very angry that his sleep has been disturbed with such news, but he searches his house and finds that his daughter is missing. Coming downstairs, Brabantio is a mess, not thinking clearly and speaking in half-sentences. He bemoans the fact that he did not encourage Roderigo as his daughter’s suitor. He also demands to know where he can find Othello.

Iago quietly slips away from the scene. He does not want Othello to know anything about the part he played in inciting Brabantio; to make his plans work, Iago must stay in the good graces of Othello and appear to be a loyal ensign. Before leaving, he tells Roderigo that Othello and Desdemona are staying at the Sagittary Inn. Roderigo offers to take Brabantio there.

Notes

Othello is a tragedy of love; however, the play does not begin with a direct introduction of the lovers. Instead, the play begins, and Desdemona and Othello are introduced, with a conversation between Iago and Roderigo. Iago, the villain of the play, has been liberally taking Roderigo’s money and spending it freely. He is supposed to have used the money to help Roderigo in securing Desdemona as his wife. Now, Roderigo is furious that Desdemona has eloped with Othello, whom he calls "thick lips," and Iago has not even informed him of their courtship. Iago swears that he has not had even the remotest idea of their love or plans for eloping, and he apologizes deeply for his failure. He does not want Roderigo to be angry with him, for he likes the man’s money.


This opening conversation does much to depict the characters of Roderigo and Iago. The former is not very intelligent, for he is easily swindled out of money and actually trusts the sly Iago. Although wealthy, he is a weak and gullible man who is probably swindled often. On the other hand, Iago is pictured as a determined man who knows what he wants. He is also shown to be intelligent, with an excellent insight into human nature. He has no respect for Roderigo and simply uses him for monetary reasons. Iago also has no respect for Othello. In fact, he has a deep hatred for him. He had high hopes that he would be promoted to the position of Othello’s first lieutenant, for he had been highly recommended to Othello and had proven his skill as a soldier on the battlefields of Rhodes and Cyprus. In spite of Iago’s qualifications, Cassio has been chosen over him. In Iago’s opinion, Cassio is weak and fit only for the company of ladies; his knowledge of battle comes from books, and he is not even a Venetian. Iago obviously detests Cassio as much as he detests Othello. He wants revenge on both of them. The path that leads to revenge has already presented itself in his wicked imagination, and in the gullible Roderigo, Iago finds a willing tool to execute his plan.

Iago’s hatred of Othello is heightened by the fact that he is a Moor. He cannot believe that Desdemona would marry a black man, and he tauntingly tells Brabantio, in crude terms, that his daughter has already yielded "to the gross clasp of a lascivious Moor. . .Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe". Desdemona is portrayed as having engaged herself in a "gross revolt" against her father, her family, and her society at large by marrying the black Othello. The theme of racial tension casts its ominous shadow over the entire action of this tragedy.

It is important to note how masterfully Shakespeare develops this opening scene of Othello. It sets the stage for the entire play, revealing the time, place, and Background Information of the plot. It also introduces the traits of the major characters, some in person and some through conversation. It also introduces the Themes of appearance vs. reality, romantic love, and deception. Finally, it foreshadows the action of the play, driven by the hatred and revenge of Iago, which is clearly established in Act I, Scene 1.

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