English / Othello

Othello

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Autor:  anton  30 October 2010
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Context

Ohe most influential writer in all of English literature, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to a successful middle-class glove-maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582 he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical acclaim quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) and James I (ruled 1603–1625), and he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare’s company the greatest possible compliment by bestowing upon its members the title of King’s Men. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare’s death, literary luminaries such as Ben Jonson hailed his works as timeless.

Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare’s life, but the dearth of biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare’s personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact and from Shakespeare’s modest education that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates—but the support for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.

In the absence of credible evidence to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.

Othello was first performed by the King’s Men at the court of King James I on November 1, 1604. Written during Shakespeare’s great tragic period, which also included the composition of Hamlet (1600), King Lear (1604–5), Macbeth (1606), and Antony and Cleopatra (1606–7), Othello is set against the backdrop of the wars between Venice and Turkey that raged in the latter part of the sixteenth century. Cyprus, which is the setting for most of the action, was a Venetian outpost attacked by the Turks in 1570 and conquered the following year. Shakespeare’s information on the Venetian-Turkish conflict probably derives from The History of the Turks by Richard Knolles, which was published in England in the autumn of 1603. The story of Othello is also derived from another source—an Italian prose tale written in 1565 by Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinzio (usually referred to as Cinthio). The original story contains the bare bones of Shakespeare’s plot: a Moorish general is deceived by his ensign into believing his wife is unfaithful. To Cinthio’s story Shakespeare added supporting characters such as the rich young dupe Roderigo and the outraged and grief-stricken Brabanzio, Desdemona’s father. Shakespeare compressed the action into the space of a few days and set it against the backdrop of military conflict. And, most memorably, he turned the ensign, a minor villain, into the arch-villain Iago.

The question of Othello’s exact race is open to some debate. The word Moor now refers to the Islamic Arabic inhabitants of North Africa who conquered Spain in the eighth century, but the term was used rather broadly in the period and was sometimes applied to Africans from other regions. George Abbott, for example, in his A Brief Description of the Whole World of 1599, made distinctions between “blackish Moors” and “black Negroes”; a 1600 translation of John Leo’s The History and Description of Africa distinguishes “white or tawny Moors” of the Mediterranean coast of Africa from the “Negroes or black Moors” of the south. Othello’s darkness or blackness is alluded to many times in the play, but Shakespeare and other Elizabethans frequently described brunette or darker than average Europeans as black. The opposition of black and white imagery that runs throughout Othello is certainly a marker of difference between Othello and his European peers, but the difference is never quite so racially specific as a modern reader might imagine it to be.

While Moor characters abound on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, none are given so major or heroic a role as Othello. Perhaps the most vividly stereotypical black character of the period is Aaron, the villain of Shakespeare’s early play Titus Andronicus. The antithesis of Othello, Aaron is lecherous, cunning, and vicious; his final words are: “If one good deed in all my life I did / I do repent it to my very soul” (Titus Andronicus, V.iii.188–189). Othello, by contrast, is a noble figure of great authority, respected and admired by the duke and senate of Venice as well as by those who serve him, such as Cassio, Montano, and Lodovico. Only Iago voices an explicitly stereotypical view of Othello, depicting him from the beginning as an animalistic, barbarous, foolish outsider.

Plot Overview

Othello begins on a street in Venice, in the midst of an argument between Roderigo, a rich man, and Iago. Roderigo has been paying Iago to help him in his suit to Desdemona. But Roderigo has just learned that Desdemona has married Othello, a general whom Iago begrudgingly serves as ensign. Iago says he hates Othello, who recently passed him over for the position of lieutenant in favor of the inexperienced soldier Michael Cassio.

Unseen, Iago and Roderigo cry out to Brabanzio that his daughter Desdemona has been stolen by and married to Othello, the Moor. Brabanzio finds that his daughter is indeed missing, and he gathers some officers to find Othello. Not wanting his hatred of Othello to be known, Iago leaves Roderigo and hurries back to Othello before Brabanzio sees him. At Othello’s lodgings, Cassio arrives with an urgent message from the duke: Othello’s help is needed in the matter of the imminent Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Not long afterward, Brabanzio arrives with Roderigo and others, and accuses Othello of stealing his daughter by witchcraft. When he finds out that Othello is on his way to speak with the duke, -Brabanzio decides to go along and accuse Othello before the assembled senate.

Brabanzio’s plan backfires. The duke and senate are very sympathetic toward Othello. Given a chance to speak for himself, Othello explains that he wooed and won Desdemona not by witchcraft but with the stories of his adventures in travel and war. The duke finds Othello’s explanation convincing, and Desdemona herself enters at this point to defend her choice in marriage and to announce to her father that her allegiance is now to her husband. Brabanzio is frustrated, but acquiesces and allows the senate meeting to resume. The duke says that Othello must go to Cyprus to aid in the defense against the Turks, who are headed for the island. Desdemona insists that she accompany her husband on his trip, and preparations are made for them to depart that night.

In Cyprus the following day, two gentlemen stand on the shore with Montano, the governor of Cyprus. A third gentleman arrives and reports that the Turkish fleet has been wrecked in a storm at sea. Cassio, whose ship did not suffer the same fate, arrives soon after, followed by a second ship carrying Iago, Roderigo, Desdemona, and Emilia, Iago’s wife. Once they have landed, Othello’s ship is sighted, and the group goes to the harbor. As they wait for Othello, Cassio greets Desdemona by clasping her hand. Watching them, Iago tells the audience that he will use “as little a web as this” hand-holding to ensnare Cassio (II.i.169).

Othello arrives, greets his wife, and announces that there will be reveling that evening to celebrate Cyprus’s safety from the Turks. Once everyone has left, Roderigo complains to Iago that he has no chance of breaking up Othello’s marriage. Iago assures Roderigo that as soon as Desdemona’s “blood is made dull with the act of sport,” she will lose interest in Othello and seek sexual satisfaction elsewhere (II.i.222). However, Iago warns that “elsewhere” will likely be with Cassio. Iago counsels Roderigo that he should cast Cassio into disgrace by starting a fight with Cassio at the evening’s revels. In a soliloquy, Iago explains to the audience that eliminating Cassio is the first crucial step in his plan to ruin Othello. That night, Iago gets Cassio drunk and then sends Roderigo to start a fight with him. Apparently provoked by Roderigo, Cassio chases Roderigo across the stage. Governor Montano attempts to hold Cassio down, and Cassio stabs him. Iago sends Roderigo to raise alarm in the town.

The alarm is rung, and Othello, who had left earlier with plans to consummate his marriage, soon arrives to still the commotion. When Othello demands to know who began the fight, Iago feigns reluctance to implicate his “friend” Cassio, but he ultimately tells the whole story. Othello then strips Cassio of his rank of lieutenant. Cassio is extremely upset, and he laments to Iago, once everyone else has gone, that his reputation has been ruined forever. Iago assures Cassio that he can get back into Othello’s good graces by using Desdemona as an intermediary. In a soliloquy, Iago tells us that he will frame Cassio and Desdemona as lovers to make -Othello jealous.

In an attempt at reconciliation, Cassio sends some musicians to play beneath Othello’s window. Othello, however, sends his clown to tell the musicians to go away. Hoping to arrange a meeting with Desdemona, Cassio asks the clown, a peasant who serves Othello, to send Emilia to him. After the clown departs, Iago passes by and tells Cassio that he will get Othello out of the way so that Cassio can speak privately with Desdemona. Othello, Iago, and a gentleman go to examine some of the town’s fortifications.

Desdemona is quite sympathetic to Cassio’s request and promises that she will do everything she can to make Othello forgive his former lieutenant. As Cassio is about to leave, Othello and Iago return. Feeling uneasy, Cassio leaves without talking to Othello. Othello inquires whether it was Cassio who just parted from his wife, and Iago, beginning to kindle Othello’s fire of jealousy, replies, “No, sure, I cannot think it, / That he would steal away so guilty-like, / Seeing your coming” (III.iii.37–39).

Othello becomes upset and moody, and Iago furthers his goal of removing both Cassio and Othello by suggesting that Cassio and Desdemona are involved in an affair. Desdemona’s entreaties to Othello to reinstate Cassio as lieutenant add to Othello’s almost immediate conviction that his wife is unfaithful. After Othello’s conversation with Iago, Desdemona comes to call Othello to supper and finds him feeling unwell. She offers him her handkerchief to wrap around his head, but he finds it to be “[t]oo little” and lets it drop to the floor (III.iii.291). Desdemona and Othello go to dinner, and Emilia picks up the handkerchief, mentioning to the audience that Iago has always wanted her to steal it for him.

Iago is ecstatic when Emilia gives him the handkerchief, which he plants in Cassio’s room as “evidence” of his affair with Desdemona. When Othello demands “ocular proof” (III.iii.365) that his wife is unfaithful, Iago says that he has seen Cassio “wipe his beard” (III.iii.444) with Desdemona’s handkerchief—the first gift Othello ever gave her. Othello vows to take vengeance on his wife and on Cassio, and Iago vows that he will help him. When Othello sees Desdemona later that evening, he demands the handkerchief of her, but she tells him that she does not have it with her and attempts to change the subject by continuing her suit on Cassio’s behalf. This drives Othello into a further rage, and he storms out. Later, Cassio comes onstage, wondering about the handkerchief he has just found in his chamber. He is greeted by Bianca, a prostitute, whom he asks to take the handkerchief and copy its embroidery for him.

Through Iago’s machinations, Othello becomes so consumed by jealousy that he falls into a trance and has a fit of epilepsy. As he writhes on the ground, Cassio comes by, and Iago tells him to come back in a few minutes to talk. Once Othello recovers, Iago tells him of the meeting he has planned with Cassio. He instructs Othello to hide nearby and watch as Iago extracts from Cassio the story of his affair with Desdemona. While Othello stands out of earshot, Iago pumps Cassio for information about Bianca, causing Cassio to laugh and confirm Othello’s suspicions. Bianca herself then enters with Desdemona’s handkerchief, reprimanding Cassio for making her copy out the embroidery of a love token given to him by another woman. When Desdemona enters with Lodovico and Lodovico subsequently gives Othello a letter from Venice calling him home and instating Cassio as his replacement, Othello goes over the edge, striking Desdemona and then storming out.

That night, Othello accuses Desdemona of being a whore. He ignores her protestations, seconded by Emilia, that she is innocent. Iago assures Desdemona that Othello is simply upset about matters of state. Later that night, however, Othello ominously tells Desdemona to wait for him in bed and to send Emilia away. Meanwhile, Iago assures the still-complaining Roderigo that everything is going as planned: in order to prevent Desdemona and Othello from leaving, Roderigo must kill Cassio. Then he will have a clear avenue to his love.

Iago instructs Roderigo to ambush Cassio, but Roderigo misses his mark and Cassio wounds him instead. Iago wounds Cassio and runs away. When Othello hears Cassio’s cry, he assumes that Iago has killed Cassio as he said he would. Lodovico and Graziano enter to see what the commotion is about. Iago enters shortly thereafter and flies into a pretend rage as he “discovers” Cassio’s assailant Roderigo, whom he murders. Cassio is taken to have his wound dressed.

Meanwhile, Othello stands over his sleeping wife in their bedchamber, preparing to kill her. Desdemona wakes and attempts to plead with Othello. She asserts her innocence, but Othello smothers her. Emilia enters with the news that Roderigo is dead. Othello asks if Cassio is dead too and is mortified when Emilia says he is not. After crying out that she has been murdered, Desdemona changes her story before she dies, claiming that she has committed suicide. Emilia asks Othello what happened, and Othello tells her that he has killed Desdemona for her infidelity, which Iago brought to his attention.

Montano, Graziano, and Iago come into the room. Iago attempts to silence Emilia, who realizes what Iago has done. At first, Othello insists that Iago has told the truth, citing the handkerchief as evidence. Once Emilia tells him how she found the handkerchief and gave it to Iago, Othello is crushed and begins to weep. He tries to kill Iago but is disarmed. Iago kills Emilia and flees, but he is caught by Lodovico and Montano, who return holding Iago captive. They also bring Cassio, who is now in a chair because of his wound. Othello wounds Iago and is disarmed. Lodovico tells Othello that he must come with them back to Venice to be tried. Othello makes a speech about how he would like to be remembered, then kills himself with a sword he had hidden on his person. The play closes with a speech by Lodovico. He gives Othello’s house and goods to Graziano and orders that Iago be executed.

Character List

Othello -

The play’s protagonist and hero. A Christian Moor and general of the armies of Venice, Othello is an eloquent and physically powerful figure, respected by all those around him. In spite of his elevated status, he is nevertheless easy prey to insecurities because of his age, his life as a soldier, and his race. He possesses a “free and open nature,” which his ensign Iago uses to twist his love for his wife, Desdemona, into a powerful and destructive jealousy (I.iii.381).

Desdemona -

The daughter of the Venetian senator Brabanzio. Desdemona and Othello are secretly married before the play begins. While in many ways stereotypically pure and meek, Desdemona is also determined and self-possessed. She is equally capable of defending her marriage, jesting bawdily with Iago, and responding with dignity to Othello’s incomprehensible jealousy.

Desdemona (In-Depth Analysis)

Iago -

Othello’s ensign (a job also known as an ancient or standard-bearer), and the villain of the play. Iago is twenty-eight years old. While his ostensible reason for desiring Othello’s demise is that he has been passed over for promotion to lieutenant, Iago’s motivations are never very clearly expressed and seem to originate in an obsessive, almost aesthetic delight in manipulation and destruction.

Iago (In-Depth Analysis)

Michael Cassio -

Othello’s lieutenant. Cassio is a young and inexperienced soldier, whose high position is much resented by Iago. Truly devoted to Othello, Cassio is extremely ashamed after being implicated in a drunken brawl on Cyprus and losing his place as lieutenant. Iago uses Cassio’s youth, good looks, and friendship with Desdemona to play on Othello’s insecurities about Desdemona’s fidelity.

Emilia -

Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s attendant. A cynical, worldly woman, she is deeply attached to her mistress and distrustful of her husband.

Roderigo -

A jealous suitor of Desdemona. Young, rich, and foolish, Roderigo is convinced that if he gives Iago all of his money, Iago will help him win Desdemona’s hand. Repeatedly frustrated as Othello marries Desdemona and then takes her to Cyprus, Roderigo is ultimately desperate enough to agree to help Iago kill Cassio after Iago points out that Cassio is another potential rival for Desdemona.

Bianca -

A courtesan, or prostitute, in Cyprus. Bianca’s favorite customer is Cassio, who teases her with promises of marriage.

Brabanzio -

Desdemona’s father, a somewhat blustering and self-important Venetian senator. As a friend of Othello, Brabanzio feels betrayed when the general marries his daughter in secret.

Duke of Venice -

The official authority in Venice, the duke has great respect for Othello as a public and military servant. His primary role within the play is to reconcile Othello and Brabanzio in Act I, scene iii, and then to send Othello to Cyprus.

Montano -

The governor of Cyprus before Othello. We see him first in Act II, as he recounts the status of the war and awaits the Venetian ships.

Lodovico -

One of Brabanzio’s kinsmen, Lodovico acts as a messenger from Venice to Cyprus. He arrives in Cyprus in Act IV with letters announcing that Othello has been replaced by Cassio as governor.

Graziano -

Brabanzio’s kinsman who accompanies Lodovico to Cyprus. Amidst the chaos of the final scene, Graziano mentions that Desdemona’s father has died.

Clown -

Othello’s servant. Although the clown appears only in two short scenes, his appearances reflect and distort the action and words of the main plots: his puns on the word “lie” in Act III, scene iv, for example, anticipate Othello’s confusion of two meanings of that word in Act IV, scene i.

Analysis of Major Characters

Othello

Beginning with the opening lines of the play, Othello remains at a distance from much of the action that concerns and affects him. Roderigo and Iago refer ambiguously to a “he” or “him” for much of the first scene. When they begin to specify whom they are talking about, especially once they stand beneath Brabanzio’s window, they do so with racial epithets, not names. These include “the Moor” (I.i.57), “the thick-lips” (I.i.66), “an old black ram” (I.i.88), and “a Barbary horse” (I.i.113). Although Othello appears at the beginning of the second scene, we do not hear his name until well into Act I, scene iii (I.iii.48). Later, Othello’s will be the last of the three ships to arrive at Cyprus in Act II, scene i; Othello will stand apart while Cassio and Iago supposedly discuss Desdemona in Act IV, scene i; and Othello will assume that Cassio is dead without being present when the fight takes place in Act V, scene i. Othello’s status as an outsider may be the reason he is such easy prey for Iago

Although Othello is a cultural and racial outsider in Venice, his skill as a soldier and leader is nevertheless valuable and necessary to the state, and he is an integral part of Venetian civic society. He is in great demand by the duke and senate, as evidenced by Cassio’s comment that the senate “sent about three several quests” to look for Othello (I.ii.46). The Venetian government trusts Othello enough to put him in full martial and political command of Cyprus; indeed, in his dying speech, Othello reminds the Venetians of the “service” he has done their state (V.ii.348).

Those who consider Othello their social and civic peer, such as Desdemona and Brabanzio, nevertheless seem drawn to him because of his exotic qualities. Othello admits as much when he tells the duke about his friendship with Brabanzio. He says, -“[Desdemona’s] father loved me, oft invited me, / Still questioned me the story of my life / From year to year” (I.iii.127–129). -Othello is also able to captivate his peers with his speech. The duke’s reply to Othello’s speech about how he wooed Desdemona with his tales of adventure is: “I think this tale would win my daughter too” (I.iii.170).

Othello sometimes makes a point of presenting himself as an outsider, whether because he recognizes his exotic appeal or because he is self-conscious of and defensive about his difference from other Venetians. For example, in spite of his obvious eloquence in Act I, scene iii, he protests, “Rude am I in my speech, / And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace” (I.iii.81–82). While Othello is never rude in his speech, he does allow his eloquence to suffer as he is put under increasing strain by Iago’s plots. In the final moments of the play, Othello regains his composure and, once again, seduces both his onstage and offstage audiences with his words. The speech that precedes his suicide is a tale that could woo almost anyone. It is the tension between Othello’s victimization at the hands of a foreign culture and his own willingness to torment himself that makes him a tragic figure rather than simply Iago’s ridiculous puppet.

Iago

Possibly the most heinous villain in Shakespeare, Iago is fascinating for his most terrible characteristic: his utter lack of convincing motivation for his actions. In the first scene, he claims to be angry at Othello for having passed him over for the position of lieutenant (I.i. 7–32). At the end of Act I, scene iii, Iago says he thinks Othello may have slept with his wife, Emilia: “It is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets / He has done my office” (I.iii.369–370). Iago mentions this suspicion again at the end of Act II, scene i, explaining that he lusts after Desdemona because he wants to get even with Othello “wife for wife” (II.i.286). None of these claims seems to adequately explain Iago’s deep hatred of Othello, and Iago’s lack of motivation—or his inability or unwillingness to express his true motivation—makes his actions all the more terrifying. He is willing to take revenge on anyone—Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, Roderigo, even Emilia—at the slightest provocation and enjoys the pain and damage he causes.

Iago is often funny, especially in his scenes with the foolish Roderigo, which serve as a showcase of Iago’s manipulative -abilities. He seems almost to wink at the audience as he revels in his own skill. As entertained spectators, we find ourselves on Iago’s side when he is with Roderigo, but the interactions between the two also reveal a streak of cowardice in Iago—a cowardice that becomes manifest in the final scene, when Iago kills his own wife (V.ii.231–242).

Iago’s murder of Emilia could also stem from the general hatred of women that he displays. Some readers have suggested that Iago’s true, underlying motive for persecuting Othello is his homosexual love for the general. He certainly seems to take great pleasure in preventing Othello from enjoying marital happiness, and he expresses his love for Othello frequently and effusively.

It is Iago’s talent for understanding and manipulating the desires of those around him that makes him both a powerful and a compelling figure. Iago is able to take the handkerchief from Emilia and know that he can deflect her questions; he is able to tell Othello of the handkerchief and know that Othello will not doubt him; he is able to tell the audience, “And what’s he then that says I play the villain,” and know that it will laugh as though he were a clown (II.iii.310). Though the most inveterate liar, Iago inspires all of the play’s characters the trait that is most lethal to Othello: trust.

Desdemona

Desdemona is a more plausible, well-rounded figure than much criticism has given her credit for. Arguments that see Desdemona as stereotypically weak and submissive ignore the conviction and authority of her first speech (“My noble father, / I do perceive here a divided duty” [I.iii.179–180]) and her terse fury after Othello strikes her (“I have not deserved this” [IV.i.236]). Similarly, critics who argue that Desdemona’s slightly bizarre bawdy jesting with Iago in Act II, scene i, is either an interpolation not written by Shakespeare or a mere vulgarity ignore the fact that Desdemona is young, sexual, and recently married. She later displays the same chiding, almost mischievous wit in Act III, scene iii, lines 61–84, when she attempts to persuade Othello to forgive Cassio.

Desdemona is at times a submissive character, most notably in her willingness to take credit for her own murder. In response to Emilia’s question, “O, who hath done this deed?” Desdemona’s final words are, “Nobody, I myself. Farewell. / Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell” (V.ii.133–134). The play, then, depicts Desdemona contradictorily as a self-effacing, faithful wife and as a bold, independent personality. This contradiction may be intentional, meant to portray the way Desdemona herself feels after defending her choice of marriage to her father in Act I, scene iii, and then almost immediately being put in the position of defending her fidelity to her husband. She begins the play as a supremely independent person, but midway through she must struggle against all odds to convince Othello that she is not too independent. The manner in which Desdemona is murdered—smothered by a pillow in a bed covered in her wedding sheets—is symbolic: she is literally suffocated beneath the demands put on her fidelity. Since her first lines, Desdemona has seemed capable of meeting or even rising above those demands. In the end, Othello stifles the speech that made Desdemona so powerful.

Tragically, Desdemona is apparently aware of her imminent death. She, not Othello, asks Emilia to put her wedding sheets on the bed, and she asks Emilia to bury her in these sheets should she die first. The last time we see Desdemona before she awakens to find Othello standing over her with murder in his eyes, she sings a song she learned from her mother’s maid: “She was in love; and he proved mad / And did forsake her. She had a song of willow. / . . . / And she died singing it. That song tonight / Will not go from my mind” (IV.iii.27–30). Like the audience, Desdemona seems able only to watch as her husband is driven insane with jealousy. Though she maintains to the end that she is “guiltless,” Desdemona also forgives her husband (V.ii.133). Her forgiveness of Othello may help the audience to forgive him as well.

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Incompatibility of Military Heroism & Love

Before and above all else, Othello is a soldier. From the earliest moments in the play, his career affects his married life. Asking “fit disposition” for his wife after being ordered to Cyprus (I.iii.234), Othello notes that “the tyrant custom . . . / Hath made the flinty and steel couch of war / My thrice-driven bed of down” (I.iii.227–229). While Desdemona is used to better “accommodation,” she nevertheless accompanies her husband to Cyprus (I.iii.236). Moreover, she is unperturbed by the tempest or Turks that threatened their crossing, and genuinely curious rather than irate when she is roused from bed by the drunken brawl in Act II, scene iii. She is, indeed, Othello’s “fair warrior,” and he is happiest when he has her by his side in the midst of military conflict or business (II.i.179). The military also provides Othello with a means to gain acceptance in Venetian society. While the Venetians in the play are generally fearful of the prospect of Othello’s social entrance into white society through his marriage to Desdemona, all Venetians respect and honor him as a soldier. Mercenary Moors were, in fact, commonplace at the time.

Othello predicates his success in love on his success as a soldier, wooing Desdemona with tales of his military travels and battles. Once the Turks are drowned—by natural rather than military might—Othello is left without anything to do: the last act of military administration we see him perform is the viewing of fortifications in the extremely short second scene of Act III. No longer having a means of proving his manhood or honor in a public setting such as the court or the battlefield, Othello begins to feel uneasy with his footing in a private setting, the bedroom. Iago capitalizes on this uneasiness, calling Othello’s epileptic fit in Act IV, scene i, “[a] passion most unsuiting such a man.” In other words, Iago is calling Othello unsoldierly. Iago also takes care to mention that Cassio, whom Othello believes to be his competitor, saw him in his emasculating trance (IV.i.75).

Desperate to cling to the security of his former identity as a soldier while his current identity as a lover crumbles, Othello begins to confuse the one with the other. His expression of his jealousy quickly devolves from the conventional—“Farewell the tranquil mind”—to the absurd:

Farewell the plum’d troops and the big wars

That make ambition virtue! O, farewell,

Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,

The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear piercing fife,

The royal banner, and all quality,

Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!”

(III.iii.353–359)

One might well say that Othello is saying farewell to the wrong things—he is entirely preoccupied with his identity as a soldier. But his way of thinking is somewhat justified by its seductiveness to the audience as well. Critics and audiences alike find comfort and nobility in Othello’s final speech and the anecdote of the “malignant and . . . turbaned Turk” (V.ii.362), even though in that speech, as in his speech in Act III, scene iii, Othello depends on his identity as a soldier to glorify himself in the public’s memory, and to try to make his audience forget his and Desdemona’s disastrous marital experiment.

The Danger of Isolation

The action of Othello moves from the metropolis of Venice to the island of Cyprus. Protected by military fortifications as well as by the forces of nature, Cyprus faces little threat from external forces. Once Othello, Iago, Desdemona, Emilia, and Roderigo have come to Cyprus, they have nothing to do but prey upon one another. Isolation enables many of the play’s most important effects: Iago frequently speaks in soliloquies; Othello stands apart while Iago talks with Cassio in Act IV, scene i, and is left alone onstage with the bodies of Emilia and Desdemona for a few moments in Act V, scene ii; Roderigo seems attached to no one in the play except Iago. And, most prominently, Othello is visibly isolated from the other characters by his physical stature and the color of his skin. Iago is an expert at manipulating the distance between characters, isolating his victims so that they fall prey to their own obsessions. At the same time, Iago, of necessity always standing apart, falls prey to his own obsession with revenge. The characters cannot be islands, the play seems to say: self-isolation as an act of self-preservation leads ultimately to self-destruction. Such self-isolation leads to the deaths of Roderigo, Iago, Othello, and even Emilia.

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Sight and Blindness

When Desdemona asks to be allowed to accompany Othello to Cyprus, she says that she “saw Othello’s visage in his mind, / And to his honours and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate” (I.iii. 250–252). Othello’s blackness, his visible difference from everyone around him, is of little importance to Desdemona: she has the power to see him for what he is in a way that even Othello himself cannot. Desdemona’s line is one of many references to different kinds of sight in the play. Earlier in Act I, scene iii, a senator suggests that the Turkish retreat to Rhodes is “a pageant / To keep us in false gaze” (I.iii.19–20). The beginning of Act II consists entirely of people staring out to sea, waiting to see the arrival of ships, friendly or otherwise. Othello, though he demands “ocular proof” (III.iii.365), is frequently convinced by things he does not see: he strips Cassio of his position as lieutenant based on the story Iago tells; he relies on Iago’s story of seeing Cassio wipe his beard with Desdemona’s handkerchief (III.iii.437–440); and he believes Cassio to be dead simply because he hears him scream. After Othello has killed himself in the final scene, Lodovico says to Iago, “Look on the tragic loading of this bed. / This is thy work. The object poisons sight. / Let it be hid” (V.ii.373–375). The action of the play depends heavily on characters not seeing things: Othello accuses his wife although he never sees her infidelity, and Emilia, although she watches Othello erupt into a rage about the missing handkerchief, does not figuratively “see” what her husband has done.

Plants

Iago is strangely preoccupied with plants. His speeches to Roderigo in particular make extensive and elaborate use of vegetable metaphors and conceits. Some examples are: “Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme . . . the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills” (I.iii.317–322); “Though other things grow fair against the sun, / Yet fruits that blossom first will first be ripe” (II.iii.349–350); “And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand, / Cry ‘O sweet creature!’, then kiss me hard, / As if he plucked kisses up by the roots, / That grew upon my lips” (III.iii.425–428). The first of these examples best explains Iago’s preoccupation with the plant metaphor and how it functions within the play. Characters in this play seem to be the product of certain inevitable, natural forces, which, if left unchecked, will grow wild. Iago understands these natural forces particularly well: he is, according to his own metaphor, a good “gardener,” both of himself and of others.

Many of Iago’s botanical references concern poison: “I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear” (II.iii.330); “The Moor already changes with my poison. / Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons, / . . . / . . . Not poppy nor mandragora / Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world / Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep” (III.iii.329–336). Iago cultivates his “conceits” so that they become lethal poisons and then plants their seeds in the minds of others. The organic way in which Iago’s plots consume the other characters and determine their behavior makes his conniving, human evil seem like a force of nature. That organic growth also indicates that the minds of the other characters are fertile ground for Iago’s efforts.

Animals

Iago calls Othello a “Barbary horse,” an “old black ram,” and also tells Brabanzio that his daughter and Othello are “making the beast with two backs” (I.i.117–118). In Act I, scene iii, Iago tells Roderigo, “Ere I would say I would drown myself for the love of a guinea-hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon” (I.iii.312–313). He then remarks that drowning is for “cats and blind puppies” (I.iii.330–331). Cassio laments that, when drunk, he is “by and by a fool, and presently a beast!” (II.iii.284–285). Othello tells Iago, “Exchange me for a goat / When I shall turn the business of my soul / To such exsufflicate and blowed surmises” (III.iii.184–186). He later says that “[a] horned man’s a monster and a beast” (IV.i.59). Even Emilia, in the final scene, says that she will “play the swan, / And die in music” (V.ii.254–255). Like the repeated references to plants, these references to animals convey a sense that the laws of nature, rather than those of society, are the primary forces governing the characters in this play. When animal references are used with regard to Othello, as they frequently are, they reflect the racism both of characters in the play and of Shakespeare’s contemporary audience. “Barbary horse” is a vulgarity particularly appropriate in the mouth of Iago, but even without having seen Othello, the Jacobean audience would have known from Iago’s metaphor that he meant to connote a savage Moor.

Hell, Demons, and Monsters

Iago tells Othello to beware of jealousy, the “green-eyed monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on” (III.iii.170–171). Likewise, Emilia describes jealousy as dangerously and uncannily self-generating, a “monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself” (III.iv.156–157). Imagery of hell and damnation also recurs throughout Othello, especially toward the end of the play, when Othello becomes preoccupied with the religious and moral judgment of Desdemona and himself. After he has learned the truth about Iago, Othello calls Iago a devil and a demon several times in Act V, scene ii. Othello’s earlier allusion to “some monster in [his] thought” ironically refers to Iago (III.iii.111). Likewise, his vision of Desdemona’s betrayal is “monstrous, monstrous!” (III.iii.431). Shortly before he kills himself, Othello wishes for eternal spiritual and physical torture in hell, crying out, “Whip me, ye devils, / . . . / . . . roast me in sulphur, / Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!” (V.ii.284–287). The imagery of the monstrous and diabolical takes over where the imagery of animals can go no further, presenting the jealousy-crazed characters not simply as brutish, but as grotesque, deformed, and demonic.

Symbols

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Handkerchief

The handkerchief symbolizes different things to different characters. Since the handkerchief was the first gift Desdemona received from Othello, she keeps it about her constantly as a symbol of Othello’s love. Iago manipulates the handkerchief so that Othello comes to see it as a symbol of Desdemona herself—her faith and chastity. By taking possession of it, he is able to convert it into evidence of her infidelity. But the handkerchief’s importance to Iago and Desdemona derives from its importance to Othello himself. He tells Desdemona that it was woven by a 200-year-old sibyl, or female prophet, using silk from sacred worms and dye extracted from the hearts of mummified virgins. Othello claims that his mother used it to keep his father faithful to her, so, to him, the handkerchief represents marital fidelity. The pattern of strawberries (dyed with virgins’ blood) on a white background strongly suggests the bloodstains left on the sheets on a virgin’s wedding night, so the handkerchief implicitly suggests a guarantee of virginity as well as fidelity.

The Song “Willow”

As she prepares for bed in Act V, Desdemona sings a song about a woman who is betrayed by her lover. She was taught the song by her mother’s maid, Barbary, who suffered a misfortune similar to that of the woman in the song; she even died singing “Willow.” The song’s lyrics suggest that both men and women are unfaithful to one another. To Desdemona, the song seems to represent a melancholy and resigned acceptance of her alienation from Othello’s affections, and singing it leads her to question Emilia about the nature and practice of infidelity.

Act I, scenes i–ii

Othello begins on a street in Venice, in the midst of an argument between Roderigo and Iago. The rich Roderigo has been paying Iago to help him in his suit to Desdemona, but he has seen no progress, and he has just learned that Desdemona has married Othello, a general whom Iago serves as ensign. Iago reassures Roderigo that he hates Othello. Chief among Iago’s reasons for this hatred is Othello’s recent promotion of Michael Cassio to the post of lieutenant. In spite of Iago’s service in battle and the recommendation of three “great ones” of the city, Othello chose to give the position to a man with no experience leading men in battle. As he waits for an opportunity to further his own self-interest, Iago only pretends to serve Othello.

Iago advises Roderigo to spoil some of Othello’s pleasure in his marriage by rousing Desdemona’s family against the general. The two men come to the street outside the house of Desdemona’s father, Brabanzio, and cry out that he has been robbed by “thieves.” Brabanzio, who is a Venetian senator, comes to the window. At first, he doesn’t believe what he hears, because he has told Roderigo to stay away from his daughter before and thinks Roderigo is merely scheming once again in order to see Desdemona. Iago speaks in inflammatory terms, vulgarly telling the senator that his daughter and Othello are having sex by saying that they are “making the beast with two backs” (I.i.118). Brabanzio begins to take what he hears seriously and decides to search for his daughter. Seeing the success of his plan, Iago leaves Roderigo alone and goes to attend on Othello. Like Brabanzio, Othello has no idea of Iago’s role in Roderigo’s accusations. As Iago departs, Brabanzio comes out of his house, furious that his daughter has left him. Declaring that his daughter has been stolen from him by magic “charms,” Brabanzio and his men follow Roderigo to Othello.

Summary: Act I, scene ii

Iago arrives at Othello’s lodgings, where he warns the general that Brabanzio will not hesitate to attempt to force a divorce between Othello and Desdemona. Othello sees a party of men approaching, and Iago, thinking that Brabanzio and his followers have arrived, counsels Othello to retreat indoors. Othello stands his ground, but the party turns out to be Cassio and officers from the Venetian court. They bring Othello the message that he is wanted by the duke of Venice about a matter concerning Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean Sea controlled by Venice. As Cassio and his men prepare to leave, Iago mentions that Othello is married, but before he can say any more, Brabanzio, Roderigo, and Brabanzio’s men arrive to accost Othello. Brabanzio orders his men to attack and subdue Othello. A struggle between Brabanzio’s and Othello’s followers seems imminent, but Othello brings the confrontation to a halt by calmly and authoritatively telling both sides to put up their swords. Hearing that the duke has summoned Othello to the court, Brabanzio decides to bring his cause before the duke himself.

Analysis: Act I, scenes i-ii

The action of the first scene heightens the audience’s anticipation of Othello’s first appearance. We learn Iago’s name in the second line of the play and Roderigo’s soon afterward, but Othello is not once mentioned by his name. Rather, he is ambiguously referred to as “he” and “him.” He is also called “the Moor” (I.i.57), “the thick-lips” (I.i.66), and “a Barbary horse” (I.i.113)—all names signifying that he is dark-skinned.

Iago plays on the senator’s fears, making him imagine a barbarous and threatening Moor, or native of Africa, whose bestial sexual appetite has turned him into a thief and a rapist. Knowing nothing of Othello, one would expect that the audience, too, would be seduced by Iago’s portrait of the general, but several factors keep us from believing him. In the first place, Roderigo is clearly a pathetic and jealous character. He adores Desdemona, but she has married Othello and seems unaware of Roderigo’s existence. Roderigo doesn’t even have the ability to woo Desdemona on his own: he has already appealed to Brabanzio for Desdemona’s hand, and when that fails, he turns to Iago for help. Rich and inexperienced, Roderigo naively gives his money to Iago in exchange for vague but unfulfilled promises of amorous success.

The fact that Iago immediately paints himself as the villain also prepares us to be sympathetic to Othello. Iago explains to Roderigo that he has no respect for Othello beyond what he has to show to further his own revenge: “I follow him to serve my turn upon him” (I.i.42). Iago explicitly delights in his villainy, always tipping the audience off about his plotting. In these first two scenes, Iago tells Roderigo to shout beneath Brabanzio’s window and predicts exactly what will happen when they do so. Once Brabanzio has been roused, Iago also tells Roderigo where he can meet Othello. Because of the dramatic irony Iago establishes, the audience is forced into a position of feeling intimately connected with Iago’s villainy.

In many ways, Iago is the driving force behind the plot, a playwright of sorts whose machinations inspire the action of the play. His self-conscious falseness is highly theatrical, calculated to shock the audience. Iago is a classic two-faced villain, a type of character known in Shakespeare’s time as a “Machiavel”—a villain who, adhering all too literally to the teachings of the political philosopher Machiavelli, lets nothing stand in his way in his quest for power. He is also reminiscent of the stock character of Vice from medieval morality plays, who also announces to the audience his diabolical schemes.

After having been prepared for a passionate and possibly violent personage in Othello, the quiet calm of Othello’s character—his dismissal of Roderigo’s alleged insult and his skillful avoidance of conflict—is surprising. In fact, far from presenting Othello as a savage barbarian, Shakespeare implicitly compares him to Christ. The moment when Brabanzio and his men arrive with swords and torches, tipped off to Othello’s whereabouts by Othello’s disloyal friend, vividly echoes John 18:1–11. In that Gospel, Christ and his followers are met by officers carrying swords and torches. The officers were informed of Christ’s whereabouts by Judas, who pretends to side with Christ in the ensuing confrontation. When Othello averts the violence that seems imminent with a single sentence, “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust ’em” (I.ii.60), he echoes Christ’s command to Peter, “Put up thy sword into the sheath” (John 18:11). However, whereas Christ’s calm restraint is due to his resigned acceptance of his fate, Othello’s is due to his sense of his own authority.

Brabanzio twice accuses Othello of using magic to seduce his daughter (in I.i.172–173 and I.ii.73–80), and he repeats the same charge a third time in front of the duke in Act I, scene iii. Even though Shakespeare’s audience would have considered elopement with a nobleman’s daughter to be a serious, possibly imprisonable offense, Brabanzio insists that he wants to arrest and prosecute Othello specifically for the crime of witchcraft, not for eloping with his daughter without his consent. Brabanzio’s racism is clear—he claims that he simply cannot believe that Desdemona would be attracted to the Moor unless her reason and senses were blinded. Yet, it is possible that Brabanzio is not being sincere. He may feel that he needs to accuse Othello of a crime more serious than elopement because he knows the duke will overlook Othello’s infraction otherwise.

Act I, scene iii

The duke’s meeting with his senators about the imminent Turkish invasion of Cyprus takes an unexpected turn when a sailor arrives and announces that the Turks seem to have turned toward Rhodes, another island controlled by Venice. One of the senators guesses that the Turks’ change of course is intended to mislead the Venetians, because Cyprus is more important to the Turks and far more vulnerable than Rhodes. This guess proves to be correct, as another messenger arrives to report that the Turks have joined with more forces and are heading back toward Cyprus.

This military meeting is interrupted by the arrival of Brabanzio, Othello, Cassio, Iago, Roderigo, and officers. Brabanzio demands that all state business be put aside to address his own grievance—his daughter has been stolen from him by spells and potions purchased from charlatans. The duke is initially eager to take Brabanzio’s side, but he becomes more skeptical when he learns that Othello is the man accused. The duke gives Othello the chance to speak for himself. Othello admits that he married Desdemona, but he denies having used magic to woo her and claims that Desdemona will support his story. He explains that Brabanzio frequently invited him to his house and questioned him about his remarkable life story, full of harrowing battles, travels outside the civilized world, and dramatic reversals of fortune. Desdemona overheard parts of the story and found a convenient time to ask Othello to retell it to her. Desdemona was moved to love Othello by his story.

The duke is persuaded by Othello’s tale, dismissing Brabanzio’s claim by remarking that the story probably would win his own daughter. Desdemona enters, and Brabanzio asks her to tell those present to whom she owes the most obedience. Brabanzio clearly expects her to say her father. Desdemona, however, confirms that she married Othello of her own free will and that, like her own mother before her, she must shift her primary loyalty from father to husband. Brabanzio reluctantly resigns himself to her decision and allows the court to return to state affairs.

The duke decides that Othello must go to Cyprus to defend the island from the Turks. Othello is willing and ready to go, and he asks that appropriate accommodations be provided for his wife. The duke suggests that she stay with her father, but neither Desdemona nor Brabanzio nor Othello will accept this, and Desdemona asks to be allowed to go with Othello. The couple then leaves to prepare for the night’s voyage.

The stage is cleared, leaving only Roderigo and Iago. Once again, Roderigo feels that his hopes of winning Desdemona have been dashed, but Iago insists that all will be well. Iago mocks Roderigo for threatening to drown himself, and Roderigo protests that he can’t help being tormented by love. Iago contradicts him, asserting that people can choose at will what they want to be. “Put but money in thy purse,” Iago tells Roderigo repeatedly in the paragraph that spans lines 329–351, urging him to follow him to Cyprus. Iago promises to work everything out from there. When Roderigo leaves, Iago delivers his first soliloquy, declaring his hatred for Othello and his suspicion that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia. He lays out his plan to cheat Roderigo out of his money, to convince Othello that Cassio has slept with Desdemona, and to use Othello’s honest and unsuspecting nature to bring him to his demise.

Analysis

The war between the Turks and Venetians will not prove to be a major part of the play. However, the Turks’ “feint”—in which they pretend to sail toward Rhodes to mislead the Venetians into thinking that they will not attack Cyprus—has a symbolic significance. Throughout the play, deception is one of Iago’s major weapons, and his attacks on other characters are particularly devastating because his enemies don’t know that he is attacking them.

Othello is both an outsider and an insider in Venetian society. His race, physical appearance, and remarkable life history set him apart from the other Venetians, and inspire Brabanzio’s fears that Othello is some sort of witch doctor. At the same time, the duke and other characters treat him as an essential part of the Venetian state. When Othello and the others enter, the duke gets straight to business, telling Othello that they must immediately employ him against the Ottoman Turks. Only after delivering these two lines does the duke notice Brabanzio, and, even then, he acknowledges him in a rather demeaning fashion, saying, “I did not see you. Welcome, gentle signor” (I.iii.50). Brabanzio’s lengthy calls for justice are met only with the duke’s desire to hear more from Othello, and once Othello has delivered his long and beautiful speech about wooing Desdemona, the duke feels the subject is closed. As both a physical and a political presence, Othello overshadows Brabanzio.

Shakespeare fleshed out the fantastic details of Othello’s past life by drawing on a number of ancient and Renaissance travel writers. Othello clearly attaches great importance to the image of himself as a unique and heroic figure, and it is also important to him that he have a remarkable life story worthy of repeated telling. Not only does he claim that Desdemona fell in love with him because of his story, he says that he fell in love with her because of her reaction to his story. Desdemona confirms or validates something about Othello’s self-image, which may suggest why her faithfulness is of such all-consuming importance to him.

Desdemona herself appears remarkably forward and aggressive in Othello’s account, particularly in relation to Renaissance expectations of female behavior. She “devour[s] up” his discourse with a “greedy ear,” and is the first of the two to hint at the possibility of their loving one another (I.iii.148–149). Exactly how forward we should imagine Desdemona to be is somewhat uncertain. Modern texts of the play are based upon one of two early editions of Shakespeare’s plays, the Quarto edition and the Folio edition. (Quarto and Folio refer to two different sizes of books.) In the Quarto, Othello says, “My story being done, / She gave me for my pains a world of sighs,” whereas in the Folio, he says, “She gave me for my pains a world of kisses” (I.iii.157–158). In both editions, Othello is ambiguous about whether he or Desdemona played the more active role in the courtship, which could mean that he is somewhat uncomfortable—either embarrassed or upset—with Desdemona’s aggressive pursuit of him. In Act I, scene ii, lines149–154, for instance, he says that he observed that Desdemona wanted him to retell his tale, so he found a way to get her to ask him to tell it, and then he consented. This seems an unnecessarily complicated way of describing what happened, and suggests either that Othello was uncertain which of them played the leading role or that he wants to insist that his own role was more active than it actually was.

When Desdemona finally enters and speaks for herself, she does indeed seem outspoken and assertive, as well as generous and devoted. In her speech about her “divided duty” as a wife and a daughter, Desdemona shows herself to be poised and intelligent, as capable of loving as of being loved, and able to weigh her competing loyalties respectfully and judiciously (I.iii.180). In arguing for her right to accompany Othello to Cyprus, she insists upon the “violence” and unconventionality of her attachment to Othello (I.iii.248–249). In declaring “I did love the Moor to live with him,” she frankly insists on the sexual nature of her love (I.iii.248). She is saying that she isn’t content to marvel at Othello’s stories; she wants to share his bed. As the plot progresses, Desdemona’s sexual aggressiveness will upset Othello more and more. In explaining her love for Othello, she states that she “saw Othello’s visage in his mind,” which might mean either that she saw a different face inside him than the one the rest of the world sees, or “I saw him as he sees himself,” supporting the idea that she validates or upholds Othello’s sense of self.

Act II, scenes i–ii

Summary: Act II, scene i

On the shores of Cyprus, Montano, the island’s governor, watches a storm with two gentlemen. Just as Montano says that the Turkish fleet of ships could not survive the storm, a third gentlemen comes to confirm his prediction: as his ship traveled from Venice, Cassio witnessed that the Turks lost most of their fleet in the tempest. It is still uncertain whether Othello’s ship has been able to survive the storm. Hope lifts as voices offstage announce the sighting of a sail offshore, but the new ship turns out to be carrying Iago, Emilia, Desdemona, and Roderigo. Desdemona disembarks, and no sooner does Cassio tell her that Othello has yet to arrive than a friendly shot announces the arrival of a third ship. While the company waits for the ship, Cassio and Desdemona tease Emilia about being a chatterbox, but Iago quickly takes the opportunity to criticize women in general as deceptive and hypocritical, saying they are lazy in all matters except sex: “You rise to play and go to bed to work” (II.i.118). Desdemona plays along, laughing as Iago belittles women, whether beautiful or ugly, intelligent or stupid, as equally despicable. Cassio takes Desdemona away to speak with her privately about Othello’s arrival. Iago notices that Cassio takes Desdemona’s hand as he talks to her, and, in an aside, Iago plots to use Cassio’s hand-holding to frame him so that he loses his newly gained promotion to lieutenant. “With as little a web as this I will ensnare as great a fly as Cassio,” he asserts (II.i.169).

Othello arrives safely and greets Desdemona, expressing his devotion to her and giving her a kiss. He then thanks the Cypriots for their welcome and hospitality, and orders Iago to unload the ship. All but Roderigo and Iago head to the castle to celebrate the drowning of the Turks. Iago tells the despondent Roderigo that Desdemona will soon grow tired of being with Othello and will long for a more well-mannered and handsome man. But, Iago continues, the obvious first choice for Desdemona will be Cassio, whom Iago characterizes over and over again as a “knave” (II.i.231–239). Roderigo tries to argue that Cassio was merely being polite by taking Desdemona’s hand, but Iago convinces him of Cassio’s ill intentions and convinces Roderigo to start a quarrel with Cassio that evening. He posits that the uproar the quarrel will cause in the still tense city will make Cassio fall out of favor with Othello. Left alone onstage again, Iago explains his actions to the audience in a soliloquy. He secretly lusts after Desdemona, partially because he suspects that Othello has slept with Emilia, and he wants to get even with the Moor “wife for wife” (II.i.286). But, Iago continues, if he is unable to get his revenge by sleeping with Desdemona, Roderigo’s accusation of Cassio will make Othello suspect his lieutenant of sleeping with his wife and torture Othello to madness.

Summary: Act II, scene ii

A herald announces that Othello plans revelry for the evening in celebration of Cyprus’s safety from the Turks, and also in celebration of his marriage to Desdemona.

Analysis: Act II, scenes i–ii

Like Act I, scene ii, the first scene of Act II begins with emphasis on the limitations of sight. “What from the cape can you discern at sea?” Montano asks, and the gentleman replies, “Nothing at all. It is a high-wrought flood” (II.i.1–2). The emphasis on the limitations of physical sight in a tempest foreshadows what will, after Act III, become Othello’s metaphorical blindness, caused by his passion and rage. Similarly, once the physical threat that the Turks pose has been eliminated, the more psychological, less tangible threat posed by inner demons assumes dramatic precedence.

The play extinguishes the external threat with almost ridiculous speed. The line “News, lads! Our wars are done,” is all that is needed to dismiss the plot involving the Turks (II.i.20). It is as though one kind of play ends at the end of Act II, scene ii, and another begins: what seemed to be a political tragedy becomes a domestic tragedy. Whereas the action of the play began on the streets of Venice and proceeded to the court and then to the beaches of Cyprus, it now moves to the passageways of Othello’s residence on the island and ultimately ends in his bedchamber. The effect is almost cinematic—like a long and gradual close-up that restricts the visible space around the tragic hero, emphasizing his metaphorical blindness and symbolizing his imprisonment in his own jealous fantasies. This ever-tightening focus has led many readers to characterize the play as “claustrophobic.”

The banter between Iago and Desdemona creates a nervous, uncomfortable atmosphere, in part because their levity is inappropriate, given that Othello’s ship remains missing. The rhyming couplets in which Iago expresses his misogynistic insults lend them an eerie, alienating quality, and Desdemona’s active encouragement of Iago is somewhat puzzling. Once again, Desdemona establishes herself as an outspoken and independent woman—she does not depend upon her husband’s presence either socially or intellectually. However, Desdemona does not suggest that she has any interest in cheating on her husband. Iago himself tells us that he will make a mountain out of the molehill represented by Cassio’s holding of Desdemona’s hand.

Although Iago verbally abuses women in this scene—presumably because it is safe for him to do so—his real resentment seems to be against those characters who have a higher social class than he does, including Cassio and Desdemona. Iago resents Cassio for being



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