Act 1 Scene 1

Synopsis of Act 1 Scene 1

Iago tells Roderigo that he has been passed over for promotion by his commander, Othello, who has appointed instead the inexperienced Michael Cassio as his lieutenant. Iago is now Othello’s ensign, a much lowlier position.
It becomes clear that Othello has secretly married Desdemona and Iago and Roderigo are at her home to awaken her father, Brabantio, to tell him the unwelcome news. Brabantio reminds Roderigo that he has refused to let Roderigo marry his daughter, but when he discovers that she has instead run off with Othello, he admits he would have preferred Roderigo to have been her husband. Brabantio is very angry and plans to have Othello arrested.

Commentary on Act 1 Scene 1

Tush! .. had my purse – Roderigo has already given Iago lots of money as Iago leads him on in his pursuit of Desdemona. Shakespeare opens his drama by highlighting anger about suspected duplicity, key themes of the play. 
I know my price - Iago is clearly angry at being denied promotion and is envious of Cassio. 
mere prattle without practice – Iago conveys his own military experience but dismisses Cassio’s authority as baby’s talk.
other grounds Christian and heathen – The Venetian mercantile empire for which Iago had fought stretched far into Muslim territories, but to a [Christian3] nation such as Protestant England (or Catholic Venice) all non-Christians were dismissed as pagan or heathen.
ancient – A corruption of the word ‘ensign’, referring to a relatively low military rank similar to a regimental sergeant major – i.e. not an officer.
trimm'd in forms and visages of duty .. I am not what I am – Iago is associated with the recurring theme of false appearances and duplicity, the means by which he will wreak revenge.
What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe - Brabantio clearly believes that Desdemona has been seduced by Othello’s wealth, an idea that will re-emerge later. His sneer about his rival’s appearance suggests he cannot contemplate Desdemona’s genuine physical attraction to Othello.
old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe … covered with a Barbary horse – Iago demonstrates his own depravity by portraying Othello’s marriage as bestial mating, also emphasising the darkness (physical and potentially moral) of the perpetrator.
the devil will make a grandsire of you – It was commonly believed that witches had sex with the devil. By describing Othello as Satan, Iago is also implicitly condemning Brabantio’s daughter and potential grandchildren.
a gross revolt – Roderigo shares the contemporary popular sentiment that inter-racial marriage was against the laws of nature.
tinder .. taper – Before matches and electricity, a waxed reed (a taper) would be lit by striking a spark from a tinder box.
Another of his fathom – A fathom is the naval measurement for the depth of the sea. Iago grudgingly admits that no one else has Othello’s depth of experience.
charms .. abus’d – Brabantio believes Desdemona must have been enchanted or bewitched to fall for Othello. Many at the turn of the seventeenth century believed in the reality of witchcraft, including the king, James I

Investigating Act 1 Scene 1

  • Study Iago’s speech starting from ‘Three great ones …’ until ‘..his Moorship’s ancient.’ Write notes about the following:
    • What tone of voice would Iago use?
    • What reasons does he give for being aggrieved at not getting promotion?
    • How does he show his jealousy of Cassio?
  • Knowing Iago’s thoughts and attitude, what do you think he is trying to achieve through his subsequent speeches to Roderigo and Brabantio?
    • Select examples of the way in which he uses language to achieve these ends.
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