Act 2 Scene 1

Synopsis of Act 2 Scene 1

Henceforward the action of the play occurs in Cyprus. The Cypriots are waiting to hear the result of the sea battle. News arrives that the Turkish fleet has been badly damaged by the storms and the danger to Cyprus is over. Cassio arrives without Othello, then unexpectedly Desdemona and Iago also arrive. Cassio greets Desdemona but there is no news of Othello.
Iago, Desdemona and Emilia discuss the virtues and values of women, and Iago shows his disparagement of females. While Cassio and Desdemona stand apart, Iago cynically interprets their body language as evidence of their mutual attraction and a sign that he can convince Othello of their adultery.
Othello arrives and is overjoyed at being reunited with Desdemona. Although the couple clearly express their love for one another, when they have left the scene Iago manages to convince Roderigo that Desdemona has fallen out of love with Othello and is now lusting after Cassio. He instructs Roderigo to pick a quarrel with Cassio that night. In soliloquy, Iago suspects that Cassio loves Desdemona, whilst admitting that Othello is a devoted husband. He repeats his belief that Othello has committed adultery with his own wife, Emilia, and seeks revenge by making Othello jealous of Desdemona.

Commentary on Act 2 Scene 1

Seascape Study with Rain Cloud by John ConstableIt is a high-wrought flood ..On the enchafed flood. – There is much description of the sea in this scene in powerful and poetic imagery. Shakespeare is conveying the power, beauty and danger of the oceans to an audience who may never have experienced it, as well as conjuring an imaginary scene which does not require scenery. The stormy elements prefigure the disruption of the emotions that follows.
burning bear .. everfixed pole – The Little Bear constellation is flanked by two bright stars, used, along with the Pole Star, by sailors for navigation.
a grievous wrack and sufferance .. With foul and violent tempest – The loss of life among the Turkish sailors emphasises the danger of shipwrecks in a world where Othello is at home but Desdemona is not; this was part of his attraction to her.
let the heavens / Give him defense .. a dangerous sea. – Cassio prays for Othello’s safety (the heavens, and later Jove, being a euphemism for God). Montano, Cassio and the other gentlemen all regard Othello with respect and affection.
a maid / That paragons description – In describing Desdemona, Cassio uses the extreme praise that was associated with a courtier paying homage to an unattainable object of devotion. 
That he may bless this bay .. bring all Cyprus comfort. - Cassio uses sexual imagery here and links Othello’s sexual fulfilment with the welfare of all Cyprus. This connects with a medieval idea that a whole country’s welfare depended on the health and strength of its monarch. See Chain of Being.
divine .. Hail .. grace of heaven - Desdemona is associated with lexis frequently connected with the Virgin Mary; her essential .. excellency echoing the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s freedom from original sin due to her own immaculate conception.
pictures .. players – Iago’s images of women emphasise their duplicity/double-dealing.
She that was ever fair .. chronicle small beer. – Iago seems at last to be painting a sincere portrait of his ideal woman because he is speaking in rhyming couplets, an indication that this is a high point of the scene. That is until the last line, where he cynically concludes that no woman such as he has described has ever existed. 
you had not kissed your three fingers so oft, .. an excellent courtesy, - Cassio is here showing Desdemona the loyal devotion of a medieval courtier; kissing hands and curtseying was a common thing to do in courtly circles and had no sinister connotations, despite the way in which Iago interprets it. Iago’s speech is full of soft alliteration and sibilants, punctuated by harsh consonants. 
discord .. tun’d .. pegs .. music – Shakespeare uses an extended musical metaphor to convey that Iago will disrupt the ‘harmony’ of the lovers’ relationship by striking a discordant note.
When the blood is made dull .. some second choice. – Speaking prose, Iago states that Desdemona must grow tired of her husband as soon as they have had their sexual fulfilment and will then look for another man to mate with. He equates human love with gluttony and bestial lust, either to convince Roderigo or because he really believes it himself.
The Moor … A most dear husband. - Iago here makes an honest appraisal of Othello’s genuine love for Desdemona, a fact that makes his planned treachery even more vile.
For I fear Cassio with my night-cap too, - Iago suspects Cassio of sleeping in Iago’s bed (by implication, with Emilia)

Investigating Act 2 Scene 1

  • Study Iago’s speech, starting from ‘That Cassio loves her ..’ until ‘That judgement cannot cure’. Write notes about:
    • The positive things Iago says about others
    • Iago’s intentions towards Othello
    • His inner torment.
  • How much sympathy do you have towards Iago at this point? 
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