An Introduction to ‘Othello’
Act One, Scene One is both the introduction to Othello the play and Othello the character. The audience’s first impressions of the play and the eponymous character are constructed entirely out of the dialogue of Roderigo, Brabantio, and especially Iago. In this essay, Ong Sim Wee examines the contrasts between how Othello is externally described versus his interiority. This coalescence of the effect of words and action raises a few issues: how is Othello presented at the beginning of the play, and how does it affect the trajectory of following events that occur? More importantly, what does his portrayal illuminate about the influence of the spoken word in Othello?
Othello begins. The curtains rise. However, the light does not fall on the titular figure whose demise forms the substance of the tragedy. Instead, the audience is forced to cobble together an impression of the absent tragic hero using the spoken words of Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio in Act One, Scene One.
Ambiguously referred to as “him” in the first seconds of the play, Othello is quickly labelled with a slew of derogatory slurs (115). He is first identified as “the Moor” and “thicklips”, singularly defined by the colour of his skin (118, 120). Iago and Roderigo insidiously subject Othello to racial profiling, invoking the stereotypes attached to people of colour in a predominantly white Venetian society. In a play devoid of other dark-skinned characters, they distinguish Othello by his most conspicuous difference.
Iago and Roderigo issue even more verbal cruelties later on in the scene. They call Othello “an old black ram” and “Barbary horse”, characterizing him as a creature ruled by his basest instincts (121, 123). Moreover, Iago reduces the love-making between Othello and his wife to the repulsive act of “making the beast with two backs” (123). The bestial imagery dehumanizes Othello, casting him beyond the fringes of civilized Venetian high society.
Iago further debases Othello by evoking the taboo. The invective “devil” holds heretic connotations in Christian societies, and is commonly associated with black men in the past. Harking back to racial stereotypes, the portrayal of Othello as a dark and devilish figure disturbs conventional Venetian sensibilities. In fact, after conversing with Iago, Brabantio questions in outrage, “Is there not charms/ By which the property of youth and maidhood/ May be abused?” (127) He, too, charges Othello with witchcraft, a grave transgression in the eyes of Christian Venetians. Perhaps this points to the power of suggestion, the subtle influence of Iago’s diction.
Iago’s accusations of Othello being a biased general now seem insignificant – what is professional oversight in the face of disgusting animalistic behaviour and paganism? The audience’s impression of the amorphous “him” takes the shape of Iago and Roderigo’s scorn (115).
Yet, when Othello finally emerges in Act One, Scene Two, these first impressions are dispelled. There is no trace of Othello’s monstrosity. Instead, his eloquence and poise corroborate his claim that he “fetch[es his] life and being/ From men of royal siege” (129). Refusing to hide from the enraged Brabantio, he even proclaims, “I must be found./ My parts, my title and my perfect soul/ Shall manifest me rightly.” (130) Othello, confident in his own excellence, is certain that his qualities, nobility and inherent goodness will attest to his honourable nature. While Iago relies on words to represent Othello, Othello himself favours demonstration over description, providing more reliable evidence of his character.
At this juncture, the audience detects the gross discrepancies between Iago’s words and reality. Although Iago admitted his duplicity to Roderigo, he did not make explicit his modus operandi. With great facility, Iago is able to verbally manipulate the other characters’ notions of truth. For instance, his brief conversation with Brabantio managed to warp the latter’s perception of Othello, though his aspersions are baseless. Indeed, as the play progresses, all the key characters fall prey to Iago’s deceit. In particular, Othello failed to discern the falsities in Iago’s words, precipitating his unravelling and eventual downfall.
The beginning of Othello showcases the sway of Iago’s speech. By the next scene, it becomes clear that Iago’s smoke and mirrors are his words, but may not necessarily be reflective of his ascribed intent. Shakespeare spends the rest of the play exploring the ability of lies to orchestrate the outcome of events. Thus, the misrepresentation of Othello in Act One, Scene One serves as an ominous prelude of Iago’s deceptions, and a reminder of the dangerous malleability of what constitutes as truth.
Shakespeare, W., and Honigmann, E. A. J. (2001) Othello. London: Arden Shakespeare.
Sim Wee Ong is a former student at Victoria Junior College and current freshman at New York University. She spends most nights on the eighth floor of NYU’s library pursuing her dream of graduating with a major in English and American Literature, with minors in Dramatic Literature and Philosophy — or more commonly known as studying.