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Othello Act 1, Scene 1 Summary & Quotes

Instructor: John Gonzales

John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Act I, Scene I of Shakespeare's ''Othello'' thrusts the audience right into the action. This lesson provides an overview of the scene and reveals key character motivations. A short quiz follows.

The Audience as Eavesdroppers

You've probably been in a situation where you accidentally overheard an intense conversation in-progress and ended up as an unintentional eavesdropper. If you happened to listen in--you know, because there was no way you could help it--you might have had to imagine how the conversation started prior to the first line you caught. Again, you couldn't help yourself.

Act I, Scene I of Shakespeare's Othello turns the audience into just that sort of accidental eavesdropper. As an audience member (or a reader), you're thrown into the midst of a heated exchange between Roderigo and Iago and forced to surmise the relationship between the two of them. In this way, Shakespeare has his audience actively contribute to determining their motivations within the scene. Character motivations are the influences, experiences, and qualities that drive a character and explain their actions and the choices they make. And while analyzing character motivations isn't always necessary to summarizing the content of a play, Shakespeare makes it necessary in this scene by throwing us right in the middle.

Scene Summary

The scene takes place late at night on a street in Venice just outside of the home of Brabantio, a Venetian senator and father of Desdemona. Roderigo expresses his dismay that Iago, whom he has been paying extremely well, has withheld important information about a particular someone of interest.

Through their exchange, the 'him' referred to only as the 'Moor' turns out to be Othello, and we learn of Iago's intense hatred of him. Iago believes he was much better qualified to be appointed lieutenant than Cassio, and resents his status as Othello's 'ancient' (ensign). When Roderigo replies that he would never serve under someone who treated him that way:

'I follow him to serve my turn upon him.

We cannot all be masters, nor all masters

Cannot be truly follow'd. . . . For, sir,

It is as sure as you are Roderigo,

Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.

In following him, I follow but myself;

Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,

But seeming so, for my peculiar end.'

Bearer of Bad News

Iago tells Roderigo to yell at Brabantio's door as urgently as though the home were on fire, adding on to his calls:

'Awake! what, ho, Brabantio! thieves! thieves! thieves!

Look to your house, your daughter and your bags!

Thieves! thieves!'

When Brabantio comes to the door, and responds, missing aspects of character motivation are filled in:

'I have charged thee not to haunt about my doors:

In honest plainness thou hast heard me say

My daughter is not for thee; and now, in madness,

Being full of supper and distempering draughts,

Upon malicious bravery, dost thou come

To start my quiet.

We learn that Roderigo has been wooing Desdemona and that her father, Brabantio, does not approve of him. As the exchange continues, we also discover what news it was that Roderigo lacked as the scene opened: Desdemona has eloped with Othello--that is the theft they say took place. This suggests that Roderigo has been paying Iago to help him find a way to Desdemona and that now their interests coincide when it comes to ruining Othello's reputation with Brabantio. Iago describes the union between man and wife in less-than-romantic and harshly racist terms:

IAGO:

'Because we come to

do you service and you think we are ruffians, you'll

have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse;

you'll have your nephews neigh to you; you'll have

coursers for cousins and gennets for germans.'

BRABANTIO :

'What profane wretch art thou?'

IAGO:

'I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter

and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs'.

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