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Othello: Othello is a general in the army of Venice. He is a Moor, a dark-skinned man born in Africa, and has risen through the ranks of the Venetian army through hard work and success in battle. He is a respected general, but less respected as a person, because of his dark skin and foreign roots. He is an honest man, and believes that people are honest. This makes him naive in many ways. Othello is a passionate man, and deeply loves Desdemona
Desdemona: Desdemona is loyal, faithful, and passionately loves Othello. She is shrewd and wise, but is very subtle about it.
Iago: Iago is Othello?s sword-bearer. He has been passed over for the position of Lieutenant, and this draws out his evil nature. He feels that he has been wronged and cannot accept the position that Othello gives him. Iago is only concerned about himself and his position, and will sacrifice anyone to save himself and his interests.
It is night. “Tush” and “”Sblood” open the play. Though both Roderigo and Iago display a vulgarity of
language, Roderigo makes his mark as a gentleman against the coarse soldier speech of Iago. Whilst
one of the “curled darlings of the nation”, he is certainly not darling to Brabantio nor to Desdemona
whom he seeks.
Iago reveals such a hatred of Othello shared not even by Brabantio. Roderigo may doubt it but it is one
of the truest emotions Iago expresses in the play. In his first speech, one motive for his hatred may be
found. Othello has chosen Michael Cassio to be his lieutenant instead of Iago and Iago has nothing but
scorn for them both: Othello he describes as “loving his own pride and purposes” and “horribly stuffed
with epithets of war” (1.1.11-13). As we will learn, there is some truth in these judgements. Iago thinks
himself more suitable for the post than Cassio who he derides as “a great arithmetician…that never set
a squadron in the field / nor the division of battle know / more than a spinster…” (1.1.18-23). He is not
“bookish” like Cassio. He has practical experience of soldiering. Of him, Othello?s “eyes had seen proof” -
the same ocular proof that he demands from Iago of Desdemona?s infidelity – “at Rhodes, at Cyprus and
on other grounds, Christian and heathen” (1.1.27-29).
Iago is referred to often throughout the play as “my Ancient”. The contrast has bitterness in it whenever
he replies to Othello as “my Lord” or Cassio as “Lieutenant”. In Iago?s speech on masters and servants
(I.1.40ff), his true concept of his position is revealed and with it the philosophy underlying his malice if
such a thing exists: “I follow him to serve my turn upon him. / We cannot all be masters, nor all masters
can be truly followed…In following him, I follow but myself” (1.1.41-43, 57). He derides those who “doting
on his own obsequious bondage / wears out his time much like his master?s ass” (1.1.45-46) and
praises those who “keep yet their hearts attending on themselves / and, throwing but shows of service
on their lords…do themselves homage” (1.1.50-53). “These men have some soul,” he professes. His
creed worships but himself, and his words suggest contempt for the souls who hold honesty and honour
dear. “I am not what I am”, he concludes, yet Roderigo still trusts him, as do Cassio, Desdemona and
Othello. That is Iago, “honest Iago”, “ancient” to them all but master at the same time.
The first task Iago sets is to wake Brabantio and inform him that his daughter has eloped with Othello.
This custom (called charivari) was not uncommon in a situation where one party disapproved of a match.
Iago incites Roderigo to yell “as when by night and negligence the fire / is spied in populous cities”.
This practical image serves well the simple mind of Roderigo and such imagery is employed to similar
effect to incite Brabantio: “Even now, very now, now, an old black ram / is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.87-
88). If anything is to “Arise, arise / the snorting citizens”, it is language such as this. Brabantio?s first
impression of this as “malicious bravery…to start my quiet” is all too accurate. Iago declares that “you
have lost half your soul…your daughter covered by a Barbary horse…now making the beast with two
backs”. Iago, as throughout the play is creating an image ? a very obscene image ? to provoke Brabantio.
He succeeds: Brabantio arises, stunned by the darkness around him and calls for “Light! I say, light!” [1.1.75-
Iago makes his exit so as to be seen doing Othello “shows of service” when Roderigo arrives in the
company of Brabantio and his followers. It is important that, up to this point, the audience has only the
vivid image of Othello as the savage “tupper” that Iago has painted. Othello?s first words “Keep up your
bright swords, for the dew will rust them” are noble and authoritative, the same voice which spoke of
“… the battle, sieges, fortunes / that I have passed…of moving accidents by flood and field / Of hair-
breadth scapes i?th?imminent deadly breach”, the voice of a man that fetched his “life and being from
men of royal siege”. It was this voice and no “spells and medicines bought of mountebanks” to which
Desdemona had “seriously inclined” and come again with a “greedy ear”. The picture that Othello paints
of himself is a powerful antidote to that which Iago paints in the first scene, and yet there is unquestionably
Othello is black. Desdemona is white. Imagery, needless to say, is very important in Othello. The audience
first sees Othello, not in the flesh, but in the imagination. We are presented with a powerful image created
by Iago: of a creature untamed an uncivilised, driven only by base instinct. The man that appears on
stage in the second scene is no such creature. His speech to the senate paints a very different picture.
It is not one of your average Venetian. It is exotic and strange but it is presented with eloquence and
a noble authority that outstrips the civilised company that is present. At the end, Othello reverts to the
rhetoric that he used in front of the senate. Again, the imagery is most powerful. He talks of pearls,
of Arabian trees. The same sort imagery that he used to woo Desdemona, he uses to conclude the
Iago?s use of imagery is the basis for his power. At the outset, he deceives the audience with the image
he paints of Othello. He uses simple images, of fires in populous cities, of gardens and gardeners, for
the simple-minded Roderigo. His deception of Othello needs to be very much more subtle. Here too,
though, his tool is imagery. The proof that he presents is imaginary. Othello?s passion is aroused by
the images that Iago?s words conjure up ? of Cassio and Desdemona lying together. The handkerchief
becomes a symbol for this imaginary infidelity. Othello sees Desdemona, white-skinned and beautiful,
the very image of purity and is torn apart by the images that have poisoned his mind.
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