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Othello

by: William Shakespeare

Act I, scenes i–ii

In many ways, Iago is the driving force behind the plot, a playwright of sorts whose machinations inspire the action of the play. His self-conscious falseness is highly theatrical, calculated to shock the audience. Iago is a classic two-faced villain, a type of character known in Shakespeare’s time as a “Machiavel”—a villain who, adhering all too literally to the teachings of the political philosopher Machiavelli, lets nothing stand in his way in his quest for power. He is also reminiscent of the stock character of Vice from medieval morality plays, who also announces to the audience his diabolical schemes.

After having been prepared for a passionate and possibly violent personage in Othello, the quiet calm of Othello’s character—his dismissal of Roderigo’s alleged insult and his skillful avoidance of conflict—is surprising. In fact, far from presenting Othello as a savage barbarian, Shakespeare implicitly compares him to Christ. The moment when Brabanzio and his men arrive with swords and torches, tipped off to Othello’s whereabouts by Othello’s disloyal friend, vividly echoes John 18:111. In that Gospel, Christ and his followers are met by officers carrying swords and torches. The officers were informed of Christ’s whereabouts by Judas, who pretends to side with Christ in the ensuing confrontation. When Othello averts the violence that seems imminent with a single sentence, “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust ’em” (I.ii.60), he echoes Christ’s command to Peter, “Put up thy sword into the sheath” (John 18:11). However, whereas Christ’s calm restraint is due to his resigned acceptance of his fate, Othello’s is due to his sense of his own authority.

Brabanzio twice accuses Othello of using magic to seduce his daughter (in I.i.172173 and I.ii.7380), and he repeats the same charge a third time in front of the duke in Act I, scene iii. Even though Shakespeare’s audience would have considered elopement with a nobleman’s daughter to be a serious, possibly imprisonable offense, Brabanzio insists that he wants to arrest and prosecute Othello specifically for the crime of witchcraft, not for eloping with his daughter without his consent. Brabanzio’s racism is clear—he claims that he simply cannot believe that Desdemona would be attracted to the Moor unless her reason and senses were blinded. Yet, it is possible that Brabanzio is not being sincere. He may feel that he needs to accuse Othello of a crime more serious than elopement because he knows the duke will overlook Othello’s infraction otherwise.