On the shores of Cyprus, Montano, the island’s governor, watches a storm with two gentlemen. Just as Montano says that the Turkish fleet of ships could not survive the storm, a third gentlemen comes to confirm his prediction: as his ship traveled from Venice, Cassio witnessed that the Turks lost most of their fleet in the tempest. It is still uncertain whether Othello’s ship has been able to survive the storm. Hope lifts as voices offstage announce the sighting of a sail offshore, but the new ship turns out to be carrying Iago, Emilia, Desdemona, and Roderigo. Desdemona disembarks, and no sooner does Cassio tell her that Othello has yet to arrive than a friendly shot announces the arrival of a third ship. While the company waits for the ship, Cassio and Desdemona tease Emilia about being a chatterbox, but Iago quickly takes the opportunity to criticize women in general as deceptive and hypocritical, saying they are lazy in all matters except sex: “You rise to play and go to bed to work” (II.i.118). Desdemona plays along, laughing as Iago belittles women, whether beautiful or ugly, intelligent or stupid, as equally despicable. Cassio takes Desdemona away to speak with her privately about Othello’s arrival. Iago notices that Cassio takes Desdemona’s hand as he talks to her, and, in an aside, Iago plots to use Cassio’s hand-holding to frame him so that he loses his newly gained promotion to lieutenant. “With as little a web as this I will ensnare as great a fly as Cassio,” he asserts (II.i.169).
Othello arrives safely and greets Desdemona, expressing his devotion to her and giving her a kiss. He then thanks the Cypriots for their welcome and hospitality, and orders Iago to unload the ship. All but Roderigo and Iago head to the castle to celebrate the drowning of the Turks. Iago tells the despondent Roderigo that Desdemona will soon grow tired of being with Othello and will long for a more well-mannered and handsome man. But, Iago continues, the obvious first choice for Desdemona will be Cassio, whom Iago characterizes over and over again as a “knave” (II.i.231–239). Roderigo tries to argue that Cassio was merely being polite by taking Desdemona’s hand, but Iago convinces him of Cassio’s ill intentions and convinces Roderigo to start a quarrel with Cassio that evening. He posits that the uproar the quarrel will cause in the still tense city will make Cassio fall out of favor with Othello. Left alone onstage again, Iago explains his actions to the audience in a soliloquy. He secretly lusts after Desdemona, partially because he suspects that Othello has slept with Emilia, and he wants to get even with the Moor “wife for wife” (II.i.286). But, Iago continues, if he is unable to get his revenge by sleeping with Desdemona, Roderigo’s accusation of Cassio will make Othello suspect his lieutenant of sleeping with his wife and torture Othello to madness.Read a translation of Act II, scene i →
A herald announces that Othello plans revelry for the evening in celebration of Cyprus’s safety from the Turks, and also in celebration of his marriage to Desdemona.Read a translation of Act II, scene ii →
Like Act I, scene ii, the first scene of Act II begins with emphasis on the limitations of sight. “What from the cape can you discern at sea?” Montano asks, and the gentleman replies, “Nothing at all. It is a high-wrought flood” (II.i.1–2). The emphasis on the limitations of physical sight in a tempest foreshadows what will, after Act III, become Othello’s metaphorical blindness, caused by his passion and rage. Similarly, once the physical threat that the Turks pose has been eliminated, the more psychological, less tangible threat posed by inner demons assumes dramatic precedence.
The play extinguishes the external threat with almost ridiculous speed. The line “News, lads! Our wars are done,” is all that is needed to dismiss the plot involving the Turks (II.i.20). It is as though one kind of play ends at the end of Act II, scene ii, and another begins: what seemed to be a political tragedy becomes a domestic tragedy. Whereas the action of the play began on the streets of Venice and proceeded to the court and then to the beaches of Cyprus, it now moves to the passageways of Othello’s residence on the island and ultimately ends in his bedchamber. The effect is almost cinematic—like a long and gradual close-up that restricts the visible space around the tragic hero, emphasizing his metaphorical blindness and symbolizing his imprisonment in his own jealous fantasies. This ever-tightening focus has led many readers to characterize the play as “claustrophobic.”
The banter between Iago and Desdemona creates a nervous, uncomfortable atmosphere, in part because their levity is inappropriate, given that Othello’s ship remains missing. The rhyming couplets in which Iago expresses his misogynistic insults lend them an eerie, alienating quality, and Desdemona’s active encouragement of Iago is somewhat puzzling. Once again, Desdemona establishes herself as an outspoken and independent woman—she does not depend upon her husband’s presence either socially or intellectually. However, Desdemona does not suggest that she has any interest in cheating on her husband. Iago himself tells us that he will make a mountain out of the molehill represented by Cassio’s holding of Desdemona’s hand.