In following him I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so for my peculiar end.
Othello begins on a street in Venice, in the midst of an argument between Roderigo and Iago. The rich Roderigo has been paying Iago to help him win Desdemona's hand in marriage, but he has seen no progress, and he has just learned that Desdemona has married Othello, a general whom Iago serves as ensign. Iago reassures Roderigo that he hates Othello. Chief among Iago’s reasons for this hatred is Othello’s recent promotion of Michael Cassio to the post of lieutenant. In spite of Iago’s service in battle and the recommendation of three “great ones” of the city, Othello chose to give the position to a man with no experience leading men in battle. As he waits for an opportunity to further his own self-interest, Iago only pretends to serve Othello.
Iago advises Roderigo to spoil some of Othello’s pleasure in his marriage by rousing Desdemona’s family against the general. The two men come to the street outside the house of Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, and cry out that he has been robbed by “thieves.” Brabantio, who is a Venetian senator, comes to the window. At first, he doesn’t believe what he hears, because he has told Roderigo to stay away from his daughter before and thinks Roderigo is merely scheming once again in order to see Desdemona.
Iago speaks in inflammatory terms, vulgarly telling the senator that his daughter and Othello are having sex by saying that they are “making the beast with two backs” (I.i.
Iago arrives at Othello’s lodgings, where he warns the general that Brabanzio will not hesitate to attempt to force a divorce between Othello and Desdemona. Othello sees a party of men approaching, and Iago, thinking that Brabanzio and his followers have arrived, counsels Othello to retreat indoors. Othello stands his ground, but the party turns out to be Cassio and officers from the Venetian court. They bring Othello the message that he is wanted by the duke of Venice about a matter concerning Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean Sea controlled by Venice.
As Cassio and his men prepare to leave, Iago mentions that Othello is married, but before he can say any more, Brabanzio, Roderigo, and Brabanzio’s men arrive to accost Othello. Brabanzio orders his men to attack and subdue Othello. A struggle between Brabanzio’s and Othello’s followers seems imminent, but Othello brings the confrontation to a halt by calmly and authoritatively telling both sides to put up their swords. Hearing that the duke has summoned Othello to the court, Brabanzio decides to bring his cause before the duke himself.
The action of the first scene heightens the audience’s anticipation of Othello’s first appearance. We learn Iago’s name in the second line of the play and Roderigo’s soon afterward, but Othello is not once mentioned by his name. Rather, he is ambiguously referred to as “he” and “him.” He is also called “the Moor” (I.i.
Iago plays on the senator’s fears, making him imagine a barbarous and threatening Moor, or native of Africa, whose bestial sexual appetite has turned him into a thief and a rapist. Knowing nothing of Othello, one would expect that the audience, too, would be seduced by Iago’s portrait of the general, but several factors keep us from believing him. In the first place, Roderigo is clearly a pathetic and jealous character. He adores Desdemona, but she has married Othello and seems unaware of Roderigo’s existence. Roderigo doesn’t even have the ability to woo Desdemona on his own: he has already appealed to Brabanzio for Desdemona’s hand, and when that fails, he turns to Iago for help. Rich and inexperienced, Roderigo naïvely gives his money to Iago in exchange for vague but unfulfilled promises of amorous success.
The fact that Iago immediately paints himself as the villain also prepares us to be sympathetic to Othello. Iago explains to Roderigo that he has no respect for Othello beyond what he has to show to further his own revenge: “I follow him to serve my turn upon him” (I.i.
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
Brabanzio twice accuses Othello of using magic to seduce his daughter (in I.i.