Othello is both an outsider and an insider in Venetian society. His race, physical appearance, and remarkable life history set him apart from the other Venetians, and inspire Brabanzio’s fears that Othello is some sort of witch doctor. At the same time, the duke and other characters treat him as an essential part of the Venetian state. When Othello and the others enter, the duke gets straight to business, telling Othello that they must immediately employ him against the Ottoman Turks. Only after delivering these two lines does the duke notice Brabanzio, and, even then, he acknowledges him in a rather demeaning fashion, saying, “I did not see you. Welcome, gentle signor” (I.iii.50). Brabanzio’s lengthy calls for justice are met only with the duke’s desire to hear more from Othello, and once Othello has delivered his long and beautiful speech about wooing Desdemona, the duke feels the subject is closed. As both a physical and a political presence, Othello overshadows Brabanzio.
Shakespeare fleshed out the fantastic details of Othello’s past life by drawing on a number of ancient and Renaissance travel writers. Othello clearly attaches great importance to the image of himself as a unique and heroic figure, and it is also important to him that he have a remarkable life story worthy of repeated telling. Not only does he claim that Desdemona fell in love with him because of his story, he says that he fell in love with her because of her reaction to his story. Desdemona confirms or validates something about Othello’s self-image, which may suggest why her faithfulness is of such all-consuming importance to him.
Desdemona herself appears remarkably forward and aggressive in Othello’s account, particularly in relation to Renaissance expectations of female behavior. She “devour[s] up” his discourse with a “greedy ear,” and is the first of the two to hint at the possibility of their loving one another (I.iii.148–149). Exactly how forward we should imagine Desdemona to be is somewhat uncertain. Modern texts of the play are based upon one of two early editions of Shakespeare’s plays, the Quarto edition and the Folio edition. (Quarto and Folio refer to two different sizes of books.) In the Quarto, Othello says, “My story being done, / She gave me for my pains a world of sighs,” whereas in the Folio, he says, “She gave me for my pains a world of kisses” (I.iii.157–158). In both editions, Othello is ambiguous about whether he or Desdemona played the more active role in the courtship, which could mean that he is somewhat uncomfortable—either embarrassed or upset—with Desdemona’s aggressive pursuit of him. In Act I, scene ii, lines149–154, for instance, he says that he observed that Desdemona wanted him to retell his tale, so he found a way to get her to ask him to tell it, and then he consented. This seems an unnecessarily complicated way of describing what happened, and suggests either that Othello was uncertain which of them played the leading role or that he wants to insist that his own role was more active than it actually was.
When Desdemona finally enters and speaks for herself, she does indeed seem outspoken and assertive, as well as generous and devoted. In her speech about her “divided duty” as a wife and a daughter, Desdemona shows herself to be poised and intelligent, as capable of loving as of being loved, and able to weigh her competing loyalties respectfully and judiciously (I.iii.180). In arguing for her right to accompany Othello to Cyprus, she insists upon the “violence” and unconventionality of her attachment to Othello (I.iii.248–249). In declaring “I did love the Moor to live with him,” she frankly insists on the sexual nature of her love (I.iii.248). She is saying that she isn’t content to marvel at Othello’s stories; she wants to share his bed. As the plot progresses, Desdemona’s sexual aggressiveness will upset Othello more and more. In explaining her love for Othello, she states that she “saw Othello’s visage in his mind,” which might mean either that she saw a different face inside him than the one the rest of the world sees, or “I saw him as he sees himself,” supporting the idea that she validates or upholds Othello’s sense of self.