Act One of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice begins mid-conversation. On a Venetian street in the night, two men enter: one, we learn almost immediately is named Iago (his name is mentioned in the play’s second line), the other–at this point, unidentified–is not happy. Something has happened and Iago has known about it.
What has happened? We don’t know. Who is the second man? We don’t know.
The second man questions Iago’s hate of a third man, one whom Iago has served and whose “lieutenant” (I.i.9) Iago wanted to become, bolstered in his campaign by “three great ones of the city” (I.i.8)–only Iago wasn’t granted the position. Instead, a Michael Cassio, an “arithmetician” (I.i.18)–or one who has gleaned all his knowledge through books–was named lieutenant, while Iago has been made the “Moorship’s ancient” (I.i.32). So, we learn the third man’s identity before the second’s: Othello is the Moor, and Iago “follow(s) him to serve (his own) turn upon him” (I.i.41). We still don’t know what the precipitating event was, nor Othello’s connection to it.
We learn the second man’s identity, Roderigo, and Iago tells him (and us) ominously, “I am not what I am” (I.i.64). At this point, we still don’t know the original event, but we’re about to get clues. The pair reaches “her father’s house” (I.i.73). Here, they begin to call out and wake one Brabantio. In the darkness, they reference his daughter and intimate that she was gone and that “an old black ram // Is tupping (his) white ewe” (I.i.87-8). It’s beginning to become clearer what the event was: something to do with Othello, this man’s daughter, and sex.
Brabantio doesn’t believe what he’s hearing. First, the source is Roderigo, who it seems had been a suitor to the daughter, but she “is not for” (I.i.97) Roderigo. Second, “This is Venice” (I.i.104). What could go wrong there? Only, according to Iago, that Brabantio’s “daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs” (I.i.115), another sexual description. Upon more convincing, Brabantio rushes off to look for his daughter.
Iago tells Roderigo that he needs to leave, as it wouldn’t look good for him to be part of the pitchfork army he predicts will go after the Moor (still unnamed, by the way); and he tells Roderigo to “lead to the Sagittary the raised search; // And there will I be with him” (I.i.156-7). And leave he does.
Brabantio returns, in a state of both anger and confusion, and we finally get to know the precipitating event: “Are they married, think you?” (I.i.165), Brabantio asks, to which Roderigo responds, “Truly I think they are” (I.i.166). To this, Brabantio calls to wake his kinsmen, and get weapons. The pitchfork army is raised and the opening scene is done.
In the second scene, we meet the Moor in another scene that starts mid-conversation with Iago, with the ancient complaining about someone who “spoke such scurvy and provoking terms” (I.ii.7), that he wanted to murder the speaker. He refers to Brabantio as one of the “magnifico(s)” (I.ii.12) or aristocrats of the city, who will try to “divorce” (I.ii.14) Othello. Othello is not worried, saying the “services (he has) done the signory // Shall out-tongue his complaints” (I.ii.18-9).
When a group approaches them, the first thought is that it’s Brabantio and his followers. Instead, it’s Cassio (Othello’s lieutenant) and some officers of the city. It seems the duke needs to talk to Othello on matters of state: there is a situation “of some heat” (I.ii.40) in Cyprus. Othello excuses himself for a moment, presumably to tell Desdemona that he is leaving, in in that passage of time, Iago tells Cassio of the marriage.
Othello re-enters, and so do Brabantio’s men, who draw their weapons; Othello’s men do the same, but Othello tells all to put away their swords. Brabantio accuses Othello of stealing Desdemona by use of “foul charms … (and) drugs” (I.ii.73, 74); he says why else would Desdemona have “shunned // The wealthy curled darlings” (I.ii.68) of Venice and choose Othello’s “sooty bosom” (I.ii.70). Brabantio demands that his followers take Othello into custody.
Othello in an attempt to calm the situation asks where would they be taking him, and when he hears it’s prison, his response is worthy of a mic-drop:
Whose messengers are here about my side
Upon some present business of state
To bring me to him?
Brabantio, to end the scene, can only show dismay that he wasn’t called by the duke’s council, and says that it doesn’t matter as the duke will take his side.
The third and final scene of Act One takes us to the Venetian senate where the duke is sorting through messages coming in rapidly about the Turkish fleet attacking Cyprus. It seems they had expected the fleet to attack Rhodes, but now with news that both Cyprus and Rhodes will have to face the Turkish navy, there is sense of panic. When Othello arrives with Brabantio’s mob, the first senator refers to Othello as “the valiant Moor” (I.iii.47), and for the first time in the play, his name is uttered when the duke greets him as “Valiant Othello” (I.iii.48).
After the duke tells Othello that he needs him to lead forces against the Ottomites, he sees Brabantio, chiding him for not being at the council meeting. Brabantio again accuses Othello of “spells” (I.iii.61) to win Desdemona. Othello responds by saying he can tell them how he won her heart, but meanwhile they should go and get her from the Sagittary; if she doesn’t back up what he will tell them, “let (the) sentence // Even fall upon (his) life” (I.iii.119-20).
While they go to get Desdemona, Othello launches into his tale. In the longest speech in the play (at 42 lines), he tells of how Brabantio often invited him to dinner and questioned Othello on the story of his life. Desdemona was there to listen to the stories. Desdemona had requested more stories and he set aside private time for her, and their love was born: “She loved me for the dangers I had passed, // And I loved her that she did pity them. // This only is the witchcraft I have used” (I.iii.167-9).
The duke is won over, but Brabantio isn’t, and when Desdemona arrives, he asks her to whom she owes allegiance. She responds intelligently: she owes much to her father, but now that she’s married her love is “due to the Moor (her) lord” (I.iii.189). Brabantio is not gracious in defeat: he not only says that he is done with her, but that he’s glad he had no other children. The duke tries to reconcile Brabantio and the newlywed couple, but Brabantio rebukes the effort.
Moving on, the duke informs Othello of the Cyprus situation and Othello accepts the assignment, asking only that Desdemona be taken care of. Everyone involved rejects the duke’s suggestion of Desdemona staying with her father, instead deciding that she, too, will head to Cyprus. Othello, upon the duke’s request to have someone charged with delivering commissions to Othello, suggests Iago, a man of “honesty and trust” (I.iii.284). As the meeting is breaking up, Brabantio tries to get one more dig at Othello: “Look to me, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: // She has deceived her father, and may thee” (I.iii.292-3).
All leave, save for the two men who opened the play. Roderigo is disconsolate; Iago tells him to get some money together and follow them to Cyprus, where all can be set to their advantage: “If thou canst cuckold him, thou dost thyself a pleasure, me a sport” (I.iii.365-7). Roderigo, convinced, leaves our villain alone on stage for the first soliloquy of the play, where he reveals that
- he is stringing Roderigo along “for sport and profit” (I.iii.378)
- he “hate(s) the Moor” (also I.iii.378)
- “it is thought abroad that ‘twixt (Iago’s) sheets // (Othello)’as done his office” (I.iii.379-80) and though he doesn’t know this to be true, he’s willing to use it
- and he has a plan to use Cassio, “a proper man” (I.iii.384), in a plot have Othello believe Desdemona has been unfaithful
And with that, the first act ends.