Act One Of Othello Essay

This essay has a total of 2447 words and 10 pages.

Act One Of Othello

What Is Shakespeare's
Achievement In Act I Of Othello?

Shakespeare's own personal aim was not to write a social and political reflection of his
era, as many contemporary readers believe, it was; purely and simply, to entertain his
audience. This does not mean that there can be no social and political reflections within
Othello, it means that the reflections are there, not for the sake of social and political
commentary, but for the sake of entertainment and pleasure. Aristotle explained in
"Poetics" that the audience's pleasure consists not merely in observing the play, but
criticizing, evaluating and making comparisons. These activities produce pleasure, thus it
is not a mindless pleasure. There must be intellectual and emotional engagement on the
spectator's part. According to Aristotle, to stimulate the intellectual engagement of the
audience and thus create this pleasure in the spectator, a masterful piece of art or
literature must contain a degree of ambiguity in its ideas. This is the reason for the
social commentaries that Shakespeare includes in his work:

The play commences with two characters apparently arguing over money. Shakespeare
immediately sets the mood of conflict for the remainder of the play, it is important
because the reader at the outset is given a choice; who to believe and who is right.
Shakespeare instantly sets about creating the mood of ambiguity which will result in the
reader contemplating and analyzing the situation in hand. This will, according to
Aristotle, create pleasure for the audience.

As with all Shakespeare's plays, Othello is written (for the very vast majority) in a form
of verse and with a definite rhythm. This helps the general flow of the text, and when the
rhythm is broken, we are alerted to a significant event or to a particular trait in a
character. When Iago tries to insult and animalize the "Barbary horse" Othello, to
Brabantio (line 108), verse reverts to prose and we are alerted to the evils behind Iago's
deeds. Shakespeare, so far, is strictly adhering to Aristotle's guidelines and certainly
understands "the essential qualities of art itself". In "Poetics" it is explained that
"language into which enter rhythm, harmony and song" will create "each kind of artistic
ornament" necessary to "imitate an action that is serious, complete and of a certain
magnitude" (Aristotle's description of tragedy).

In the first verses the audience is presented with a mood of intrigue and confusion,
Othello is never referred to by name, but Iago's feelings are perfectly clear. Othello is
described by Iago as being pompous and immodest, Iago is only serving Othello to "serve
[his] turn upon him", this immediately shows the self-serving nature of Iago. We are
quickly shown that Iago is bitter and twisted that he has not gained the rank of Othello's
lieutenant, thus his estimation of Othello is not fully believed or accredited by the
audience. Furthermore Iago goes on to admit to his own deceptive nature by explaining he
is not what he seems to be, he explains "I am not what I am". In the first scene Iago
launches into a speech of how he despises "knee-crooking knave" who serves his master for
nothing but "provender" (bed and board). He then explains how he admires the servant who
wears a "visage of duty" while serving no one but himself. These servants "have lined
their coats" and then when they have used their master for money they "Do themselves
homage". Iago, once more, confesses to being one of these self serving and deceptive men.
By showing Iago's true colours, Shakespeare is casting Iago's view of Othello in a very
low estimation.

Shakespeare's initial portrayal of Roderigo, is of a rather dim and naive man. Firstly, he
has paid a clearly dishonest self serving man, Iago, to promote a match between him and
Desdemona, to her father, Brabantio. Secondly, nearly all Roderigo's conversation consists
of subservient comments towards the manipulative Iago. He is constantly agreeing and
promoting Iago's theories on Othello; explaining the obvious that "he would not serve him
then". Roderigo is not portrayed by Shakespeare, in Act I, as being completely twisted,
like Iago. He is seen merely as Iago's rather worthless tool. The contrast between the two
characters can be easily seen when each takes their turn to awake Brabantio; Roderigo
exclaims "What ho! Brabantio, Signior Brabantio ho!"; Iago takes his turn and cries out
"thieves, thieves, thieves! Look to your house, your daughter, your bags!". Roderigo also
fails to see that Iago, who has already admitted that he is a deceiver and a crook, could
be deceiving him. This dramatic irony shows Roderigo in an even more gullible and naive

During the first scene we encounter the first racial comments in Othello. Iago explains to
Brabantio that the "old black ram", Othello, is "tupping your white ewe", Desdemona. These
crude, racial, animalizing comments really do hit home; for it is now that the previously
stubborn Brabantio is prepared to listen to the undesirable Roderigo and Iago. Iago senses
this reaction and continues with the racial animalizing comments, he crudely describes
Iago as a "Barbary horse", and explains that Othello's, and thus Desdemona's, and thus
Brabantio's, descendants will be "jennets" and "coursers" both types of horses. These are
racial comments, yet are not necessarily comments which would have differed from public
opinion. At the time that Shakespeare wrote Othello, it was widely accepted that Negroes
were socially, biologically and actually sub-human. Bearing this in mind, Iago's comments
would not have caused any real offence to the viewing public, and thus is not one of
Aristotle's "ambiguous" notions, which would have resulted in the pleasure derived from
intellectual debate. Today society has a completely different set of values and it is
widely accepted that Negroes and other ethnic minorities are not inferior, hence Iago's
views, and therefore the views of much of Shakespeare's society are abhorrent in our eyes.
We must however, take extreme caution not to condemn the likes of Iago and Roderigo for
their deceivingly racist comments; we should not judge seventeenth century values with
twentieth century ideals.

There are, however other views that can be taken on Shakespeare's depiction of Iago (and
others) view on Othello and their "racism". Some people believe that Shakespeare
recognised that Negroes and white man were equal and wrote this play to demonstrate this
to his viewing public. Iago dislikes Othello and his origins the most and he is the most
morally corrupt character in the play. Whereas the, arguably, morally purest character,
Desdemona, shows no regard for Othello's colour. By casting the views of these two
characters in such a way, Shakespeare could be commenting on the moral standing of these
views on Negroes.

This view throws up yet another issue, however. It is evident that Iago harboured a huge
hatred for Othello. Yet did he really believe that Othello was actually sub-human? Or did
he express such views merely because he knew the way society would judge Othello? He could
have predicted the hatred that certain sections of society would show towards Othello,
once he triggered their racial hatred with his comments. The fact that Othello was so high
in the social and political standings of Venice would not dull the hatred, and may even
have compounded the colour prejudice. The public would resent such an inferior outsider
holding an office so high, the foundations of this resentment may have been observed by
Iago, and used by him as a tool to turn the public towards the hatred for Othello that he
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