A Helpful Summary of 'Othello' Act 1

Act 1 of "Othello."

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Hold tight and delve into William Shakespeare's tragedy "Othello" with this summary of Act One. In this opening scene, the prolific playwright wastes no time establishing Iago's hatred of Othello. Better understand this beautifully written drama by examining the way it sets up the plot, themes, and characters.

Act 1, Scene 1

In Venice, Iago and Roderigo discuss Othello, a general. Roderigo immediately addresses Iago’s disdain for Othello: “Thou told’st me thou didst hold him in thy hate,” he says. Iago complains that instead of employing him as his lieutenant, Othello employed the inexperienced Michael Cassio. Iago was employed as a mere ensign to Othello.

Roderigo responds: “By heaven, I rather would have been his hangman.” Iago tells Roderigo that he will stay in Othello’s service only to exact revenge upon him when the time is right. Throughout this conversation (and the entire scene), Iago and Roderigo do not refer to Othello by name, but rather by his race, calling him "the Moor" or "the thick lips."

The pair plot to inform Brabanzio, Desdemona’s father, that his daughter has run off with Othello and married him, and that Othello is an unsuitable match, citing his race and impulsivity. The audience discovers that Roderigo is actually in love with Desdemona, as Brabanzio points out he has already warned him off her: “In honest plainness thou hast heard me say my daughter is not for thee.” This explains Roderigo’s hatred of Othello. The pair goad Brabanzio though, and Iago says, “I am the one sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.”

Brabanzio checks Desdemona’s room and discovers she is missing. He launches a full-scale search for his daughter and regretfully tells Roderigo that he would prefer him to be his daughter's husband and not Othello: “O would you had had her.” Iago resolves to leave, as he does not want his master to know he has double-crossed him. Brabanzio promises Roderigo that he will reward him for his help in finding Desdemona. “Oh, good Roderigo. I will deserve your pains,” he says.

Act 1, Scene 2

Iago tells Othello that Desdemona’s father and Roderigo are pursuing him. He also lies, telling Othello that he challenged them: “Nay, but he prated, and spoke such scurvy and provoking terms against your honor that with the little godliness I have, I did full hard forbear him.” Othello answers that his honor and services to the state speak for themselves and that he will convince Brabanzio he is a good match for his daughter. He tells Iago that he loves Desdemona.

Cassio and his officers enter, and Iago tries to convince Othello that it is his enemy and he should hide. But Othello shows strength of character by staying. “I must be found. My parts, my title, and my perfect soul shall manifest me rightly,” he says.

Cassio explains that the Duke needs to speak to Othello about the conflict in Cyprus, and Iago tells Cassio about Othello’s marriage. Then, Brabanzio arrives with swords drawn. Iago draws his sword on Roderigo knowing that they have the same intention and that Roderigo will not kill him but instead collude with the pretense. Brabanzio is angry that Othello has eloped with his daughter and again uses his race to put him down, saying that it is ridiculous to think she turned down wealthy and worthy gentlemen to run off with him. “She shunned the wealthy curled darlings of our nation…t’incur a general mock, run from her guardage to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou,” he says.

Brabanzio also accuses Othello of drugging his daughter. Brabanzio wants to put Othello in prison, but Othello says that the Duke requires his services and will also need to speak to him, so they choose to go to the Duke together to decide Othello’s fate.