What makes Act One of Othello powerful?

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What makes Act One of Othello powerful?


Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ was first published in 1622 and revolves around four central characters; Othello, Desdemona, Iago and Cassio. The central conflict evokes contrasting emotions of passion, hatred, envy and jealousy. Act One marks the night of Othello and Desdemona’s elopement but it also initiates the pattern of night and day, dark and light, black and white, which is emblematic of the polarize debate centred upon the inter-racial marriage. From Act One Scene One, Shakespeare captures the audience’s attention and presents us with an incredibly powerful opening.

‘Othello’ opens in media res with two characters engaged in a dispute; the scene is set for conflict, and a mood of confusion and intrigue immediately established. The audience does not know what the characters are talking about because the subject of so much of their conversation, Othello, is never referred to by name, heightening our anticipation. 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”, “the thick-lips”, and “a Barbary horse” -all names signifying that he is dark-skinned immediately drawing the audience’s attention to the racial prejudice present.


The location of this scene is significant, and ties in with the imagery that Iago and Roderigo use. It is night time, and the two levels of the stage used, Brabantio at the window, Iago and Roderigo concealed in the darkness of the street below which signifies the disruption that they have come to inform Brabantio of. There is a sense in which Brabantio’s physical security,his house, is threatened along with his peace of mind. Iago refers to Desdemona’s elopement using a verb that signifies an assault on Brabantio’s property; the old man have bee ‘robb’d’. Roderigo’s descriptions of Desdemona’s movements also add to the atmosphere of disruption and disorder, and establish the danger of Venice at night ‘At this odd-even and dull watch o’ the night’ The different examples of conflict that open and close scene one are accompanied by references to a greater conflict: the invasion of Cyprus.

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Shakespeare uses Act One to show the audience that Othello and Iago are polar opposites; one seeks to diffuse conflict while the other revels in it. Iago is a cynical malcontent. He despises men who wear their hearts on their sleeves and other ‘honest knaves’ who fail to look after their own interests. Shakespeare adds the image of the birds tearing at this heart; foreshadowing the great deceptions that Iago will engineer, and the sinister qualities that make up his core. His energetic speeches are full of egotistical indignation and it is Iago’s crude descriptions of Othello ‘tupping your white ...

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