Mine’s not an idle cause.
The Duke himself, Or any of my brothers of the state,
Cannot but feel this wrong as ’twere their own.
For if such actions may have passage free,
Bond-slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be. (1.2.97–101)
In these lines, an outranged Brabanzio orders an officer to drag Othello before the Duke to answer for the alleged crime of bewitching and marrying his daughter, Desdemona. Brabanzio’s raging prejudice against Othello speaks volumes about the play’s setting in sixteenth-century Venice, which was a major center of European trade and a very multicultural city.
Although Othello, a Moor, is a general in the Venetian army and highly trusted by the Duke, Brabanzio suggests that it is criminal for a person of Othello’s dark complexion to marry into the Venetian nobility. Brabanzio is confident that the Duke and his other “brothers of the state” will join him in condemning Othello, whom he maligns as a “bond-slave” and “pagan,” for the crime of aspiring to become a Venetian statesman through marriage.
For do but stand upon the foaming shore,
The chidden billow seems to pelt the clouds,
The wind-shaked surge, with high and monstrous mane,
Seems to cast water on the burning bear,
And quench the guards of th' ever-fixèd pole.
I never did like molestation view
On the enchafèd flood. (2.1.11–17)
Act II opens on the shores of the island of Cyprus in the midst of a fierce storm that has shipwrecked most of the Turkish fleet and ended the threat of a Turkish invasion. In this quote, Montano, the governor of Cyprus, likens the storm to an assault by the sea upon the sky. The waves are so high, he says, that they batter the clouds and quench the “the burning bear” (the constellation Ursa Minor) and “th’ ever fixed pole” (the North Star). In Shakespeare’s plays, foul weather often foreshadows tragic events, and this storm is no exception. Although the storm ends the threat of war, Othello and the Venetians remain vulnerable to the internal conflicts that will soon tear them apart, much like the storm does to the Turkish ships.
It is Othello’s pleasure, our noble and valiant general, that, upon certain tidings now arrived, importing the mere perdition of the Turkish fleet, every man put himself into triumph: some to dance, some to make bonfires, each man to what sport and revels his addiction leads him. For besides these beneficial news, it is the celebration of his nuptial. So much was his pleasure should be proclaimed. All offices are open, and there is full liberty of feasting from this present hour of five till the bell have told eleven. Bless the isle of Cyprus and our noble general Othello! (2.2)
In this quote—which comprises an entire scene—Othello’s herald announces a huge feast in Cyprus to celebrate the sinking of the Turkish fleet and the marriage of Othello and Desdemona. Unfortunately, the feast provides an ideal setting in which the villain Iago can exploit the vices of his fellow Venetians and turn them against each other. During the feast, Iago pressures Cassio to get drunk and then persuades the jealous Roderigo to provoke Cassio. The fight leads to the stabbing of Montano, who tries to intervene, and the dismissal of Cassio from his position as lieutenant. Thus, the celebration of peace, love, and generosity quickly devolves into a brawl that shows Venice is threatened as much by internal turmoil as by war with the Turks.
Give me to know
How this foul rout began, who set it on. . .
What, in a town of war
Yet wild, the people’s hearts brimful of fear,
To manage private and domestic quarrel?
In night, and on the court and guard of safety?
'Tis monstrous. Iago, who began ’t? (2.3.172–180)
In these lines, Othello demands to know who “set on” (instigated) the brawl that led to Montano’s stabbing, and he condemns the unknown culprit as “monstrous.” Othello seems particularly upset that this “private and domestic quarrel” has disturbed Cyprus in a time of war, when the people are already full of fear and the army is supposed to be providing security, not brawling in the streets. Ironically, the brawl foreshadows Othello’s own private and domestic quarrel with Desdemona. Iago, the monstrous instigator of both quarrels, expertly exploits Othello’s fears and suspicions, abusing his trust and spurning his duty to Othello.
I know our country disposition well.
In Venice they do let God see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands. Their best conscience
Is not to leave ’t undone, but keep’t unknown.
Dost thou say so? (3.3.206–210)
In these lines, Iago plants the seeds of suspicion in Othello’s mind by playing up Venice’s reputation as a promiscuous city. According to Iago, wives in Venice don’t hesitate to commit adultery; they simply try to avoid getting caught by their husbands. Although Othello initially rejects Iago’s suggestion that Desdemona might be cheating on him, he soon becomes convinced of her dishonesty, even though the audience knows his suspicions are unfounded.