But here’s my husband,
And so much duty as my mother showed
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.
The duke’s meeting with his senators about the imminent Turkish invasion of Cyprus takes an unexpected turn when a sailor arrives and announces that the Turks seem to have turned toward Rhodes, another island controlled by Venice. One of the senators guesses that the Turks’ change of course is intended to mislead the Venetians, because Cyprus is more important to the Turks and far more vulnerable than Rhodes. This guess proves to be correct, as another messenger arrives to report that the Turks have joined with more forces and are heading back toward Cyprus.
This military meeting is interrupted by the arrival of Brabantio, Othello, Cassio, Iago, Roderigo, and officers. Brabanzio demands that all state business be put aside to address his own grievance—his daughter has been stolen from him by spells and potions purchased from charlatans. The duke is initially eager to take Brabanzio’s side, but he becomes more skeptical when he learns that Othello is the man accused. The duke gives Othello the chance to speak for himself. Othello admits that he married Desdemona, but he denies having used magic to woo her and claims that Desdemona will support his story. He explains that Brabanzio frequently invited him to his house and questioned him about his remarkable life story, full of harrowing battles, travels outside the civilized world, and dramatic reversals of fortune. Desdemona overheard parts of the story and found a convenient time to ask Othello to retell it to her. Desdemona was moved to love Othello by his story.
The duke is persuaded by Othello’s tale, dismissing Brabanzio’s claim by remarking that the story probably would win his own daughter. Desdemona enters, and Brabanzio asks her to tell those present to whom she owes the most obedience. Brabanzio clearly expects her to say her father. Desdemona, however, confirms that she married Othello of her own free will and that, like her own mother before her, she must shift her primary loyalty from father to husband. Brabanzio reluctantly resigns himself to her decision and allows the court to return to state affairs.
The duke decides that Othello must go to Cyprus to defend the island from the Turks. Othello is willing and ready to go, and he asks that appropriate accommodations be provided for his wife. The duke suggests that she stay with her father, but neither Desdemona nor Brabanzio nor Othello will accept this, and Desdemona asks to be allowed to go with Othello. The couple then leaves to prepare for the night’s voyage.
The stage is cleared, leaving only Roderigo and Iago. Once again, Roderigo feels that his hopes of winning Desdemona have been dashed, but Iago insists that all will be well. Iago mocks Roderigo for threatening to drown himself, and Roderigo protests that he can’t help being tormented by love. Iago contradicts him, asserting that people can choose at will what they want to be. “Put but money in thy purse,” Iago tells Roderigo repeatedly in the paragraph that spans lines
The war between the Turks and Venetians will not prove to be a major part of the play. However, the Turks’ “feint”—in which they pretend to sail toward Rhodes to mislead the Venetians into thinking that they will not attack Cyprus—has a symbolic significance. Throughout the play, deception is one of Iago’s major weapons, and his attacks on other characters are particularly devastating because his enemies don’t know that he is attacking them.
Othello is both an outsider and an insider in Venetian society. His race, physical appearance, and remarkable life history set him apart from the other Venetians and inspire Brabanzio’s fears that Othello is some sort of witch doctor. At the same time, the duke and other characters treat him as an essential part of the Venetian state. When Othello and the others enter, the duke gets straight to business, telling Othello that they must immediately employ him against the Ottoman Turks. Only after delivering these two lines does the duke notice Brabanzio, and, even then, he acknowledges him in a rather demeaning fashion, saying, “I did not see you. Welcome, gentle signor” (I.iii.
Shakespeare fleshed out the fantastic details of Othello’s past life by drawing on a number of ancient and Renaissance travel writers. Othello clearly attaches great importance to the image of himself as a unique and heroic figure, and it is also important to him that he have a remarkable life story worthy of repeated telling. Not only does he claim that Desdemona fell in love with him because of his story, he says that he fell in love with her because of her reaction to his story. Desdemona confirms or validates something about Othello’s self-image, which may suggest why her faithfulness is of such all-consuming importance to him.
Desdemona herself appears remarkably forward and aggressive in Othello’s account, particularly in relation to Renaissance expectations of female behavior. She “devour[s] up” his discourse with a “greedy ear,” and is the first of the two to hint at the possibility of their loving one another (I.iii.
In both editions, Othello is ambiguous about whether he or Desdemona played the more active role in the courtship, which could mean that he is somewhat uncomfortable—either embarrassed or upset—with Desdemona’s aggressive pursuit of him. In Act I, scene ii, lines
When Desdemona finally enters and speaks for herself, she does indeed seem outspoken and assertive, as well as generous and devoted. In her speech about her “divided duty” as a wife and a daughter, Desdemona shows herself to be poised and intelligent, as capable of loving as of being loved, and able to weigh her competing loyalties respectfully and judiciously (I.iii.
As the plot progresses, Desdemona’s sexual aggressiveness will upset Othello more and more. In explaining her love for Othello, she states that she “saw Othello’s visage in his mind,” which might mean either that she saw a different face inside him than the one the rest of the world sees, or “I saw him as he sees himself,” supporting the idea that she validates or upholds Othello’s sense of self.