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How Does Shakespeare Incorporate Tragic Elements Into the Opening Act of Othello? What Impact Would This Opening Act Have on Shakespeare’s Audience?

By SheriMorrison Feb 25, 2013 1574 Words
Othello’s opening scene has an overall negative impact on the audience in the form of shock as some rather crude language; such as ”zounds”, “tush”, “’Sblood”; opens the play. This scene sets the premise for the play and tells us of Othello and Desdemona’s elopement, and the betrayal of Brabantio. The opening scene occurs at nightfall to a conversation between two men; Roderigo and Iago on a street outside the house of Brabantio, a man who, unbeknownst to his, has just lost his daughter to a man, a general, he does not approve of.

The nightfall of the opening scene created the air of mystery and darkness and is quite expository in regards to the character, Iago. The night is a time where most tragedy occurs and Iago distorts the truth and begins his crusade against Othello by revealing his plan to Roderigo, a man who is infatuated with Brabantio’s daughter, Desdemona. The night also exposes Desdemona’s wrong doing in the betrayal of her father by marrying someone who has not asked her father, and therefore has not been given permission, to marry her.

When Iago and Roderigo tell Brabantio of Desdemona’s betrayal it is done so in a rather cruel and dramatic manner and shocks the audience. This creates a sense of pity in regards to Brabantio who, not only learns of this betrayal, but also suffers because of the way in which he was told. Iago ‘orders’ Roderigo to summon Brabantio to “poison his delight,” and he is summoned to the street in a form of disruption coming from Iago and Roderigo shouting that he has been robbed. “Awake! What, ho, Brabantio! Thieves, thieves! // Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags!” The reveal is conducted in a crude manner especially within the language used by Iago: “Zounds, sir, y’are robbed! … an old black ram // Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!” these lines can be seen as the most striking of many animalistic images into which Iago’s speech habitually lies. It can also demonstrate Iago’s views on atypical human desires as well as relationships. Although Iago appears to despise the Moor and any thought regarding a union between he and Brabantio’s daughter, there is also an impression that Iago is relishing in the betrayal as well as despising the action. And this open’s the audience to this despising regarding the Moor.

Roderigo refuses to believe Iago once told of Desdemona’s, the woman he is infatuated with and even asked her father for her hand in marriage, elopement with the Moor and reveals that he is quite naïve. He doesn’t believe any body else is fit to marry her and therefore does not believe that Othello is good enough. Brabantio is angry in a different way as he feels betrayed and ‘robbed’. In Elizabethan times, marrying a man’s daughter without seeking his permission was seen as a crime as equally wronged as rape as that was essentially what it was. If the father had not given permission then she was not eligible for anything past marriage. However, Brabantio should be happy for Desdemona as she has, independently, found a man she loves who happens to be that of great power and honour rather than being racially biased against the Moor. However his anguish is understandable considering the severity of the act and no matter how much of a charismatic man Othello is, he says “words are words. I never did hear // That the bruised heart was pierced through the ear.” This translates to mean that she has betrayed him and she will most definitely betray Othello. Iago uses this to his advantage with regards to his diabolical plan. Words cannot bring consolidation to a man who has been betrayed so defiantly.

Othello’s marriage is a result of his pride and arrogance, his tragic flaw or ‘hubris’, something that causes him to escalate to violate an important moral law, later on in the play. Also, his confidence is part of his hubris as it is an escalation of his pride and arrogance and this can be demonstrated in his speech defending his marriage to Desdemona and why he didn’t ask for permission in Act 1 Scene 3. His tragic error, or ‘hamartia’, is not revealed to the audience in so many words, however, the audience knows that Iago cannot be trusted and he is referred to, in Act 1 Scene 3, as “A man he is of honesty and trust:” by Othello himself so therefore, the audience can conclude that this is his hamartia.

Iago is introduced as a confidant amongst the hierarchy, including Othello, who has not yet been physically introduced, and isn’t until Act 1 Scene 2, but is verbally referred to in a racial and disrespectful manner “mere prattle without practice” and isn’t referred to by name but by him or he. This is the first time we see Iago as a sinister and two faced, much like Janus, the Roman God with two faces mentioned on line 32 of Act 1 Scene 2. His short monologue at the beginning of the scene shows his first contraindication as he doesn’t respect Othello the way he claims to “off-capped”.

Othello’s introduction in not physical but is referred to indirectly but Iago and Roderigo. Neither mentions him by name but do, however, mention him through his status and their complete disregard for his authority. This is due to Iago being passed over for the promotion to be Othello’s lieutenant in favour of Michael Cassio, “a Florentine //, (A fellow almost damned in a fair wife). A quite obscure, misogynistic comment, in the sense that Cassio does not appear to be married and if ‘fair wife’ were to mean ‘pretty woman’ then Iago may simply be suggesting that Cassio’s fondness of women could be his downfall. A tragic element in regards to Othello as this later results in Cassio’s murder at the hands of Othello; this is seen as Universalism or Apocalyptism where everything seems to fall apart.

Othello’s physical entrance in Act 1 Scene 2 is described as having a “Calm dignity” and is in deep contrast to his verbal introduction in Act 1 Scene 1. This seems to establish him as a hero and prepares the audience from his tragic ‘fall from grace’. Therefore the protagonist is established.

Unfortunately, racism was an issue in Shakespearean times and Blacks and Whites weren’t seen as the equals they are today. Roderigo demonstrated the difference between times by being deliberately offensive in a racist comment about Othello “think-lips”.

Throughout the opening act there are many monologues given by Iago. These put fear into the audience as we know what he is going to do but how will his plan come fruition? These monologues give us as an audience an insight into the future and allows us to create our own theories regarding Iago’s plan. There’s a kind of irony within the fact that he reveals all of this to the audience as in the first scene of Act one he says the infamous line “But I will never wear my heart upon my sleeve // For daws to peck at; I am not what I am.” This biblical reference to exodus shows us that what he portrays is not his true nature. He has specifically said that he would not ‘wear his heart on his sleeve’, a metaphor for being too open and caring yet, his soliloquies are eloquent and revealing. This is an important clue into Iago’s true nature and quite early in the play, however, he remains elusive and is an ever-changing mystery within the play. This is a tragic element used by Shakespeare to keep the audience on their toes, something he was particularly good at as seen in Macbeth; Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy whilst sleep-walking.

Iago’s monologues also give us an insight into his mind that would not be shared with another character. It lets us in to the deception and his wanting revenge over Othello. Insight is given into his intentions, motives and desires regarding his plan and we learn that he is going to accuse Cassio of wooing Desdemona and vice versa to sabotage the marriage of the man that rejected him. He is going to inject the jealousy of Cassio into Othello that will later lead to Othello murdering both Cassio and Desdemona. Iago still, however, retains his hold over Roderigo throughout the opening act as he is easily influenced.

Domestic tragedy can be found within the marriage reference in Act 1 Scene 3 where Desdemona is first introduced and where Brabantio gives his blessing for her nuptials. The love can be seen as tragic and the whole scene is a rebuttal in regards to Iago’s slander of this union. It is revealed that “Desdemona was half the wooer” which means that she did half of the chasing. There is also a rebuttal of the accusation of witchcraft from Brabantio, as he believed that Desdemona “feared to look upon him”.

Shakespeare uses a number of tragic elements in order to both shock and excite the audience. These include the Hamartia, Hubris, soliloquy and domestic tragedy. These are incorporated amongst the language in which the dialogue is written and also has a lot to do with the actors chosen to portray the roles of each character as each has their own flaw or quirk. Shakespeare incorporates these in numerous ways but most cleverly with Iago.

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