Othello: Act 2, Scene 1 – Summary & Analysis

Othello: Act 2, Scene 1 – Summary & Analysis

In Cyprus, the Cypriot governor Montano and two gentleman discuss whether the Turkish fleet could have surived a recent storm, and are informed by a third gentleman that the fleet was in fact destroyed. This raises fears of Othello’s fleet surviving, however a ship carrying Iago, Cassio, Emilia, Desdemona and Roderigo soon calms such nerves. While the group waits for Othello Desdemona and Cassio tease Emilia for her talkative state, which Iago takes too far by lanching into a widespread criticism of women; he labels them hypocritical and deceptive, while being lazy in all activities bar sexual intercourse, ‘Your rise to play and go to bed to work’. During the wait for Othello Iago also notes that Cassio takes Desdemona’s hand as they depart to talk privately, and plans to use this detail to bring about Cassio’s downfall, ‘With as little a web as this I will ensnare as great a fly as Cassio’ (this can be seen as caused partially by anger at Cassio’s mocking him for his lowly status, remarking ‘Let it not gall your patience.. That I extend my manners.  ‘Tis my breeding/ That gives me this bold show of courtesy.’ Othello then arrives and after meeting his wife with praise and a kiss thanks the Cypriots for their hospitality. He orders Iago to unload the ship, who is left with only Roderigo as all others depart to celebrate the downfall of the Turkish fleet; Iago then tells Roderigo that Desedmona will inevitably long for someone with more manners and beauty than Othello but that she will likely turn to the ‘knave’ Cassio. Despite Roderigo initially refusing to believe that Cassio has any malicious intent with his holding of Desdemona’s hand he is soon convinced by Iago to confront Cassio later that evening; the result, Iago declares, will be tension between Cassio and Othello due to the peaceful state of affairs being disturbed.  Roderigo then departs and Iago reveals in soliloquy that in fact he longs to sleep with Desdemona in revenge for Othello supposedly sleeping with his wife Emilia, ‘wife for wife’; if he cannot achieve this Iago declares his plan, despite being ‘yet confused’, is safeguarded by the imminent confrontation that evening which will lead to the suggestion of Desdemona betraying Othello, the thought of which will torture the leader.

Themes

Love: Once more love is shown as being affected by external influences. Cassio is accused of engaging sexually with Desdemona yet he is the only male character so far with no feelings towards her. This shows how love is interfered with and can be distorted, as well as the danger of moving outside of the court/ dukedom; whereas previously the issue of Othello and Desdemona’s relationship was resolved promptly by the duke, now neither he or any other institution is present to return love to its natural form.

Deception: While in the first act Iago was truthful about his deceptive plans here his soliloquy conveys the effect of deception for other characters. His plan contains various elements, suggestions and assertions and it is difficult to be completely certain of what is going on; this also shows why other characters will not be aware of his plans, as he is difficult to understand and thus locate as evil.

Appearance and reality: Iago’s relationship to women reveals another way in which appearances often do not reflect the reality. While Emilia and Desdemona have done nothing to suggest being immoral he presents them as individuals that need reform, ‘wildcats in your kitchens, saints in your injuries, devils being offended’. Significantly, he is able to persuade other males that they are such, such as Roderigo (who is romantically inclined towards Desdemona) and later Othello, both of whom have attachments to the women he presents falsely; this is not just an indication on Iago’s ability to distort reality (as a result of his heightened knowledge of the world) but also of the nature of individuals, whose deepest perceptions and beliefs can be easily challenged and changed.

Betrayal: Iago confirms he will betray another character, here Cassio; the extent of his betrayal is already shocking as he holds affiliation with no other, which confirms his evil, machiavellian nature. Significantly, those who he has enact his plan are all linked to betrayal, such as Cassio who will be accused of betraying his commander and Roderigo who will betray Cassio by accusing him falsely of adultery.

Characters

Othello:  This scene reveals Othello’s insecurities, as it is revealed that he promoted Cassio due to his polished character and mastery of language, evidenced when he describes Desdemona as one who ‘excels the quirks of blazoning pens’ and ‘divine Desdemona’ but has the balance to simultaneously wish the newlywed couple joy in their new phase of life. However his aspiration to be like Cassio mean there is still a distance, which indicates insecurity. It also suggests that Othello is not a suitable leader as he did not promote for the correct reasons, choosing irrelevant character traits rather than military prowess which others confirmed Iago held. Once more this presents Iago as a foil to Othello, as Iago is aware of the world around him and the human state, whereas Othello is so self-absorbed that he makes wrong decisions.

Iago: This scene epitmomizes one of Iago’s great strenght, his foresight. Here he reveals how far he plans in advance to ensure his plan succeeds, which displays intelligence and patience in equal measures. He recognizes that Othello’s age, race and manners are insecurities of the leader, and that Cassio has the advantage in these three categories. Already he can envisage a possible confrontation, and puts plans into motion; however he is clever in forming a way to present this as a natural occurrence, as Roderigo will clash with Cassio and reveal the supposed link of the latter with Desdemona, which will then bring this about. Indeed, this plan has not been concoted in this scene; it has been building since before the play began, but even now with so much still to occur for the plan to occur it is  impossible not to admire Iago’s preparation and patience, especially considering the intensity of his feelings towards Othello, who has betrayed him twice. Elsewhere, the simile of ‘With as little a web as this I will ensnare as great a fly as Cassio’ indicates not just his intention to use Cassio in his plan but also his perception of the world; he sees it as his web, which he can mould and use to do as he pleases, such as when he speaks of his intent to change the state of the recent marriage, ‘I’ll set down the pegs that make this music’. A web is also used to catch food for a spider, which is required to remain alive; this may suggest Iago’s devotion to his plan, which he believes must be carried out now that he has been wronged, thus presenting revenge and righting the wrongs he has experienced as imperative to his state. Finally, the ease at which he convinces Roderigo to change his stance and confront Cassio indicates his ability to tempt individuals in the play, one of the reasons he can be machiavellian; at times we may wonder why Roderigo perseveres with Iago, but Iago knows the power of love and thus repeatedly opens up the possibility of Roderigo attaining this, which keeps him in check.

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About the Author

John Ryan

John has a Masters in Modern English Literature and is the founder of RyJoLC, an educational consultancy based in Dublin that provides English language and curriculum resources to educational institutions worldwide.
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