Analyse the dramatic function of the opening of Othello
‘Othello’ was written between 1602 and 1603 by the well-known playwright William Shakespeare. The play has always been popular and has drawn tears from many of its audiences; they have become so emotional that people have fainted and in some instances women have given birth prematurely; this is the result of a very poignant and influential tragedy.
‘Othello’ is based upon love, tragedy, revenge, lies, betrayal, hatred and murder and through one man’s callousness, egotism and thirst for money and power ‘Othello’ soon becomes a very satirical and sardonic play.
The ardour and affection expressed by Othello and Desdemona as man and wife are soon challenged by Iago’s mendaciousness.
As the plot deepens more of the characters are consumed by Iago’s nefarious plan and as they do so, inevitable turmoil arises. Their hasty and irrational actions result in the death of innocent characters. When the root cause of all this is found (Iago) the characters are left in a state of perplexity at how one man, who was perceived as being honest, could cause so much hate and destruction between a unified army of soldiers, friends, family and lovers.
In the final part of ‘Othello’, conflict is juxtaposed with calm. After the deaths of Othello, Desdemona, Iago, Roderigo and Emilia, the remaining characters behold the consequences of their actions. There is no more chaos and the atmosphere is quieter and more tranquil, like the calm after the storm.
The opening of ‘Othello’, Act 1, Scene 1 is unequivocally a key scene and is one of the most important throughout the whole play. Its dramatic function is to introduce a not so palpable racial streak; however this racial prejudice becomes more apparent as the plot unveils. It contains many racial connotations and it creates first impressions of present and more importantly absent characters. It forms the basis for the forthcoming yet unexpected pandemonium that later arises.
We are introduced to the shady characters of Iago and Roderigo. Roderigo is paying Iago to ‘set him up’ with Desdemona, the bride of Othello; however, Iago appears to have more control over their arrangement and Roderigo’s money, he is more vehement. This quote demonstrates this,
‘…that thou Iago, who hast had my purse as if the strings were thine.’
This quote can be found on the second and third line of the opening scene. This is important because instead of Shakespeare opening ‘Othello’ with characters having a normal civilized conversation in a picturesque location, we are immediately drawn into the midst of two characters plotting in a gloomy, dark room. The writer instantly attracts the audience’s attention because they wonder what Iago and Roderigo are doing and why Iago has taken Roderigo’s money. Iago then says,
‘If ever I did dream of such a matter, abhor me.’
This means that he would never dream of doing so and if he did then Roderigo should hate him, yet in later scenes Iago repeatedly says ‘put money in thy purse.’; he is continuously asking for Roderigo’s money. He also says ‘I am not what I am’. We should admire him for his honesty as it is the only truthful thing he says about himself to others; he admits he is not the good person he appears to be. From the first scene it becomes apparent that Iago is mercenary and only has his own interests in mind despite his apparent affection and will to help Roderigo; it is only a falsehood and an attempt to fatten his purse.
Roderigo mentions to Iago that he (Iago) previously told him that he hated Othello. This makes the audience question this statement because it makes us ask why Iago deplores the Moor so much. In Act 1, Scene 1 we understand that Othello and Desdemona have married secretly and Iago suggests that he and Roderigo best inform Desdemona’s father Brabantio about his daughter’s secrecy. It becomes clear that the reason for their visit is because I ago is aware of Brabantio’s racist view and his dislike of coloured people; he knows that his visit will evoke a negative response. Iago is very manipulative and deceptive and he exploits Roderigo by taking his money. An example of Iago’s exploitation of Roderigo is when they are at the house of Brabantio. Iago hides and pushes Roderigo into the view of Brabantio whilst Iago shouts daring comments from the safety of the darkness. He says,
‘…an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.’
This is a very undiplomatic and blunt comment but has been purposely said by Iago for two reasons, firstly, Brabantio can only see Roderigo therefore it is on his head and secondly, he knows it will provoke Brabantio and reinforce his existing racial tension. This comment is then followed by,
‘Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.’
Iago intentionally wakes Brabantio in the middle of the night; this is because he knows it will annoy him and make him grumpy. Anything he says will worsen his temper and his ill feeling towards Othello. In both these quotes Othello is referred to as an old black ram and the devil, not as a human being; he is discriminated against because of his colour. In the quote black ram, white ewe, the colours black and white are used to differentiate their races, just as they are today, but these colours also represent different meanings. In earlier times black was the colour of the devil, this portrays him as being an undesirable character to marry Desdemona. This is because white symbolises purity and someone who is unblemished.
We are given the impression that Othello is an animal due to comments such as, ‘your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you’, ‘your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs’ and ‘your fair daughter’. Their difference in skin tone is constantly being mentioned, which indicates racism. When Othello is mentioned as an animal or as her husband it is always in a sexual context and Iago knows that this will aggravate Brabantio because he wants to make him think that Othello is brutal and that he has stolen his daughter so that he can purge her virginal qualities through force. The quote made by Brabantio,
‘She is abused, stolen from me and corrupted…’,
depicts Othello in a bad light, yet Brabantio, in a later scene says to him that if his daughter has deceived him then she will deceive again; this is only an attempt to regain his daughter and it is not true. It is an example of hyperbole, he exaggerates his daughter’s passion and longing for Othello by labeling it deception. This statement (deception) made by him is there purposely. Even though Othello does not question their strength as a couple at the time, he later makes reference to it in his mind when he is thinking about Desdemona and Cassio; it is very influential when he makes his decision to kill her.
Apart from setting the scene, the dramatic function of the opening of ‘Othello’ is to uncover the racism held by certain characters in a subtle way. This is done by characters often referring to Othello as an animal and Desdemona as fair. It is also to uncover the plan of Iago; this is the first thing that we are drawn into. This is so we are aware of their personalities and can get a strong impression of Iago and Roderigo. The dramatic role of the opening to also show the audience that Othello and Desdemona share mutual feelings and are madly in love. This is so we are able to see how a couple, which in the beginning were portrayed as strong and everlasting, were separated and destroyed by Iago’s deceitfulness, Othello’s covetousness resulted in the death of innocent Desdemona.
Dramatic irony is constantly present throughout the whole play and is employed at the very beginning. Iago is often called ‘honest Iago’ and many of the characters confide in him. He is portrayed to the audience as being devious, cunning and manipulative; he is also a provoker and an opportunist, he sees the chance to exacerbate a situation for personal gain then he will do all that is in his power. As the audience we know that he is not honest, he is greedy and selfish.
During the play Iago uses Roderigo for his money and as a means to further himself and cover up his true nature. He wants to appear neutral and empathetic to those who require support and advice.
The impression given by Roderigo is not that of an evil or scheming man. He appears very desperate and depressed and is willing to do anything he can to be with Desdemona. His desperation makes him gullible and vulnerable. He longs to be with her and is overpowered with jealousy and heartbreak. Iago offers him an attractive solution, Desdemona, in return for his money; his fragile state is taken advantage of.
Iago used Roderigo to tell Brabantio of his daughter’s secret marriage. Brabantio is shown as strongly opposing Othello because of his colour; this shows him as being racist. His daughter Desdemona is described as beautiful, innocent and fair. Brabantio thinks her decision to marry Othello is one-sided.
Iago and Roderigo are plotting against Othello and Iago speaks of his dislike for him. They call him a thief and often describe him as an animal. The audience wonders why two of his own officers speak so lowly of him. The dramatic function of the opening is to give the audience an impression of Othello; it is not good. This is very important as it is the first impression we get of him (he is not present in the opening) and first impressions last. He is not present yet the opening revolves around him and Desdemona. As said previously, Desdemona is shown to be unblemished and she is made to look like she is being exploited by Othello. The impression we get of him is that he is a tyrant, not very honorable and that he is very controlling.
The reasons why the dramatic function of ‘Othello’ is so important is because it introduces the character, the plot, it gives clues about what is going to happen, it creates suspense, tension and drama and it shows conflict at the beginning which follows throughout; this is what makes it so tragic.
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