Like most other characters, Otello had a life before the Opera - he just dies in it. What happened in his immediate past is not covered in the Opera. One must turn to the First Act of Othello for background on Otello's "arrival" as Governor of Cyprus. The play opens in Venice where Desdemona and Othello have just eloped. Othello's position at this time is that of a general in the service of Venice. He is denied the social acceptance he so covets because of his color. He is not Venetian, and some consider him to be a soldier of fortune.
Brabantio, Desdemona's father, awakens one evening to Iago and Roderigo outside his window. Brabantio at first is angry with Roderigo as he reminds him that he has told him his daughter is not for him. Roderigo tells him to be patient and he will explain the grave reason he is there. Iago helps Roderigo to convince Brabantio that Desdemona is not in the house and he should search for her. He is reluctant at first, but is roused into checking for her. He finds her missing and Roderigo says she has gone to marry Othello. Brabantio promises to reward Roderigo if he can find Desdemona. Brabantio and Roderigo leave, to seek Othello and Desdemona. Iago had left earlier saying that if he is to appear a faithful friend to Othello, it would not be good for him to be seen informing on his actions.
Iago has found Othello and they are discussing Brabantio's reaction to the elopement. Othello responds that the Signiory, or the ruling directorate of elderly leaders, of the republic will protect him. We learn further that Othello has descended from a royal line:
"I fetch my life and being from men of royal siege."
(Othello, I, ii, 20)
He goes on to add that he feels he deserves Desdemona:
"…and my demerits (1)
May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune
At this that I have reached. (2)
(Othello, I, ii, 21-2)
Othello demonstrates his feelings of social inadequacy at this remark. We feel that he truly loves Desdemona, but one feels as if she is viewed as a prize that Othello feels he has won. Does he really feel he deserves Desdemona, or is she merely a chance for a peaceful civilian life? He has traded the rigors and dangers of battle for those of love and marriage. This is an area he had little experience and even less knowledge in dealing with.
Cassio arrives to inform him of the Duke's call for him. Iago then informs Cassio of Desdemona and Othello's marriage. Brabantio arrives with Roderigo in tow. Iago warns Othello to beware of Brabantio's intentions. Brabantio insults Othello and declares that Othello has used magic to subdue Desdemona's will:
"O, thou foul thief, where has thou stowed my daughter?
Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her!
…Whether a maid so tender, fair and happy
So opposite to marriage that she shunned
The wealthy, curled darlings of our nation,
Would ever have, t'incur a general mock (3)
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom
of such a thing as thou - to fear, not to delight.
…thou hast practiced (4) on her with foul charms,
Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals
that weaken motion." (5)
(Othello, I, ii, 61-74.)
He wants Othello thrown in prison. When he is informed of the Duke's call for Othello, he accompanies him to the Senate to accuse him there. Before leaving, Brabantio has the last word:
"For is such actions may have passage free,
Bond slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be."
(Othello, I, ii, 96-7.)
In a council chamber, the Duke and Senators are pondering news of a threatened invasion of Cyprus by the Turks. They are debating the validity of the reports when a sailor enters. He informs them that the Turks are headed for Rhodes, but that it is a diversion. Brabantio, Othello, Cassio, Iago and Roderigo arrive. The Duke immediately asks Othello is he will fight the Turks and without waiting for a response, greets Brabantio. He informs the Duke of Desdemona's disappearance and blames her decision on witchcraft. The Duke promises to punish Desdemona's abductor. Brabantio reveals that the abductor is Othello to everyone's dismay. Othello admits he has married Desdemona and declares that only through feats of battle did he win Desdemona. Brabantio retorts that Othello had to have used magic, because she would never in her right mind have consented to marriage with Othello. Desdemona is summoned to the chamber.
Othello, waiting for her arrival, offers his explanation of how Desdemona came to love him. It seems Brabantio was fond of him and would often have him to his house. He would question Othello for hours: the battles, sieges, fortunes, his slavery, everything about his past. Othello added that regardless of what other tasks she had to perform, Desdemona would always find time to listen to his tales. She seemed to become enchanted and enraptured with them:
"She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them."
(Othello, I, ii, 166-7.)
Otello says this is the only witchcraft he used and calls upon Desdemona, who is entering, to substantiate what he has said. The Duke observes that Othello's tale would surely have captured the attentions of his daughter. He encourages Brabantio to make the most of the marriage. Brabantio resists, calling upon Desdemona to refute Othello's statements. She observes that her conscience is split between the man she loves and her father out of respect and duty. But, as her mother has shown her, she must claim the Moor as her husband.
Brabantio asks to go on to the business of the Turks. Othello is told he is the best man for the job at hand. They already have a viceroy in place, but feel it would be better handled by Othello. Othello accepts the mission and requests accommodations for himself and Desdemona. Brabantio will not let her stay with him and even if he would, Othello and Desdemona would not tolerate it. Desdemona goes on to say that she wants to live with the Moor. She reinforces that she fell in love with him because of his honors and valiant deeds. She asks to be sent with him. Othello adds that it is not for reasons of lust or consummation of the marriage. He admits the real reason is for Desdemona to have time for herself and to escape any negative influences her father (or society?) may try to exert upon her. It is agreed upon and Otello assigns Iago custody of Desdemona. The Duke, trying to soften the blow to Brabantio, comments:
"If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black."
(Othello, I, iii, 284-5)
Brabantio however, bids an ominous farewell to Othello:
"Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father, and may thee."
(Othello, I, iii, 287-8)
If Brabantio held Othello in such high esteem, why has he turned against Otello so quickly and angrily? Brabantio looked upon Othello as an equal on the battlefield. To the people of Venice, Othello was a grand hero. But, because of his color, he was refused entrance to the social circles he so desired. Othello was alright as long as he was the hero telling tales, or the General defending their freedom on the battlefield. When he wanted more of Brabantio and society, however, he could not receive it. There were distinct boundaries set for Othello by society. Once he over-stepped those, he opened the door for outright, tolerable discrimination and reversed all of the advances for acceptance he had made. The only way for him to close that door was an outright victory over the Turks, and even then, things would never be the same again.
Desdemona and Othello leave together to spend their last moments alone. Iago and Roderigo are left alone. Iago tells Roderigo to travel on to Cyprus and he will help further his acquisition of Desdemona.
Copyright © 1996, Stephen L. Parker.