Portrait of a City (Act I)
Most of the action in Othello takes place on Cyprus, a Venetian possession in the Mediterranean Sea. However, Act I gives us a glimpse into Shakespeare's imagined representation of Venice. Although the contrast between the two venues is crucial for the development of the plot, because Iago was foiled in his attempts to destabilize Venice, Shakespeare's source (Cinthio) makes no mention of the contrast between city and island, between stable society and marginal outpost. For Shakespeare, Venice will be the place of exemplary deliberation in times of crisis.
"My House is not a Grange"
We receive our first impression of Venice from the lips of the Senator, Brabantio. He has been wakened from sleep by Roderigo and Iago, who communicate to him news that his house is being robbed: i.e., that his daughter has been "stolen" by Othello. Before they can deliver their message, however, Brabantio interrupts their fervid cries:
"What tells't thou me of robbing? This is Venice; /My house is not a grange (1.1.105-106)."
The line should be said with a sense of calm superiority, even haughtiness, that comes from the confidence that one is living in modern times, in a safe and secure modern city. In the country (the grange), there might be robbers at night, but not in Venice. The proud life of the West's most advanced city will not be disturbed by anything so low as night bandits.
The Senate Meets
Our other impression of Venice is formed by the special midnight session of the Venetian Senate to consider war against the Turks (1.3). Through this scene Shakespeare tries to show the orderliness and calm deliberation of a careful body of Senators even in the midst of a state crisis. Several brief hints in the text show this process.
1) The Senators have received contrary reports about the numbers of Turkish galleys threatening Cyprus. They compare notes, realize the contradictions and await further news. Awaiting news, rather than expecting divine intervention or practicing vehement argumentation, is what this deliberate body desires.*
*I think the first 30 lines of 1.3 show Shakespeare's improvement from Julius Caesar 4.3.166-180, written five years previously. In JC, Brutus, Cassius and Messala differ about the number of senators killed in the proscription ordered by the Triumvirs. Rather than this disagreement leading to anything, however, the scene quickly shifts to the second account of Portia's death (1.3.190). Thus there is no "meaning" or significance in conspiratorial disagreement regarding number of senators killed. In contrast, the variance in Othello 1.3 regarding the number of Turkish ships attacking Cyprus is an occasion for Shakespeare to show the procedures of a deliberative body in a progressive city, a city immune to the vicious machinations of Iago.
2) The Senate receives contrary information about the goal of the Turkish maneuver. Rather than acting on earlier reports, it waits for updated information. A messenger arrives to say that "The Turkish preparation makes for Rhodes" instead of Cyprus (1.3.14). In this context, a senator remarks, "This cannot be/ By no assay of reason; 'tis a pageant/ To keep us in false gaze (1.3.17-19)." Venice will be a city that operates only after sober men have reflected on the motivations of other empires.
3) More news comes and it confirms the uncertainty of the senator. "Now they do restem/ Their backward course, bearing with frank appearance/ Their purposes toward Cyprus. (1.3.38-39)." It pays to wait for more news rather than just to rush into a battle.
4) Once Othello has been assigned to lead the Venetian troops (and the Duke is the first one who actually uses Othello's name in the play--1.3.48), the Senate also listens to the personal plea of Brabantio and the desires of Desdemona to accompany her husband. The Senate shows its flexibility and its willingness to accommodate its leader and his new wife.
No wonder Iago is unable to destabilize this society, even though he urged Roderigo to wake up Brabantio with a "dire yell/ As when, by night and negligence, the fire/ Is spied in populous cities (1.1.75-77)." With its calm restraint and studied consideration of issues, the senators of Venice not only convince us that their choice of strategy is good but also that their choice of Othello was excellent. The remainder of the play will show how the latter choice unravels.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long