David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s OTHELLO: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scene 1

— 2.1 —

Montano, the governor of Cypress, was standing with two other gentlemen near a quay that wasused for loading and unloading ships at a port in Cypress. One gentleman stood on a high structure and so was able to see farther out at sea than Montano, who asked, “What can you see out at sea?”

“Nothing at all,” the first gentleman said. “The sea is tempestuous and rough. I cannot see a sail.”

“The wind has been tempestuous on land, too,” Montano said. “A fuller blast of wind has never shaken our battlements. If the wind has been as tempestuous at sea, what ships’ ribs of oak, when mountainous waves of water melt on them, can hold the mortise and keep their joints together and not be wrecked? What do you think will be the outcome of this?”

The second gentleman said, “The outcome must be a scattering of the Turkish fleet. Stand on the foaming shore and you will see that the waves, rebuked by the shore, seem to pelt the clouds. The wind-shaken waves, which have a mane like some monster, seem to throw water on the stars that make up the burning bear — Ursa Minor — and put out the Guardians — Ursa Minor’s two brightest stars that serve as guards to the Pole Star, aka North Star. I have never seen a similar upheaval of the enraged sea.”

Montano said, “Unless the Turkish fleet reached shelter in a bay, their ships have sunk and their sailors have drowned. It is impossible that the Turkish fleet has ridden out this storm.”

A third gentleman arrived and said, “Good news, lads! The war is over before it started. This desperate tempest has so banged up the Turkish fleet that their plan to wage war cannot be completed. Cassio, the Moor’s lieutenant who was on a noble ship of Venice, has seen that most of the Turkish ships have been wrecked or damaged.”

“Really! Is this true?” Montano asked.

“Cassio’s ship has put in at this port,” the third gentleman said. “It is a ship that was fitted out in Verona. Michael Cassio, the warlike Moor Othello’s lieutenant, has come on shore. The Moor himself is still at sea and has been commissioned to come to Cyprus and govern it.”

“I am glad of it,” Montano said. “He will be a worthy governor.”

“Cassio, although he is comforted by the wreck of the Turkish fleet, looks sad and prays that the Moor is safe; their ships were separated by the foul and violent tempest,” the third gentleman said.

“I pray to Heaven that the Moor is safe,” Montano said. “I have served under him, and the man commands like a perfect soldier. Let’s go and see the noble ship of Venice that’s come in and look for brave Othello until our eyes blur together the ocean and the blue sky.”

“Let’s go,” the third gentleman said. “Every minute other Venetian ships are expected to appear.”

Cassio appeared and said, “Thanks, you valiant people of this warlike isle, who so respect the Moor! May the Heavens give him defense against the tempestuous elements because I have been separated from him and left him on a dangerous sea.”

“Is his ship seaworthy?” Montano asked.

“His ship is stoutly timbered, and his pilot is competent and has been tested by experience,” Cassio said. “Therefore, my hope that he is safe is realistic and not excessively optimistic.”

They heard people crying, “A sail! A sail! A sail!”

A fourth gentleman arrived, and Cassio asked him, “What is that noise?”

“The town is empty because everyone is on the edge of the cliff looking for ships at sea. They are crying ‘A sail!’ because they see a ship.”

“I hope that it is the ship of the Moor, who will be governor of Cyprus,” Cassio said.

Some soldiers of Cyprus fired guns.

The second gentleman said, “They are firing the guns as a courtesy to welcome friends.”

“Please, sir,” Cassio said, “go and see who has arrived and then come back and tell us who it is.”

“I will,” the second gentleman said.

He exited.

Montano asked Cassio, “Good lieutenant, is your general married?”

“Yes, and mostfortunately. He has married a maiden who surpassesdescription and wild rumor. She surpassesthe extravagances of written descriptions and in the perfect beauty of her being even transcends the imagination. No matter how well you think of her, she is better than you think.”

The second gentleman returned, and Cassio asked him, “Which ship has arrived?”

“The ship carrying Iago, who serves as ancient to the general.”

“His ship has had veryfavorable and happy speed,” Cassio said. “The tempests themselves, high seas, and howling winds,the jagged rocks and sandbanks — underwatertraitors that hope to damage the guiltless keel — have a sense of beauty and thereby restrain their dangerous nature so that the divine Desdemona may safely sail to her destination.”

“Who is this Desdemona?” Montano asked.

“She is the woman I spoke of, our great captain’s captain, the wife of Othello, left in the care of the bold Iago, whose arrival here is a week earlier than expected,” Cassio said, adding, “Great Jove, guard Othello and swell his sail with your own powerful breath so that he may bless this bay with his tall ship, make love’s quick pants in Desdemona’s arms, give renewed fire to our depressed spirits, and bring comfort to all Cyprus!”

Desdemona, Emilia, Iago, a newly bearded Roderigo, and some attendants arrived.

Cassio said, “Behold, the ship’s wealth — this woman — has come on shore! You men of Cyprus, bend your knees to this woman, whose name is Desdemona. Hail to you, lady! May the grace of Heaven, before you, behind you, and on every side, surround you!”

“Thank you, valiant Cassio,” Desdemona said. “What news can you tell me of my lord and husband, Othello?”

“He has not yet arrived,” Cassio said. “As far as I know, he is well and will be soon here.”

“I am afraid for him,” Desdemona said. “How were you separated from him?”

“The great storm of the sea and sky drove our ships apart from each other — but look, a sail!”

They heard people crying “A sail!” and guns firing.

The second gentleman said, “The ship has fired a salute to the citadel. This likewise is a friend.”

“Go and find out what you can about the ship,” Cassio said.

The second gentleman departed.

Cassio said to Iago, “Good ancient, you are welcome.”

He said to Emilia, “Welcome, lady.”

He then said to Iago, “Do not take this amiss, good Iago. I am merely observing the rules of etiquette. I was raised to be courteous to ladies. I am from Florence, where courtesy and etiquette are forms of art.”

He then gave Emilia, Iago’s wife, a brief, chaste kiss.

Cassio’s family had raised him to be extraordinarily gallant — kissing and handholding between friends of the opposite sex were socially acceptable.

Iago, who was lower in rank than Cassio and resented it, said, “Sir, if she would give you so much of her lips as she often bestows on me of her tongue, you would soon have enough. My wife often criticizes me.”

Desdemona said about Emilia, “You have embarrassed her. She says nothing.”

“She says nothing now,” Iago replied, “but she is very capable of speech — too capable, in fact. She criticizes me even when she allows me to sleep. But it is true that when she is around your ladyship, she somewhat keeps her tongue still, although she still scolds me in her mind.”

Emilia said, “You have little cause to say that.”

“Come on,” Iago said, “you women are models of virtue when you are out of doors, but you are as noisy as bells in your parlors, you are wildcats in your kitchens, you pretend to be saints when you injure other people, you are devils when you are injured, and you are lazy when it comes to doing housework and enthusiastic while having sex in your beds.”

“You are slandering women!” Desdemona said.

“No, this is all true, or else I am a Turk — a non-Christian who is not to be believed. When you get out of bed, you play leisurely, and when you go to bed, you work enthusiastically.”

“Poets write praise about their loved ones. I do not want youto write ‘praise’ of me,” Emilia said.

“I will not praise you,” Iago replied.

Desdemona said, “What would you write about me, if you were to praise me?”

“Gentle lady,” Iago said, “do not ask me to praise you because I am nothing if not critical.”

“Come on,” Desdemona said. “Fulfill my request.”

She added, “Has someone gone to the harbor to seek news of incoming ships?”

“Yes, madam,” Iago replied.

Desdemona thought, I am not merry, but I will disguise what I am — a wife who is worried about the safety of her husband — by pretending to be in a merry mood.

She said, “Come on, how would you praise me?”

“I am thinking about my answer,” Iago said, “but indeed my ideas come out of my brain the way that sticky birdlime comes out of woolen fabric — with great difficulty. Still, my Muse is laboring — and now she delivers this idea: If a woman is fair and wise and has beauty and intelligence, she intelligently uses her beauty to get what she wants.”

“Well praised! What praise can you give a woman if she is black and intelligent?” Desdemona said.

“If she is black, and also has a wit, she will find a white lover who shall her blackness fit.”

“This praise is worse,” Desdemona said.

“What praise can you give a woman if she is fair and foolish?” Emilia asked.

“She never yet was foolish who was fair; for even her folly helped her to give birth to an heir,” Iago said. “A pretty blonde may be foolish, but men find such foolishness in pretty blondes attractive and so pretty blondes marry and have babies.”

“These are old and silly jokes to make fools laugh in the alehouse,” Desdemona said. “What miserable praise do you have for a woman who is foul and foolish? What have you to say if the woman is ugly and foolish?”

“There is no woman so foul and foolish that she cannot use the same tricks that pretty and intelligent women use,” Iago said.

“This is heavy ignorance,” Desdemona said. “You give the best praise to the worst women. What praise would you give a deserving woman, one who, because she is so good, compels even malicious people to approve of her?”

“She who was always pretty and never proud, spoke well and yet was never loud, never lacked gold and yet never spent excessively on expensive clothing, did not indulge herself even when she could, when angry and able to get revenge nevertheless accepted her injury and rejected her hurt feelings, she who was wise enough never to ignore morality and take advantage of someone by giving them a nearly worthless item such as a cod’s head in exchange for a valuable item such as a salmon’s tail, she who was wise enough and strong enough never to exchange a penis for a pudendum and become a lesbian, she who could think and yet keep her thoughts secret, she who knew that suitors were following her and yet did not look behind her, she was a person, if ever such person were, to —”

Iago paused, and Desdemona asked, “To do what?”

“— suckle fools and chronicle small beer.”

“That is a very lame and impotent conclusion!” Desdemona said. “Is that all that such an excellent woman could and should do! To raise babies and keep household accounts! Babes get either intelligence or foolishness from their mothers’ milk. Would such an excellent woman make her babies foolish?”

She said to Emilia, “Do not let Iago be your teacher, although he is your husband.”

She added, “What do you think, Cassio? Isn’t Iago a most coarse and licentious teacher?”

“He speaks plainly, madam,” Cassio said. “You may relish him more as a soldier than as a scholar.”

As Cassio spoke, he held Desdemona’s hand, something that was acceptable in the society in which he was raised, just like giving a friendly kiss to a married woman he knew.

Iago watched Cassio and thought, He is taking Desdemona by the hand. Good, Cassio. Now he is whispering to her. With as little a web as this, I will ensnare as great a fly as Cassio. Go on. Smile at her. I will use your own courtly behavior to fetter you.

He said out loud to Cassio, “You are saying the truth. It is exactly as you say.”

He thought, If such courtly behavior as you are engaging in will strip your lieutenancy away from you, you will regret doing such things as holding and kissing Desdemona’s hand, just as you are now doing. You are way too eager to act like a courtly gentleman. Very good, Cassio. You kiss so well! You show Desdemona an excellent courtesy, indeed! Yet again you kiss Desdemona’s fingers — I wish that her fingers were the nozzles of enema bags!

A trumpet sounded, and Iago said out loud, “It is the Moor! I know the distinctive call his trumpeter makes.”

Cassio said, “You are right. It is Othello.”

“Let’s go and greet him,” Desdemona said.

“Look, here he comes,” Cassio said.

Othello and some attendants arrived.

Othello said to Desdemona, “My beautiful warrior!”

“My dear Othello!” she replied.

“I am extremely happy to see you here — as happy as I am surprised that you arrived on Cyprus before I did. You are the joy of my soul! If after every tempest would come such calms, I wish that the winds would blow until they have awakened death! Let the laboring ship climb hills of seas that are as high as Mount Olympus and then duck again as low as Hell is from Heaven! If it were my time now to die, I would die a very happy man because, I fear, my soul is so filled with such absolute happiness that I shall never again be this happy.”

Desdemona replied, “May the Heavens grant that our loves and happiness should increase with each day we live!”

“Amen to that, sweet Heavenly powers!” Othello said. “I cannot speak well enough to describe my happiness — my heart is too filled with joy.”

He kissed Desdemona twice and said, “I hope that these kisses are as close to fighting as we will ever come.”

Iago thought, Desdemona and you are like a well-tuned musical instrument now, but I will loosen the pegs of the strings and turn your harmony into discord. You think that I am an honest man, and I honestly intend to ruin your marriage.

Othello said, “Come, let us go to the castle. We have received good news, friends. The war is over; the Turks have been drowned.”

He said to Montano and the other gentlemen of Cyprus, “How are my old friends here on this isle?”

He said to Desdemona, “Honey, you shall be well liked here in Cyprus; I have found great friendship among the people here. Oh, my sweetheart, I am talking too much because I am so happy.”

He added, “Please, good Iago, go to the bay and take care of my belongings. Bring the captain of the ship to the citadel. He is a good man, and his worthiness commands much respect.”

He added, “Come, Desdemona, once more, we are well met here at Cyprus.”

Othello, Desdemona, and most of the others departed.

Iago said to one of the attendants who were leaving, “Meet me soon at the harbor.”

Now Iago and Roderigo were alone, and Iago said, “Come here, Roderigo. If you are bold and brave — people say that ordinary men who fall in love acquire a nobility of character that they were not born with — listen to me. Lieutenant Cassio has guard duty tonight — but first let me tell you something important — Desdemona is clearly in love with him.”

“Desdemona is in love with Cassio!” Roderigo exclaimed. “That is not possible!”

Iago put his finger to his lips in a “Shush” gesture and said to Roderigo, “Place your finger like this and be quiet so that I can wise you up.”

He lowered his finger and said, “You remember how violently Desdemona first loved the Moor, although what she loved him for was his bragging to her and telling her fantastic lies. Will Desdemona continue to love him because he talks foolishly? Don’t even think that. Her eye must be fed; she must have someone handsome to look at and to love. The devil is black, and what delight shall Desdemona have when she looks at the Moor and sees the devil? After one has a lot of sex and becomes satiated, there must be, to reignite one’s sexual appetite, loveliness in appearance and similarity in age, manners, and virtues. The Moor is deficient in all of these. He is black, he is older than Desdemona, and because he is from another country and culture, he and she are different in other ways as well. Now, because she and the Moor are so dissimilar, Desdemona’s delicate tenderness will find itself abused, and she will begin to heave the gorge — that is, vomit. She will disrelish and abhor the Moor; her very nature will reject the Moor and compel her to love some second choice instead of the Moor. Now, sir, this granted — and it must be granted because it is very obvious and natural — who is more likely to be next in line for Desdemona’s love than Cassio? He is a knave who is very smooth-tongued. He is conscientious in seeming to be polite and courteous, but only so that he can achieve the fulfillment of his lecherous passions. No one is more likely than he to be the next object of Desdemona’s affections. He is a slippery and subtle knave, a finder of opportunities, and a man who has an eye to create opportunities for himself, although true opportunities never present themselves naturally to him — he is a devilish knave. In addition, the knave is handsome, he is young, and he has all those attributes that foolish and immature minds look for. He is a pestilent and complete knave, and the woman has already found him.”

“I cannot believe that Desdemona is like that,” Roderigo said. “She is blessed and moral.”

“Bulls*t!” Iago said. “The wine she drinks is made of grapes. All wines have sediment; all women have faults. If Desdemona were blessed and moral, she would never have loved the Moor. Blessed! You may as well call entrails — where food is no longer food — blessed! Didn’t you see her holding hands with him? Didn’t you see that?”

“Yes, I did see that, but that was but nothing but courtesy and good etiquette,” Roderigo said. “He is from Florence, and Florentines do such things.”

“It was lechery — I swear it!” Iago said. “It was a preface and obscure prologue to an upcoming history of lust and foul thoughts. Their lips were so close that their breaths embraced. Villainous thoughts, Roderigo! When these intimacies so lead the way, soon comes the main exercise — the two bodies joined, making the beast with two backs. It’s obvious. But, sir, do what I tell you to do. I have brought you from Venice. Stay awake tonight and do what I tell you to do. Cassio, who has guard duty, does not know you. I will be close to you. Find an opportunity to anger Cassio, either by speaking too loud, or disparaging his job performance, or by doing something else that will anger him at the right time.”

“Huh,” Roderigo said.

“Sir, Cassio is rash and very easy to anger, and he is likely to try to hit you. Provoke him, so that he will attempt violence against you. When that happens, I will cause these citizens of Cyprus to riot; they will not be appeased until Cassio is fired and someone — me — replaces him. That way, you will have a shorter journey to your desires — you will bed Desdemona more quickly — by the means I shall then have to promote your desires. Both you and I will benefit from the firing of Cassio; unless we get rid of him, we cannot be successful in achieving our goals.”

“I will do this, if I have the opportunity,” Roderigo said.

“You will have the opportunity — I promise,” Iago said. “Meet me soon at the citadel. I now must bring the Moor’s baggage ashore. Farewell.”

Roderigo replied, “Adieu,” and then he departed.

Alone, Iago thought these things:

That Cassio loves Desdemona, I well believe. That she loves him is plausible and very believable. Women are untrustworthy. I believe that the Moor, although I cannot stand him, is of a faithful, loving, noble nature, but I think that he will cost Desdemona dearly. Truly, I love her, too. I do not love her solely because of lust, although it is certainly possible that I am guilty of the sin of lusting for her. However, I want to sleep with her in part out of revenge. I suspect that the Moor has leapt into my seat — into that part of my wife’s body that only I ought to fill. This suspicion gnaws at my insides like a poisonous mineral. Nothing can or shall content my soul until I get even with him. I remember Exodus 21:1 and 21:23-4: “… these are the laws … life for life, / eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ To that I would add, ‘wife for wife.” But if I cannot cuckold the Moor, I can make him so jealous of Desdemona and so certain that she has been unfaithful to him that his intelligence and his reason will not be able to convince him that she is faithful.

Roderigo is poor trash — a worthless person — from Venice. I manage — and restrain as needed, since I am not actually promoting his cause, although he thinks I am — his hunting of Desdemona, and if he does as I tell him to do, soon I will have Michael Cassio at my mercy, which is nonexistent. I will slander Cassio to the Moor and say that Cassio has a lascivious manner. Actually, Cassio does seem to have a lascivious manner — I can easily imagine him wearing my nightcap while he is in bed with my wife. I will make the Moor thank me, respect me, and reward me. For what? For making him egregiously an ass and plotting against his peace and quiet even so far as to make him insane.

My opportunity now is present, but the details are still confused. Knavery’s plain face is never seen until it is used.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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