The council chamber was brightly lit and the Duke and his senators sat at a conference table.
The Duke indicated the pile of documents spread across the table. ‘There’s no consistency in this news that could give it any credit.’
One of the senators held up a letter. ‘That’s right,’ he said. ‘My letters say a hundred and seven galleys.’
‘And mine a hundred and forty,’ said the Duke.
‘And mine, two hundred,’ said another senator. ‘And although they don’t agree, and where there are explanations they differ, they all confirm a Turkish fleet advancing on Cyprus.’
‘Yes, said the Duke. ‘It’s clear enough. Even though they disagree in the details the main message is worryingly clear.’
There was an urgent banging on the door. An officer opened it and announced another messenger from the fleet.
‘What news?’ said the Duke.
‘Signor Angelo sent me to report that the Turkish fleet is making for Rhodes,’ the messenger told them.
When the messenger had left the Duke looked round the table. ‘What do you make of this change?’ he said.
‘It’s impossible,’ one of the senators said. ‘It doesn’t make sense. It’s a bluff to mislead us. Consider the importance of Cyprus to the Turks and think about how much more it concerns the Turks than Rhodes does, and also how less well defended it is than Rhodes – in fact, it’s almost completely without defences. If you think about it, the Turks are not so stupid as to leave the more important target till later and go for the more difficult and perilous first, particularly when there’s nothing in it for them.’
‘No,’ the Duke said. ‘I’m sure they’re not going for Rhodes.’
The officer at the door announced another messenger who told them that the Ottoman fleet, sailing towards Rhodes, had been joined by another fleet.
‘I thought so,’ said the Duke. ‘How many do you think there are?’
‘Thirty,’ the messenger said. ‘And now they’re doubling back and quite openly sailing towards Cyprus.’
‘That’s it then,’ said the Duke. ‘It’s Cyprus. Where’s Marcus Luccicos? Isn’t he in town?’
‘He’s in Florence,’ one of the senators said.
‘Write from me. Tell him to come immediately.’
The door opened.
‘Here’s Brabantio and the valiant Moor,’ the senator said.
Brabantio and Othello came in, followed by Iago, Roderigo and the officers.
The Duke got up and escorted Othello to the table. ‘We have to send you urgently to deal with the enemy, the Ottomans. Ah, Brabantio, I didn’t see you. Welcome dear Signor. We missed your help and advice tonight.’
‘And I missed yours,’ said Brabantio. ‘Forgive me, your Grace. Neither state business nor my position as a senator has brought me here. Nor has the
present situation gripped me, because my own grief is of such an overwhelming nature that it engulfs everything else.’
‘Why?’ said the Duke. ‘What’s the matter?’
Brabantio thrust his head into his hands. ‘My daughter! Oh, my daughter!’
The Duke put an arm around him. ‘Dead?’
‘To me she is. She’s been abused, stolen from me and corrupted by spells and medicines bought from charlatans. Without witchcraft nature couldn’t have gone so wrong considering that she’s not stupid, blind or paralysed.’
‘Whoever has used these foul methods to influence your daughter and take her from you will be judged by you personally with whatever sentence seems right to you. Yes, even if he were my own son.’
‘I respectfully thank your Grace. Here is the man. This Moor who, now it seems, you’ve brought here on special state business.’
The senators muttered, expressing shock and regret.
The Duke sighed. ‘What do you have to say about this, Othello?’
Before Othello could answer Brabantio said: ‘There’s nothing he can say. It’s a fact.’
Othello stood up and the room went quiet.
‘Most powerful, grave and revered signors,’ he began. ‘My very noble and good masters. It’s true that I have taken this old man’s daughter away. It’s true that I’ve married her. That’s the beginning and end of my offence. No more than that. I’m not a good speaker and not blessed with the soft words of diplomatic speech because, since the age of seven these arms have been employed in fighting wars. I can’t discuss any of the affairs of the world apart from those concerning feats of war, and so I won’t be able to help myself much by speaking on my own behalf. Nevertheless, with your patience I will deliver the plain, blunt story of the course of my love – what drugs, charms, magic I used for the crime I’m charged with, to win his daughter.’
Brabantio, unable to contain his frustration, interrupted. ‘A modest young girl. So calm and reserved that any act of hers made her blush. And she, in spite of her reticent nature, her age, her country, her history, everything, to fall in love with what she feared to look at! Such flawed judgment breaks all the laws of nature and forces us to look for evil practices to explain why it should happen. I’m therefore telling you again that he made her take a powerful drug or some such thing.’
‘Just to accuse him is not proof,’ said the Duke. ‘Without specific evidence, something more than suppositions and improbabilities that contradict modern times, he can’t be condemned.’
‘But you tell us, Othello,’ a senator said. ‘Did you poison this young girl’s feelings with devious and imposed practices? Or did it come about by the free and open ways appropriate between two people?’
‘I beg of you,’ said Othello, ‘send someone to the Sagittary for the lady and let her talk about me in front of her father. If she says anything that suggests I’m foul then don’t only take away your trust in me and the position I hold but even sentence me to death.’
The Duke gave instructions. ‘Bring Desdemona here.’
Othello nodded towards Iago. ‘Ensign, take them there,’ he said. ‘You know where it is.’
When Iago and some of the officers had left Othello continued.
‘And while we’re waiting, as sincerely as I admit the vices of my blood, I’ll tell you honestly how this beautiful lady fell in love with me and I with her.’
‘Tell us, Othello,’ said the Duke.
‘Her father liked me,’ said Othello. ‘He often invited me to his house, questioned me about my life – the battles, sieges, all the things that have happened to me. I told him everything, from my childhood to the present. I told him about the misfortunes, the accidents on water and land, of hairbreadth escapes from death, of being taken captive by the enemy and sold into slavery and of how I got away from that. I told him where I had travelled. He wanted to know about those vast caves and silent deserts, about the rough stony places, the rocks and mountains. That’s how it went. And of the cannibals that eat each other, and the Anthrapophagi, and men whose heads grow beneath their shoulders.
‘Desdemona loved listening too. Every now and then her household duties would drag her away but she came back as soon as she could and listened hungrily. Seeing that, one day I chose a convenient time to talk to her and she begged me to tell her the parts of the story that she had missed. I agreed, and found that she often wept when I spoke of some distressing episode in my youth. When I had told the full story she responded with a world of sighs. She exclaimed that it was a strange story, a very strange story, that it was sad, very sad. She wished that she hadn’t heard it, but she wished that she had been a man so that she could have had such adventures. She thanked me and told me that if I had a friend who loved her I should teach him how to tell my story and that would win her heart. On that hint I spoke out. She loved me for the dangers I had experienced and I loved her for pitying them. That is the only witchcraft I have used.’
The door was opened again and Desdemona stood there.
‘There she is,’ said Othello, as Iago led her forward to stand before the Duke. ‘Let her tell you.’
The Duke waved to Desdemona to be seated. He turned to Brabantio. ‘I think this story would win my daughter too,’ he said ‘Good Brabantio, why don’t you make the best of a bad job? Broken weapons are better than bare hands in battle.’
‘Please,’ said Brabantio, ‘listen to her. If she tells you that she takes half the blame for this then I’ll accept it.’ He drew his chair closer to Desdemona’s. ‘Come here, my darling,’ he said, taking her hand. ‘Can you see the person to whom you most owe obedience in this room?’
Desdemona gently removed her hand from his and stood up. ‘My noble father,’ she began. ‘I have a divided loyalty.’ Then she took his hand again. ‘I’m indebted to you for my life and education, and both my life and my education have taught me to respect you. I am still your daughter and I still have a duty to you.’ She turned and smiled at Othello and took his hand too. ‘But this is my husband,’ she said. ‘And just as my mother assumed a duty to you, putting you before her father, I have done the same, giving my duty to the Moor.’
‘God be with you then,’ said Brabantio. ‘I give up. If you don’t mind, Your Grace, let’s get on with state affairs.’ He wiped a tear from his cheek. ‘I’d rather adopt a child than have my own. Come here, Moor,’ he said. He placed Desdemona’s hand in Othello’s and spoke in a businesslike way. ‘I give you with all my heart that which if you didn’t have it already, I would with all my heart have kept from you.’ Then to Desdemona: ‘As for you, Precious, I’m really glad I don’t have any other children because this would have made me so strict that I would have immobilised them with wooden blocks on their legs.’ He sat down. ‘I’ve finished, my Lord.’
The Duke pulled himself up and drew a line under the matter with a final word, telling them that he agreed with Brabantio that as there was nothing anyone could do about it there was no point in bearing grudges: that would just make matters worse. To harbour grudges was the way to the destruction of one’s own life.
When he had finished Brabantio nodded. ‘I suggest, with respect, that we get on with the affairs of state.’
The Duke cleared his throat and looked around at the assembled senators. ‘The Turks, heavily armed, are making towards Cyprus. Othello, you have the best knowledge of the defences of Cyprus, and although we have a very effective man there, everyone knows that you’re more suitable. You must therefore accept that you have to interrupt your new condition with this more difficult and public expedition.’
Othello nodded his agreement. ‘The tyranny of habit, esteemed Senators, has made the hard and uncomfortable couch of war a soft bed for me. I acknowledge the prompt and natural liking I have for the hardness of war, and I accept this mission against the Ottomites. I ask, therefore, that you will offer my wife an appropriate place to live – some place that would suit her position.’
‘At her father’s perhaps,’ said the Duke.
‘I don’t want that,’ said Brabantio.
‘Neither do I,’ said Othello.
‘Nor I,’ said Desdemona. ‘I don’t want to live there, where my father could be hurt by my presence. My gracious Duke, listen to my idea and see if you can agree to it.’
‘What do you want?’ said the Duke. ‘Tell me.’
‘I’ve shown the whole world that, in spite of the problems it’s caused, I love the Moor enough to live with him. My heart is his entirely. I became aware of Othello’s qualities and dedicated my soul and my future to him. So, dear Senators, if I were to be left behind while he goes to war, I would be deprived of all the things I love him for and it would be very hard for me to be without him. Let me go with him.’
‘Give her your permission,’ said Othello. ‘Heaven knows, I’m not asking because I want to satisfy my appetite, not at all for my own desires – those youthful things having faded, – but to be generous to her wishes. And heaven forbid that you should think that I would neglect this serious and important business if she were with me. No, when the light pleasures of love dull my professional faculties, when my mind is distracted by sexual dalliance, then it’s time for housewives to make a saucepan of my brain and for my reputation to be eroded.’
The Duke nodded his approval. ‘Decide between yourselves whether she should stay or go. But this business is urgent and we must move fast. You must leave tonight.’
‘Tonight?’ Desdemona was taken aback.
‘Of course,’ said Othello.
The Duke got up. ‘We’ll meet again at nine in the morning. Othello, leave an officer here and he’ll bring your orders to you, along with other matters of business that concern you.’
‘My ensign, my Lord,’ said Othello. ‘He’s honest and trustworthy. He can bring my wife and anything else your grace may want to send to me.’
‘So be it,’ said the Duke. ‘Good night to everyone. And Brabantio, if virtue is anything to go by, your son-in-law is far more fair than black.’
The senators wished Othello luck and one of them told him to take care of Desdemona. Brabantio stopped him as he was leaving. ‘Watch out for her, Moor, if you have eyes to see,’ he said. ‘She has deceived her father and may deceive you too.’
‘I would stake my life on her fidelity,’ Othello told him, and the two men parted as the Duke and senators left.
‘Honest Iago,’ said Othello. ‘I’m leaving my Desdemona in your care. Your wife can look after her. Bring them both to Cyprus in the best comfort you can manage. Come Desdemona, I’ve got just one hour to spend with you and to prepare. We must hurry.’
When they had gone Roderigo, who had watched everything with dismay, shook his head. ‘Iago?’
‘What, my dear friend?’
‘What do you think I should do?’
‘Go to bed and sleep, of course.’
‘I’m going to drown myself.’
Iago laughed. ‘You silly man. If you do that I’ll never respect you again!’
Roderigo slumped down and put his head in his hands. ‘It would be silly to live when life is such a torment,’ he said. ‘Death would be the best medicine right now.’
‘How wrong can you be?’ said Iago. I’ve lived for twenty-eight years and ever since the time I could tell the difference between a good and a bad act I’ve never met anyone who could properly value himself. I would rather be a baboon than a man who would drown himself for the love of a whore.’
‘What should I do then? I confess that it’s shameful to be so foolish but there’s nothing I can do about it.’
‘Rubbish! What we can do, how we are, is up to ourselves. Our bodies are our gardens and our wills are gardeners. If we plant nettles or sow lettuce, whether we cultivate hyssop or weed out thyme, plant all one kind of herb or dilute it with many kinds, let it become sterile or fertilise it with hard work, all this depends on what we want to do. If the balance of our lives didn’t have a weight of reason to set against those weights of sensuality, the blood and natural bad that we have in our natures would take us to the most preposterous depths. But we do have reason to cool our raging emotions, our carnal desires and our unbridled lusts, which I take this – that you call love – to be.’
Roderigo looked up at him pathetically and shook his head slowly. ‘It can’t be.’
Iago laughed and pulled him to his feet. ‘It’s nothing more than a lust of the blood and a self indulgence of your will. Come on, be a man. Drown yourself? Drown cats and puppies. I have declared myself your friend and I tell you that I’m committed to your cause. I could never advise you better than I do now. Put some money in your purse and follow these wars. Disguise yourself, get a false beard. Go on, put money in your purse. It’s impossible that Desdemona could continue her love for the Moor for long. Put money in your purse. Nor could he love her for long. It was begun badly and you will see a separation. But put money in your purse. These Moors are changeable. Fill your purse with money. The food that is now as delicious as carob cobs to him will soon be as bitter tasting as crab apples. She will soon want someone young. When she’s had enough of his body she will see her mistake. So put money in your purse. If you want to damn yourself do it in a more subtle way than drowning. Make as much money as you can. If a sanctimonious manner and a feeble vow between a barbarian and a vulnerable Venetian isn’t too hard for my intelligence and all the evil I can muster, you’ll enjoy her yet, so therefore make money. To hell with drowning yourself. It’s totally out of the question. You would be better off being hanged for realising your dream than being drowned and not having her.’
Roderigo’s hopefulness showed in his face. ‘If I depend on you will you do it for me?’
‘You can rely on me,’ said Iago. ‘Go and make money. I’ve often told you and I tell you again and again: I hate the Moor. My cause is deeply felt and yours has as much value. Let’s work together in our revenge against him. If you can cuckold him you’ll be getting pleasure and I’ll have some fun. There are a lot of things we can do, and which we will do. About turn. Go and get your money. We’ll talk again tomorrow. Good bye.’
‘Where will we meet in the morning?’
‘At my lodging.’
‘I’ll be there.’
Roderigo walked to the door and Iago called after him. ‘Roderigo!’
Roderigo turned. ‘What?’
‘No more talk of drowning, do you hear?’
‘I’ve changed my mind.’
‘Fine. Good bye. Put enough money in your purse.’
‘I’ll sell all my land,’ said Roderigo as he left.
Iago waited a moment and then began walking home. He smiled grimly. As usual he was getting money out of fools. As if he would lower himself to spend time with such a pathetic individual unless he was having some fun and getting money out of it as well. As he walked he felt his hatred of the Moor well up. And he had heard that the Moor had been with his wife Emilia. He didn’t know whether it was true but he would take that hint of suspicion as a fact. He stood in high regard with the General and that would help his purpose. He began to plan his revenge. Cassio was a good looking man. He thought about that. How could he get Cassio’s position of Lieutenant and get his revenge on the Moor at the same time? How?…How?… A strategy was developing in his mind. After a while, when they were settled in, be would make Othello think that Cassio was too familiar with Desdemona. Cassio was a handsome man with the charm and personality that could easily make women unfaithful. On the other hand the Moor had an open and trusting nature, thinking men are honest when they only seem to be so, and could be led by the nose as easily as a donkey.
Just as he got to his door he realised that he had his plan. It was born. He realised, too, that he had deliberately chosen evil.