Montano, the young governor of Cyprus, was looking out of a window of his quarters in the castle. The wind blew violently and the grey sea raged. The two men he had sent to see whether there was any sign of the Turkish fleet came in to report their findings.
‘Nothing at all,’ the first one said. ‘The waves are very high. I can’t see a sail anywhere between the sky and the sea.’
‘The wind is deafening here on the land,’ said Montano. ‘I’ve never known a blast that has so badly shaken our battlements. If it’s hitting the sea this powerfully what oak ribs can hold together when mountains seem to be melting? What do you think is happening out there?’
The other man said: ‘I think it means a separation of the Turkish fleet. Just go and stand on the shore. The wind seems to be battering the clouds. The waves are so high and monstrous that they look as though they’re drenching the stars and putting their light out. I’ve never seen anything like it.’
‘The Turkish fleet have either taken shelter or they’ve drowned,’ said Montano. ‘It’s impossible that they could survive this.’
The door burst open and another man, his face lit up with joy, rushed in. ‘News lads!’ he shouted. ‘Our wars are over. The desperate storm has bashed the Turks so severely that their expedition is in ruins. One of our ships from Venice has seen the terrible devastation of most of their fleet.’
‘What?’ said Montano. ‘Really?’
‘The ship is here, docked. A Veronesian, Michael Cassio, Lieutenant of the Moor, Othello, has disembarked. The Moor is himself at sea and is on his way, with a full commission here in Cyprus.’
‘I’m glad,’ said Montano. ‘He’s a good general.’
‘But although Cassio brings comforting news regarding the Turks he looks unhappy and prays that the Moor is safe. They were separated by the terrible storm.’
‘Pray heaven he is,’ said Montano. I have served with him and he commands like the complete soldier.’ Montano sprang up. ‘Come on!’ he said. Let’s go down to the harbour. To greet the ship that’s just come in as well as to watch for the arrival of Brave Othello, and stay there until the storm ends.’
The four men rushed out and went to the dock. Cassio was there, busying himself with the various tasks he had to perform as leader of the expedition. They welcomed him warmly.
‘Thank you,’ said Cassio. ‘Oh, heaven defend the Moor from the elements. I lost him on a dangerous sea.’
‘Is his ship sound?’ said Montano.
‘It’s very strong and his pilot is experienced and expert, so my hopes are high,’ said Cassio.
There was some shouting. ‘What’s that? said Cassio.
One of Montano’s party told him that all the townsfolk had come out and were standing on the cliff-top and they were shouting ‘a sail, a sail.’
‘I think that must be the General,’ said Cassio.
There was a salvo of gunfire.
‘That’s a welcome,’ said one of the group. ‘It’s a friendly ship at least.’
‘Would you mind going and finding out and tell us who it is?’ said Cassio.
There was a new mood among those standing there. Montano smiled. ‘But tell me Lieutenant,’ said Montano. ‘Is your general married?’
‘Very well married,’ said Cassio. ‘She’s a young woman who defies description and exaggeration. You wouldn’t be able to find words and you’d be exhausted if you tried.’
The man who had gone to find out whose ship it was returned. ‘Well?’ said Cassio. ‘Who’s arrived?’
‘It’s one Iago, ensign to the General,’ the man told him.
‘He’s done well,’ said Cassio. ‘Even the storms themselves, the high seas and the howling winds, the jagged rocks and the shifted sands, those traitors that are there to wreck innocent ships, as though having a sense of beauty, have defied their murderous natures to let the divine Desdemona pass by in safety.’
‘Who is she?’ said Montano.
‘The one I told you about,’ said Cassio, as they watched the ship enter the bay. ‘Our great Captain’s captain, placed in the care of the bold Iago, who’s arrived a week before I had anticipated.’ Cassio looked up at the sky. ‘Great Jove protect Othello. Swell his sails with your own powerful breath so that he will bless this bay with his tall ship, fall into Desdemona’s loving arms, raise our exhausted spirits and bring comfort to Cyprus.’
They watched the ship drop its anchor and a small boat set off with its passengers.
‘Oh look,’ said Cassio, as he recognised Iago, Desdemona and Emilia among the passengers. ‘The riches of the ship are coming ashore.’ And as he helped Desdemona out of the boat: ‘You men of Cyprus kneel down. Welcome, Lady. And the grace of heaven encompass you.’
‘Thank you, valiant Cassio,’ said Desdemona. ‘What news do you have of my husband?’
‘He hasn’t arrived yet and I know nothing except that he’s well and will be here soon.’
‘Oh but I’m afraid!’ she said. ‘How did you get separated?’
‘The storm parted us,’ he told her.
There was another cry from the people on the cliff-top.
‘But listen,’ said Cassio. ‘A ship.’
‘A welcome again,’ one of the gentlemen said. ‘This is also a friend.’
‘Go,’ said Cassio. ‘Find out.’ He turned back to the arrivals and shook hands with Iago. ‘Good Ensign, you are welcome.’ And to Emilia: ‘Welcome mistress. I beg your pardon, good Iago. I hope you won’t mind if I extend my courtesy…’ planting a kiss on Emilia’s cheek, ‘The way I was brought up makes me greet her like this.’
Iago laughed loudly. ‘Sir, if she gave you as much of her lips as she gives me of her tongue you’d have enough!’
Desdemona laughed. ‘Alas,’ she said, ‘she’s speechless.’
‘Unusual,’ said Iago. ‘She usually talks too much. I find that mainly when I’m trying to sleep. Of course, in front of your ladyship she holds her tongue somewhat and reprimands with her thoughts instead.’
Emilia pulled a face at him. ‘That’s not true.’
‘Come on, come on,’ said Iago. ‘You women are silent in company, noisy in your own homes, saints when you’re injured, devils when offended, idle in your housewifery and hussies in your beds.’
‘Shame on you, slanderer!’ said Desdemona, laughing.
‘No, it’s true, or else I’m a Turk. ‘You get up to play and go to bed to work.’
‘You won’t say anything nice about me, will you?’ said Emilia.
‘No, I won’t,’ said Iago.
‘What would you say about me if you were to praise me?’ said Desdemona.
‘Oh dear lady, don’t ask me. I can only be critical.’
‘Try,’ said Desdemona. She looked round. ‘Has someone gone to find out about the ship?’
‘Yes, Madam,’ said Iago.
Desdemona was apprehensive but was trying to be lighthearted. ‘Come on, how would you praise me?’
‘I’m thinking about it but my power of invention is stuck. It’s pulling my brains out like birdlime. But my muse is working hard.’ He furrowed his brow and then he said. ‘Ah, I’ve got it. If she’s fair and wise – fairness and intelligence – the one’s for using and the other uses it.’
‘Well done,’ said Desdemona. ‘What if she’s black and intelligent?’
‘If she’s black and is also intelligent she’ll find a white man who’ll match her intelligence.’
‘It gets worse and worse,’ said Desdemona.
‘What if she’s fair and stupid?’ said Emilia.
‘That can’t happen,’ said Iago. If she’s fair even her folly would help her get a man.’
‘These are old stupid jokes to make fools laugh in the alehouse,’ said Desdemona. ‘What miserable praise do you have for a woman who’s ugly and stupid?’
‘There’s none so ugly and stupid as to be unable to get up to the nasty tricks that beautiful and intelligent women get up to,’ he said.
‘What ignorance!’ said Desdemona. ‘You give the most praise to the worst. But what praise could you genuinely give to a deserving woman? Someone so full of merit that she would compel the praise of pure evil itself?’
‘If she was eternally beautiful and never above herself, spoke when she wanted to and yet was never loud, always well turned out but not gaudy; controlled her desire to be selfish but still knew when it was appropriate to say that she wanted something; she who, when angry, on the brink of taking revenge, allowed her injury to remain unspoken and let her displeasure evaporate; she who never gave way to the temptation to swap a foolish husband for a handsome lover; she who could think deeply but never disclose her thoughts; who could see that men were chasing her but never look round – she would be a person if ever there was such a person…’ He paused.
‘To do what?’ said Desdemona.
‘To breastfeed fools and chronicle trivial events.’
‘Oh what a lame and feeble conclusion! Don’t take his advice, Emilia, even if he is your husband. What do you say, Cassio? Isn’t he a crude and licentious counsellor?’
‘He speaks very bluntly, Madam,’ said Cassio. He took her hand. ‘You should value him more as a soldier than as a scholar.’
She smiled at Cassio and Iago, pretending to scan the horizon, watched them. It was going well. Cassio had taken her hand, and now they were whispering together. Well done. With as little a web as that he was going to ensnare as great a fly as Cassio was. That’s right, smile down on her, do. He would tie Cassio up in this courtship. Cassio was falling into the trap. If such tricks as this were eventually to strip him of his lieutenantship it would have been better if he hadn’t kissed his three fingers so often, something he kept doing in that courtly way, playing the well bred gentleman. Ah, excellent, well kissed. And his fingers to his lips again. Iago wished, for Cassio’s sake, that they were surgical instruments.
A trumpet sounded. Iago snapped out of his thoughts and yelled: ‘The Moor! I know his trumpet.’
‘It is!’ exclaimed Cassio.
‘Let’s go and meet him!’ Desdemona was beside herself with excitement.
‘Look, there he is!’ Cassio rushed towards the group of soldiers led by Othello, and the others hurried after him.
Desdemona ran into Othello’s embrace. He kissed her and held her close. ‘Oh, my fair warrior!’ he exclaimed.
‘Oh my dear Othello,’ she said.
Othello ignored everyone and stared at Desdemona. ‘It’s wonderful to see you here before me,’ he said. ‘Oh, my soul’s joy! If such bliss comes after every storm let the winds blow till they’ve wakened the dead, and let the struggling ship climb hills of seas Olympus-high and dive again as low as hell is from heaven. If I were to die now it would be now that I would be at my happiest, for I fear that my soul has such joy that it’s impossible that the future could bring more.’
‘Heaven forbid that our love and joy should not increase as the days go by,’ said Desdemona.
‘Amen to that.’ Othello put his hand on his chest. ‘I can’t tell you how happy I am. It stops me here. It’s too much joy.’ He kissed Desdemona again. ‘And let this be the greatest discord there will ever be between our hearts.’
Iago sneered inwardly. They were in harmony now. But he would slacken the strings of the lute that was making that music, as ‘honest’ as he was.
‘Come,’ said Othello. ‘Let’s go to the castle. The good news, friends, is that our wars are over; the Turks are drowned.’ Othello’s joy was evident and he talked animatedly. ‘How are my old friends of this island?’ he said. ‘Honey, they’re going to like you here. I’ve found them very friendly. Oh, my love, I’m prattling away in the most selfish way. Please, good Iago, go to the bay and supervise my luggage. Bring the ship’s captain to the citadel. He’s a good man and he deserves a lot of respect.’ He took Desdemona’s hand. ‘Come, Desdemona. Once again, a wonderful reunion at Cyprus.’
Iago was left alone with Roderigo, who had sailed to Cyprus on his ship and since the landing, had mingled unobtrusively with the crowd. Iago instructed the soldiers to meet him at the harbour and when they had gone he beckoned to Roderigo.
‘Come here. If you have any worth – as they say, when unworthy men are in love they find in themselves a nobility that transcends their nature – listen to me. The Lieutenant is in charge of the guard tonight. First, I must tell you this: Desdemona has fallen in love with him.’
Roderigo’s mouth opened. ‘With him? Impossible!’
Iago lay his finger across his mouth. ‘Put your finger like this and let your soul be instructed. Remember how violently she first loved the Moor just for bragging and telling her fantastical lies? And will she continue to love him if he carries on with that babbling? Don’t think that for a second. Her eye must be fed. And what delight will she have in looking at the devil? When the blood has been sated with sex there has to be something else to inflame it and give her lust a fresh appetite – someone attractive, of similar age, manners and beauty, all of which the Moor doesn’t have. Now, in the absence of those necessary things her youthful beauty will be wasted and she’ll be revolted and she’ll begin to be disgusted by the Moor and hate him. By the very nature of things she will be looking for a second choice. Now Sir, given that – as it is so natural – who is the obvious choice, if not Cassio? – a knave very voluble; nothing more to him than a superficial display of civility and politeness, all to fulfil his lustfulness and his hidden but real licentiousness. No-one, no-one else. A slimy, devious knave! Besides, the knave is handsome, young, and has all those requirements that foolish and inexperienced women look for. A sickening, total villain, and the woman has found him already.’
‘I can’t believe that of her,’ said Roderigo. ‘She’s full of blessedness.’
‘Blessedness? That’s a meaningless thing! The wine she drinks is made of grapes. If she had been blessed she would never have loved the Moor. Blessed? Pudding! Didn’t you see her stroke his hand? Didn’t you see that?’
‘Yes, I did, but that was just politeness.’
‘Lechery, for certain! An indication and a subtle precursor to a future of lust and foul thoughts. Their lips were so close that their breaths were embracing. Mischievous thoughts, Roderigo. When these communications begin the main business follows soon, – the physical conclusion. Tut! But Sir, lwt me guide you. I’ve brought you here from Venice. Just watch tonight – the guard duty. I’ll show you. Cassio doesn’t know you. I won’t be far away from you. Find some occasion to make him angry, either by speaking too loudly or undermining his discipline, or any other way you like, in your own time.’
Roderigo’s face showed that he didn’t much like that idea. ‘I don’t know…’
Iago interrupted him. ‘He’s very rash and easily roused to anger, and perhaps he’ll even hit you with his truncheon. Provoke him, try and get him to do it, because from that I can get the people here in Cyprus to react and insist on Cassio’s dismissal. That will be a quicker way to your desires because I will then be able to remove the obstacle, without which we wouldn’t be successful.’
Roderigo was half convinced. ‘I’ll do it if you’re sure you can take advantage of it.’
‘I guarantee it. Meet me later at the citadel. I have to bring his luggage ashore. Goodbye.’
Iago felt sure that Cassio was in love with her. And she loved him too. That was a credit to her. Even though he hated the Moor Iago had to concede
that he was noble and faithful and loving. He was also convinced that the Moor would prove to be a very dear husband for Desdemona. But he suddenly felt that he loved her too – not out of absolute lust either, although there was that as well. It was partly to feed his revenge, and the thought came again that the Moor had been in his marital bed, and he told himself that it was eating away at his insides like a poisonous substance. Nothing could or would ease his soul until he was even with him, wife for wife. Failing that he was determined to put the Moor into such a jealous state that reason wouldn’t prevail. That was if that pathetic piece of trash of Venice who he was using as a hunting dog would be able to pull it off. If he did he would have Michael Cassio on the run – poison the Moor against him. He allowed the idea that Cassio had also been with Emilia occupy him for a moment and that reinforced his determination for revenge. He would make the Moor thank him, value him and reward him for making an ass of him. He would work on his peace of mind and drive him mad. The plan was there but not yet fully formed. He wouldn’t know it properly until it was happening