Act One. Scene One:
The play begins with a quarrel of sorts between Iago and Roderigo, and, as such, it serves several functions. Its tone easily catches our interest, and it reveals Iago’s wily nature; he must make amends to Roderigo for failing to arouse Desdemona’s interest in him. After all, Iago intends to keep a hand in this wealthy nobleman’s pocketbook, which, Roderigo says, belongs to Iago, “as if the strings were thine” (3). Iago apologizes profusely for failing Roderigo and claims that he never dreamed that such an elopement might occur: “If ever I did dream of such a matter,” he says, “Abhor me” (5–6).
Exactly how long Iago has been capitalizing upon the gullibility of Roderigo, we do not know, but it is clear that Iago has no respect for Roderigo’s intelligence. The guile he openly uses to stay in Roderigo’s good stead is not even particularly crafty; blatantly, for example, he tells Roderigo, “I am not what I am” (65). Besides this statement being a capsule condemnation of Iago, it serves to point out that Roderigo trusts this man. Thus Roderigo gains a measure of our pity; he is a weak figure, probably victimized by everybody, not only in this matter of deceit.
Far more important, however, than catching our interest and establishing Iago’s basic character, this opening scene sets forth the key elements of the tragedy’s conflict: It reveals Iago’s deep resentment toward Othello. There are at least a couple of interpretations of Iago’s feelings toward Othello. One is that Iago had expected to be promoted to the rank of Othello’s first lieutenant and tells Roderigo that three influential Venetians (“Three great ones of the city”), in fact, had recommended him to Othello. Instead, Othello chose Cassio, a man, Iago tells Roderigo, whose military ineptitude is an insult to Iago’s proven superiority on the battlefield. The other interpretation is that Iago was never in contention for the position and that he makes up this entire set of circumstances including the unnamed “great ones” in order to convince Roderigo of his hate for Othello. This argument is bolstered by the facts that none of the other characters, including Othello and Emilia (Iago’s wife), ever mention or allude to these facts, and, indeed, Iago never mentions them again.
Iago further points out to Roderigo that Cassio, the newly appointed lieutenant, is not a true soldier. He is not even a Venetian, Iago says, but, of course, neither is Othello. Cassio is a Florentine, Iago reminds Roderigo, which is a damning epithet condemning the city’s reputation as being a collection of financiers and bookkeepers. What knowledge Cassio has of the battlefield, according to Iago, he gained from textbooks; in other words, he is a student, not a practitioner of battle. Even a spinster, Iago says, knows more of the “division of a battle” (23) than this “bookish theoric” (24). Compare this assessment of Cassio’s military ability with the one Iago gives when he is talking to Montano, “He [Cassio] is a soldier fit to stand by Caesar / And give direction” (II, iii, 122).
Iago rankles at being Othello’s ancient—that is, his ensign. Furthermore, there is nothing Iago can do about the situation: “there’s no remedy” (35). He realizes that “preferment goes by letter and affection” (36) and not by “old gradation” (37) (the traditional order of society). But he will continue to appear to “serve” Othello so that eventually he can “serve [his] turn upon him” (42). Iago, however, is not bent on mere revenge. The extent and depth of his hate for Othello and his desire and willingness to totally destroy him require a motivation more compelling than having been passed over for this promotion. That motivation lies in the racial attitudes identified in the conversations, references, and defamatory images of the characters in this scene. This hatred for Othello consumes Iago, yet his motivations are less important to the plot and themes of the plan than the outcomes of his evil manipulations. In this scene, Iago reveals himself to Roderigo and the audience as a self-seeking, malicious individual who will use every device in order to attain his “peculiar end” (60).
Roderigo is the first to surface this racist attitude when he refers to Othello as “the thick-lips” (66); then, Iago, unsatisfied with Roderigo’s ability to incense Brabantio, refers to Othello as “an old black ram” (88) who “is tupping your white ewe” (89) (Desdemona), “a Barbary horse” (111) and “the lascivious Moor” (126). And finally, in this scene, after having told Roderigo that he is not a welcome suitor for Desdemona, Brabantio learns that his daughter has eloped with Othello and says to Roderigo, “O, that you had had her!” Brabantio’s sudden preference for Roderigo, who has already been proven somewhat a fool over Othello, has no obvious or logical base now or at anytime in the play other than the continually implied racism.
We learn that Brabantio has warned Roderigo “not to haunt about my doors” (96); “my daughter is not for thee” (98). Thus another dimension of this situation presents itself. Roderigo is not just a rich, lovesick suitor who is paying Iago good wages to further his case with the senator’s daughter. Roderigo has been rejected by Brabantio as a candidate for Desdemona’s hand—a fact that offers an interesting parallel: Iago has been denied his chance to become Othello’s lieutenant, and Roderigo has been denied his chance to become a recognized suitor of Desdemona. Rejection and revenge, then, are doubly potent ingredients in this tragedy.
Iago is quick to realize that the timid Roderigo will never sufficiently raise the ire of Desdemona’s father and, for this reason, he interrupts his patron and heaps even more insults on Othello. Yet—and this fact is important—Iago has still not named Othello as being the culprit, as being the man who kidnapped Desdemona and eloped with her. For example, Iago shouts out that Desdemona, at this moment, is being mounted by a “Barbary horse” (112). Brabantio’s nephews, he says, will neigh, and, likewise, Brabantio’s cousins will be “gennets” (113) (black Spanish horses). Still, however, he has not identified Othello by name; nor does he stress that it is Venice’s General Othello who has absconded with Brabantio’s daughter. This neglect on Iago’s part—his failing to identify Othello—is dramatically important. Because Brabantio seems dense and uncomprehending, Iago can continue to curse Othello’s so-called villainous nature and, thereby, reveal to the audience the depths of his (Iago’s) own corruptness.
Iago’s brazen assertions and Roderigo’s timorous apologies for awakening Brabantio are finally effective. Brabantio comprehends what Iago and Roderigo are saying and, in fact, recalls a dream that foretold of just such a calamity. Dreams and omens of this sort are common in literature of this time and create the sense that fate somehow has a hand in the tragic events about to follow.
As Brabantio moves into action, calling for more lights and arousing members of his household, Iago steals away, but not before explaining his reasons for doing so: It must not be public knowledge that Iago himself is an enemy of Othello; if Iago’s machinations are to be successful, he must outwardly “show out a flag and sign of love, / Which is indeed but sign” (157–158). Thus he will manage to stay in Othello’s good graces. For this reason, he must go and rejoin his general.
In addition to this speech reminding us of Iago’s dangerous, diabolical treachery, it also serves to inform us about Othello’s significance to Venice. Othello is a superior public figure, one who will soon be summoned to end the Cyprian wars and a man upon whom the Venetian state depends for its safety. This fact is contained in Iago’s comment that “another of his fathom they have none / To lead their business” (153–154). Othello is a man of high position, as well as one of high honor and one who is, therefore, worthy of being considered a tragic hero.
Othello is confident and happy, sure that his military standing will protect him from Brabantio’s personal anger: “Let him do his spite. / My services which I have done the Signiory / Shall out-tongue his complaints” (18–20). Othello declares himself a free man, with royal ancestors (22), who would not compromise that freedom by marriage except to Desdemona.
When Brabantio’s party arrives and Brabantio threatens him with his sword, Othello, surrounded by people who know and value him, deflects him with a show of courtesy and respect to the older man. In contrast, Brabantio’s accusations are raw and direct: “Oh thou foul thief, where hast thou stowed my daughter?” (61–62).
Othello’s first appearance on stage is as a man confident and in control of his life, calmly and deftly putting Brabantio’s anger aside. This scene shows two strands of Shakespeare’s plot developing at the same time: Othello’s private life, where his marriage is soon to become public knowledge, and the political crisis with the threatened attack by the Turks, where he anticipates being sent to war in a commanding position. Othello is the powerful key figure in both stories; a man to be admired. In contrast to this intellectually powerful first impression, the audience confronts Othello as a visual spectacle: a black face surrounded by white faces, some of which are characters known to be hostile to him. On the intellectual level, one looks up to Othello, while on the emotional level, one wonders already whether he can manage to survive.
During the military discussion, the audience discovers that Cyprus is of supreme value to the Venetians, and it is vital that it remain under Venetian control for protection of sea trade. Therefore, when command is conferred on Othello, the Duke is making a public statement that Venice relies on him completely. Othello rightly feels confident; whatever his marriage arrangements, he knows that the Senators will back him because they need him.
After they deal with the military crisis, the Senators consider how to avenge an injustice done to one of their members: Brabantio. By the time he arrives at the emergency meeting, Brabantio’s rage has turned to grief, and the Senators treat Brabantio’s grief as a personal loss, rather than a public matter. They think his daughter must have died, and, for Brabantio, it is as if she had died. He believes that she has so gone against nature that witchcraft must be to blame. The Duke, speaking with sympathetic indignation, promises Brabantio that he shall judge the offender, even if it were the Duke’s own son: “the bloody book of law / You shall yourself read in the bitter letter / After your own sense” (68–69). This declaration is significant because witchcraft was a capital crime; the law on this topic was indeed “bloody” dealing with how a witch was to be tortured and eventually executed. Yet the Duke’s rash promise to Brabantio immediately rebounds when Brabantio points to Othello: “Here is the man: this Moor” (71). Suddenly the commander appointed to save Venice from her enemies is under risk of execution. The Senate risks losing a war to satisfy one man’s desire for revenge, so the Duke hopes that Othello can justify his actions.
Othello’s defense speech is in two parts: the first (76–93) establishes him as a soldier successful in the service of Venice and respectful of the great men of the city, and the second (127–169) describes how stories of his adventures won Desdemona’s interest and then her love.
Othello begins with words of respect for the Senate; “Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors, / My very noble and approved good masters” (76–77) and then acknowledges the obvious: He has married Brabantio’s daughter. He declares he is a soldier with no skill in making speeches: “Rude am I in my speech / And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace” (81–82). This is an extraordinary declaration, appearing as it does within a very dignified and elegantly expressed speech that shows that Othello does indeed know how to express himself. Othello’s elegant speeches come at psychologically important moments in his life: When he is under pressure, he summons up his strength, faces his situation, and presents his case in beautifully expressed images. The ability to compose himself and to give a speech under pressure has been a valued quality in a military leader. Othello uses that military ability here in defense of his private life.
Othello fills in the background: he has been a soldier in the field from the age of seven until nine months ago, when he came back to Venice. He says: “I will a round unvarnished tale deliver / Of my whole course of love” (90–91), round being a natural shape, like a stone or an apple, and unvarnished, without ornamentation. As he is charged with using magic, he will tell what magic he used, knowing that he used none.
At this point Shakespeare breaks off Othello’s awaited speech for Brabantio’s reflections on Desdemona and a discussion of court procedure. By making the audience wait once again to hear how the lady was won, Shakespeare increases the tension, making Othello’s final speech all the more impressive.
Brabantio is not the first father to have an unrealistic view of his daughter and to be shocked when she seeks a lover or a husband that does not meet his image or expectations. He assumes with no evidence that a black face is “what she feared to look on” (98). He is blinded by his own prejudices, and he ascribes them to Desdemona, painting the picture of a daughter who could not possibly fall in love with a black man. His reasoning here seems to go thusly: racially mixed, intimate relationships are evil and entered into by good people through witchcraft; his daughter is good and shares his views; therefore, she was forced into this relationship with Othello by witchcraft.
The Duke responds with relief, recognizing that Brabantio’s evidence is tenuous and that he has produced no actual proof of witchcraft. He sees Brabantio’s evidence as “thin habits (insubstantial outward appearances) and poor likelihoods” (108). The Senator follows this up with a direct question: Did Othello use witchcraft to win the lady’s love, or did he court her in the usual way, “as soul to soul” (113)?
All attention is now on Othello, who introduces his defense with endearing simplicity: “So justly to your grave ears I'll present / How I did thrive in this fair lady’s love, / And she in mine.” Othello explains that, when Brabantio invited him into his house, he would have a glimpse of family life in a cultured Venetian household, a strong contrast with the rough and ready life of a soldier on campaign. Brabantio put him at his ease and encouraged him to speak of his life and adventures. Although Othello has said that he cannot speak easily, it is as a speaker that Brabantio and his daughter appreciated him.
Othello tells the story of his life. A fighter since his early years, he was “taken by the insolent foe / And sold to slavery” (136). Shakespeare makes Othello’s story rich in visual detail, but he distorts geographic facts for dramatic effect. Slave trading was part of general trade along the shipping routes of East and North Africa, and many slaves were sold in markets in the cities of the Middle East. Othello was redeemed from slavery—by whom and for what reason are not revealed—and was left far from his homeland, facts which probably contributed to his career choice as a professional soldier. Othello also describes his adventures fighting on sea and land.
Othello’s speech helps us—and the Senators—understand why Desdemona has fallen in love with him. He capably presents to the Duke and the others a portrait of himself as a man who has spent almost all of his life in the field as a successful, active soldier. He asserts that Desdemona would hear these stories and she would “devour up my discourse” (149). Then, Othello explains, following an intimate tale of “some distressed stroke / That my youth suffer’d” (157–158) and bringing her to tears weeping in sympathy at stories so strange and pitiful, she declared that “she wish’d / That heaven had made her such a man” (162–163). Desdemona’s intention is clear in telling Othello that his story could win her love: “[I]f I had a friend that lov’d her, I should but teach him to tell my story, and that would woo her” (164–166). This is a transparently disguised declaration of her love for him and her encouragement for his proposal.
This description of Desdemona, depicting a young woman who knows exactly what she wants and reaches out for it, contrasts markedly with Brabantio’s fond notion of a quiet, still small daughter. Othello knows what she will say and speaks confidently and directly: “Here comes the lady, let her witness it” (170). Even before Desdemona speaks, it is clear that Othello has successfully defended himself when the Duke says: “I think this tale would win my daughter too” (171). Brabantio is stunned by the Duke’s revelation and attempts to buttress his position when he remarks, “If she confess that she was half the wooer, / Destruction on my head, if my bad blame / Light on the man!” (176) In fact, Brabantio does not put the pertinent question to her. He retreats to a more formal position and asks her to whom she owes most obedience. This question places the debate in the abstract realm of perceptions and customs about the proper relationship between young women and the men in their lives. Brabantio can expect that the Senators will side with fathers in matters of disobedient daughters and that their opinion will turn to his advantage.
Considering that the play is set approximately in the late sixteenth century, Desdemona’s defense of her actions is remarkably forthright, spirited, and courageous. Her ten brief lines are models of concise rationale. Hers, she says, was and is a “divided duty”: She remains bound to her noble father for her “life and education”; he remains her “lord of duty,” and she will always honor him as such. Now, however, she has a husband, and she will give all her loyalty to her husband, just as her mother gave her loyalty to Brabantio. “And so much duty as my mother show’d / To you, preferring you before her father, / So much I challenge, that I may profess, / Due to the Moor my lord” (186–188). In other words, fathers must give way to husbands.
Desdemona’s argument, which sweeps personal matters into general principles, carries the day, and Brabantio abandons his accusation. He does not concede that he was wrong, only that he cannot answer it. He never puts to question her participation in the courtship or the matter of witchcraft, which was his original accusation. Nor does he ask her how she could marry a man whom he thinks should disgust her. Simply he gives up, “I have done” (189 and 198) and abandons Desdemona and the whole idea of fatherhood. Brabantio’s stubbornness is an integral part of his personality. He is not a fool, however: He is a man who is losing power, and there is no way he can accommodate that loss while retaining his self respect. The Duke’s attempts at conciliation fall on deaf ears.
Desdemona, having embarked on marriage with Othello, wishes to accompany him into the field of war as a faithful wife. “ … [I]f I be left behind, / A moth of peace, and he go to the war, / The rites for which I love him are bereft me, / And I a heavy interim shall support, / By his dear absence. Let me go with him” (255–259). The word “dear” here means “closely felt.” Desdemona longs to be with her husband, for the rites of marriage, for sexual intimacy, and she finishes with a direct request: let me go with him. The directness of this request takes even Othello by surprise. Of course he wants his wife with him, and for the same reasons, and he supports her request, expressing it in a more socially acceptable manner: “ … I therefore beg it not / To please the palate of my appetite, / Nor to comply with heat, … But to be free and bounteous of her mind” (261–265).
The Duke tells Othello that he can make what arrangements he likes. The important thing is that he must leave this very night because “th’ affair calls [for] haste” (277). Desdemona is somewhat taken aback by this order. But notice the Moor’s reply: He loves her “with all [his] heart” (279). Truly, as the Duke notes to Brabantio, Othello “is far more fair than black” (291). Immediately, there remains only for the Moor to leave some trusted officer behind, one who will see that Desdemona is brought to Cyprus safely. Tragically, Othello chooses the very man whom he can trust least in all the world—“honest Iago” (295).
Brabantio is crushed; he is a defeated man who realizes that the Moor neither stole nor bewitched his daughter. However, he will never understand how his “jewel” (195) renounced all his paternal guidance and secretly married a man of a different race and nation. He leaves with a parting warning to Othello: “Look to her, Moor, have a quick eye to see: / She has deceiv’d her father, may do thee.” (292–293). These last words to Othello in this scene are important. They are packed with irony and provide, in part, an example of dramatic presaging. Desdemona does not deceive Othello, but before long Othello will be so convinced that she has deceived him that he will murder her. Othello’s reply to Brabantio is likewise ironic: He vows, “my life upon her faith!” (295). Shortly, he will take his own life because of his lack of faith in her faith—in her innocent, chaste fidelity.
In a soliloquy that ends the act, Iago introduces a second motive for his hatred of Othello; he says that it is common gossip that the Moor “'twixt my sheets … [has] done my office” (393–394) and, for Iago, “mere suspicion … will do … for surety” (395–396). It need hardly be pointed out here that we are listening to a man whose mind is poisoned. There is not the slightest bit of evidence anywhere in this play to indicate that Othello has had an affair with Emilia. Iago also reveals his next malicious plan of action. Aware that Othello trusts him, he will convince the Moor that Cassio is “too familiar” (402) with Desdemona. Othello, he says, “is of a free and open nature” (405); precisely, in Iago’s words, Othello is an “ass”—naive, in other words, and we recall that Othello himself has already admitted that he knows “little of this great world … [except that which] pertains to feats of broils and battle” (86–87). In the final couplet, which contains the reference to “hell and night” (409) and to “monstrous birth” (410), we sense Iago rubbing his hands in glee; we see all too clearly the unnaturalness and the diabolical elements of his plans to destroy the union of Othello and Desdemona.
The witchcraft accusation raises the question, What constitutes evidence and proof of wrongdoing and what does not? Othello survived an accusation made by a man who believed the facts supported his accusation, simply because his inflamed prejudices allowed him no other possible explanation. Brabantio made the accusation of witchcraft against Othello with no solid evidence, and on the basis of Desdemona’s testimony the charge was dismissed. Later in the play, Othello will commit the same error incited much for the same reasons by making a baseless accusation with equal conviction that he is right.
Othello defends himself against Brabantio’s accusation by personal statement and by calling Desdemona to testify. This strategy saves him from the false condemnation. Yet later in the play, as he accuses Desdemona without specifying the accusation until too late, he will deny her the opportunity to speak to defend herself or to call on Cassio to testify. Othello, blinded by emotion, has not learned from his own experience, and the consequences will be disastrous.
Act I, Scene 3 is the first of the very long scenes, where much detailed development happens. Event after event is presented in quick succession, giving the impression of accelerated movement and excitement. Time in Othello is presented as passing very quickly, but a careful examination shows almost no markers to indicate what day it is or how each scene relates to the others in terms of time. There are three such long scenes in Othello: this one; Act III, Scene 3, in which Iago makes Othello jealous; and Act V, Scene 2, which contains the murder and explanations. Their emotional intensity structurally unites the drama.
In Europe between the fourteenth and the end of the eighteenth centuries, three unity issues for drama were developed and debated, based on Aristotle’s “Unity of Action” theory: (1) unity of time, meaning that all the episodes or actions happen within very close time frame of a day or so; (2) unity of place, meaning the episodes or actions happen near or in close proximity to each other; and (3) unity of action, meaning each episode or action relates to episodes and actions preceding and following it. These unity issues never became rules or standards that playwrights had to or did particularly follow, but they were known and may help the reader understand the relationship of the scenes in Othello.
Act Two. Scene Two:
An undefined length of time has elapsed since the scenes in Act I, during which Othello has set sail for Cyprus in one ship, Cassio in another, and Iago, Emilia, and Desdemona in a third. The ships arrive one by one, allowing the arriving members to talk about Othello while waiting for his arrival. Cassio describes to Montano Othello’s new wife, Desdemona, with respect and a little awe as “our great captain’s captain” (74). His elaborate tones underline both his education and the high expectations many have of benefits on all sides from Othello: “That he may bless this bay with his tall ship, / Make love’s quick pants in Desdemona’s arms, / Give renewed fire to our extincted spirits” (79–82).
Desdemona, Emilia, and Iago play word games, which show Iago’s cynical view of women: “ … you are pictures out of doors, / Bells in your parlours, wild-cats in your kitchens, / Saints in your injuries, devils being offended, / Players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds” (108–111). That is, women are models of propriety when they go out, sweet conversationalists with guests, and angry spitfires to their servants. They claim to always be the injured party, fly into a rage at an adverse comment and are idle in matters of housework and penny-pinching with their sexual favors. Iago speaks bluntly, disparaging women, and Desdemona, along with everyone else, makes allowances for the rough speech of “honest” Iago. For balance, Emilia gives a cynical woman’s view of men in Act V.
Iago meanwhile watches Cassio, seeking a weakness that he can exploit. He decides to focus on his courteous manners and attentions to Desdemona. “ … With as little web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio. Ay, smile upon her, do. I will gyve thee in thine own courtship” (164–165). Shakespeare uses the break in rhythm—from poetry to prose, or visa versa—to denote emphasis or a change in mood. Note Iago switches from the cynically playful tone of the rhymed couplet in the colloquy to the serious prose in the aside.
The reunion of Othello and Desdemona is a happy celebration of their love. Othello greets Desdemona as his equal, his “fair warrior” (174). He has gone through Hell in the tempest and is now in Heaven with his wife and realizes that this is the happiest moment of his life: “If it were now to die, / ’Twere now to be most happy; for I fear / My soul hath her content so absolute / That not another comfort like to this / Succeeds in unknown fate” (181–184). There is also a dark side to his happiness, for he feels that the future cannot match it. Desdemona, however, looks forward—“our loves and comforts should increase, / Even as our days do grow” (186–187).
In an aside, Iago remarks that Othello is now “well tuned” (191) like a lute or guitar and sings sweetly, but Iago will “set down the pegs” (192), loosening the strings and spoiling the music, “As honest as I am.” (193). Others, especially Othello, use the word “honest” in earnest when talking of Iago; Iago, however, uses it ironically. This use of an aside links Iago with stage villains in traditional forms of theatre, masques, pantomimes, and puppet shows.
Iago pushes Roderigo in an emotional stampede, overwhelming his idealized view of Desdemona with a flood of disparaging words, abusing her virtue, and besmirching her reputation. He sweeps aside Roderigo’s protestations of her virtue: “Blest fig’s end! (an obscene oath, a “fig” is the head of a penis) / The wine she drinks is made of grapes” (238), meaning she is just the same as ordinary women. He claims Cassio is already courting her: “They met so near with their lips that their breaths embraced together” (239–245). Iago batters Roderigo with the sheer volume of his abuse until the weak gentleman agrees to do as he is told in the plot to disgrace Cassio. Then Iago, alone on stage, speaks his thoughts.
Iago’s second soliloquy is very revealing. It shows him shaping a plan out of the confusion of his emotionally charged thoughts. Iago examines his own thoughts, especially his hatred for Othello: “The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not” (269) and finds a common thread in the “poisonous mineral” of jealousy that still swirls around the rumor that Othello has enjoyed Emilia. Iago could get his revenge by seducing Desdemona: “Now I do love her too … / But partly led to diet my revenge, / For that I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof / Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards” (272–278). Iago uses the word “love” here in a very cynical way, making it a combination of lust and power seeking. At first he sees his seduction of Desdemona as his revenge: “Till I am evened with him, wife for wife” (280). Then Iago realizes that the unsubstantiated jealousy that torments him is the very weapon he can use against Othello, who will be even more susceptible. Iago will lead Othello, via jealousy, to madness: “Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me, / For making him egregiously an ass, / And practicing upon his peace and quiet / Even to madness”
This short scene is occasionally combined with the scene that follows. Chiefly, it functions in approximately the same way that a curtain is pulled in a modern theater to indicate the passing of time. We know that the Turkish fleet has suffered “perdition,” largely due to the “noble” and “valiant” efforts of Othello, and that the rejoicing celebrates the military victory and also the general’s recent marriage. In short, the Moor has proclaimed a holiday to be held from five o'clock until eleven, during which the soldiers and citizens can dance, make bonfires, or make “revels [however] his [addiction] leads him” (6).
Dramatically, this mood of merrymaking and celebration is a strong contrast to the tragedy that is about to follow and, in addition, the chaos gives Iago sufficient time and opportunity to set his traps for the unsuspecting Othello. Also, this feasting and dancing takes place at night, and earlier Iago proclaimed that “hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth [of his evil design] to the world’s light” (I.3, 409–410). This scene preludes that horror.
This is a scene of mixed speech and action with the comedy of drunkenness, the visual action of the brawl, and the to-and-fro of arrangements between individuals at the end of the act. Iago is habitually praised by Othello: “Iago is most honest” (6), and Cassio: “Not tonight, good Iago.” (28).
In his conversation with Cassio, Iago begins by speaking of Desdemona in a sexually suggestive manner, “she is sport for Jove” (16) and “I'll warrant her full of game” (18), which Cassio deflects. Iago then tries to ply Cassio with drink, but Cassio refuses politely and with reason: “I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking. I could well wish courtesy would invent some other custom of entertainment” (30–32). Relying on Cassio’s good manners to override his determination, Iago continues to press, and Cassio eventually gives in.
When Cassio protests with elaborate carefulness that he is not drunk, he is simultaneously a figure of comedy and dreadful anticipation: “Do not think, gentlemen, I am drunk; this is my ancient, this is my right hand, and this is my left hand. I am not drunk now, I can stand well enough, and I speak well enough” (97–99). His every word calls attention to his drunken state and his loss of good judgment.
Iago tells Montano that Cassio is a habitual drunkard and that Othello has misjudged in promoting such an unreliable person. When Cassio appears, Montano upbraids him for being drunk, and Cassio turns on him, wounding Montano with his sword. This scene is often played with much noise and running about the stage, through patches of light and dark. Any number of actors could join in, and the more chaotic it appears, the better. However, it is a serious plot development scene and cannot be played for comedy.
Othello has been roused from his marriage bed, and his anger is intense. He sees the matter immediately as one of incompetence in his subordinates. He accuses them of uncivilized behavior, doing the enemy’s work by destroying the army: “For Christian shame, put by this barbarous brawl” (153), and he threatens the next person to move with execution. There are potential political consequences: if the people of Cyprus think there is a rebellion, they may rise also, so Othello orders, “Silence that dreadful bell: it frights the isle / From her propriety” (135–136). His anger will fall on the man who began the brawl, and, slipping back into his old habit of relying on his ancient (ensign) rather than seeking out his new lieutenant, Othello calls directly on Iago to tell him who it is. Iago replies: “I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth / Than it should do offence to Michael Cassio” (202–203), a blatantly obvious betrayal built into a semblance of reluctance. Othello, trusting Iago, is completely taken in: “I know, Iago, Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter, making in light to Cassio” (227–229). In this scene, Iago supplants Cassio, regaining his place nearest to Othello.
Cassio, sobered, grieves for his lost reputation: “I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial” (242–244), and Iago replies “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, often got without merit, and lost without deserving” (247–248). Later, in discussion with Othello, Iago will argue the opposite view. As a two-faced follower of Janus, he can advocate either side of an argument when needed to serve his own ends. Iago plays a different personality to each companion in this scene, urging Cassio to drink up and join the celebration, standing back with Montano as an observer of unwise behavior, describing the quarrel to Othello in such a way as to show Cassio as drunken and incompetent, and finally being the helpful friend to Cassio, suggesting a course of action for his reinstatement.
Cassio is overwhelmed with guilt and remorse, and, eagerly accepting Iago’s offer of a course of action, walks straight into his trap. Iago’s soliloquy of self-justification contains a twisted echo of Cassio’s “Do not think I am drunk” speech. Whereas Cassio spoke from foolishness, Iago speaks from malevolence: “And what’s he then that says I play the villain, when this advice is free I give, and honest?” (303–304). He has now refined his plan and outlines the diabolical details: Cassio will plead with Desdemona, who will plead with Othello. Iago will tell Othello that Desdemona wants Cassio back for sexual purposes. “I'll pour this pestilence into his ear” (323). Iago will whisper poisonous words into Othello’s ear, killing Othello from the inside by filling his mind with unbearable jealousy.
Act Three. Scene One:
This scene serves as a kind of comic relief—that is, it gives the audience’s emotions a brief pause from the tension of the preceding acts and offers the audience some respite before it is plunged into the highly emotional scenes that very swiftly follow. The setting is next morning, outside the castle, where Cassio has arranged for a group of musicians to entertain Othello and Desdemona.
In addition to the musicians, there is a clown, or jester, a figure that appears in many Renaissance plays and could be counted on to entertain the audience with his physical nimbleness and his witty double entendres. Here the clown makes humorous reference to “wind” instruments and purposely confuses “tails” and “tales” in several coarse puns before he pokes fun at the musicians' performance. Othello does not care for the music, and so the clown dismisses them with money and bids them to “vanish into the air, away!” (21).
Cassio then gives the clown a gold piece and instructs him to tell Emilia, “the gentlewoman that attends the [General’s wife]” (26–27), that he (Cassio) wishes to talk with her.
Iago enters as the clown exits and notes that Cassio has not been to bed yet. Cassio confirms it; he has decided to follow Iago’s suggestion and talk with Emilia and see if she can convince Desdemona to speak with him. Iago is obviously pleased and offers to keep the Moor busy so that the “converse and business” (40) of Cassio and Desdemona “may be more free” (41). The dramatic irony here (the double meaning that the audience recognizes but that the character—in this case Cassio—does not) is that Iago will keep Othello “busy” observing his wife and his courtly ex-lieutenant exchanging serious conversation. Upon Iago’s exit, Cassio remarks about him that he (Cassio) “never knew / A Florentine more kind and honest” than Iago (42–43). The irony here is obvious. The audience certainly hopes that many Florentines are more honest than Iago.
Emilia enters and greets the Moor’s ex-lieutenant and expresses her disappointment and sorrow at his misfortunes. From her, Cassio happily learns that already Desdemona “speaks … stoutly” (47) to her husband in Cassio’s defense, but because Cassio wounded Cyprus' governor, a man of “great fame … and great affinity” (48–49), Othello cannot yet reinstate Cassio as his lieutenant. Yet Desdemona thinks that there may be some hope, for Othello “protests he loves you, / And … [will] take the safest [soonest] occasion … to bring you in again” (50–53). The news is indeed good and should satisfy Cassio, but fate makes him too impatient to resume his lieutenancy. Thus Cassio beseeches Emilia to arrange for him to speak with Desdemona alone. Emilia agrees.
The letter to Venice sent with the ship’s pilot would announce that Cyprus is safe after the destruction of the Turkish fleet. While Othello inspects the works, Iago’s brings Cassio to Desdemona.
This scene, often called the “temptation scene,” is the most important scene in the entire play and one of the most well-known scenes in all drama. In it, Iago speaks carefully and at length with Othello and plants the seeds of suspicion and jealousy which eventually bring about the tragic events of the play. Ironically, it is Desdemona’s innocent attempt to reconcile Othello with Cassio that gives Iago the opportunity to wreak vengeance upon Othello, thereby causing the murder and suicide that bring this tragedy to its violent conclusion.
Ironically also, when the curtains for this act part, they reveal the loveliest scene in the entire play: the garden of the Cyprian castle. Desdemona, the well-meaning bride, has been talking with Cassio and tells him that she is sure that she can influence her husband in Cassio’s behalf. Emilia is present and adds her own good wishes for Cassio; she too hopes that Desdemona will be successful. But when Emilia adds that her husband, Iago, grieves “as if the cause [for Cassio’s demotion] were his” (4) and that his friendship with the Moor has been severed, even the most casual listener in the audience would probably gasp in disbelief. Emilia’s comment is followed by another comment that is equally startling: Desdemona, speaking of Iago, says, “O, that’s an honest fellow” (5). The dramatic irony is especially keen here as Desdemona tells Cassio that she is convinced that she “will have [her] lord and [him] again / As friendly as [they] were” (6–7).
Cassio expresses his gratitude, but he urges Desdemona not to delay, for if Othello waits too long to appoint a new lieutenant, he may “forget my love and service” (18). Again, Desdemona is most reassuring, stating that it is not in her character to violate a vow of friendship. (Later, Othello will believe not only that she has violated a vow of friendship, but that she has violated their vows of marriage.) Desdemona jests to Cassio that she will “talk him [Othello] out of patience; / His bed shall seem a school … I'll intermingle everything he does / With Cassio’s suit” (23–26). (This too is ironically ominous; within an hour, Othello’s notion of his marriage bed will be filled with false visions of Cassio.) Desdemona’s final lines here are prophetic: As Cassio’s solicitor, she would “rather die / Than give [his] cause away” (27–28).
Emilia then notes that Othello and Iago are approaching. When the Moor and Iago enter, Cassio excuses himself hurriedly, saying that he is too ill at ease to speak with the general at this time. And it is at this point that Iago, who is ready to make the most of every incident and occasion, begins to taint Othello’s belief in Desdemona’s fidelity.
Iago represents himself as an honest, but reluctant, witness. His “Ha! I like not that!” (35) is a blatant lie; this fraudulent tsk-tsking hides Iago’s true delight; nothing could satisfy his perversity more. But because Othello sees nothing amiss, Iago must make a show of not wanting to speak of it, or of Cassio, while all the time insinuating that Cassio was not just leaving, but that he was “steal[ing] away so guilty-like” (39). Iago’s words here are filled with forceful innuendo, and as he pretends to be a man who cannot believe what he sees, he reintroduces jealousy into Othello’s subconscious.
Desdemona greets her husband and, without guilt, introduces Cassio’s name into their conversation. Here, fate plays a major role in this tragedy; not even Iago wholly arranged this swift, coincidental confrontation of Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio, and certainly the pathos of Desdemona’s position here is largely due to no other factor than fate. Desdemona could not purposely have chosen a worse time to mention Cassio’s name to her husband. In addition, she innocently refers to Cassio as a “suitor.” All these coincidences will fester later in Othello’s subconscious as Iago continues to fire the Moor’s jealousy. But for now, Othello is without suspicion, even as his wife speaks openly of Cassio’s wish to be reinstated as his lieutenant and of her own wish for their reconciliation. She sees no villainy in Cassio’s face, she says; Cassio “errs in ignorance and not in cunning” (49). As another example of dramatic irony, note how clearly the audience can see the contrast between Cassio and Iago, a man who certainly errs—at least morally—in his own “cunning.” The characters in the play, however, with the exception of Iago, are blind to Iago’s duplicitous nature.
Othello seems to be concerned with other matters. Obviously, he will do what his wife asks, but his thoughts are on other things. He does not wish to call Cassio back at the moment, but Desdemona is insistent. Perhaps she is merely young and eager to have her requests granted, or perhaps she is too eager to prove to herself that her new husband is obedient; whatever the reason, she harries Othello about when he will reinstate Cassio as his lieutenant: “ … to-night at supper? … / To-morrow dinner then? … / to-morrow night; on Tuesday morn; / On Tuesday noon, or night; on Wednesday morn. / I prithee, name the time, but let it not / Exceed three days … . When shall he come? / Tell me, Othello” (57–68). Even though she did promise Cassio not to delay speaking to Othello about the matter, such annoying insistence seems unnecessary, and it leads to Othello’s becoming mildly vexed with his wife’s childish pestering: “Prithee, no more; let him come when he will, / I will deny thee nothing” (74–75).
Desdemona realizes that Othello’s answer is curt, and she emphasizes that this is an important matter and not a trifle that she is asking. To this, Othello stresses again that he will deny her nothing, but, in return, he asks for a bit of time so that he can be alone; he will join her shortly.
As Desdemona leaves, Othello chides himself for being irritated by his wife. Lovingly he sighs, “Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul, / But I do love thee! and when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again” (90–92). There is an element of prophecy here not only in Desdemona’s and Othello’s farewells to one another, but also in their lines and in the remainder of the Moor’s first speech after Desdemona leaves. In a metaphorical sense, perdition will soon catch Othello’s soul, and chaos will soon replace order in his life.
When Iago is alone with Othello, he resumes his attack on his general’s soul. Out of seemingly idle curiosity, he asks if Desdemona was correct when she referred to the days when Othello was courting her; did Cassio indeed “know of your love?” (95). Here he prods Othello’s memory to recall that Desdemona and Cassio have known each other for some time. Then again playing the reluctant confidant, he begs, as it were, not to be pressed about certain of his dark thoughts. One can see how skillfully Iago makes use of his public reputation for honesty.
It is necessary to remember throughout the play and especially in this scene that Iago has a reputation for complete honesty. It is for this reason that Othello is alarmed by Iago’s hesitations and “pursed brow”; Othello knows that Iago is not a “false disloyal knave” (121) and that he is “full of love and honesty” (118). If Iago fears something, it must be a concern “working from the heart” (123). Othello is convinced that Iago is withholding something and asks for his ruminations, the “worst of thoughts / The worst of words” (132–133). What Iago is doing, of course, is making Othello believe that Iago’s honor is at stake if he confesses his fears. Thus he lies to Othello again, saying that he is unwilling to speak further because he may be “vicious in [his] guess” (145).
Coming after the emotional intensity of the previous scene, this scene looks at some of the same themes from different viewpoints. In particular, it takes a more roundabout look at jealousy.
The Clown provides some contrasting comic relief, taking words only at face value, and this little diversion covers the plot move where Desdemona sends for Cassio. Desdemona has an underlying worry, the loss of the handkerchief, but Emilia, who does know what happened, does not tell her. Desdemona is confident, or at least hopeful, that her husband is not jealous, while Emilia suspects that all men are jealous.
The interview between Othello and Desdemona begins stiffly and formally: “Well, my good lady” (30), and she, taking her cue from him, answers formally. They speak at cross-purposes, Othello claiming her moist hand indicates lust, she suggesting it means youth and innocence, and while making a speech on her need to curb her inclinations, the old happy love suddenly hits him again, and he acknowledges: “'tis a good hand, A frank one.” (39). The bond between them is reestablished, and he calls her by a pet name, chuck. But the bond breaks when she mentions Cassio. Othello demands her handkerchief, which she cannot produce.
Othello tells the story of the handkerchief: it is an heirloom in his family, given by an Egyptian witch to his mother as a charm to keep her husband’s love. If the handkerchief were lost, the love would go. This confection of far-fetched story elements seems to be believed implicitly by both Othello and Desdemona, who, under stress, ascribe wider powers and cosmic meaning to a handkerchief that, up until now, was simply a personal love token.
Desdemona is panicked into lying: “It is not lost, but what an if it were?” (82) and tries to lead the conversation back to Cassio. Othello has caught her out. He repeats “the handkerchief” over her words, working himself up into a fury, and storms off. All he has established is that she does not have it, but just the thought of the handkerchief is enough to madden him, torturing him now with the mental picture of Cassio wiping himself with it. The handkerchief, which once symbolized love and loyalty, now means betrayal.
Iago brings Cassio to Desdemona, and they discuss Othello’s anger. Emilia speaks of irrational jealousy: “But jealous souls will not be answer’d so; / They are not ever jealous for the cause, / But jealous for they are jealous: ’tis a monster, begot upon itself, born on itself.” (157–160). These lines echo Iago’s “It is the green ey’d monster which doth mock that meat it feeds on” (III.3, 170–171), hinting that Iago and Emilia have talked or argued about jealousy in their own married life. Meanwhile Cassio and Bianca argue over a handkerchief Cassio found in his lodgings. Bianca, recognizing a woman’s handkerchief, jealously suspects that Cassio has a new love.
Desdemona’s straightforward trust contrasts with Othello’s sulky suspicion. Emilia’s view of jealousy as a natural characteristic of irrational men contrasts with Othello’s real personal sufferings of the previous scene. Desdemona and Emilia discuss possible reasons for Othello’s bad mood and suspend judgment for lack of sure evidence. This contrasts with Othello’s train of thought in the previous act, where, with less actual evidence before him, he changed his whole view of himself and his marriage.
The dramatic irony is that the most jealous indignation is expressed over offenses that did not happen: Othello jealous about his wife; Bianca jealous about Cassio; Iago formerly jealous about Emilia. Each character attempts to cope as an individual, except Emilia, who has a theory that jealousy is a constituent part of masculinity. The evidence before her own eyes backs up her assessment.
Act Four. Scene One:
Iago, while pretending to reassure Othello, is rubbing salt into his wounds. Their conversation is of hypothetical acts, whether they constitute betrayal or not, but Othello imagines them all being acted out by Desdemona and Cassio. But this is just the warm-up to the topic that Iago has discovered can most easily rouse Othello’s passions: the handkerchief. Othello, in his thinking, assumes it is a symbol for his wife’s honor, but Iago plays at thinking it is only a handkerchief: “being hers, she may, I think, bestow’t on any man” (13). He repeats again the word “handkerchief,” and Othello cries out.
Iago can see that Othello is at the edge of madness, and there is no way he can judge just how far to push him, considering his unexpectedly violent previous reaction. However, Iago cannot afford to leave Othello in his present frame of mind, where he might do something unpredictable. Therefore, he proceeds to tell Othello the direct lie: that Cassio has confessed to a sexual affair with Desdemona. Iago uses again the successful technique of hesitation, forcing Othello himself to say what Iago would have him think. Iago, the liar, comes back to the word “lie” when telling his untruth so that the word “lie” echoes with double meaning through their conversation, lacerating Othello with thoughts of two illicit lovers and, at the same time, accusing Iago for his abuse of the truth.
Othello is now raving; his words come in an anxious jumble around “handkerchief,” and “confess” until he falls down in a faint. The overstressed mind seeks refuge in unconsciousness. Instead of pity or alarm, Iago only expresses satisfaction that his medicine (poison words) is working.
Cassio suggests rubbing Othello about the temples, but Iago calmly waits for him to regain consciousness and takes the opportunity to tell Cassio that Othello has epileptic seizures and bouts of madness. Such a story is Iago’s insurance, in case Othello should later say something that Cassio finds strange.
Iago urges Othello to hide and watch him talk with Cassio. Othello, who had led armies into battle, is now reduced to crouching behind something, listening to a conversation he cannot well hear, and imagining Cassio and his wife laughing at him. Iago takes a great risk with this maneuver, as he has no way of controlling completely what Cassio might say or how much Othello actually overhears. He leads Cassio to laugh and joke about Bianca, trusting that Othello’s mind will turn what he sees into evidence. Then, by chance, Bianca walks in with the strawberry-spotted handkerchief and berates Cassio for asking her to copy the token of his new love. Othello recognizes the handkerchief, and all other considerations are forgotten.
Othello goes directly to the point: “How shall I murder him, Iago?” Othello swears also to kill his wife this night, he curses her and weeps over her at the same time, mingling love and murder: “for she shall not live; no, my heart is turned to stone … ” (178–179).
This is the second time Othello has sworn to kill both Cassio and Desdemona, but his continuity of love beside revenge unnerves Iago, who needs to push Othello to a definite unalloyed commitment to murder. Therefore, Iago prompts Othello to consider his personal honour: “If you be so fond over her iniquity, give her patent to offend, for if it touches not you, it comes near nobody” (199–201). The idea of giving his wife permission to take lovers so enrages Othello that he cries, “I will chop her into messes” (202), surely the most savage of all his threats, and one he later regrets.
Still Othello knows the pull of love and asks for poison so that he might kill her at a distance, but he sees justice in Iago’s idea of strangling her in her bed, imagining that she has dishonored that bed. Again the agreement is made: Iago is to kill Cassio, and Othello is to kill Desdemona. Iago has profited from good luck and good organization to achieve almost complete power over Othello.
Lodovico, Desdemona’s cousin, has just arrived from Venice with a letter for Othello. Expecting to see a happy newly married couple, Lodovico finds they can hardly speak to each other. When Othello strikes his wife, calling her “Devil” (235), Lodovico is shocked, but whatever he might say would only make things worse. Othello and Desdemona are involved in a personal matter to the exclusion of others, and Othello is fraught by a matter of internal conflict that excludes his wife. From the outside, it all looks like madness. Lodovico is amazed at the change in “the noble Moor … whose solid virtue / The shot of accident, nor dart of chance, could neither graze, nor pierce” (260–264).
Iago knows that Othello has been ordered back to Venice and Cassio has been made commander in Cyprus, so he knows the murders must be done immediately, or he will be found out. He hints to Lodovico that Othello should be watched, increasing Lodovico’s suspicion that Othello is going mad.
Othello is now reduced to questioning his wife’s maid, Emilia, looking for evidence of Desdemona’s infidelity. He has already judged and condemned her, but he is still hunting evidence, seeking to justify to himself the stand he has already taken. This is not a satisfactory frame of mind for an investigator, and it is certainly not an acceptable frame of mind for a military commander responsible for law and order in a colony. To a certain extent, Othello is indeed mad, so wrapped up in his obsession that he can hardly consider other things.
Emilia assures Othello that Desdemona is faithful and adds her own opinion: She speaks for the first time her theory that some villain is telling Othello lies to turn him against Desdemona. From now on, she develops this theory every time she thinks about it. Although she is completely correct, Emilia does not identify the “wretch” until too late. In some ways, she really believes her husband is an honest man, although her opinion of men in general is not high. Othello, instead of reconsidering his accusations, is even more bitter about Desdemona, judging her to be so deceptive that she can sin and pray and convince everyone, even her maid, of her innocence. He holds tightly to the idea that she has betrayed him, because by now he has built this idea into his view of himself.
In Othello’s interview alone with Desdemona, Shakespeare balances hope and dread, ensuring emotional involvement. Desdemona declares she is his “true and loyal wife” (35) and drags out of him the accusations that she is “false as hell” (40), a “whore” (74), and a “public commoner” (75), that is, prostitute. These accusations are exaggerated, even for Othello, since he believes she has had an affair with Cassio, but in his fevered mind, and in that of many of Shakespeare’s characters, there is no difference between an occasional adulterer and a full-time street prostitute. They all come under the heading of “false” women.
Desdemona immediately and completely denies the accusation, and her husband speaks scornfully and bitterly, throws money at her, as if she were a prostitute, and goes out. Having made the accusation and been denied, he reacts with anger rather than reassessment.
Desdemona’s reaction to the confrontation is the opposite. She tells Emilia she is “half asleep,” either as a convenient lie to keep her privacy or as an expression of emotional exhaustion. Emilia invites conversation, but her mistress, near to weeping but unable to do it, can only think of one course of action, the wedding sheets. Wedding sheets are one of the major items in a well brought-up young woman’s set of household linen that she brings to her marriage. These sheets would be of the finest cloth, hand-embroidered by the bride herself, and would have taken a considerable time to make. In some Mediterranean cultures, after the marriage ceremony, the couple retire to the bedroom and consummate the marriage. The wedding sheets are then hung out on the balcony, to show to all that the bride had been a virgin. So wedding sheets have both intimate and public connotations of things being done according to correct procedure. By putting the wedding sheets on the bed, Desdemona is symbolically trying to renew and strengthen the marriage and remind Othello that he too has duties of love.
Iago is keen to hear how Othello has spoken to Desdemona but is disconcerted when she starts to weep: “Do not weep, do not weep: alas the day!” (126). Perhaps, like many men, he construes a weeping woman as a potential emotional manipulator, and Iago instinctively guards himself against any pull toward pity or mercy. He knows that she will soon be murdered by her husband, and this grief, which she suffers and weeps over now, is small trouble in comparison. In response to an abusive husband, he suggests: “Beshrew him for it!” (130), that is, nag him.
Emilia is developing her theory about the person who is corrupting Othello’s mind. She calls him “some eternal villain, / Some busy and insinuating rogue, / Some cogging, cozening slave” (132–134), and Iago must stand and hear himself described in these uncomplimentary terms. In vain, Iago tries to keep her quiet.
Roderigo appears, demanding Iago’s attention for a previous scheme that suddenly threatens to unwind. Roderigo regrets the situation that he has gotten himself in, and he wishes to withdraw. However, he wants to get back his jewels that he had given to Iago for Desdemona (an unsuccessful courtship gift was traditionally returned to the suitor). Iago, who has pocketed Roderigo’s money and jewels for himself, must now move quickly to protect his acquisitions and to prevent Roderigo speaking directly to Desdemona and revealing Iago’s illegitimate activities. Iago repeatedly replies “very well,” which finally inflames the heretofore excessively patient Roderigo to an outburst of petulant rebellion: “ … ’tis not very well. Nay, I think it is very scurvy, and begin to find myself fopp’d in it” (191–193). This perception of Roderigo’s that he may have been taken for a fool is the understatement of the play.
For the audience at this point, there is the madly delightful prospect that Iago could be brought down by Roderigo, his own dupe. However, Iago joins his two plots, enrolling Roderigo in the plan to kill Cassio, and Roderigo’s rebellion fades away. The quick flash of emotion in this exchange provides a variation and therefore a relief from the steadily mounting tension of Othello’s thoughts and action.
Emilia knows something is seriously wrong, but Desdemona’s mind is preoccupied with the problem of her husband’s love. She loves him so much that she cannot tell whether his love is lost or is yet recoverable. She has a vague premonition of death and requests of Emilia, “If I do die before thee, prithee shroud me / In one of those same sheets” (24–25). Desdemona has reacted to this crisis with the passivity of despair and grief, as was the tradition for women abandoned. Othello, on the other hand, thinking he has lost Desdemona’s love and fidelity, reacts with aggressive passions of accusations and violence.
Desdemona tells the story of her mother’s maid, Barbary, and her sad fate. “She was in love, and he she lov’d prov’d mad, / And did forsake her: she had a song of ‘willow,’ / An old thing ’twas, but it express’d her fortune, / And she died singing it” (27–30). Barbary is a parallel for Desdemona herself: her mother’s maid is something like her mother’s daughter, a girl under her mother’s care and protection. This is the only time Desdemona mentions her mother, and she speaks of her in the distant past, as if she were dead. Desdemona’s mother plays no part in the story of the courtship and marriage to Othello, and Desdemona speaks and acts as a woman alone, who takes full responsibility for her decisions.
Desdemona and Barbary are not only alone in their sorrow but are both associated with strangers. “Barbary,” the name, means “foreigner.” Desdemona married a foreigner, whom some called a barbarian, that is an uncivilized foreigner. Iago described the marriage as that between “an erring barbarian and a super-subtle Venetian”(I.3, 355–356), an opinion many Venetians would have held and that Desdemona would have been well aware of.
Desdemona sings the “Willow Song,” and, in this indirect way, she faces the real possibility that Othello is going mad and will desert her and that she may die of a broken heart. The “Willow Song” is an old one, existing in many versions before Shakespeare incorporated it into his play. Of special interest is line 52 that echoes, as it were, Desdemona’s thoughts in lines 19–20. In the song, it is the male lover who is false and the cause of the poor woman’s sighing and weeping. Obviously the mood perfectly reflects that of Desdemona, whose love is so strong that she approves Othello’s frowns, just as the “poor soul” (41) in the song approves her lover’s “scorn” (52). Willow, also known as weeping willow, is associated in Shakespeare’s plays with lost love. In Hamlet, staged three years before Othello, Ophelia drowns surrounded by willows and flowers; Gertrude describes the scene: “There is a willow grows askant a brook” (Hamlet IV.7, 166). Ophelia’s love, Prince Hamlet, appeared mad and rejected her, and she lost her mind and died singing as she drowned. Ophelia and Barbary have almost the same story.
All through this scene, while Emilia tries to comfort and cheer Desdemona, she knows that her husband Iago has the handkerchief, a fact that she could have revealed to Desdemona but does not. Possibly Emilia hopes nothing more will be heard of the matter, or she thinks to protect her husband from accusation if the handkerchief subsequently turns up somewhere. Emilia had stood silently in the background (as a lady’s maid should) when Othello demanded to see the handkerchief and Desdemona could not produce it (Act III, Scene 4), so she is aware that the handkerchief itself forms part of Othello’s accusation. To speak now would seem too late, but to hide the information is not honest either.
Emilia and Desdemona make a clear contrast in their approach to marriage and fidelity. Desdemona is a romantic who has married for love and values loyalty absolutely. Emilia has a practical intelligence and assesses each situation to decide which is the best course of action. She thinks that a wife’s infidelity is a serious matter, only to be undertaken for good solid reasons of advantage: “who would not make her husband a cuckold, to make him a monarch?” (74–75) The other reason for a wife to be unfaithful is in reaction to the husband’s misbehavior or maltreatment: “But I do think it is their husbands’ faults / If wives do fall” (86–87).
Emilia’s speech at the end of Act IV on the faults of husbands neatly balances Iago’s speech in Act II on the faults of wives. Both speeches were heard by Desdemona, who dismisses them as not relating to her and her love.
Act Five. Scene One:
This scene is framed by Iago’s comments on the importance of this night. Before the action starts, he tells Roderigo: “It makes us or it mars us, think of that, / And fix most firm thy resolution” (4–50). To Roderigo, Iago is saying “Be brave, kill Cassio, and you will have Desdemona.” To himself, he is saying “Be brave, make sure Roderigo, Cassio, and Desdemona die, and you will have your revenge on Othello.”
Roderigo is still wavering, nursing his last flicker of moral sense: “Be near at hand, I may miscarry in’t” (6). The comfort of the coward is in belief that someone will protect him, but by agreeing to rely on Iago to make the decisions, Roderigo abdicates responsibility for his own actions and is led out to kill a man he doesn’t hate for a cause he no longer thinks can be won.
Iago wastes no emotion on the prospect of Roderigo’s death but acknowledges a certain satisfaction when he thinks of Cassio dead. There is the old fury of jealousy against Cassio who has the good opinions of every one, including Othello (until Iago’s duplicity, that is). The unfairness of Cassio’s happy life rankles Iago as evidenced in his first speech in Act I and continues to frustrate him now: “[I]f Cassio do remain, he has a daily beauty in his life, that makes me ugly” (18–20). Add this to the need to prevent Cassio talking with Othello, and his death will be Iago’s pleasure.
Sword fighting is a dangerous business, and certain conventions govern its honorable practice, but there is no honor in this ambush: Roderigo hides himself to strike Cassio; Cassio hits out in the dark in self-defense; and Iago, having promised to back up Roderigo, hunts him down and stabs him. To make an agreement to fight shoulder to shoulder with a comrade and then to step back and stab the man who relied on him is the worst thing a soldier can do. Having now betrayed a value in his profession, Iago exacerbates his infamy.
The cries of the dying men remind Othello of his resolution to kill Desdemona. Again he regrets what he knows he must do. He must force aside, with an iron will, his love for her: “forth of my heart those charms, thine eyes, are blotted, / Thy bed, lust-stain’d, shall with lust’s blood be spotted” (34–35). He must close her eyes, stop her looking at him, before he can kill her. Again he stamps out love with overdone violence, conjuring up the image of killing her in her bed, but this mental picture begins to resemble the red and white strawberry-spotted handkerchief, the picture that drives him to madness. The bed in his mind is stained with lust, that is Desdemona’s infidelities with Cassio, and will be spotted with “lust’s blood” when he kills her in revenge. In that instant, Othello pictures himself killing her with a sword, as Iago will kill Cassio with a sword. Othello will spill her blood on the white sheets, but this time the blood is not from the passion and lust of first love, but from the passion and lust of desperate murder.
The further Iago sinks into villainy, the more Emilia’s position has become equivocal. Put on the spot, she automatically backs up her husband, but the circumstances are more and more stretching her loyalty and producing an increasing tension based on her increased knowledge. Sooner or later, Emilia will tell what she knows. For all her words of scorn about husbands, Emilia automatically sides with her husband in what she must know is a scurrilous attack on another woman. She cries “fie upon thee, strumpet!” to which Bianca replies: “I am no strumpet, but of life as honest / As you, that thus abuse me” (120–123). In Bianca’s eyes this is true, as all she is doing is standing by her own man, as Emilia is doing with hers.
At this point, Iago feels a certain satisfaction. Roderigo is dead, his money and jewels now securely in Iago’s keeping, and no one else is aware of this. Cassio is badly wounded and believes he has been attacked by a gang of thieves. This, for Iago, is a less than perfect result, but Cassio might subsequently die of his injuries or be maimed and crippled, in which case his army career is over. But much is still left to be done before Iago can consider himself safe or triumphant. The night has yet to be accomplished. “This is the night that either makes me, or fordoes me quite” (127–128).
Desdemona is asleep in her bed as Othello enters, carrying a candle. He is no longer the angry, vengeful husband. His soliloquy is quiet, and he seems to be more an agent of justice than the jealous cuckold. He speaks repeatedly of “the cause … the cause” (1)—that is, Desdemona’s infidelity, and he even hesitates to speak aloud the name of Desdemona’s crime before the “chaste stars” (2). At last, Othello assumes the posture of the tragic hero, grossly wrong in his determination, yet steeling himself to do what he must. Here is what has become of the Othello of earlier acts—a man admirably self-possessed, the master of the situation. In this soliloquy, there are no references to strumpets or whores, nor to coupling goats or monkeys, nor to any other images which once racked him with jealousy. No longer is he possessed with revenge for his grievously injured pride. There remains, however, a passionate conviction of righteousness in his words—despite his monumental error.
He is convinced that he is being merciful in performing a deed that must be done. Thus he will not shed Desdemona’s blood (instead, he will smother her); nor will he scar her physical beauty; nor would he, as we learn later, kill her soul. Yet he will kill her; Desdemona must die, “else she'll betray more men” (6). And there is devastating irony as he says, “Put out the light, and then put out the light” (7); Desdemona was once the “light” of his life and, also, light is often equated in Elizabethan dramas with reason, especially right reason, the aim of all men. Here, however, Othello means to act righteously, but he fails to use his sense of logic or reason; he has condemned Desdemona without proof, without reason. He is torn between his love for her (evidenced by his kiss) and his resolve to accomplish justice. Desdemona is a “pattern of excelling nature” (11), yet she is also “cunning” (11). He compares her to a rose which, once plucked, can bloom no more and must wither. For a moment, his love for her almost persuades “justice” (meaning Othello) “to break [his] sword” (17). He weeps, but he regains his purpose; Desdemona’s beauty is deceptive, he realizes, because it masks her corruption.
When Othello’s words awaken Desdemona, she begins an agonizing attempt to reason with her husband. The Moor then urges her to pray for forgiveness of any sin within her soul, and she becomes increasingly terrified. This he mistakenly concludes to be additional evidence of her guilt. He is as convinced of this as she is convinced that Othello is absolutely serious about killing her. Logically, she knows that she should have no cause for fear—she has done no wrong—yet she fears her husband.
Othello is not moved in the least by her insistence that she did not give the handkerchief to Cassio. And it is notable throughout this harrowing episode that Othello’s language is controlled and elevated. As Desdemona cries out, first for heaven to have mercy on her and later for God Himself to have mercy on her, Othello voices a solemn “amen” to her prayers and addresses her as a “sweet soul” (50). Even now he refuses to see her as anything but a “perjur’d woman” (63) (a lying woman), one who forces him “to do / A murder” (64–65). At this moment, the motive of personal revenge surfaces again within him and replaces controlled justice. His resolve of self-control breaks when Desdemona calls out for Cassio; he is convinced that he indeed heard Cassio laughing about a sexual liaison with Desdemona. When Desdemona hears that Iago has killed Cassio, her self-control likewise vanishes. She pleads for her life, asking for banishment, asking for at least a day’s stay in her execution, at least half a day, but she is overpowered by the Moor. He smothers her as she begs to say one last prayer.
It is at this moment that Emilia arrives outside the door, crying loudly for Othello. The Moor does not answer immediately. From his words, we realize that he is convinced that he is being merciful, if cruel, and that he intends to be sure that his wife is dead. The monstrosity of what he has done overwhelms him. Significant are lines 100–102, in which he says that there should be now “a huge eclipse / Of sun and moon”—that is, some evidence in the heavens that should acknowledge that the natural order of things has been grossly upset, that Desdemona is dead.
Again, Emilia calls out to Othello and, on entering, she shrieks about “foul murders” (106). Othello fears she is right and blames the moon, which “makes men mad” (111). It is then that he learns that Cassio lives, and he hears Desdemona’s weak voice. Once more the young wife proclaims her innocence and insists that no one but herself is to blame. Indeed, she jeopardizes her very soul by deliberately lying in order to protect Othello, her husband, to whom she asks to be commended.
At first, Othello denies having any part in his wife’s death. But then he loudly denounces her as a “liar, gone to burning hell” (129), admitting that he killed her. “She turn’d to folly, and she was a whore” (132); “she was false as water … Cassio did top her” (134–136). His proof is “honest, honest Iago” (154). Without hesitation, Emilia denounces Iago as a liar and Othello as a deceived “dolt” (163). She defies Othello’s sword to right the injustice of this murder, vowing to “make thee known / Though I lost twenty lives” (165–166) and crying out for help, proclaiming that Othello has murdered Desdemona.
When Montano, Gratiano, and the others enter, Emilia challenges her husband to disprove what Othello has told her. In response to her pointed questions, Iago concedes that he did report that Desdemona was unfaithful, but that Othello himself found the same to be true. Summoning new courage, Emilia ignores her husband’s command to be quiet and go home. Imploring the others to hear her, she curses Iago and prophetically states that perhaps she will never go home (197). All this finally becomes unbearable for the Moor, and he falls upon his wife’s bed, only to be mocked by Emilia for his anguish. Gratiano then speaks and tells us that he finds comfort in the fact that Desdemona’s father is not alive to hear of this tragedy; already he is dead of grief because of Desdemona’s marrying the Moor.
Othello insists here that “Iago knows” (210) and, as further proof, he speaks of the handkerchief. At the mention of this, Emilia cries out again, this time appealing to God: No one will stop her now. She pays no attention to Iago’s drawn sword as she tells how she found the handkerchief and gave it to Iago; she repeats her claim, even though Iago denounces her as a “villainous whore” (229) and a “liar” (231).
Thus the full truth is unfolded for Othello. He dashes toward Iago, is disarmed by Montano, and in the confusion, Iago kills Emilia, then flees. All leave, except the dying Emilia and the Moor, who can only berate himself. Emilia, aware that she is near death, recalls Desdemona’s prophetic “Willow Song,” a bit of which she sings. She reaffirms the innocence of her mistress just before she dies and concludes: “She lov’d thee, cruel Moor” (249).
Othello finds one of his prized weapons, a Spanish sword, and he recalls that he used the sword boldly in the past. Now, however, he has come to his “journey’s end” (267). He sees himself as a lost soul—“where should Othello go?” (271). He is a “cursed slave” (276) who deserves the worst of punishment.
Lodovico, Montano, Iago (a prisoner now), and several officers enter; Cassio, in a chair, is brought in. The final moment of revelation is at hand. Othello lunges at Iago, wounds him, and is disarmed. Death is too good for Iago, he says; “’tis happiness to die” (290). Death is a relief he would not offer to his arch enemy. When Cassio states quietly that he never gave the Moor reason to distrust him, Othello readily accepts his word and asks for his pardon. Othello is freshly aware that he has been ensnared body and soul by “that demi-devil” (301) Iago, who refuses to confess his villainy. Lodovico then produces two letters found on Roderigo’s body: one tells of the plan to slay Cassio, and the other is Roderigo’s denunciation of Iago. The details of how Cassio obtained the handkerchief are revealed, and Othello bewails the fact that he has been a “fool! fool! fool!” (323).
Lodovico vows to punish Iago and tells Othello that he must return with him to Venice. Othello acknowledges the sentence, but before he is led away, he speaks his final lines. Unmistakably he has recovered his basic nobility and that gift of impressive language which he commanded so well prior to Iago’s temptation.
Othello reminds his listeners of his past service to the Venetian state and pleads that his story shall be reported accurately so that all will know him not as a barbarous foreigner but as one who “lov’d not wisely but too well” (334), as one who was preyed upon and became “perplex’d in the extreme” (346) and “threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe” (347–348). We should not overlook this simile; Othello compares himself to the “base Judean” who threw away the most valuable pearl in the world. Relentless in his self-reproach, Othello tacitly compares himself to “a malignant and a turban’d Turk” (353); then, finished, he stabs himself in an attempt to atone for all that has happened. He chooses to execute the necessary justice upon himself. As he is dying, he says that he kissed Desdemona before he killed her. This suggests that perhaps his love for her flickered briefly within his dark soul before he murdered her. He reminds himself that perhaps he was not wholly corrupt, but he dies knowing that his soul is lost.
Lodovico’s sad words end the tragedy. The sight of Othello, slumped
against Desdemona’s bed, “poisons sight” (364). He asks for the curtains
to be drawn, for Gratiano to administer the Moor’s estate, and for Iago
to be punished. He must return to Venice and “with heavy heart” (371) relate
“this heavy act” (371).