Cassio, commanding the night watch during the time of feasting and drinking, takes his orders from Othello, who directs the soldiers to drink with moderation and keep the peace. Cassio and Iago, his second in command, will see to this. Then Othello and Desdemona retire to bed, the first night they will spend together since their marriage.
Alone, Iago makes suggestive remarks about Desdemona to Cassio, which Cassio turns aside; then Iago invites him to drink. Cassio declines, but Iago wheedles and urges him, until Cassio finally relents. Iago spurs Roderigo into a fight with Cassio; others join in and Iago sends Roderigo to ring the alarm bell, waking Othello and bringing him and his armed men to the spot. Othello demands to know who started the fight, and feigning reluctance, Iago names Cassio. Othello relieves Cassio of his post on the spot. Then he and Desdemona return to bed.
Iago advises Cassio to ask Desdemona to speak on his behalf with her husband. Cassio agrees, and Iago uses his wife, Emilia, to arrange a private meeting between Cassio and Desdemona.
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.
cast (14) dismissed.
stoup (27) a two-quart tankard.
pottle-deep (51) to the bottom of the tankard.
canakin (66) a drinking pot.
swag-bellied (75) loose-bellied.
Almain (79) a German.
lown (88) a lout or rascal.
twiggen (143) wicker-covered.
mazzard (146) [Obsolete] the head.
propriety (167) proper order.
quarter (171) friendliness.
censure (184) judgment.
unlace (185) to undo.
entreats his pause (220) begs him to stop.
imposition (260) a quality imposed by others.
discourse fustian (272) to speak nonsense.
Hydra (298) the many-headed beast killed by Hercules.
probal (333) provable by.