Othello questions Emilia about Desdemona, but she assures him that nothing immodest has taken place between her mistress and Cassio. Othello, rather than abandon his suspicions, believes Desdemona is so cunning that she has managed to deceive even her maid. Othello speaks with Desdemona in private, threatening to banish her and calling her "whore" and "strumpet" — charges that she immediately denies.
Emilia comes in, and Othello leaves. Exhausted, Desdemona knows that she is being punished, but she does not know what for. Emilia suspects that some villain has turned Othello against his wife and stirred up his jealousy. When Desdemona asks Iago's advice, he says that it is only the business of the state that makes Othello angry.
Later, in a conversation with Iago, Roderigo confesses that he has had enough of his romantic quest and plans to withdraw. Iago makes a bold move, linking his two plots together: He urges Roderigo to kill Cassio, explaining that Cassio's death will prevent Othello being sent elsewhere and, therefore, keep Desdemona in Cyprus. Roderigo allows himself to be persuaded.
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.
being … heaven (36) looking like an angel.
shambles (66) a slaughterhouse.
winks (66) shuts her eyes.
go by water (104) be rendered by tears.
small'st opinion (109) least suspicion.
callet (121) a whore, or prostitute.
cogging, cozening (132) lying, cheating.
votarist (188) a nun.
fopped (194) duped; deceived.