Summary and Analysis
Cassio speaks to Desdemona, asking her to intercede with Othello on his behalf. Desdemona willingly agrees, knowing that Cassio is an old friend of Othello's. She promises to speak of him with her husband repeatedly until the quarrel is patched up and Cassio is recalled.
When Othello and Iago enter, Cassio, who is embarrassed because of his antics the previous night, embraces Desdemona and departs. Iago seizes the opportunity to make an undermining comment — "Ha, I like not that" — that rankles in Othello's mind. Desdemona speaks of Cassio, and Othello, to please her, agrees to see him, but he is distracted by his private thoughts.
In a conversation with Iago, in which Iago continues to imply that he knows something that he refuses to divulge, Othello denies that he would give himself over to jealousy. In his denial, he shows himself most vulnerable. He is consumed with doubt and suspicion. Othello voices his old fears that Brabantio was right, that it was unnatural for Desdemona to love him, that he was too horrible to be loved, and that it could not last. Iago leaves, and Othello contemplates his situation: He could be tricked, married to a woman who is already looking at other men, and he fears that he must wipe her out of his heart. He tries to tell himself that it is not true.
When Desdemona re-enters, Othello's aspect is changed; he watches her intently, looking for signs, and brushes away her handkerchief when she seeks to sooth him. They go in to dinner, and Emilia picks up the fallen handkerchief, one that her husband, Iago, often urged her to steal from Desdemona. Emilia decides to have a copy made to give to Iago, but he enters, sees the handkerchief, and snatches it from her.
When Othello enters, Iago sees that Othello cannot regain his peace of mind. His speech is fevered, sweeping and frantic; he believes that his wife has been unfaithful to him. Othello then turns on Iago with savage intensity and demands to see the proof of Desdemona's infidelity. Cornered, Iago produces the dream story: Cassio spoke in his sleep, embraced him, called him Desdemona, and cursed the Moor. Iago tells Othello that he has seen Cassio wipe his brow with a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries; Othello recognizes this handkerchief as the one he gave to Desdemona.
Othello dismisses love and calls for vengeance. Certainty has freed his mind from doubt and confusion. Now he swears action, and Iago swears to help him. Othello wants Cassio dead, Iago agrees to do it, and then Othello wonders how to kill 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).
One should never doubt that Iago will speak the "worst of thoughts" (132), although at first he does not answer directly. First, he speaks only the word "jealousy" aloud, fixing it in Othello's imagination; then, sanctimoniously, he warns his general against this evil, this "green ey'd monster" (166), and refers to the "wisdom" of Othello, implying that the general is not one to be trapped by his emotions. Filled with what appears to be moral fervor, Iago then proceeds to a glorification of reputation. One might profitably recall Iago's antithetical views on the same subject when he was talking with Cassio earlier. In Act II, Scene 3, Iago told Cassio that "reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving" (268-270). Here, Iago seemingly holds reputation in the highest esteem; it is the "jewel of [a man's] soul" ("who steals my purse steals trash . . . / But he that filches from me my good name / Robs me of that which not enriches him, / And makes me poor indeed") (156-161).
Othello hears, and his "O misery!" (171) tells us that already he has begun to suffer aching pangs of jealousy, even though he has vowed not to be of a jealous nature. He swears that he will "see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove" (190). And Iago approves of such a stance; he, of course, is in a position to let human nature run its course and "prove" what it wishes — irrationally. He knows that man, being human, is flawed and subject to fears and irrational suspicions. He then asks the Moor to use his "free and noble nature" (199) to determine for himself the truth of the behavior between Desdemona and Cassio. But he reminds Othello that Desdemona is a Venetian lady and "in Venice they [wives] do not let [even God] see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands" (202-203). In other words, the faithless wife is a well-known member of Venetian society.
Here the reader should recall Othello's words to the Duke of Venice; he confessed that he knew very little of the world except for that pertaining to warfare. Othello is a master of games on the battlefield, but he is innocent of social games. Iago also urges Othello to recall that Desdemona deceived her own father by marrying Othello. To Brabantio, Desdemona pretended to be afraid of Othello's dark looks; she pretended to shake and tremble at Othello's exotic demeanor, yet "she lov'd them [Othello's features] most" (207). The implication is clear; Iago does not have to state it: If Desdemona deceived her own flesh and blood, she might just as naturally deceive her husband.
The logic of these lines is forceful, and Iago is astute enough to pause now and then, begging his superior's forgiveness, and, at the same time, attributing his own frankness to his devotion and regard for Othello. When we hear the Moor say, "I am bound to thee for ever" (213), we feel that indeed he has been irrevocably trapped.
Before the two men part, Iago goes to further pains to make Othello believe in his honesty and also to insure that Othello's jealousy has been sufficiently inflamed. He must also measure how well he has succeeded thus far. Iago stresses that Cassio is his "worthy friend"; in other words, one does not lie about one's friends and, therefore, the Moor must not exaggerate in his imagination what he hears. Yet Iago is certain that Othello has already exaggerated to himself everything he has just heard. For that reason, Iago's remark to Othello that all this has "a little dash'd your spirits" (214) is a gross understatement. Othello is no longer as sure as he was of Desdemona's fidelity, for he ponders on the possibility of " . . . nature erring from itself — " (227). This thought is similar to his father-in-law's observation in Act I, Scene 3, when Brabantio spoke of "nature erring" — when Desdemona "unnaturally" chose Othello, a man not of her own race or culture. Othello turns and asks that Iago's wife, Emilia, watch Desdemona closely. Then he bids Iago farewell, painfully asking himself why he married at all; it is obvious to him that "this honest creature [Iago] doubtless / Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds" (242-243).
Now we hear Othello in a soliloquy (258-277), and the range of the imagery he uses underscores the appalling change in his character. There is only one thing now of which Othello is certain — the "exceeding honesty" of Iago. The Moor is obsessed with the need to prove or disprove Desdemona's fidelity. If he indeed finds her false, he'll "whistle her off and let her down the wind / To prey at fortune" (262-263) — that is, he will turn her out and make her shift for herself. And here he begins to look for reasons for her unfaithfulness. Convulsed with introspection, he curses his black skin and his lack of social graces and also the fact that he is "into the vale of years" (266) (he is much older than Desdemona) — all these things, he fears, could turn a woman from her husband's bed.
Othello's mental agony approaches the emotional climax of the play; here is the first turning point of the drama. Othello's mind and soul are torn with irrational images of Desdemona's infidelity and of his own unworthiness. Othello sees himself as an old man, an old cuckold, one who has treasured Desdemona blindly, beyond reason. Hours ago, he was filled with the spirit of a young bridegroom; now he is reduced to ignominy. Once he felt he was one of the "great ones" (273); now his pride in himself and in Desdemona's love for him is destroyed. Othello is ravaged by self-loathing, reduced to comparing himself to a dungeoned toad; he is cursed by a "destiny unshunnable" (275).
And yet, as Desdemona and Emilia enter, he is able to move from this state of abject hopelessness to a momentary appeal to heaven (278) when he declares that he will not believe that his wife is false to him. In his few words with Desdemona, he speaks faintly, pleading that he has a headache. When Desdemona offers to bind his aching head with her handkerchief, he declines because the handkerchief is too small. He pushes it from him and it falls unnoticed to the floor. This dropped, unnoticed handkerchief should not escape our notice. Desdemona carries it because she treasures it deeply. It was one of her first gifts from Othello, and he has asked her to keep it with her always, and she has; in fact, Emilia has seen Desdemona, on occasion, kiss the handkerchief and talk to it. Later, this handkerchief in Cassio's possession will be sufficient "proof" for Othello to abandon all faith in Desdemona.
Alone, Emilia picks up the handkerchief. She knows how deeply Desdemona treasures it, but she recalls that Iago has asked her many times to "steal" it. She is puzzled by his request, but now she has an opportunity to have the embroidery pattern copied, and she can give it to her whimsical husband. Here it is significant that twice Emilia uses the verb steal and also the verb filch when she refers to Iago's request (lines 293, 309, and 315).
Iago enters and, after a brief exchange with his wife, learns that she has the very handkerchief that he has longed for. He snatches it from her and refuses to tell her why he wants it. After Emilia leaves, he reveals the next step in his plan: he will go to Cassio's lodgings, leave the handkerchief there, and let Cassio find it. Cassio will keep it and then Othello will see it in the ex-lieutenant's possession. By this time, Othello's suspicions will be ripe with Iago's "poison" (325), for "trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ" (322-324). Othello will then conclude that Desdemona either gave the handkerchief to Cassio as a token of their love or left it at Cassio's lodgings after a rendezvous. In fact, a conclusion is hardly necessary; for a mind as inflamed with jealousy as Othello's, the handkerchief itself is metaphor enough. Even now Othello's blood "burn[s] like the mines of sulphur" (329). This suggestion of hellfire by Iago is a reflection of his own diabolical role in this villainy.
When Othello enters, it is evident to Iago, and to us, that he is a fallen man. Never more shall he find repose. Neither the opium of poppies nor the distillation of the mandrake root will help him find sleep. Momentarily, Othello seems to revive his senses, snarling at Iago's villainy and sending him away, then he slumps into despair. Iago's evil has "set [the Moor] on the rack" (335), and Othello wishes in vain that he had remained blind to his wife's alleged infidelity. In his imagination, he has seen "her stol'n hours of lust . . . [and tasted] Cassio's kisses on her lips" (338-341). He would have been happier, he cries, if his entire company of soldiers had "tasted her sweet body" (346) and he had remained ignorant of the entire episode. But now this mental torment of suspicion gnaws at him until he knows no peace.
The superb "farewell speech" that follows emphasizes how much Othello has lost — he, the model commander, the premier soldier — his "occupation's gone!" (357). Iago appears incredulous, and it is then that Othello turns on him with words that make Iago only too aware of the danger that faces him. At last Othello utters a true appraisal of Iago: "villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore" (359). But schemer that Iago is, he knows what must be done to protect himself; he must feign another vow of honesty and concern for Othello's welfare. The Moor, he says, has taught him a valuable lesson. "I'll love no friend, sith love breeds such offence" (380). Othello promptly concedes that Iago is honest, and the villain knows that for the time being he is safe. He turns to his general and fawns over his master's distress, noting that Othello is "eaten up with passion" (391).
In unusually coarse imagery, Iago then introduces the subject of what kind of evidence would resolve Othello's doubts. The bestial images that Iago conjures up reek of base sexuality, for now Iago no longer needs to rely on innuendo. Now he tells Othello a bold lie, claiming that he himself slept beside Cassio recently; kept awake by a raging toothache that night, Iago says that Cassio moaned in his sleep for "Sweet Desdemona" (419) and cautioned her to hide their love. Then Cassio seized Iago's hand, kissed him hard on the mouth, and threw his leg over Iago's thigh, kissing him all the while, and cursing fate, which "gave [Desdemona] to the Moor!" (421-26). This is Iago's "proof" that makes it perfectly clear to him that Cassio has had illicit relations with Desdemona.
Othello is beside himself. "O monstrous! monstrous!" (427) he cries. But again the ingenious Iago is quick to remind his master that, in reality, this was no more than Cassio's dream. Othello, however, thinks otherwise — as Iago was certain he would. In his rage, the Moor declares that he will tear Desdemona to pieces. Here, compare this madman, incensed by Iago's poison, with the noble Moor who, only a few hours ago, repeatedly demonstrated such complete command of himself.
Yet Iago must be sure that Othello is sufficiently mad; therefore, he makes reference to Desdemona's handkerchief with its intricate strawberry embroidery; Othello immediately remembers it as the very one he gave to his wife. Iago tells the Moor that only today he saw Cassio "wipe his beard" (439) with it. Othello is enraged to the point where he is convinced that absolutely all of his suspicions are true. "All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven. / 'Tis gone," he exclaims (445-446), and in highly rhetorical lines, he dwells upon "black vengeance" and "tyrannous hate" (446-449).
Iago urges Othello to be patient, arguing that he may change his mind, and there follows the well-known Pontic Sea (i.e., the Black Sea) simile, in which Othello compares his "bloody thoughts" (447) to the sea's compulsive current, one which never ebbs but keeps on its course until it reaches its destination, the junction of the Propontic and the Hellespont (453-460). In this simile, Othello stresses his high status (as we might expect a tragic hero to do), identifying himself with large and mighty elements of nature. Equally important, this simile makes clear the absoluteness in Othello's character; once he has decided which course to take, he cannot turn back, and this decision does much to make plausible the almost incredible actions that follow.
Othello solemnly vows to execute "a capable and wide revenge" (459), and then he kneels. He uses such words as heaven, reverence, and sacred, and it is as though he sees himself as a rightful scourge of evil, as executing public justice and not merely doing personal revenge. Iago bids the Moor not to rise yet, and he himself kneels and dedicates himself to "wrong'd Othello's service" (467). Then as both rise, Othello "greets" Iago's love and delegates a test of Iago's loyalty: See to it that Cassio is dead within three days. One cannot imagine more welcome words to Iago. As for Desdemona's fate, Othello says that he will withdraw and find "some swift means of death" (447). Othello's soul is so hopelessly ensnared in Iago's web of treachery that he proclaims Iago as his new lieutenant and states tragically, "I am your own for ever" (449).
By the end of Act III, Scene 3, Iago has secured a shaky dominance over Othello. He is within reach of his original objective of driving Othello to despair, but his victory is not secure, as Othello may yet think to blame Iago again for his suffering and turn against him. While Cassio and Desdemona live, Iago has gained only a little time in which to secure his position.
shrift (24) [Archaic] a confessional.
mamm'ring (70) hesitating.
poise (82) weight; grave importance.
conceit (115) a thought or fancy.
leet and law days (140) meetings of the court.
fineless (173) unlimited.
seel (210) to close.
vile success (222) evil consequences.
happily (238) [Archaic] haply, by chance.
hold her free (255) believe her to be guiltless.
haggard (255) a wild hawk.
jesses (261) straps for holding a hawk to the trainer's wrist.
napkin (287) a handkerchief.
mandragora (330) a soporific, or substance causing sleep.
Pioners (346) manual laborers doing the least desirable kinds of work.
mortal engines (355) deadly artillery.
bolster (399) lie together.
prime (403) lustful.