Summary and Analysis
Act III: Scene 4
Desdemona sends for Cassio to tell him that she has spoken with Othello; she is also worried that she has lost her handkerchief. When Othello enters, he claims a headache and asks her for a handkerchief to bind his head, but he will have only the embroidered strawberry handkerchief. In vain, Desdemona tries to deflect his questions about the handkerchief, speaking again of Cassio. Othello walks out in fury.
Cassio gives Bianca Desdemona's handkerchief, which he found in his lodgings (Iago had placed it there) and asks her to make a copy of it for him, as he will have to return the original when he finds the owner. Bianca immediately recognizes it as belonging to a woman and berates Cassio for having another mistress.
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.
crusadoes (27) Portuguese gold coins.
heraldry (48) heraldic symbolism.
Egyptian (57) a Gypsy.
mummy (75) fluid drained from embalmed bodies.
blank (129) a target; bull's-eye.
unhatched practice (142) a budding plot.
puddled (144) muddied.
unhandsome warrior (152) unskilled soldier.
toy (157) a fancy or a trifle.
dial (176) a full twelve hours on the face of a clock.
continuate (179) uninterrupted.