Othello, Act 2


At the beginning of Act 2 it’s hard not to think of Verdi, who begins his opera with Othello’s arrival. Shakespeare stages the separate arrivals: first Cassio, next Iago and Desdemona, and finally Othello, all arriving in separate ships. This provides an opportunity for Iago and Emilia to talk. How should that scene be played? Do they tease each other in a good-natured way, or is there an edge in what they say? Probably the latter, given what Iago later tells us about his suspicions about his wife. (The scene also contrasts Cassio’s polite, smooth way with women and Iago’s bawdy manner.) A very strange exchange ensues, in which Desdemona and Iago seem to banter in a somewhat saucy way. Very inappropriately, so some critics have thought. Maybe, as Granville Barker suggests, Desdemona is covering up her anxiety about Othello’s safety by prompting Iago to chatter. A good actress could probably suggest both the brittle surface and the subterranean worry.

It soon appears that the Turks are no longer a threat, so the attention of the audience can be redirected from public business to private business. It would be quite a different play if Othello had to do battle with the Turks. “Our wars are over,” says Othello, but little does he know that a different kind of war is already underway, a domestic one. That makes the play somehow smaller and more contained than, say, Lear and 1 Henry 4, where there are both private concerns and public ones.

Iago’s plot seems to be to displace Cassio, and get the place — as lieutenant — that he thinks he deserves. But he wants more than that: ultimately he wants to displace Othello, or destroy him. His hatred of Othello doesn’t seem to be the “motiveless malignity” that Coleridge saw. It is given a rational basis: 1) he was passed over, and 2) he thinks it’s possible that he is being cuckolded, by Othello and even by Cassio.

The short scene in 2.3, the proclamation, sets up and makes possible what follows in 2.3: the call for sport, celebration, liberty, which leads to “a night of revels,” to the “flock of drunkards,” and to Cassio’s drunkenness. So it’s a little odd that Othello comes in and denounces the revelry. This is no time and place, he says, for “private and domestic quarrels.” This is “a town of war” — apparently forgetting that he already announced that “my wars are done.” Othello quickly demands an answer to what has happened. Cassio says at 180 that he “can’t speak.” Is that because he is hurt, or drunk, or mortified into silence? (He is “well enough now. . . recovered” just 70 lines later.) So Othello asks Iago, who smoothly implicates Cassio. Why doesn’t Othello then ask Cassio for his side of the story, before cashiering him? Is this a sign that Othello is credulous, that he makes a quick decision after hearing an accusation?

We get two more soliloquies from Iago before the scene is over. At 327 does he speak to the audience when he asks “what’s he then, that says I play the villain?” Or is he again talking to himself, turning things over in his mind? In the latter part of the speech he seems to stand outside himself, commenting on his actions (” . . . they do suggest at first with heavenly shows,/ As I do now.”) Would the Elizabethan audience think of the old Vice figure? In the short soliloquy at the end of the scene (371-78) it seems that he is thinking out loud: yes, this is what I’ll do, “I’ll set her on . . . ay, that’s the way.”


I don’t think we credit Othello’s rivals and Brabantio, but the build-up of negative characterizations, maybe especially the black magic, is striking, especially in view of Othello’s racial and outsider status. Then the calm demeanor and the cool authority meets that head-on.

I tend to think that Iago is milking Roderigo for whatever money he can get, and that the encouragement to put money in his purse is literal as well as possibly figurative. Since he’a both foolish and in love Roderigo is a perfect mark for Iago.

That banter between Desdemona and Iago (2.1), in which they engage in a kind of game of wit, does seem just be killing time as they wait. It ends with Iago describing the good woman, who could be Desdemona, but he’s unable to complete it, unable perhaps to admit it. So the one confrontation of evil with goodness in the play (I can’t think of another) ends with this standoff.

Not exactly Coleridge’s “motiveless malignity,” but I don’t think we really believe Iago’s motives, at least not the one that has him being cuckolded by Othello and Cassio; even he doesn’t really to believe that, but says he’ll act as if it’s true. As for being passed over for the lieutenancy, this seem a motive, but not sufficient for destroying his captain in the way he does. I tend to think of it as an irrational motive, something that gives a possible rationale, but rather a crazy one. The way he shares this with the audience does seem to link him with the morality Vice, but now made into something darkly recognizable, something inhumanly human. It will culminate of course when Othello looks down at his feet, but then concedes that hooves are just a fable. To argue with Coleridge, it might be something like a malignity that seeks a motive, a malignity that creates its own rationale.

I guess Othello does tend to forget his proclamation in favor of celebration, or at least that it may involve the guard as well, but do we have to assume that Iago’s plot to get Cassio to fall off the wagon was a matter of degree and Cassio’s place in charge of the guard? Poor guy. He didn’t want to drink, but people kept insisting, and Iago’s plan seems both clever and plausible. The fact that Cassio seems initially very drunk, then sobers up rather quickly, must be an element of the “double plot” or double time scheme that some critics found in the play some time ago. Othello doesn’t seem entirely sensible in cashiering Cassio immediately and without an explanation on Cassio’s part, but perhaps his idea of military discipline requires it. The drunken quarrel has apparently resulted in a major disturbance. And of course the plot requires it. Iago’s soliloquy, or maybe aside to the audience – “And what’s he then that says I play the villain” – does seem a nod to theatrical tradition at the same time he’s insisting on his psychological plausibility.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell