Othello, Act 3


Act III seems the long and decisive heart of the play, especially the 480-line scene 3. The clown and his verbal quibbles are the only comedy — and it’s pretty thin comedy — in the play, so I assume the first part of 3.1 was to employ that member of the cast. The initial dialogue between Othello and Desdemona sets up the latter end of the scene, when Iago has planted the handkerchief. And Othello’s exclamation — “Excellent wretch . . .” – serves as a forecast of what’s coming. And what’s coming must be one of the most psychologically wrought scenes in all of the plays. That wonderful moment just before the middle, when Desdemona and Emilia enter and Othello says, “Look where she comes,/ If she be false, O then heaven mocks itself,/ I’ll not believe it” –  has visual stage appearance and theatrical language clash significantly. But Othello, feigning cuckold horns, creates his own destruction when he knocks the handkerchief away. My Arden stage direction supplies “She drops her handkerchief.” But I see this rather as a violent sort of gesture on his part. If she just drops it, it’s an accident. If he knocks it aside, it’s his act. If he had responded to her physical presence, he would not have pretended cuckold horns, would not have damned himself in pushing her and the handkerchief aside.

Clearly this is the turning point of the scene when we learn what Iago is going to do with the handkerchief. It also represents the turn in Othello’s mind to an imagination of monstrous proportions and a total loss of his selfhood in the “Farewell” speech. When Othello kneels at his “O Blood, blood, blood” we get a kind of anti-religious rite. (I recall Olivier’s mad – if racist — return to a barbarian past as he rolled his eyes crazily upward – this in 1965, I think, and some Othellos have portrayed a fit.) But the language in the imagination of the Pontic, Propontic, and Hellespontic seas suggest something of a return to, or maybe a perversion of, his earlier control of language. When Iago also kneels, also a direction in the actual text, it looks like the continuation of the irreligious rite as the two swear their allegiance. This seems to me a potent transformation of the earlier, naive theatrical tradition into something quite terrifyingly psychological.

 3.4 gives a bit more work to the company’s clown, easily cut in modern performance, then the working out of the handkerchief business. Othello’s account of the handkerchief could be his construction, the Egyptian, the 200-year-old sybil, the “magic in the web of it,” the magic worms, the maiden mummy dye — all quite dark and exotic. But his prediction of its loss will be borne out by the end.

Cassio and his suit come back at just the wrong time. Iago refers to Othello’s brother, after we’ve just heard about his father and mother, “puffed” by a cannon’s blast, an unusual usage and not, in my shorter OED, given as a usage; must look up the word in the actual OED. At the very end of the act, Bianca, Cassio’s girlfriend, comes in with her suspicions about the handkerchief.


Further thoughts on Act 2:

I now think you are right about Iago milking Roderigo for money. That’s clear in 4. 2, when Roderigo complains that he has not got any return on the jewels he gave Iago to give to Desdemona.

The banter between Desdemona and Iago in 2.1 seems more than killing time. Maybe it’s a sign of Desdemona’s pure innocence and naivete, undefiled by Iago’s bawdy. But it is still odd that Desdemona, while waiting for Othello’s arrival and worried about him, would be relaxed enough and worldly enough to engage in that kind of banter. That’s why I like the idea that she is nervous and trying not to think about Othello’s safety. An actress could convey that if only by repeatedly glancing seaward while she chats with Iago.

I think you are right that Iago does not really believe that Othello is cuckolding him, but is ready and willing to use anything he can find to destroy his enemies. But I do think he is really pissed off that he was passed over for the job, and that Cassiio — not a real soldier — got it.

Further thoughts on Act. 3:

I’d like to think there is another reason besides making use of a comic actor for Shakespeare to include a few lines of thin comedy at the beginning of  3.1 and again in 3.4. But I can’t think of a good one. I’d guess that modern directors cut these lines. Interesting that Cassio is said to be a Florentine (line 40). He is later called a Roman (4. 1. 118). Maybe the main point is that he is not a typical Venetian, who is more “cunning” (nb. Othello calls Desdemona a “cunning whore of Venice” at 4. 2. 91). Like Othello, Cassio thinks Iago is notably “honest.” How did Iago acquire that reputation?

Yes, Act 3 is remarkably long. What’s really remarkable is that so much of it is taken up with dialogue between Othello and Iago. The first “temptation scene”  is 170 lines. Is there a longer scene involving only two characters in all of Shakespeare? And then they are alone together for another 50 lines (339-386). Initially Othello seems to be of two minds: on the one hand “to be once in doubt,/ Is once to be resolved.” That is, once you have any doubts, act quickly and decisively to resolve the matter. On the other: “I’ll see before I doubt, when I doubt, prove.” That suggests that you take things one step at a time, and make sure you have proof before you decide. We see the same split later when he demands “ocular proof” but seems to have decided on Desdemona’s guilt already. The proof would just confirm his decision. He doesn’t see the handkerchief until 4.1.155, and then only by chance. By then he has already convinced himself.

On the dropping of the handkerchief: I take your point that it would make good stage sense for Othello to knock it out of her hands, but the text seems against that. At 3.4.19 she says that she “lost” it and doesn’t know where. Emilia witnessed the fall of the handkerchief, and doesn’t say anything about Othello’s action either at the time or later. At 3.3.315 she says Desdemona “let it drop by negligence” and “will run mad” when she realizes that she doesn’t have it. (It’s possible that she is lying to Iago.)

Iago’s soliloquy at 3.3.326-38 is another case of Iago talking to himself (although it could be directed as an aside to the audience). My editor thinks the wonderful lines about the “drowsy syrups of the world” seem incongruous in Iago’s mouth and present a problem for the actor. But I don’t think the actor’s choices are either “malignant and almost snarling triumph” or “rounded poetry.”

Othello’s big speech — not big-long but big-major-utterance — at 3.3.354-63 is odd. Yes, because he now thinks he knows the ugly truth about Desdemona, he says farewell to “the tranquil mind” and “content.” But why should he press on immediately to say farewell to the warrior’s life, to his “occupation”?

When Iago reports that he has slept with Cassio who talked in his sleep and threw his leg over Iago’s body, what are we to think? It’s pure invention, and isn’t it so unlikely that even credulous Othello would not believe it?

Emilia is a crucial character, and I’m not sure I have a clear idea of  her. I think she genuinely loves Desdemona and wants to serve her faithfully. She seems attracted to Iago, maybe against her will or better judgement, but is a little suspicious of him. When it’s clear to her that Desdemona is “most unhappy” at the loss of the handkerchief, and that this is connected with Othello’s jealousy, why does Emilia not tell her that she gave it to Iago?

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell