Othello, Act 4


Now to Act 4: My editor refers frequently to the differences between F and Q1 and Q2, and to the several textual cruces (cruxes?). Even where the text is clear, it can be difficult to understand the meaning, especially when Iago speaks.

Again, much of the act presents Othello and Iago on the stage together, at first alone (1-43, 59-92), then with Othello concealed (93-165), then alone again (166-209). That concentrates our attention, and builds the pressure on Othello. There’s nobody else on stage to engage him, distract him, or tell him he is wrong. Everything comes to him via Iago.

In 4.1 Iago, with apparent innocence, provokes Othello with his repeated questions. Later, Othello will take up the habit. My editor wonders why Iago brings up the handkerchief at 4.1.10, thinking that it’s unnecessarily risky (if it were to provoke Othello to challenge Cassio directly, and to have Cassio refute the charge). At 4.1.43 Othello falls, presumably in an epileptic fit. Did he really have one “yesterday,” as Iago says, and if so why did we not hear about it? Iago now has to manage two different gulls — three if we count Roderigo — and we see that he’s very good at it. Then Bianca arrives, unexpectedly, I think, and although she could prove another problem for Iago, he manages to use her too. So he’s both agile in his villainy, and lucky.

It’s quite shocking when Othello strikes Desdemona. This time somebody is there to see it, Lodovico, who thinks nobody will believe it. The emotional intensity in the play has been wrought to a very high pitch, and it’s only the beginning of Act 4. It stays intense right to the end of the play. The characters (and the audience) must be exhausted.

In 4.2 Othello gets a chance to question a third party, but he dismisses Emilia as a “simple bawd.” When Desdemona comes in, she kneels, recalling the joint kneeling of Othello and Iago earlier. When Othello goes off, he leaves Emilia and Desdemona together, but they are not together (and alone) for long (just 97-108), so there isn’t much chance for Emilia to say anything about the handkerchief. There’s a lot of coming and going in this scene. At one point (109-11) Desdemona is left alone on stage, and I suppose her three lines are not “addressed” to anybody. Maybe she is bewildered enough to talk to herself. When Iago returns with Emilia at 112 Emilia suspects “some eternal villain.” Why does she not suspect that the villain is her husband? My editor notes her “obtuseness.” Why does she not reveal or even feel any guilt about giving Iago the handkerchief? Why does she not even seem to remember it, or connect it with Othello’s rage?

When Desdemona appeals to “good Iago” at 150, there’s an extraordinary tension between what she thinks and what the audience knows. Somehow Iago wriggles out of trouble, and is suddenly confronted with another problem: Roderigo. But by quick thought and improvisation he wriggles out of that corner too. Can the audience prevent itself from feeling some guilty admiration for his mental agility and fertility?

In 4.3 Emilia has another scene alone with Desdemona, from 11 to 105, and here you would think she could do or say more on behalf of her mistress. But instead Emilia treats Othello as just another man, and reveals her own worldly cynicism, and flexible morality that accommodates a lot, including adultery. By contrast, Desdemona is never more pure and unworldly. (It’s quite odd that she notes, as she is being unpinned, that Lodovico is “a proper man.” Isn’t that the sort of thing that Emilia, with her worldly eye, is more likely to say? My editor thinks the speech has been misappropriated to Emilia.) Do we think Desdemona is beginning to go “mad” (like Ophelia) in this scene?


First a few comments on Act 4. 4.1.35-43 seems crucial as the point where Othello’s language simply breaks down and he’s spitting out words with little connection, especially “Pish, noses, ears, and lips. Is it possible? Confess! Handkerchief! Oh, Devil.” And then he “falls in a trance,” which must be something like an epileptic fit, as Iago says to Cassio. I think this must be a completion of his earlier farewell to everything he has known and explains why he becomes so single-minded and utterly cruel in his speech and action. He’s literally been driven crazy by Iago. Is Iago lying about an earlier fit, to “explain” it to Cassio? After this point, until the murder, Othello makes less and less sense. And he doesn’t even seem to notice or care about the handkerchief at 4.1.171.

Yes, the striking of Desdemona is shocking to the audience and to Lodovico. And Othello’s confrontation of Desdemona after this is perhaps the cruelest moment in the play; he has been driven utterly mad by Iago, and his questions and accusations of Desdemona indicate a complete breakdown and reversal of his character.

4.3 between Desdemona and Emilia, with the willow song, is a powerful and touching moment. I tend to think Emilia is initially teasing Desdemona with her seemingly cynical view of cheating wives, and Desdemona seems not to believe her. And it introduces a moment of general reality about the relations of men and women, even as Emilia admits that some women are driven to betrayal by the infidelity of men. What the dialogue emphasizes is the goodness and delicacy of Desdemona; she herself can hardly imagine the situation that has now consumed Othello’s mind.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell