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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
ACT III, SCENE III (continued)
Like a vulture circling a dying animal, Iago stays close to Othello. Here he begins to nurture the seeds of doubt he planted earlier.
It's worth examining this part of the scene in some detail, because it's important to what follows and for our understanding of Othello's fate.
Iago asks Othello questions that seem innocent. Did Cassio know from the very beginning that Othello and Desdemona were in love? Othello replies that he did, that Cassio often delivered messages between the lovers. Othello wants to know why Iago would want to know such a thing. Iago tries to downplay his curiosity, but he's succeeded in arousing Othello's suspicions. Othello wonders if Iago has doubts about Cassio's honesty.
Othello insists on knowing what's on Iago's mind, but Iago stalls by echoing Othello's questions. We can imagine Othello's frustration. Slowly, he begins to lose his temper.
Othello is especially concerned because Iago's evasive tactics suggest that he's dishonest. But Othello believes Iago is honest, and starts to worry that Iago's hesitations hide something he should know.
If Iago were a fisherman and Othello a fish, Iago would be just about to hook Othello. But he decides to play with him a bit more. Iago says that Cassio seems honest, and men should be what they seem. (Another ironic statement from Iago!)
Iago continues to say that he's reluctant to speak badly of anyone, since no one's perfect. Besides, Iago says, it's often his nature to see flaws where they don't exist, so he may be exaggerating. (For once Iago tells the truth to someone, but it's a superficial truth that hides a deeper lie.) Iago also says he's afraid of hurting Cassio's reputation, which after all, is man's most prized possession:
But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed. Act III, Scene iii, lines 184-86 Remember what Iago said to Cassio on the same subject (Act II, Scene iii, lines 275-78)- that a reputation is easily won and easily lost. It's Iago's peculiar genius that he can say contradictory things to different people and convince them all of his sincerity!
We know that Othello is slow to anger, but Iago tests his patience to the breaking point by refusing to say directly what he thinks. When Othello insists that he'll find out what is on Iago's mind, Iago warns him of jealousy. "It's the green-eyed monster," he says, that delights in toying with whatever it has in its grasp. Iago seems to know jealousy intimately, and we've seen how he has been infected with it. Through Iago, Shakespeare may be airing his own views on jealousy. In this play, jealousy is a monster that affects many of the characters and brings about the ruin of those who fall into its grasp.
Othello swears he isn't jealous. He says he'd need to see proof of Desdemona's unfaithfulness before he would be jealous.
Iago's relieved. Since Othello is not the jealous type, he says, he can speak more frankly. Keep a cautious eye on Desdemona and Cassio, he advises. Watch them carefully, because Venetian women tend to cheat on their husbands, and Othello, as a foreigner, couldn't know this:
In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience Is not to leave't undone, but keep't unknown. Act III, Scene iii, lines 229-31
The fisherman has hooked the fish. But he makes doubly sure. Iago reminds Othello that Desdemona deceived her father into thinking she feared Othello. If she could fool Brabantio, who has known her for a long time, she could fool Othello, who has married her only recently. (Brabantio's words of warning have come back to haunt Othello.)
He also says that Desdemona's choice of Othello was "unnatural." Often Desdemona starts comparing Othello to men of her own age, country and complexion, says Iago, she may recognize her mistake and regret her choice.
In Shakespeare's plays, it's necessary to follow the rules of nature in order to achieve order and harmony. Othello is aware that many people consider his marriage unnatural.
Othello, reluctant to hear more, sends Iago away, and then wonders why he ever married. Othello worries that Iago knows more than he's saying.
Iago returns to give Othello advice: hold your temper. It's important to stay calm, says Iago. Iago suggests that Othello refuse to give Cassio his job back, just to see how hard Desdemona begs him for it. Alone again, Othello cuts a sad figure. He wonders if he's lost Desdemona because he's nonwhite, old, and different from the graceful, handsome men she is used to. If she has been unfaithful, he vows, he'll be rid of her. But then Desdemona enters with Emilia, and he says:
If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself! I'll not believe 't. Act III, Scene iii, lines 313-14