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ACT III, SCENE III (continued)

LINES 315-37

Desdemona is concerned when she sees Othello's upset, but Othello tries to pass off his sadness as a headache. When Desdemona tries to tie a handkerchief around his head (an old remedy for a headache), he impatiently pushes her hand away, and the handkerchief falls. Unaware that the handkerchief's on the ground, Othello and Desdemona leave.

Emilia stays behind and picks up the handkerchief. She knows that it was Othello's first gift to Desdemona, and says that for some reason Iago has often urged her to steal it for him. She decides instead to have the handkerchief copied and give the copy to her husband. But Iago appears, grabs the handkerchief, and orders her to keep quiet about it.


Why isn't Emilia curious about Iago's interest in the handkerchief? Maybe, like many women of her time, she's used to obeying her husband without question. As we shall see, Emilia has no idea of Iago's true nature; she might reason that letting him have the handkerchief without Desdemona's knowing is a small price for a few minutes of domestic peace.

For Iago, getting the handkerchief is his greatest piece of luck so far. He says he'll plant it in Cassio's room and let the lieutenant find it. If Othello sees Cassio with the handkerchief, it will be the concrete proof Othello's asked for. Iago is certain he's already poisoned Othello with his lies.

And Iago is right. Othello's a tortured man. He says he's rather know the truth than suffer the anguish of ignorance. Shakespeare shows the suffering caused by an inability to tell truth from fiction, appearance from reality. Is Desdemona innocent or guilty? Is Iago telling the truth or lying? If you've ever doubted the honesty of a friend or someone you loved, you can understand Othello's confusion and unhappiness.

"Reluctantly," under the pretext of relieving Othello's mind, Iago admits he has proof. (He's now ready to reel in the "fish" after toying with him for so long.) Iago says he shared a bed with Cassio a few nights ago (not unusual for two soldiers on duty). During the night, Iago says, Cassio tossed and turned, cried out in his sleep for Desdemona, cursed his luck that she was married to the Moor, talked of their adulterous affair-and even kissed Iago, thinking he was Desdemona!

Othello is close to his boiling point, and Iago is ready with his most potent piece of evidence: he has seen Cassio wipe his beard with the handkerchief Othello gave to Desdemona.

Othello is now convinced:

Now I do see 'tis true. Look here, Iago: All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven. 'Tis gone. Act III, Scene iii, lines 497-99

With this conviction comes a need for vengeance, "black vengeance from the hollow hell!"

Iago tries to calm him by saying that perhaps his mind will change, but we have seen (in Act II, Scene iii, lines 207-12) that Othello is unmovable once his passions are stirred. Now he says:

Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace, Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love, Till that a capable and wide revenge Swallow them up. Act III, Scene iii, lines 511-14 Othello kneels to swear vengeance against his wife. Iago kneels as well to promise his help. Othello holds Iago to his promise by asking him to kill Cassio. Iago agrees, but suggests that Othello let Desdemona live. Othello refuses; he goes off to think of a quick way to kill her.

By the end of the scene, Iago has got what he wanted-Othello's degradation. The great general has sunk to Iago's level. Othello's as much a scheming, jealous animal as Iago. Both are in the clutches of the "green-eyed monster." The moment we see Othello giving in to his own worst fears, fed by Iago's ugly lies, tragedy is inevitable.


You may be asking a number of questions about the logic of this play. If so, you're not alone. Why doesn't Othello realize that Cassio and Desdemona have had no time to sleep together? He knows they arrived on separate ships and that he, Othello, has been with Desdemona since he arrived in Cyprus. Also, when did Iago have a chance to share a bed with Cassio? The two soldiers were up the night before, all night, when the fight with Roderigo took place and Cassio lost his job.

There are two explanations for Othello's illogical thinking:

1. We know that Othello, once angered, lets his fury override his reason. In short, he can't think clearly once he suspects Desdemona of adultery and his confusion leads in part to his tragedy.

2. Shakespeare uses what is known as "double time. " Even though the action on Cyprus lasts only 36 hours, there are references in the play to suggest that a much longer time has passed. For example, in Act III, Scene iii, Othello says of Desdemona: "What sense had I of her stolen hours of lust?" When has Desdemona had time for "stolen hours" since yesterday? Also, Emilia says that Iago has asked her "a hundred times" to steal Desdemona's handkerchief. How is that possible, when Iago has just invented the handkerchief idea as a means of proving Desdemona's unfaithfulness?

Shakespeare has used the dramatist's freedom to play with time as he sees fit. "Double time" means that he has used two different clocks to measure the action on stage. To give a sense of a few days or weeks passing, he has characters refer to events that happened in Cyprus days before. This is called "long time."

To heighten the excitement of the play, he has used "short time," compressing everything into thirty-six hours. The play's believability depends on our accepting that everything is happening quickly. We have to believe that Othello wouldn't run into Cassio by chance and confront him with his suspicions. His decision to kill Desdemona must come soon after he's convinced of her adultery. If it takes any longer, it's not credible.

The result of this "double time" is a thrilling and contradictory play. Anyone reading Othello carefully will notice these lapses of logic. But as a master playwright, Shakespeare makes sure that an audience watching the play becomes so involved in the mounting excitement of the plot that these problems of time are unimportant.

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