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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
ACT III, SCENE IV
Desdemona sends word to Cassio through the clown that she has convinced Othello to see him. The clown continues his wordplay. This time, it's about 'lying"- meaning both 'lying down" and "not telling the truth."
Desdemona discovers that her handkerchief is gone. It's precious to her since it was Othello's first gift to her. She's sorry to have lost it, but is consoled that Othello, not being the jealous type, won't be angry at her. "Is he not jealous?" Emilia asks, and Desdemona replies,
Who? he? I think the sun where he was born Drew all such humors from him. Act III, Scene iv, lines 30-31
The Elizabethans believed that the body was made up of four elements or humors that controlled emotions and personality. Desdemona is saying that Othello seems to have had the element that creates jealousy drawn from his body by the sun of his native land.
What a change we see in Othello when he comes in! He's not the gracious, loving husband of Act II. He makes crude hints about Desdemona's sexual temperament. She, in her innocence, doesn't understand them.
Othello begins to play with her as Iago played with him, asking her to lend him the handkerchief he knows she doesn't have. If only he would confront her with his suspicions!
Desdemona, seeing that Othello is behaving oddly about the handkerchief, thinks it's safer to lie. His story about the handkerchief's magical powers (which he may have invented to disturb her) makes her say that she has the handkerchief. Her lie is a fatal mistake. It convinces Othello that she's guilty. We can hardly bear to see her make this mistake, a white lie that comes from kindness, nothing more. She doesn't want to upset her husband needlessly by admitting she has lost it.
Unable to understand his behavior, Desdemona wonders if Othello is using the handkerchief as an excuse to keep her from executing her promise to Cassio. The mention of the man's name makes Othello more determined than ever to see the handkerchief, and the two argue back and forth about their separate requests. Finally, Othello leaves in anger.
Is this the man who is never jealous, Emilia wonders. Desdemona is bewildered-she's never seen her husband like this.
Cassio, having received Desdemona's message, comes in with Iago, who still insists that the only way he'll get his job back is through Desdemona. However, Desdemona isn't sure that this is a good time to press Othello about anything. He's in a very strange mood. Yet, as a good friend, she'll try to do whatever she can.
Iago can hardly believe Othello is angry. He has seen him calm in the midst of battle. It must be something very important to set his temper flaring. He goes off to see how he can "help" his friend. Desdemona is certain she has given Othello no cause to be jealous. But Emilia says:
But jealous souls will not be answered so. They are not ever jealous for the cause, But jealous for they are jealous. 'Tis a monster Begot upon itself, born of itself. Act III, Scene iv, lines 177-80
In calling jealousy a "monster," Emilia sounds very much like Iago. She probably has first-hand experience with the deadly emotion as Iago's wife, but doesn't know the monster has her husband in its power.
Promising Cassio that she'll try again to talk to Othello about his dilemma, Desdemona and Emilia go into the castle.
Bianca, a loose woman-about-town and Cassio's mistress, finds him in front of the castle and wonders why he's stayed away from her for so long. (Another example of "long time"- Cassio just arrived yesterday by the short clock.)
Cassio promises to make up for his absence, but asks a favor of her. He gives her the handkerchief he found in his room (planted there, of course, by Iago) and asks her to have it copied for him before it's claimed by its owner, whoever that might be.
Bianca is jealous, suspecting that it belongs to another woman in his life, but she agrees. Cassio sends her away quickly. It wouldn't look right for Othello to see him with a woman, particularly one of Bianca's class.
As the act ends, we wonder what will happen as a result of Iago's manipulations. Iago's like a man building a house of cards, carefully resting one lie against another. He must work quickly. Any one person could destroy his work. If Emilia tells the truth about the handkerchief, if Othello confronts Cassio about what Iago has said, or if Desdemona discovers why Othello is angry, Iago's flimsy structure could fall, and he would be destroyed.
The theme of jealousy, which has been woven subtly throughout the play, now emerges as a powerful force. We have seen Iago jealous of Cassio because of the lieutenantship and the possibility of an affair with Emilia, and jealous of Othello because of a rumor that he, too, has slept with Emilia. Roderigo, because of his love for Desdemona, is jealous of Othello. Emilia seems to know a great deal about the subject, and Bianca suspects Cassio of seeing another woman.
When Iago weaves his spell over Othello, the theme begins to dominate the play. Jealous of Othello for what he is, what he has accomplished, and because of Desdemona, Iago sets out to destroy him. In order to do so, he plays upon the emotion he knows best-jealousy. He arouses such intense sexual jealousy in Othello (by making Cassio seem superior to Othello in almost every way) that Othello is ready to kill the person he loves most. It's no wonder that Shakespeare calls jealousy a monster-twice-in this play.