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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
ACT IV, SCENE I
Iago must keep Othello's temper hot and make sure he doesn't run into Cassio.
Sadistically, Iago continues to poison Othello's thoughts. He paints vivid pictures of Desdemona and Cassio in bed together, all the while pretending to comfort his friend. When Othello begins to waver slightly in his belief that Desdemona has been unfaithful, Iago pulls out another lie. He says that Cassio has confessed to him that he has slept with Desdemona.
This is the final blow, the worst indignity. Othello is so overwhelmed he faints.
Cassio enters. He wants to help Othello, but Iago sends him away. Othello is having a mild epileptic fit, he says, and needs to be left alone. It's happened before, Iago assures him, and is nothing to worry about. Fortunately for Iago, Cassio follows his advice. If Othello were to suddenly revive, he would undoubtedly confront Cassio with his suspicions.
When Othello regains consciousness, Iago tells him that Cassio was just there, and will return soon. Iago suggests that Othello hide while he talks to Cassio, so that he hears how Cassio talks about Desdemona when he's alone with Iago.
Of course, it's a trick. Iago gets Cassio to talk about Bianca-how she loves him, chases him, makes a spectacle of herself. Othello listens from his hiding place, his anger growing with every word.
Bianca herself shows up. She's decided that Cassio can't be telling the truth about the handkerchief, that he happened to find it in his bedroom. Angrily, she returns it to him. Cassio runs after her.
Othello has watched Bianca give Desdemona's handkerchief to Cassio, and Iago makes full use of the incident. See, he tells Othello, Cassio jokes about Desdemona in public and even gives her handkerchief to his whore!
"How shall I murder him, Iago?" Othello asks. He wants to kill Cassio more than ever, but can't shake Desdemona's gentleness and beauty from his mind:
Ay, let her rot and perish, and be damned tonight, for she shall not live. No, my heart is turned to stone: I strike it and it hurts my hand. O, the world hath not a sweeter creature! She might lie by an emperor's side and command him tasks. Act IV, Scene i, lines 196-200 Have you ever loved and hated someone at once? The line between the two emotions is often very thin. It's unlikely that you've ever plotted a murder, but you can share some of Othello's frustration at feeling two emotions at once, and not knowing which is truer.
Othello's hatred wins out. He first asks Iago for poison to kill Desdemona, but Iago recommends strangling her in the bed in which she cheated on him.
It's not clear why Iago argues against poison. Some readers feel that Iago was afraid he couldn't get the poison quickly, and wants the murder accomplished soon. Others feel he's just afraid that Othello, in his crazed state, would bungle giving Desdemona poison. Strangling her is quicker and cleaner.
Visitors from Venice have just arrived, including Lodovico, a relative of Brabantio. He's brought Othello a letter that tells him the Senate wants him back in Venice. Othello's work in Cyprus is complete, and Cassio will take over the command.
Desdemona is pleased with the news. Perhaps she thinks their return to Venice will help Othello get over whatever is bothering him. But Othello, in his paranoid confusion, misunderstands her happiness. He thinks she's expressing joy for Cassio. In his fury, he calls her "devil" and hits her in front of their guests!
It's been pointed out by some readers that Desdemona always seems to make the wrong step at critical moments. When she should admit losing the handkerchief, she lies and says she has it; when she tries to be cheerful about Othello's news, there's something ambiguous in her reaction and he thinks she's happy for Cassio.
Shakespeare doesn't make Desdemona a bumbler or a fool; far from it. Her mistakes are made out of innocence, and she holds on to her dignity no matter how badly she's treated. What could be more humiliating than being hit in front of others by someone you love? But Desdemona doesn't even raise her voice. And when Othello insults her further, she leaves quietly.
Look how far Othello's come from the good-hearted and loving man we saw earlier in the play! Lodovico speaks for us when he says,
Is this the noble whom our full Senate Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature Whom passion could not shake? Act IV, Scene i, lines 290-92 Iago's reply is a masterpiece of understatement: "He is much changed." Iago must be incredibly pleased. He succeeded in bringing Othello down to his own level. More and more, Othello is adopting Iago's behavior: he's crude, suspicious, insensitive to his wife, sneaky, and cynical; he's even reduced to eavesdropping in the shadows. The change in Othello must give Iago a great sense of power.
Readers have pointed out that Shakespeare has shown Othello's corruption in a particularly interesting way. in the first three acts, Iago uses a lot of animal images in his speeches. He mentions flies, rams, baboons, wild-cats, goats, monkeys, and wolves, to name a few. Othello uses no animal images until Acts IV and V, when the control Iago has over him is complete. The poetry that wooed Desdemona is gone, replaced by speeches that refer to wild animals.
For one example, look at Act III, Scene iii, line 453. Describing Cassio and Desdemona's passion, Iago calls them "prime as goats, as hot as monkeys." By Act IV, Scene i, after Othello has hit Desdemona, he leaves Lodovico saying, "Goats and monkeys!" (line 289) His mind is on Desdemona's adultery, and he's thinking in Iago's terms.
Lodovico discusses Othello with Iago, but Iago doesn't offer any explanations of the Moor's behavior. He simply advises Lodovico to watch Othello and see for himself. Lodovico begins to feel that Othello might well be the barbarian Brabantio feared.