Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
Act III, Scene 3
Cassio and Desdemona are alone together in the garden of the castle. He begs her to plead his cause with Othello. She assures him that she will do her best. Just then he sees Othello and Iago coming. He slips away as he does not want to face the general after his disgrace. Seeing him depart secretly, Iago tries to arouse suspicions in the mind of Othello
Desdemona pleads for Cassio with her husband. She says that drinking is not a serious offense, and, "He erred only in ignorance and not in cunning." When Othello hesitates, she says that she is only begging him to recall Cassio for his own good. Her insistence in the matter irritates Othello. He, however, assures her that he will deny her nothing and then politely begs her to leave him alone for the time being.
As soon as Desdemona leaves, Iago asks in troubled and affectionate tones if Cassio knew her before her marriage. Othello says that he did and, in fact, acted as a go-between. Iago pretends to be even more troubled, giving an impression of a reluctant friend hesitating to disclose information. He then regretfully and hesitatingly admits to Othello that he suspects that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. He adds that it is only his great love for Othello that makes him reveal such a thing. Iago further tells Othello there is no logic in Desdemona loving a Moor, older than herself, when a young, handsome gallant like Cassio is available to her. Iago then points out that she is capable of deceit, for "she did deceive her father in marrying you". Othello really knows very little about his beautiful, young wife. He only knows that he loves her helplessly, intensely, and passionately. Therefore, Iago’s words fill him with terror.
Desdemona enters to remind her husband that it is time for dinner. Othello is very upset and not behaving in his usual manner. Desdemona is troubled about her husband’s behavior and asks, "Are you not well?" Othello says that he has a headache, so she stokes his brow with her handkerchief. He pushes her hand away, and the strawberry-embroidered handkerchief falls to the ground. Desdemona, worried about her husband, does not even notice the handkerchief, which has been a present from Othello; she has kept it with her always as a reminder of his love. When Emilia finds it on the floor, she picks it up and gives it to Iago. Iago plans to plant it somewhere in Cassio’s lodging, where the young man is sure to find it.
The troubled Othello enters. He is not sure that Desdemona is faithless and wants proof. Iago steps in to supply it. He tells Othello that he has heard Cassio talking in his sleep, repeating a love scene with Desdemona. He also tells him that he has seen Cassio wiping his face with a strawberry handkerchief that he thinks belongs to Desdemona. Iago’s monstrous fabrication seems to Othello more real than reality itself. He is enraged and curses his beloved: "Damn her... O damn her".
Iago swears to help the wronged husband completely, even if it means Cassio’s death. Othello, in turn, gives him the coveted promotion by saying, "Now art thou my lieutenant".
This very long scene is mainly a long study in temptation and damnation. It covers perhaps the widest range of feelings in all of Shakespeare, from happiness, innocence, and trust to torment and revenge. It begins with Desdemona’s well meaning assurances to Cassio and ends with Othello’s determination to swiftly kill "the fair devil". It is the most important scene in the play, for it brings out the jealousy, the fatal flaw, of Othello, which will lead to his undoing and the tragic end of the play. The masterful "temptation scene" is also one of the most well known scenes in all of drama.
The scene is divided into six parts. The first is a lovely garden scene between Desdemona and Cassio, with Emilia in the background, and is characterized by openness and innocence. Cassio has come to beg Desdemona to plead his cause with her husband, and the kind Desdemona readily agrees to do what she can for Cassio. She vows that she will quickly discuss the matter with her husband and reassures Cassio that he need not worry about her reliability, for she never breaks a vow of friendship. She would "rather die than give his cause away." Ironically, both Desdemona and Emilia comment on the honest and noble nature of Iago. In truth, the meeting in the garden gives the wily Iago the perfect opportunity to plant a seed of doubt in the mind of Othello. When Iago sees Cassio steal away, so he will not have to face Othello after his demotion, Iago says, "Ha I like not that."
The second sub-scene is Desdemona’s pleading with Othello for Cassio. His mind is full of military matters, and he does not have time for his wife’s pleadings. He grows impatient with her continued, naïve insistence and sends her away, but not until after he says he will do whatever she wants, but in his own time. Desdemona, therefore, succeeds in obliging Cassio’s request, but in the process, she innocently falls into the evil trap being set by Iago.
The third sub-scene brings Iago to Othello, and he continues to make his wretched insinuations. He reminds the general how Cassio has slipped away from Desdemona as they approached; he also reminds Othello how Cassio has appeared to play a part in Othello’s wooing of Desdemona, giving the two of them time together. Othello is forced to listen to this evil man, for he has a reputation for he is "full of love and honesty." After some general remarks on "good name", "jealousy", and the sophistication of Venetian women, Iago refers to Desdemona’s deception of her own father, implying she is also capable of deceiving a husband. Iago succeeds in raising Othello’s jealousy, which Iago appropriately calls "the green-eyed monster." Othello thanks the wretched man and says, "I am bound to thee forever."
In the fourth part of the scene, Othello is at first alone, delivering a soliloquy. He states his trust in the "exceeding honesty" of Iago and his appreciation for his revelations. He then discusses his need for proof about his wife; he does not want to believe her infidelity is true, but he will accept it if there is proof. Thirdly, he chastises himself for his black skin, his lack of social knowledge, and his advanced years; he feels it is these things that have turned his wife against him. This is a total contrast to the proud and self-confident general that has been seen throughout the play. When Desdemona returns to her husband, her beauty immediately softens his heart, but he is still out of sorts. Desdemona notices that he is not himself and innocently asks what is wrong. He complains of a pain in his head, so she strokes his brow with her handkerchief. Othello, however, cannot relax and pushes her hand away, causing the fateful handkerchief to drop.
In the fifth episode, Iago takes the handkerchief from Emilia, who seems to be completely dominated by her husband. Iago knows that he can use the handkerchief as proof against Desdemona and Cassio. In fact, he has wooed his wife "a hundred times" to steal it from her mistress, for he can "plant" the handkerchief on Cassio as proof of the affair. It is to be noted that the innocent Emilia neither knows nor cares why Iago has an interest in the handkerchief.
In the last and sixth sub-scene, a totally distraught Othello returns; it is obvious that he has succumbed to Iago’s machinations and is a jealous, "fallen" man. All he needs now is proof; Iago is eager to oblige. He wickedly and basely describes Cassio’s dream of Desdemona, which is totally invented by Iago. But Othello accepts it as the proof he needs and cries, "O monstrous! monstrous.!" Like a raging maniac, he declares he will destroy his wife. Iago is still worried that Othello may relent, so he manufactures one more important lie. He tells of Cassio using Desdemona’s handkerchief, Othello’s first gift to his wife, to wipe his beard. Othello is totally enraged. He falls to his knees and promises to have revenge on evil, making it seem almost a public service rather than a private satisfaction. He ends the scene by stating his intention to kill Desdemona; Iago promises to take care of Cassio. For his efforts, Iago is promoted to the coveted position of lieutenant.