Act 3 Scene 3

Synopsis of Act 3 Scene 3

Desdemona tells Cassio that she will do everything she can to have him reinstated as lieutenant, and will not stop pleading for him until he is restored. As Othello arrives, Cassio leaves because he is too ashamed to face him. Desdemona begs Othello to reinstate Cassio and insists he set a time to do it. Othello admits he can deny her nothing and expresses his adoration of her as she leaves.
Othello and IagoImmediately, Iago starts to undermine Othello’s confidence in his new wife by subtle hints, questions and suggestions. These slowly prey on Othello’s mind until he demands to know Iago’s thoughts and suspicions. Iago pretends to be reluctant but warns Othello against jealousy. Othello states his confidence in Desdemona’s faithfulness until he has proof otherwise. Iago tells him to observe Cassio when he is with Desdemona and reminds him that she deceived her father in marrying him. At this point, Iago falsely tries to reassure Othello, knowing it will have the opposite effect.
Alone, Othello shows he trusts Iago more than Desdemona. She arrives and soothes his headache with a precious handkerchief, which had been his first gift to her. This is accidentally dropped (later), to be retrieved by Emilia, who passes it to Iago as previously he had asked her numerous times to acquire it. Iago decides to hide the handkerchief in Cassio’s room. 
When Othello returns, Iago pretends to dissuade him from dwelling on Desdemona’s sexual sins, but Othello’s suspicions grow into a furious rage in which he threatens Iago with eternal damnation if he is lying. Iago responds by torturing Othello with the idea of watching Cassio and Desdemona having sex. When Othello demands some proof of her falseness, Iago lies about a night when Cassio supposedly admitted to the affair in his sleep. He says he’s seen Cassio use Desdemona’s handkerchief. 
Now totally convinced of her adultery, Othello swears he will not rest until he gets revenge. Iago kneels with him and swears his loyalty and obedience to Othello’s service. Othello tells him to kill Cassio; Iago agrees but pleads for Desdemona’s life.

Commentary on Act 3 Scene 3

I warrant it grieves my husband … O that’s an honest fellow. – With increasing dramatic irony, both Emilia and Desdemona are convinced of Iago’s honesty. 
Bounteous madame – Desdemona is frequently associated with fecundity, making the cutting short of her young life all the more tragic.
His bed shall seem a school, his board a shrift. – Desdemona will act as Othello’s school teacher and as his priest-confessor when they are in bed together. Her enthusiasm to help Cassio is completely innocent and so she never suspects others’ interpretations of her actions. Previously Cassio was a go-between in Othello’s courtship of her so she feels she owes him a huge debt of gratitude and friendship. 
Nothing, my lord: or if - I know not what. – Iago here shows his mastery of the accidental suggestion. He pretends to be covering up his slip of the tongue, when in fact every word he said was deliberate and pre-meditated.

I cannot think it / That he would steal away so guilty-like – By stating his belief that Cassio is not guilty, he deliberately puts the thought of guilt in Othello’s mind.
For if .. I have no judgment in an honest face. – As people of integrity, both Desdemona and Othello (foolishly) believe surface appearance denotes inner reality.  
I wonder in my soul / What you could ask me that I should deny - Desdemona freely bestows her love – with which idea Iago will later torment Othello. 
Excellent wretch, perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee, and when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again. – The initial oxymoron encapsulates the theme of Othello’s damnation through pure love. Othello is prepared to lose his eternal salvation just to love Desdemona, but then fatefully and ironically prophesies his own doom if his love should fail.
Did Michael Cassio … Know of your love? – Iago begins a series of questions and innuendos, each designed to place a seed of doubt or suspicion in Othello’s mind. The words honest and think reverberate until their meaning is clouded.
My lord, you know I love you. – Iago is making sure that Othello is still gullible to his lies by reminding Othello that he is thought trustworthy and completely honest. There is a suggestion of soldierly loyalty here, whereby comrades in arms will always trust each other more than they would anybody in civilian life (and Othello and Iago have served together many years). Thus Othello would expect to be able to trust Iago, a fellow soldier, more than he would his own wife. The balance of power is shifting in Iago’s favour.
But he that filches from me my good name – Ironically, the views Iago expresses here are the exact opposite of the opinion he gives Cassio in Act 2 Scene 3, the ‘reputation’ speech. This shows again Iago’s hypocrisy and duplicity.
damned minutes .. / Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet soundly loves! – Iago’s use of alliteration highlights the tension he is creating for Othello. For a man of action, who likes certainty, to teeter between being not jealous, nor secure regarding Desdemona is indeed a ‘damned’ place to be.
No, Iago, I’ll see before I doubt; - By admitting the possibility of his being wrong, Othello is already on the way to believing Iago’s lies.
Painting of Venice by Titian 1520In Venice they do let God see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands; - Here Iago plays upon Othello’s ignorance of the sophisticated life of a city such as Venice. Othello, a bluff soldier, knows nothing of this and can only believe Iago’s lies about what married Venetian women get up to behind their husbands’ backs.
She did deceive her father, marrying you, - Here Iago plays his master stroke. He repeats what Brabantio said in Act 1 Scene 3, that Desdemona married Othello without her father’s knowledge or permission, so therefore she might deceive her husband as well. Iago conveniently forgets that Desdemona only gave up her duty to her father because of her much stronger love for Othello.
Not to affect .. matches / Of her own clime, complexion and degree, – Iago’s racist suggestion that it was unnatural of Desdemona to marry someone of another race, colour and social class goes unnoticed by Othello. The general is so consumed with his own feelings of betrayal that he doe does not react to his ensign’s insubordination.
IAGO: [Returning.] .. scan this thing no further; - The syntax of Iago’s subsequent speech is sinuous as he changes tack (from Desdemona to Cassio) and backtracks on what he has just caused Othello to believe.
haggard .. jesses .. whistle .. prey – Othello employs the lexis of hawking, describing his wife as an untamed (perhaps untamable) hawk whom he will have to relinquish.
trifles light as air .. proofs of holy writ – The insignificant hanky will be attributed with all the weighty seriousness usually given to the Bible, believed by Christians to be the word of God
poisons .. Burn like mines of sulphur – Shakespeare’s audience would immediately connect Iago’s deceit with the work of Satan, ruler of hell, a place which is described as burning like sulphur.
I had been happy … Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone. – Everything in Othello’s world that he had relied on, especially his soldiering, now means nothing to him. If Desdemona has been false to him, he cannot now rely on anything else.
give me the ocular proof, - Othello is asking the impossible, to be able to see his wife committing adultery. Such a gross idea shows how Othello’s mind is now tortured by bestial images which have destroyed his world of love and faithfulness.
If thou dost slander her and torture me, / Never pray more .. damnation - Othello is here warning Iago of the eternal punishment he will suffer if he is lying. Firmly believing in hell, Shakespeare’s audience would shudder at the consequences for Iago of ignoring this threat of damnation by continuing to deceive and torment Othello.
O grace .. - Iago’s hasty speech and wild apostrophising indicate real anxiety at the physical threat offered by Othello.
fresh .. begrimed .. black – Othello’s growing jealousy and anger is conveyed in images of fairness (associated with virtue) becoming darkened (associated with evil). This will culminate in Othello’s own black vengeance.
honest .. satisfied – The reverberation of these words starts to rob them of clear meaning – Othello’s ‘satisfaction’ can never be attained. Othello employs images of violence, which Iago goads with images of animality.
I lay with Cassio lately – Iago is thinking on his feet, inventively creating another bare-faced lie.
She may be honest yet. Tell me but this: - Iago now increases Othello’s torment by stating the possibility of Desdemona’s innocence and in the next breath giving the final ‘proof’ of her guilt, the handkerchief, which he falsely claims he saw in Cassio’s possession.
Now do I see .. – Othello’s speech is full of contrasts, as he expels his virtues and replaces them with vices: vengeance for love, hell (the ‘hollow cell’) instead of heaven, hatred for love, snake venom instead of breast milk.
Witness you ever-burning lights above, - Iago’s fake prayer would be seen as an act of blasphemy by Shakespeare’s audience, even though he is in fact praying to the natural elements rather than God. Othello will soon ‘put out’ Desdemona’s lights.
but let her live – Despite seeming to argue against it, Iago subtly leads Othello’s thoughts towards the murder of Desdemona.
I am your own for ever. – Iago has achieved his longed for promotion and has now become the ‘worser part’ of his commander, as Othello relinquishes his moral conscience to Iago’s twisted perspective.

Investigating Act 3 Scene 3

  • Study Othello’s speech starting ‘This fellow’s of exceeding honesty,’ until ‘When we do quicken.’ List the things that Othello wrongly believes.
    • In what ways does Othello belittle himself by these assumptions?
    • Explain the wistful but beautiful metaphor beginning with the word ‘jesses’
    • ‘my relief / Must be to loathe her.’ Is Othello speaking here out of disgust, sadness, resignation, or some other emotion?
    • Speak aloud the sentence beginning, ‘O curse of marriage’. How does the sound of it portray the agony Othello is going through here?
    •  ‘Yet ’tis the plague of great ones’. Is this a fair judgement of Othello? 
    • What are your feelings towards him at this point?
  • Focusing on the exchanges between Othello and Iago, create a bar chart or line graph that plots the relative power (on a scale of 1-10) of Iago and Othello as this varies speech by speech. 
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