Act 4 Scene 1

Synopsis of Act 4 Scene 1

Iago continues to taunt Othello with the thought of Desdemona’s adultery, imagining her in bed with Cassio, whom Iago claims has boasted of his affair with her. Othello is so tortured in his mind that he falls into a trance or epileptic fit. Cassio arrives and Iago asks him to return when Othello is recovered. He then arranges for Othello to eavesdrop the conversation he will have with Cassio. When Cassio returns, Iago questions him about his relationship with Bianca, knowing that Othello will think that they are talking about Desdemona. Cassio talks flippantly of Bianca, a sex worker, further enraging Othello who believes Cassio is treating Desdemona like a prostitute while she dotes on Cassio like a loose woman. Bianca’s mention of the handkerchief adds to Othello’s anger.
When Cassio has gone, Othello wants only to murder him and Desdemona. Iago encourages this, suggesting that strangling her is the best method. Lodovico arrives from Venice accompanied by Desdemona, with a letter commanding Othello to return home, leaving Cassio to govern Cyprus. Desdemona hopes Lodovico can reconcile Othello and Cassio. Othello overhears their conversation and misinterprets her words as referring to her sexual passion for Cassio. Eventually Othello hits her in his rage, astounding Lodovico, who urges him to apologise to Desdemona. Othello then makes lewd comments about her, suggesting she is promiscuous, sends her away and leaves himself.
Lodovico is amazed at Othello’s behaviour and when Iago implies that Othello often behaves in such a cruel and violent manner, Lodovico believes his lies and regrets ever having trusted Othello.

Commentary on Act 4 Scene 1

The devil their virtue tempts, and they tempt heaven. – Extra-marital sex is regarded as a sin which the devil wants to encourage. 
lie on .. belie – The play on words echoes the innocent jesting of the preceding scene, but with far darker undercurrents. Othello’s incoherent speech (in prose rather than blank verse) indicates the departure of his reason (see The world of Shakespeare > Chain of Being).
Breaks out to savage madness. – The jealousy that is now overpowering Othello is seen here as a kind of madness (see The world of Shakespeare > Chain of Being).
CuckoldA horned man’s a monster and a beast. – This alludes to:
  • the traditional image of a man given horns to show that he is a cuckold, i.e. a husband whose wife has been unfaithful
  • Othello’s loss of reason which makes him no better than a beast/animal.
there’s millions now alive .. dare swear peculiar: your case is better. – Iago states that Othello is better off than most husbands because they don’t know they’ve been cuckolded, whereas Othello does. 
let me know .. know what she shall be - Iago argues that it is better to doubt than to trust, to be certain than to doubt, and therefore to take action.
mark his gesture – Iago wants Othello to be able to see Cassio but to be out of earshot.
the strumpet’s plague .. be beguiled by one. – Beguile can mean ‘charm and attract’ as well as ‘cheat’. Iago claims that prostitutes attract many men but often only fall for one man in return, who is likely to cheat on them. 
Ply Desdemona well .. lay in Bianca’s power - Iago must speak the first line loudly but the second line in a low voice so that Othello doesn’t hear it and thinks they are still talking about Desdemona.
Do ye triumph, Roman, do you triumph? – Othello alludes to the days of the Roman Empire when victorious Roman generals would celebrate their military triumphs by dragging their defeated enemies behind their chariots on their return, so that the populace could watch and jeer at them. Thus Othello imagines Cassio is jeering at him as the defeated lover of Desdemona. (Shakespeare’s audience would be familiar with a different use of the same image in 2 Corinthians 2:14, where it is seen as a privilege to follow in Christ’s victory procession.)
Before me! – Iago’s exclamation indicates how precarious his plot is. Bianca’s unexpected arrival could easily wreck his ploy.
fitchew - A polecat, commonly associated with a strong smell and a high sex-drive.
By heaven, that should be my handkerchief. – Othello clearly couldn’t hear Bianca’s previous speech, in which she refers to Cassio’s finding of the handkerchief in his room and not knowing whence it came. 
be damned tonight – Othello’s confrontation with – and condemnation of - his wife will also entail her damnation as she will die without the chance for confession and forgiveness.
the pity of it .. I will chop her into messes – Shakespeare makes his audience switch between compassion and abhorrence towards Othello.
Cuckold me! – Is this said with pain, surprise, disgust or arrogance? 

strangle her in her bed, - Iago’s guilt lies in his encouragement of Othello to commit murder. His chosen location perhaps exhibits Iago’s conflicted feelings about female sexuality.
strangle .. Good, good; the justice .. undertaker .. Excellent good. – In the twisted moral universe Iago has created for Othello, evil is goodness, goodness, evil.
this would not be believ’d in Venice – Lodovico’s arrival reminds the audience of Othello’s political prestige and highlights the extent to which his thinking/behaviour has become warped. 
Fire and brimstone! - Othello misinterprets Desdemona’s kind words regarding Cassio as a confession of her illicit passion for him. He pretends to read the letter but is also listening to her every word.

I am glad to see you mad. – Othello sarcastically congratulates his wife on finding happiness by her adulterous behaviour.
drop .. a crocodile – ‘crocodile tears’ is a proverbial expression meaning false tears/feigned weeping

Sir, she can turn and turn, - a reference to Desdemona’s supposed ability to change her affections and passions very quickly.
noble Moor .. Whom passion could not shake? – One of the reasons Lodovico is amazed at Othello’s behaviour is that Othello had a reputation of being impervious to fickle fancies and emotions. He was known as a man of stone but is now seen as a man completely at the mercy of unreliable feelings.

Investigating Act 4 Scene 1

  • How is Bianca described in this scene?
    • What does this tell you about her status?
    • What evidence is there for sexual double standards in this scene?
  • Study Othello’s speeches starting from ‘I would have him nine years a-killing’ until ‘Cuckold me!’ Make three lists of relevant words/phrases which show him as:
    • A man of unflinching determination
    • A man weakened by sorrow and great emotional loss
    • An angry man out for petty revenge
    • Which is the real Othello? Can we say for sure at this point?
  • What techniques has Shakespeare used to build the audience’s sense that the play will end disastrously?
    • Can we predict what Iago’s fate will be at this point?
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.