Act 4 Scene 2

Synopsis of Act 4 Scene 2

Othello interrogates Emilia to discover any evidence of misdemeanours between Desdemona and Cassio and does not believe her testimony that Desdemona is virtuous. He summons his wife, asking Emilia to leave, then confronts Desdemona and, despite her protestations of loyalty, calls her a whore. After his departure, Emilia returns with Iago. Desdemona is dazed, understanding only that she has somehow lost her husband. Ironically, Iago commiserates, whilst Emilia is convinced that some scoundrel has deliberately slandered her mistress. Asking Iago for advice, Desdemona kneels to swear her constant love for Othello, even if he divorces her, which she now expects, then she and her maid leave.
Roderigo arrives and complains bitterly to Iago that he is no nearer winning Desdemona’s love, despite his lavish gifts, so plans to ask for them back and give up. Iago turns Roderigo’s anger on its head by claiming that his determination will win Desdemona. Were he to kill Cassio, Othello and Desdemona would have to stay in Cyprus and Roderigo would be able to woo her. Iago will arrange for Cassio to be at a certain place that night, when Roderigo can conveniently kill him.

Commentary on Act 4 Scene 2

Let heaven requite it with the serpent’s curse – This refers to the account in Genesis, when, following his incitement of Adam and Eve to rebel against God, the serpent is cursed by God to eat dust and to be regarded as an enemy by humanity (Genesis 3:14-15). See Big ideas from the Bible > Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam’. Emilia is unwittingly condemning her husband.
She says enough; yet .. – Emilia’s staunch defense of Desdemona gives the audience hope that the tragedy can be averted – until they realise that Othello does not believe her. Othello is more persuaded by the words of a fellow soldier than by his wife’s maid, reinforcing the chauvinistic attitude of comrade soldiers towards women.
Come, swear it, damn thyself – Oaths invoking God were taken very seriously; to swear such an oath dishonestly would incur condemnation not just from Othello but from God, meaning that Desdemona’s eternal life would be in jeopardy.
like one of heaven .. devils .. fear – Desdemona is like an angel, associated with light and utter purity, in the face of which even demons quake.
Heaven/hell, truly/false – In Othello’s distorted world, hell is heaven, lies are truth.
try me with affliction .. sores .. poverty – Othello recalls the suffering seen in Job, an Old Testament narrative about maintaining faith despite enduring hardship. Just as the audience was familiar with sympathy for Job (who had unhelpful ‘friends’), so they feel for Othello in his emotional distress.
The fountain from the which my current runs / .. discarded – The depth of Othello’s love is seen in his struggle to throw it aside.
black weed .. lovely fair – The oxymorons illustrate Othello’s conflicted emotions.
public commoner – prostitute
No, as I am a Christian. – Here Desdemona is making the equivalent of a sacred vow. Her faith is everything to her and she regards her purity as important to her as her Christian faith.
I took you for that cunning whore of Venice – In Othello’s mind, Desdemona’s identity has been entirely subsumed by her (supposed) promiscuity. 
St Peter by Peter Paul Rubensoffice opposite to Saint Peter, / And keeps the gates in hell – In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus entrusts his disciple Peter with ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 16:19). From this arose the idea that Peter was the ‘gatekeeper’ of heaven, allowing or denying access (just as a maid such as Emilia controls access to her mistress’s rooms). However, to Othello, Emilia is guarding hell rather than heaven.
Lay on my bed my wedding sheets, - Some critics believe that this instruction shows that she and Othello have not yet had time to consummate their marriage, and she is preparing for their sexual union. Alternatively, wedding sheets would carry the evidence of Desdemona’s chastity prior to intercourse with Othello and so remind him of her purity. Either interpretation only increases the irony and tragedy about to unfold.
’Tis meet I should be us’d so – Desdemona is being ironic – Othello’s behaviour is anything but fitting.
What name, fair lady? – Iago here fails to answer a straight question, as he refuses to help Desdemona and Othello to be reconciled. Their reconciliation is the last thing Iago wants.
A beggar .. his callat. – Emilia here is furious with Othello for calling his wife a whore or callat, both terms for prostitute.
forsook .. noble matches, / Her father .. country .. friends – The enormity of Desdemona’s social sacrifices for love of Othello also highlights how isolated and vulnerable she now is.
I will be hanged if some eternal villain, - Emilia has unknowingly guessed the truth, that Othello has been tricked into thinking that Desdemona has been unfaithful.
A halter pardon him, - may he be hanged.
hell gnaw his bones – In popular Christian iconography, the ‘mouth’ of hell was ringed with sharp teeth. Doom paintings illustrated the torment of those in hell, being eternally feasted on by demons.
And made you to suspect me with the Moor. – Emilia here tells us that she was never unfaithful to Iago, but she obviously knew he suspected her. This makes Iago seem to be a very insecure, untrustworthy man, which we see expressed through the cynical and bestial language of his thoughts and speech.
Here I kneel. – This is the strongest way in which Desdemona can stress that she is completely innocent, kneeling being associated with prayer and petitioning, as she reaffirms her love and faithfulness to Othello.
To beggarly divorcement) love him dearly, .. But never taint my love. – Shakespeare evokes pity for Desdemona as she is prepared for Othello to divorce her unjustly, yet still go on loving him steadfastly.
‘whore’ .. abhor - Shakespeare uses the assonance of the words to highlight Desdemona’s absolute rejection of the term she’s been labelled with.
daff’st me with some device, - ‘Put me off with some excuse.’ After the poetic passion of Desdemona’s feelings, Shakespeare lowers the tone of the stupid (Roderigo) and cunning (Iago) plotters to prose.
Would half have corrupted a votarist. – Roderigo believes that he has given Desdemona so much money that even a nun (who would have vowed to be celibate) would have given in to his advances.
Why now I see there’s mettle in thee, - Iago completely twists Roderigo’s argument in his own favour by complimenting him on his new-found courage, which will surely win Desdemona’s love if he will only act on it.
knocking out his brains – Iago no longer hides his malevolent intent. Even so, Roderigo might have realised that murder is an extreme (and unnecessary) action – but Shakespeare’s plot depends upon this device.

Investigating Act 4 Scene 2

  • Study Othello’s speech starting from ‘Had it pleased God..’ until ‘Ay, here look grim as hell.’
    • In the first six lines, what kind of suffering does Othello say he’d prefer?
    • In the next three lines, what makes him suffer more?
    • In the second half of the speech, what does he feel is the worst torment for him?
    • How do the images in the last four lines show the terrible mental distress he is experiencing?
    • Writing in role, prepare a short psychiatrist’s report on the overall mental state of Othello by the end of this scene.
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