When we last left Cyprus in Act Three, Othello was out for Cassio’s blood, demanding that Iago report back to him within three days with news of the former lieutenant’s death, while the Moor was trying to devise “some swift means of death // For the fair devil” (III.iii.478-9), Desdemona. Meanwhile, Cassio has given the handkerchief he found in his lodging, you know Othello’s gift to Desdemona (planted there by Iago) to his courtesan for copying, and had decided to talk to Othello himself. What could go wrong?
Act Four, Scene One, like so many other scenes in Othello, opens mid-conversation, this one between Iago and Othello, seemingly discussing Desdemona’s guilt or innocence. There’s a bawdy aspect to the back and forth, but then it gets too bawdy:
With her—on her—what you will.
Othello responds by falling into a fit (an “epilepsy” [IV.i.50] as Iago puts it). In the midst of the fit, Cassio arrives to talk to the general, but when he tries to help Othello, Iago sends him off, promising to speak to Othello for him.
When Othello recovers, he is now sure that he is a cuckold. In an attempt to appease Othello’s demand of “ocular proof” (III.iii.360), Iago has Othello step aside to watch Iago talk to Cassio, and “will make him tell the tale anew — // Where, how, how oft, how long ago, and when // He hath, and is again to cope your wife” (IV.i.84-6).
In the moment between Othello’s retreat and Cassio’s entrance, Iago reveals that he plans to get Cassio to talk about the courtesan Bianca and make Othello believes he’s talking about Desdemona: “As (Cassio) shall smile, Othello shall go mad” (IV.i.100). It’s unclear how much of the dialogue Othello hears, but he sees the interaction, and he is upset. If this wasn’t good enough for Iago, what happens next is perfect. Bianca arrives, and with? You guessed it, the handkerchief.
This pushes Othello over the edge. He orders Iago to get him a poison for Desdemona, but Iago disagrees: “Do it not with poison. Strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated” (IV.i.203-04). Othello likes the “justice of it” (IV.i.205).
Newly arrived from Venice, Lodovico, an emissary from the duke, accompanied by Desdemona, enters the scene. He delivers a letter from the duke with new orders for Othello. As he reads it, Lodovico discusses with Iago and Desdemona the plans to have Othello to return to Venice while leaving Cassio in charge of Cyprus. Othello seems more distracted by the side conversation than the letter, and in his anger over hearing Desdemona’s approval of Cassio as Othello’s substitute, he strikes his wife.
Lodovico is stunned. After Othello sends Desdemona away and he exits, too, Lodovico states his disbelief over what he has seen. Iago–ever helpful–says that Othello “is much changed” (IV.i.262), prompting Lodovico to ask if Othello is in his right mind. Iago voices a hope “that stroke would prove the worst” (IV.i.268), intimating a fear for Desdemona’s safety… of course, not so much for Desdemona’s safety but for Othello’s downfall.
As Act Four, Scene Two begins, Othello interrogates Emilia over Desdemona’s relationship with Cassio. Emilia defends Desdemona, go so far as to say, “If any wretch have put this in your head, // Let heaven requite it with the serpent’s curse” (IV.ii.15-6). Ironic to say the least. To us of course, since we know Othello has been duped by her husband, Iago; but it’s ironic to Othello as well, as even though he doesn’t know he’s been duped, he does know that her husband has helped reveal what he thinks is Desdemona’s betrayal.
He demands that Emilia leave and send in Desdemona, and when his wife arrives, he is obviously in a state of heightened emotion, as she asks for the cause of his “weep(ing)” (IV.ii.42). Though it takes him a while to accuse her of adultery, it doesn’t take him long at all to have his language infused with rancidity: venereal disease, cesspools, sex. When he finally does accuse her of infidelity, he never mentions Cassio. She, clueless, has no way to defend herself, save for a denial of being a strumpet and a proclamation of her “Christian(ity)” (IV.ii.82).
He leaves, having called her “that cunning whore of Venice” (IV.ii.89), and when Emilia and Iago enter, Desdemona is a broken woman. And an innocent one, too; Emilia is sure these accusations are based on a slander:
Some busy and insinuating rogue,
Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office,
Have not devised this slander. I will be hanged else.
Fie, there is no such man. It is impossible.
Irony, upon irony. Iago, instead, claims Othello’s changed demeanor has to do with “the business of the state” (IV.ii.166).
When the ladies leave, Roderigo enters, again bemoaning his state of poverty and lack of Desdemona. Sounding not a little like Sir Andrew complaining to Sir Toby in Twelfth Night, he’s bitter but nothing more than a dupe. Even though he suspects Iago of double-dealing with him (“your words and performances are no kin together” [IV.ii.182-3]), he is once again convinced to do Iago’s bidding, in this case, “knocking out (Cassio’s) brains” (IV.ii.230).
In Act Four, Scene Three, in preparation for Othello’s return to Desdemona’s room, the Moor’s wife and Emilia have their final conversation together (whoops, SPOILERS!). Desdemona recalls that her mother had a maid called Barbary, and she remembers how this maid sang a song called “Willow” after being “forsake(n)” (IV.iii.28) by her lover. The distract Desdemona sings the song herself before asking Emilia if she thought some women were actually unfaithful.
Emilia responds with a pragmatism and bawdiness reminiscent of Juliet’s nurse. To make her husband “a monarch? (Emilia says she) should venture purgatory” (IV.iii.76-7). When Desdemona says that she wouldn’t do it for the world, Emilia’s response is brilliant in its logic: “Why, the wrong is but a wrong i’ th’ world; and, having the world for your labor, ’tis a wrong in your own world, and you might quickly make it right” (IV.iii.80-2). Furthermore, she says that even if women did such things, the fault lies with the husbands as “the ills we (wives) do, their ills instruct us so” (IV.iii.103).
And with that Emilia leaves Desdemona to the night… and Act Five.