When we left the play at the end of the second act of Othello, Iago’s plan for revenge against our titular Moor was in full swing, with Roderigo helping to bring about the firing of Cassio, the general’s lieutenant, and Iago advising the disconsolate Cassio to ask Desdemona to plead his case to Othello (knowing this will add to the appearance of infidelity). Act Three begins with Cassio bringing in some musicians and a clown; the musicians to greet the general, and the clown to provide us with some rim-shot-worthy yuks with his new straight-man, Cassio.
Iago arrives and Cassio confides that he has asked Iago’s wife Emilia to intervene with Desdemona, so Cassio can talk to her himself; Iago tells Cassio that he will “draw the Moor // Out of the way” (III.i.36-7). Between the exit of Iago and the entrance Emilia two lines later, Cassio says that he has never met “a Florentine more kind and honest” (III.i.40). From Emilia, Cassio learns that Desdemona and Othello are currently discussing his situation, and “she speaks for (him) stoutly” (III.i.44), and that Othello still loves Cassio. Emilia takes Cassio in so he can speak to Desdemona alone.
The shortest Act Three, Scene Two in the Canon is basically just a six-line buffer between Emilia and Cassio’s exit and their mid-conversation entrance with Desdemona in the next scene (the longest of in the play, and the longest of its kind in the Canon); Othello sends Iago to deliver some letters and Othello goes to inspect the fortifications.
Emilia says that Cassio’s situation “grieves (her) husband // As if the cause here his” (III.iii.3-4). If that wasn’t ironic enough, then Desdemona’s response that Iago’s “an honest fellow” (III.iii.5) certainly is. The conversation ranges from Cassio’s fear that in the interim between this moment and Othello’s forgiveness, the general will forget Cassio’s service, to Desdemona vowing to continue to plead his case. Within a few lines, Iago and Othello enter at a distance, and when Cassio leaves the stage, uncomfortable with Othello’s presence, Iago says, “Ha, I like not that” (III.iii.35) that begins a whole back and forth that works perfectly for Iago’s purposes:
What dost thou say?
Nothing, my lord; or if—I know not what.
Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?
Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it
That he would steal away so guiltylike,
Seeing your coming.
I do believe ’twas he.
It’s a wonderfully devious response by Iago, combining the inconceivability of it, the stealing away, and the guilt. Desdemona then attempts to plead for Cassio, and Othello agrees to hear his suit (the sooner for Desdemona, whom he can “deny…nothing” [III.iii.83]). When Desdemona and Emilia exit, however, Iago is non-plussed and almost instantly erases any good feelings Desdemona has generated in Othello for Cassio. Over the course of the next 200 lines (less even) what Iago performs is a masterwork of manipulation, first tying Cassio to Desdemona’s wooing by Othello, then questioning Cassio’s honesty while saying he thinks Cassio is honest, then luring Othello into forcing Iago to “give (his) worst of thoughts // The worst of words” (III.iii.132-3), then pontificating on the concept of reputation, all the while destroying Cassio’s. Only then does Iago warn Othello, “O, beware my lord, of jealousy!” (III.iii.165), and hint at infidelity.
Othello does not go gentle into that bad night of jealousy:
I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;
And on the proof, there is no more but this:
Away at once with love or jealousy.
Iago responds that this makes him glad, as this will allow him to “show the love and duty” (III.iii.194) that he bears Othello. Iago says that he fears Othello’s “free and noble nature” (III.iii.199) is too easily abused. Iago knows Italian women, how Desdemona “did deceive her father” (III.iii.206), how she did previously refuse those of “her own clime, complexion and degree” (III.iii.230). And soon enough, Othello is questioning why he married Desdemona, and has proclaimed that he is “bound to (Iago) forever” (III.iii.213).
Iago leaves Othello, and in the Moor’s first soliloquy (which doesn’t come until after the play is over one-half done), he says that he is sure that “she’s gone” (III.iii.267), blaming both race (“for I am black” [III.iii.263]) and age (“I am delcined // Into the vale of years” [III.iii.265-6]). But when he sees Desdemona return, so, too, it seems, his reason: “Look where she comes. // If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself! // I’ll not believe’t” (III.iii.277-9). Yet, he fears cuckolding so much that he either acts as if he’s been already cuckolded or tries to allude to it by claiming to have a headache (as the horns of the cuckold are emerging). She tries to bind it with a handkerchief, but he brushes it aside and it falls to the floor.
Unnoticed by the exiting newlyweds, the handkerchief (the first gift from Othello to Desdemona) is picked up by Emilia, who is thrilled, as her “wayward husband hath a hundred times // Wooed (her) to steal it” (III.iii.292-3). Iago enters, takes the handkerchief, and tells Emilia not to acknowledge that she knows where it is, even if Desdemona “run(s) mad // When she shall lack it” (III.iii.317-8)… and like a quiet, obedient wife, she leaves when told. In her absence, Iago soliloquizes over his new and improved plan: to leave this handkerchief in Cassio’s lodgings, knowing that this will wreak havoc since “the Moor already changes with (Iago’s) poison” (III.iii.325).
Othello obsesses over:
- “her stol’n hours of lust” (III.iii.338)
- “Cassio’s kisses on her lips” (III.iii.341)
- “if the general camp, // Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body” (III.iii.345-6)
And yet he demands “ocular proof” (III.iii.360) from Iago or he will answer to Othello’s “naked wrath” (III.iii.363). The proof he presents, however, is not so much visual as hearsay:
And being troubled with a raging tooth
I could not sleep.
There are a kind of men so loose of soul
That in their sleeps will mutter their affairs.
One of this kind is Cassio.
In sleep I heard him say “Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves.”
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry “O sweet creature!” then kiss me hard,
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips; lay his leg o’er my thigh,
And sigh, and kiss, and then cry “Cursèd fate
That gave thee to the Moor!”
Iago then walks it back as being just Cassio’s dream, but that only inflames the Moor, who claims he will “tear (Desdemona) all to pieces” (III.iii.431). When Iago says that “she may be honest yet” (III.iii.433), one has to wonder if he’s sincerely trying to keep the Moor from exacting revenge on her, or just stoking Othello more.
Regardless, by the end of the scene, Othello demands to hear from Iago within three days’ that Cassio’s dead; meanwhile, he will withdraw to devise a proper death for “the fair devil” (iII.iii.479), Desdemona. And Othello gives Iago what he said he wanted in the opening scene: “Thou art my lieutenant” (III.iii.480).
In Act Three, Scene Four, Othello interrupts a conversation (regarding the Moor’s possible jealousy no less) between Emilia and Desdemona. He obscurely accuses Desdemona, but innocent as she is, she misses all the clues. She makes it even worse, however, when she asks him to keep his promise and listen to Cassio plead his case. He ignores this, asking instead for his handkerchief. She says that she doesn’t have it with her, nor is it lost. He continues to ask for it, all the while she continues to sue for Cassio.
Othello storms off, and Desdemona is left to tell Emilia that she’s never seen him like this before, bemoaning the loss of the handkerchief. Emilia, still obedient to Iago, says nothing of her role in the object’s disappearance. Then Iago and Cassio arrive, with the always helpful ensign advising Cassio to “importune” (III.iv.107) Desdemona to help convince the Moor, which he does. Desdemona knows this is probably not the best course of action at the moment, as Othello is “in humor altered” (III.iv.124).
Iago shrugs this off, saying that he has seen Othello many times in battle, and he’s never lost his composure; he offers to meet with Othello to see what’s wrong, and off he goes. Always helpful, see? Desdemona is worried that “something sure of state” (III.iv.139) has upset her husband.
When Emilia and Desdemona leave the stage to Cassio, Bianca, a Cypriot courtesan, calls upon her “friend” (III.iv.168), whom she hasn’t seen in “seven days and nights” (III.iv.172). He tells her he was on his way to her house, then asks if she can make a copy of some embroidery… and hands her Desdemona’s handkerchief. Bianca becomes jealous of Cassio’s “newer friend” (III.iv.180), but Cassio says that he found it in his chamber, but liked its design so much that he wants a copy. He tells her that he will meet with her at her house, but for now he must leave as he needs to talk to Othello.
And with that, and a sense of inevitability, the very long Act Three ends.