Othello plot synopsis – Act Two: Scheming

When we last left Othello the play, Iago had revealed to us through the first soliloquy of the play that he intended to make it look as if Othello’s new lieutenant Cassio has cuckolded Othello by having an affair with his new bride Desdemona. Act One takes place in the town from the subtitle of the play (“the Moor of Venice”), but when the act ends, we leave Italy altogether and head to Cyprus, where the remainder of the play will occur. And as Act Two opens, we meet three new characters, Montano, the Governor of Cyprus, and two unnamed gentlemen.

Remember how Act One, Scene Three, opened with the Duke of Venice receiving multiple and sometimes contradictory military messages? Well, something similar is happening here, only now they’re receiving news that the Turkish fleet have been blown away (literally) by a storm. In other words, “Our wars are done” (II.i.20). This feels weird. Why spend so much time on this Turkish fleet issue? I understand we needed to get Othello out of Venice, making him even more of an outsider than he was already, and yes, I get how now that as military issues are done, domestic ones–the kind that Iago will use in his plan–will take precedent. But it just seems a lot of lines and time to waste on this (I’m being perverse here, I know why, and I’ll tell you in a minute).

Of the Venetians, Cassio arrives first, in a ship separate from Othello, and “looks sadly // And prays the Moor be safe, for they parted // With foul and violent tempest” (II.i.32-4). His first words support this, as he fears he has “lost (Othello) on a dangerous sea” (II.i.46). See, that’s why the Turkish fleet is so important: if the storm was strong enough to sink their ships, there’s actual danger here for Othello. Soon enough, however, the other ships do arrive: first, the one carrying Iago, Desdemona, and his wife Emilia; then Othello’s, but before that ship arrives, there’s a moment of banter between Iago and Desdemona, which almost sounds like flirting and possibly bawdy if you’re so inclined (and you know I am). Othello arrives, greets his wife as “my fair warrior” (II.i.181), and calls for a party to celebrate the victory over the drowned Turks, then leaves with all but (again) Iago and Roderigo.

Alone, Iago begins to insinuate Desdemona’s unfaithfulness with Cassio, not to Othello, but to Roderigo. I don’t know if this is a trial run for his plot against the Moor, but it works, with Iago explaining how she had fallen in love with Othello for his “bragging and telling her fantastical lies” (II.i.222). Now, however, after “the blood is made dull with the act of sport” (II.i.226), she was bound to want someone more like to her “in years, manners, and beauties” (II.i.228). Thus, we’re getting a picture of Othello as much older than Desdemona. Roderigo is not convinced, but Iago points out how she held Cassio’s hand upon greeting: “Lechery, by the hand!” (II.i.255). Iago has a plan, though, to bring Cassio down. Tonight, if Roderigo will provoke Cassio, Iago will make it look like his lack of leadership had led “these of Cyprus to mutiny” (II.i.271). Cassio will then be out of the way, and Roderigo will have a clearer path to his objective, Desdemona. Of course, you’ve got to wonder how this will help Iago get revenge on Othello.

Act Two, Scene Two is a short one with Othello’s herald announcing a celebration of both the Turkish defeat and his own nuptials.

In the long Act Two, Scene Three (the longest in the Canon, following the shortest Act Two, Scene Two in the Canon), we begin to see Iago’s plan at work, at least the Roderigo/Cassio portion. The scene begins as the celebrations are beginning but Cassio is starting his guard duty with Iago; Othello and Desdemona stop by long enough for Othello the call Iago “most honest” (II.iii.6). Iago arrives and talks with Cassio about Desdemona, making somewhat bawdy statements about her; Cassio responds only chastely. Iago breaks out a bottle and offers Cassio a drink, but he declines saying he has “very poor and unhappy brains for drinking” (II.iii.30-1). Cassio leaves momentarily to answer the door, and when he returns with Montano and some gentlemen, he says that they’ve already made him drink one round. Iago begins a drinking song, and Cassio has more to drink. And we’re about to find out about Cassio’s unhappy brain.

Cassio leaves for a moment while Iago compliments Cassio as a soldier to Montano, but adds, “do but see his vice” (II.iii.116), going on to say that he’s drunk from morning to night. There is a tussle offstage, and a drunken Cassio chases Roderigo onto the stage. When Cassio strikes Roderigo, Montano tells him to stop and says that he’s drunk; provoked, Cassio then fights Montano. Iago sends Roderigo off to cry mutiny and riot. Before long, Othello has arrived, and after questioning an astounded Iago, a drunken Cassio, and a wounded Montano, Othello compels Iago to recount the story. Iago’s story would certainly jibe with any objective observer, but we know there’s more to the story, so when Othello cites Iago’s “honesty and love” (II.iii.236), it’s ironic to say the least. And with only that statement as preface, he fires Cassio from his employ.

Othello leaves to return to Desdemona, Montano is led off to a surgeon, and Iago is left to comfort Cassio, telling him to talk to Othello again, and he’ll have his job back. Cassio, ashamed, refuses. Iago takes a different tack then:

Our general’s wife is now the general… Confess yourself freely to her. Importune her help to put you in your place again. She is of so free, so kind, so apt, so blessed a disposition she holds it a vice in her goodness not to do more than she is requested. This broken joint between you and her husband entreat her to splinter, and, my fortunes against any lay worth naming, this crack of your love shall grow stronger than it was before.
  • II.iii.302-03, 306-13

It makes sense, and Cassio agrees. Alone, though, Iago recounts how this sensible idea, once he

pour(s) pestilence into (Othello’s) ear,

by how much she strives to do (Cassio) good,
She shall undo her credit with the Moor….
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all.
  • II.iii.344, 346-7, 349-50

The sad sack Roderigo re-enters, bemoans his state, and desires to return to Venice. Iago spins this all as victory for Roderigo: his rival for Desdemona’s infidelity is now out of the way, and better luck is on its way. Off he goes, and Iago tells us that he needs to get his wife Emilia to plead to Desdemona for Cassio, and then to put Othello in a place to see Cassio and Desdemona together. And with that, the second act ends.

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