Act III, Scene iv
Themes and Flow
Normally I just summarize the flow of a particular Act but the intensity and abundance of these two scenes (3.3 and 3.4) invite more meticulous consideration. 3.4 is the first scene after Othello's great resolution, and the big question is how he will respond once his mental conceptions meet the real world of living humans. In addition, for the first time in the play Emilia expresses an unexpected thought that will prepare the way for her to become the key figure in the last scene of the play. Tension builds as the characters occupy a narrower and narrower psychological space. Rather than reviewing the flow of the action, I will say a few words about the development or action of each of the leading characters.
Othello is both himself and not himself in this scene. His long speech on the handkerchief (3.4.55-74) recalls the longest speech in the play, his life history that he narrated for Brabantio and Desdemona (1.3.128ff). The same romance, exoticism and alluring power of the life history story is now present in the handkerchief story. As a subsequent essay will show, Othello still has the power to overwhelm Desdemona with his poignant stories. But, on the other hand, Othello is a changed man. Emilia will remark about his jealousy several times:
"Is not this man jealious (3.4.99)?" "But jealious souls will not be answer'd so;/ They are not ever jealious for the cause,/ But jealious for they're jealious (3.4.159-161)."
Desdemona will also speak of Othello's change: "I nev'r saw this before (3.4.100)." The change of which she speaks is Othello's accusatory manner, manifest in the text not only through his tone and interrogatory style but also through his chopped sentences. In contrast to the image of the Pontic Sea, which flowed with a continuous inexorability that mirrored the action of the sea itself, is Othello's langauge in 3.4. When he reaches out to take Desdemona's hand, he says,
"This hand of yours requires/ A sequester from liberty: fasting and prayer,/ Much castigation, exercise devout,/ For here's a young and sweating devil here/ That commonly rebels. 'Tis a good hand,/ A frank one (3.4.39-44)."
Rather than chopping Desdemona into "messes," which he says he will want to do later (4.1.200), he now chops his own words into messes.
She is both obedient and confused in this scene, but the most striking characteristic that comes out is her blindness with respect to Othello. There is no doubt that she loves him dearly. Whether or not we agree that she saw his visage in his mind (cf. 1.3.252), she doesn't see things clearly now. She simply misreads him. She will misread his jealousy; she will misread his tolerance for hearing more about Cassio's resinstatement; she will misread his anger as a sign of preoccupation with state concerns. Love may forgive all, but does it have to be so blind?
Iago may be the smartest character in the play, but he is also the most predictable. We know that he must wheel and deal in order to pull off the increasingly complex plan to replace Cassio, get Roderigo's money and to bring down Othello. In this scene he is not particularly nefarious, though he steers the women's interpretation of Othello's bothered condition away from the explanation suggested by Emilia (jealousy) and to a preoccupation with state affairs (3.4.134-139). Indeed, by the time we arrive at 3.4, Iago has such a powerful influence over peoples' minds that he merely has to suggest something obliquely, and they "fill in" Iago's interpretive gaps to make new suggestions. For example, when confronted with Othello's anger, which Emilia interprets as jealousy, he says "Something of moment then....There's matter in't indeed, if he be angry (3.4.138-139)." He leaves it for Desdemona to fill in the gaps: "Something sure of state,/ Either from Venice, or some unhatch'd practice/ Made demonstrable here in Cyprus to him,/ Hath puddled his clear spirit (3.4.140-143)." When Iago can have this much power over both Othello and Desdemona, we see that his work is almost done.
She is a rather undeveloped character until the latter part of the play. She is obedient to Iago and of service to her lady Desdemona, but until 3.4 she doesn't seem to have much of a personality of her own. One thing, however, gives her a spunk and independence in 3.4 which will be developed later, especially in 5.2. In short, it is her unwillingness to let Iago's suggestion and Desdemona's interpretation of Othello's anger be her interpretation. Desdemona will interpret his anger as evidence of his concern with state matters. Emilia does not want to cross her mistress, and so she says, "Pray heaven it be state matters as you think (3.4.155)," but she doesn't leave it there. She goes on to say, "And no conception nor no jealious toy/ concerning you (3.4.156-157)." That her interpretation of his anger as jealousy rather than concern over great matters of state is really her approach comes out in her brief speech a few lines later, where jealousy is mentioned four times in as many lines. As Shakespeare will show through his portrait of other female characters (like Cleopatra), a woman who interprets the world independently is a force to be reckoned with.
Cassio frames the scene. In the first 20 lines Desdemona jousts with the clown in an attempt to have him call Cassio; in the last 20 or so lines, Bianca and Cassio joust with each other regarding his fidelity and the handkerchief. He also appears in mid-scene to give a well-balanced and orotund speech regarding his fate (3.4.110-122). There is as yet no indication in his words that he treats women other than with the highest regard. Iago will play on his lesser feelings for Bianca in Act IV.
Thus, the final scene of Act III brings together the handkerchief and Cassio for the first time, but its more alluring aspect is the anger of the Moor, the blindness of Desdemona and the unexpected spunkiness of Emilia. We will see more of each of these as the play progresses.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long