Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1629
The second act opens in Cyprus, with Montano, Cyprus’s governor, speaking to two other gentlemen. They comment on how windy it is and how this wind has stirred up great waves on the ocean. Montano suspects that the Turkish fleet must have been destroyed by these waves, and a third gentleman enters to tell him that indeed, the Turkish fleet is in shambles. He also tells Montano that Cassio’s ship has arrived from Verona, but Othello is still at sea. Montano goes to greet Cassio but worries that Othello is still in the storm. When Cassio enters, Montano asks about how sturdy Othello’s ship is, and Cassio assures him that Othello’s ship is strong and the captain skilled. A messenger enters to tell Montano that another ship has arrived. He hopes that it is Othello’s, and while the messenger goes to see whose ship approaches Cyprus, Cassio tells Montano about how beautiful Desdemona is.
The messenger returns to tell them that Iago, Roderigo, Desdemona, and Emilia (Iago’s wife) have arrived. As Cassio and Montano greet Iago and the women, a messenger comes with news of yet another ship. As they wait for the third ship to arrive, a gentleman greets Emilia by kissing her, but Iago mean-spiritedly jokes with him, saying that her lips flap too much. When Emilia tries to defend herself, Iago argues that women are always playing a role and insinuates that they are all prostitutes. Desdemona asks Iago if he is capable of giving a compliment, but he continues to make generalizations about how promiscuous women are. Cassio observes that Iago is “more the soldier… than the scholar” as he takes Desdemona’s hand, and Iago speaks to himself about how he might be able to use Cassio’s flirtations against him.
Othello finally arrives, and he reunites with Desdemona. Othello claims that with the Turkish navy destroyed by the weather, the war with the Turks is over. He leaves with Desdemona and his entourage. Iago and Roderigo stay behind, and Iago tells Roderigo that Desdemona will soon be tired of looking at Othello’s ugly face. He points out that she and Cassio held hands, and he tells Roderigo that Cassio will be another hurdle to reach Desdemona. Iago then instructs Roderigo to try to make Cassio angry; this may cause Cassio to strike Roderigo, which will lower the public opinion of Cassio. Roderigo agrees, and Iago performs a soliloquy about how he suspects Othello and Cassio of sleeping with Emilia. He also notes that if he can slander Cassio, he can make Cassio seem like a villain while making himself appear the hero.
Scene 2 consists only of a herald making an announcement that Othello is throwing a party in celebration of the victory over the Turks as well as his recent marriage.
Scene 3 opens on Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio. Othello tells Cassio to oversee the guards and keep the peace, and he and Desdemona exit to consummate their marriage. As they leave, Iago enters. Iago begins speaking to Cassio about how beautiful Desdemona is. Iago then invites Cassio to drink with him and two other men from Cyprus, but Cassio declines, claiming that he does not like to drink. Cassio admits that he does not hold his liquor well, but Iago eventually convinces him to find the men from Cyprus and make a toast.
As Cassio leaves to look for the other men, Iago reveals that he has been getting everyone at the party drunk. If he can get Cassio drunk, he can manipulate Cassio to offend the entire party and start a fight. Cassio, Montano, and two other gentlemen return, drinking. Iago sings several drinking songs and talks about how different nations are known for their ability to drink, goading Cassio and the others to keep up. Cassio, steadily drinking, unsuccessfully tries to convince the group that he is not actually drunk based on the fact that he is not slurring his words, and he leaves with the gentlemen from Cyprus.
Now alone, Iago tells Montano that Othello trusts Cassio too much, and he explains that Cassio drinks himself to sleep every night. Roderigo enters, but Iago takes him aside and tells him to follow Cassio. Shortly thereafter, Roderigo comes running back with Cassio following him, sword drawn. Cassio begins beating Roderigo, and Montano pulls Cassio away. Iago tells Roderigo to go sound an alarm that a riot has occurred. Cassio begins fighting with Montano as Othello enters to investigate the commotion.
Iago tries to calm the party while Othello demands to know what happened. Iago explains that everyone was having a good time until only a few moments prior. Othello observes that Cassio is drunk. When questioned about his behavior, Cassio claims that he cannot speak. Montano has been injured by Cassio and needs to treat the wound, and Othello demands that someone tell him what exactly transpired. Iago finally states that while he does not want to tarnish Cassio’s name, he must tell the truth, and explains that Cassio started the fight by chasing “a fellow crying out for help.” When Montano stepped in to intervene, Cassio tried to kill Montano. Othello demotes Cassio from his position as lieutenant. Othello has Montano taken to a doctor, and everyone exits except Iago and Cassio.
Cassio is beside himself that his reputation has been ruined, but Iago attempts to comfort him, telling him that reputations are fickle and that he can still save face with Othello. Iago suggests that Cassio speak to Desdemona and try to get on her good side. That way, she might put in a good word for Cassio to her husband. Cassio thanks Iago for his advice and exits. Iago gives a soliloquy about how his advice seems pure, but his plans are comparable to the guiles of Satan. He notes that the more Desdemona speaks positively about Cassio, the more Othello will mistrust her. Roderigo enters and says that because he is hurt and has no more money, he is planning to return to Venice. Iago tells him to be patient and that the plan will come together.
In scene 1 of Act 2, we see that Iago has difficulty manipulating Desdemona. Thus far, Iago has shown himself to exhibit sociopathic tendencies: he is charismatic and has cultivated trust in those who should trust him the least. He understands other characters’ motivations and is able to use that understanding to his advantage. Desdemona is one of the few characters whom he cannot seem to directly manipulate in this way. (As the play continues, he uses others to influence Desdemona, never confronting her himself.) When he belittles women in this scene, Desdemona directly confronts him, making him explain himself, and she ultimately dismisses his misogynistic claims.
On the one hand, this makes Desdemona one of the few characters willing to question Iago’s beliefs and motives. On the other, it leads one to wonder why Iago removes his façade of false pretenses in this scene, a move he typically only does for the audience. It is possible that he himself is in love with Desdemona (versions of Othello exist from before Shakespeare’s time where this is definitely the case) and that this emotion is what prevents him from engaging in his self-ingratiation behavior.
That being said, Iago’s thoughts often tend towards sexual matters. In the third scene, Iago plans the riot so that it interrupts Desdemona’s and Othello’s consummation, and many of his lines somehow refer to sex. In fact, he describes the party in terms of two lovers about to go to bed. He further claims to love Desdemona in his final soliloquy in scene 1, although he is quick to state this it is because she serves a key role in his plan for revenge. It is possible that his hostility is also a result of the fact that individuals of a higher class surround him during this scene, and he simply feels insecure around them while his own wife is present. Scholars applying a lens of queer theory have also suggested that Iago secretly loves Othello, given his apparent hatred for women and his decision to prevent Desdemona and Othello from having sex. Whatever the case, there is no definitive explanation for Iago’s outburst, and it serves as one instance where his temperament and silver tongue falter in the face of Desdemona.
Another idea that begins to take shape in act 2 is the impotence of language, especially in the face of strongly held beliefs. We see this briefly in act 1, when Brabantio claims that “words are words” and do not shake beliefs, but this idea continues when we see Cassio struggling for an explanation to Othello after the riot. In scene 3, Cassio seems to regard himself as one who can speak well. As he becomes drunk, he calls attention to the fact that he can still speak, and thus must not be drunk; clearly, words are important to Cassio.
When Othello demands to know how the fight started, however, Cassio is almost entirely silent, saying only “I cannot speak.” His words, or lack thereof, have no power to combat the image that Iago has constructed for Othello to take in. Similarly, in his final discussion with Cassio, Iago claims that Cassio’s reputation is a projection, an “idle and false imposition” determined by the beliefs of others. Iago explains that it is by manipulating beliefs (those of Othello and Desdemona) that Cassio will return to his higher post. Indeed, Iago seems to be suggesting that Cassio do exactly as Iago has done, which is to plant ideas rather than rely on genuine expression.
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