Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1406
The scene opens with Cassio paying a group of musicians to play music for Othello. A clown enters, and after briefly making fun of the musicians, he pays them on behalf of Othello, who wishes for them to leave. Cassio sends the clown to fetch Emilia. Iago enters, and Cassio admits that he is going to try to use Emilia to speak to Desdemona. Iago tracks down Emilia and sends her to Cassio. Emilia tells Cassio that Othello and Desdemona are speaking and that Desdemona is trying to defend Cassio. Cassio asks Emilia to arrange a one-on-one meeting between him and Desdemona. She agrees, and they leave.
Scene 2 is relatively short. It opens upon Othello, Iago, and some gentlemen from Cyprus. Othello asks Iago to go pay the captain of the ship who brought him to Cyprus. He tells Iago that when he is finished, to come find him on the parapets. They all leave. The scene shows that Othello is now occupied, which allows the next scene to take shape.
Scene 3 opens upon Desdemona, Cassio, and Emilia. Desdemona tells Cassio that she will do everything in her power to convince Othello to reinstate him and that she will not let the matter rest with her husband until it is settled. As Othello and Iago enter, Desdemona invites Cassio to stay, but he leaves, claiming that his presence will not help. Othello notices that Cassio was just speaking to his wife, and when he asks her about it, she pressures him to show Cassio mercy, asking how soon he will reverse his decision to demote Cassio. Othello agrees to reinstate Cassio whenever Cassio is willing to come and plead his case, but he asks to be alone, so Desdemona leaves.
Iago asks how Desdemona and Cassio know one another, and Othello tells him that Cassio acted as a messenger, delivering messages between the lovers when Othello was wooing her. Iago asks if Othello can trust Cassio, and Othello seems perplexed by the question. Iago simply says that Cassio is an honest man and that people should be what they appear to be. Othello probes deeper, asking Iago to reveal anything he has not yet said. Iago, feigning reluctance, claims that he often overthinks things and states that his reputation is on the line if he reveals all of his thoughts. Iago then advises Othello to beware of jealousy, and not to be the sort of person who suspects that his wife is sleeping with someone else.
Othello is shocked and says that he would never suspect his wife of adultery, and even if he did, he would want proof of it. Iago suggests that Othello watch when Cassio and Desdemona are together, and he reminds Othello that Desdemona lied in order to marry Othello in the first place. He then reminds Othello that this is all just speculation, and he should not take any of it too seriously. Othello sends Iago away, but he speaks to himself, doubting that Desdemona loves him.
Emilia and Desdemona enter, and Othello complains of a headache. Desdemona attempts to wrap Othello’s head with her handkerchief, but he lets it fall to the ground, and they exit. Emilia picks up the handkerchief, because Iago has asked her to obtain it. She returns to Iago, and after Iago demeans her, he takes the handkerchief from her, makes her promise to say nothing more about it, and sends her away.
In an aside, Iago then explains that he is going to plant the handkerchief in Cassio’s house. Othello enters, raving about his wife’s infidelity. Othello insists that Iago find proof, because he cannot bear this unfounded suspicion any longer. Iago feigns remorse for planting these ideas in Othello’s head, and says that it would be hard to catch them in the act. However, Iago volunteers that Cassio has been talking about Desdemona in his sleep and says that he saw Cassio with the handkerchief that Othello had given to her. Othello vows revenge, promotes Iago to lieutenant, and asks him to kill Cassio.
Scene 4 begins with Desdemona, Emilia, and the clown. Desdemona tells the clown to find Cassio and let him know that she has spoken to her husband. The clown exits. Desdemona confides that she has lost her handkerchief to Emilia and that she would be concerned if her husband were the jealous type. Othello enters, and Desdemona asks if he has spoken to Cassio. Instead of responding, Othello states that he is feeling sick and asks her to lend him her handkerchief. When she says that she does not have it, Othello tells her that it was a family heirloom sewn by an Egyptian witch. The witch placed a spell on it that guaranteed the faithfulness of whomever the handkerchief’s owner loved. Othello demands to know if she has lost the handkerchief. Desdemona initially says that it is not on her person but that she knows where it is. But as Othello continues to demand she present it, she ignores him and begins asking about reinstating Cassio. This further enrages Othello, who storms off.
Emilia tells Desdemona that all men eventually become jealous and cruel. Iago and Cassio enter. Iago, pretending to act surprised, wonders how Othello could be in a bad mood, and goes to speak to Othello. Desdemona suspects that some political affair must have put Othello in a bad mood. Emilia suggests that Othello may actually be the jealous type. Desdemona leaves with Emilia and tells Cassio that she will speak to her husband when his spirits are up.
Bianca enters and chastises Cassio for leaving her for a week. Cassio apologizes and then asks her to copy the embroidery on a handkerchief that he found in his room. Bianca suspects that it was given to him by a new lover, but he tells her that he simply thinks it is pretty, and he knows that he will have to give the original back to its owner eventually. They agree to meet at another time.
In act 3, we are introduced to the clown, who seems to serve little purpose beyond comic relief. However, his wordplay continues to show how words may fail to convey certain meanings—much in the same way that Brabantio suggests that words are often empty in act 1 and Cassio’s words fail him in act 2. In this case, it is the multiple meanings of the clown’s puns that call the credibility of words into question. For instance, in scene 1, the clown asks if the musicians play wind instruments, and then says, “O, thereby hangs a tail.” While the musicians think that he has said “tale,” the suggestion is that the wind is coming from where their tails would hang, or that their music sounds like flatulence. He continues with similar wordplay in scene 3 when speaking to Desdemona, playing with the homonym of lie (to recline) and lie (to tell falsities). Despite having a short appearance in the overall play, the clown humorously reminds us that words are not always to be trusted and that they can often fail to convey a particular message to the speaker and the listener.
The humor is lost, however, during Othello’s impromptu interrogation of his wife, where it seems as though each character is having a different conversation. Othello insists that his wife produce the handkerchief that he gave her as a sign of affection, but she continues to advocate for Cassio, eventually ignoring his demands altogether. Much like the clown, who speaks on a separate layer from the other characters, Othello and Desdemona are speaking past one another, although the stakes are now much higher.
The handkerchief itself is highly symbolic, and it is understandable that Othello would not want Desdemona to lose it. First, it is a sign of Othello’s heritage. The handkerchief itself is white with a red berry embroidery. The design—red on white cloth—is reminiscent of bloodstains on a sheet, a practice used to determine a bride’s virginity, and Othello, who tells Desdemona that the red dye was made from virgin’s blood, reminds us of this. While the handkerchief was in her possession, Desdemona was in charge of her virtue. The stealing of Desdemona’s handkerchief, as well as the red on white, suggests a kind of metaphorical loss of innocence.
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