Act 4, Scenes 1–3 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on June 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1445
Othello and Iago are speaking, and Iago goads Othello by telling him that the handkerchief is Desdemona’s to do with as she wishes. Iago then says that some men are prone to brag about the women they have slept with, and Cassio has mentioned being with Desdemona. Othello sputters as he speaks about the handkerchief, confessions, and killing Cassio; he then “falls in a trance.”
Iago, in an aside, celebrates the success of his plan, and Cassio enters. He tells Cassio that Othello is having an epileptic fit. He sends Cassio away but tells him to come back later. Othello’s trance ends, and Iago tells Othello that it is better to know the truth about one’s wife than to have her adultery be secret. He then tells Othello that Cassio should be coming back soon and asks Othello to hide while Iago has Cassio recount his story of sleeping with Desdemona. Othello promises to stay calm while he hides. With Othello gone, Iago tells the audience that he is going to ask Cassio about Bianca instead of Desdemona.
Cassio enters. Iago greets him and tells him that if Bianca had any say in the matter, he would already have been reinstated as lieutenant. Cassio, laughing and speaking of Bianca, says that she seems to be in love with him but that he would never marry a whore. He talks about how she hangs on him regularly and pulls him along when they are together. Othello, who can only hear the laughter, believes his gestures refers to Desdemona pulling him to bed.
Bianca enters and gives him back the handkerchief, telling him that she will not be made to copy the embroidery of some love token he received from another woman. Othello recognizes it as the handkerchief he gave to Desdemona. She insists that Cassio come to dinner with her or she will not see him again. She storms off, and Cassio follows her to prevent her from making a larger scene. Othello comes out of hiding, wishing to kill Cassio and lamenting the loss of his wife’s virtue. He asks Iago to get poison so that he can kill his wife, but Iago suggests strangling her in the bed that she has contaminated.
A trumpet sounds, and Lodovico, Desdemona, and an entourage enter. After exchanging pleasantries, Lodovico hands Othello a message, which says that he is to return to Venice and make Cassio governor of Cyprus. Desdemona is happy to hear this, but Othello strikes her. Lodovico is shocked by Othello’s actions and insists that he apologize to Desdemona, but Othello implies that her tears are just a performance. Othello says that Cassio can have the job, welcomes Lodovico and company to Cyprus, and insults them before leaving. Lodovico asks Iago if Othello is normally so emotional and cruel, but Iago invites Lodovico to watch Othello and see for himself.
Scene 2 opens with Othello interrogating Emilia about Desdemona and Cassio. Emilia defends Desdemona, saying that she is the purest wife one could ask for. He sends Emilia away and calls for Desdemona. Desdemona enters and pleads with Othello to explain what he has been thinking. He cryptically accuses her of being unfaithful, but she cannot understand why he believes this. He continues to accuse her of infidelity and insult her. She attempts to defend herself, but Othello throws money at her and tells her to leave him alone. He exits as Emilia enters.
Emilia asks Desdemona what she and her husband were talking about, but Desdemona is in shock and cannot answer. Iago enters and inquires about Desdemona’s emotional state. Emilia explains that Othello repeatedly called her a whore, and Iago feigns shock, wondering how Othello would get such an idea. Emilia suggests that someone must have started the rumor to secure a political position, and curses whichever villain might be bold enough to try this. Desdemona asks Iago if he knows how she might win her husband back and again asserts her innocence. Iago tells her that politics have likely put Othello in a bad mood. Trumpets call them all to dinner.
Desdemona and Emilia leave, and Roderigo enters to speak with Iago. He is angry that he has made no progress with Desdemona, and we learn that he has given jewels to Iago to woo her. Roderigo is planning to tell Desdemona his true feelings, but Iago tells him that Cassio is now governor of Cyprus and then lies by telling him that Desdemona and Othello are soon leaving for Mauritania. The best way to keep Desdemona close by, he claims, is to murder Cassio, as this will force Othello to stay in Cyprus. Iago and Roderigo begin hashing out a plot to kill him.
Othello, Lodovico, Desdemona, and Emilia enter, accompanied by attendants. Othello asks Lodovico to walk with him and sends Desdemona to bed. Othello and company exit, and the scene shifts to Desdemona and Emilia in the bedchamber. Desdemona acknowledges that she still loves her husband despite his treatment and asks Emilia for help undressing. Desdemona then talks about a maid that she used to have named Barbary who would sing a song called “Willow.” Barbary died while singing it.
Desdemona now begins singing, and it is a song about a forsaken lover. She interrupts herself several times while singing it, thinking that she hears knocking and wondering if her itchy eyes are an omen. When she is finished, she asks Emilia if she would ever cheat on Iago for the entire world. While Desdemona denies that she would do such a thing, Emilia says that she would, because if it were for the whole world, she could then control the world and undo the transgression. Emilia then reminds Desdemona that men and women cheat on each other regularly, and that women have just as many needs as men do, but Desdemona sends her away.
Othello has, until this act, been relatively measured and articulate. However, when Iago tells him that Cassio has boasted about sleeping with Desdemona, Othello’s words fail him, and he can no longer speak. He exclaims,
Lie with her! That’s fulsome.—Handkerchief—confessions—handkerchief! [. . .] It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Is’t possible? Confess!—Handkerchief!—Oh, devil!
He makes these utterances before becoming catatonic. It is not words that shake Othello but the ideas that he conjures in association with those words. In fact, it seems that he cannot articulate the words that he needs to express his feelings, instead repeating the same words over again and eventually falling into complete silence, turning his attention inward. This serves to show how effectively Iago has manipulated Othello through subtle suggestions.
Once a man of words (compare this Othello to the Othello of act 1, who calms an angry mob), Othello is unable to articulate anything coherently, similar to Cassio in act 2, who “cannot speak” when he is overcome with shame and drunkenness. Similarly, in scene 2, Desdemona, who was formerly able to verbally spar with the likes of Iago, cannot answer Emilia when questioned about her relationships with her husband. Instead, she states, “I cannot weep, nor answers have I none.” She, like her husband, has been reduced to a mute state, incapable even of crying.
In the final scene of act 4, Emilia develops as a character and presents a view of gender that is progressive relative to the Elizabeth-era context of Othello’s publication. In this scene, Emilia suggests that perhaps men and women are not so different, both having sexual appetites and being capable of using sex as a weapon. In Elizabethan England, women were encouraged to be chaste, and by law, women were prohibited from playing roles on the stage, as acting was seen as an unsavory profession. Instead, young boys were hired to play female roles. In this way, this message of gender equality was originally conveyed from the lips of a man playing a woman.
Emilia’s statements also show that she is not completely submissive to her husband, despite the way he demeans her throughout the play—and despite her usual compliance. She believes that women should be free to pursue their own happiness, even if it sometimes means lying to their husbands. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine that she would take her husband’s mean-spirited comments in act 1 about women seriously. Rather than agree in silence, it seems that she maintains a measure of freedom and power, with the knowledge that at any point she might leave her husband to pursue her own appetites.