Preface to the Critical Commentary

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Last Updated on June 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 261

Shakespeare's plays as we read them today are not as they appeared in his lifetime. Some plays were printed in quarto version before being printed in the First Folio of 1623. A quarto was produced by folding a sheet of printing paper into four sections. Our modern paperbacks approximate a quarto. A folio was produced from folding a sheet of printing paper in two. Today's large "coffee table" books are a rough equivalent to a folio. Once the paper size was decided, the type for the printing press was set up by hand by men known as compositors. Working from a handwritten, or scribal, document, the compositors would often misread a word or change words so that the print made sense. Since spelling and punctuation rules had not yet been established, there was no consistency in these two areas. These and a variety of other production problems meant that in order for a modern reader to understand the text of Shakespeare's plays, an editor will attempt to put the language of the plays into a more literate format.

An editor tackling a play like Othello is dealing with a play that exists in both quarto and folio versions. Comparing the two versions (texts), the editor then chooses a "best" reading. The edition which results from this process is known as a "conflated" text. Many copies of Shakespeare's plays that we use today are conflated texts.

This analysis has used: The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, E. A. J. Honigmann, ed. Walton-on-Thames, England: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd. (The Arden 3 Series), 1997.

Act I Commentary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2213

Scene 1 Like other Shakespeare plays, Othello opens with a scene that sets the tone for the rest of the play. The playwright is intentionally vague in the details of the conversation between two men with one exception: line 2 reveals that one of the men is called Iago. We arrive in media res, literally in the middle of things.

The first man is complaining that Iago has spent his money freely and is very upset that Iago knows about "this" (I.i.3). As the conversation continues, we learn that Iago hates "him" (I.i.6) because "he" has passed over Iago for promotion to lieutenant, choosing instead "Michael Cassio, a Florentine" (I.i.19) and "a great arithmetician" (I.i.18). Who is this "he," and why does Iago hate him so much? After a lengthy list of complaints, Iago throws us a slight hint: "And I, God bless the mark, his Moorship's ancient" (I.i.32). Iago's sarcasm is distilled into a single epithet, "Moorship." Not only is the man under verbal attack Iago's superior, he is a Moor, an outsider to the world of Venice.

Speaking logically, the other man tells Iago that if he were in Iago's place, he would quit. Defensively, Iago explains that he only serves him to get even eventually. Iago assures his companion, Roderigo, that

… I will wear my heart upon my sleeve For daws to peck at; I am not what I am. (I.i.63-64)

As with his other plays, Shakespeare puts the whole play before us in a few lines. Iago is not what he is. As we will see, neither is anyone else. The key to this play is the effect of real and/or imagined deception: things are not what they are.

Roderigo, at Iago's urging, yells up to Brabantio's window, rousing the house from their sleep. Iago wastes no time in putting his plot for revenge against this Moor into action. He informs Brabantio:

Zounds, sir, you're robbed; for shame, put on your gown! Your heart is burst, you have lost your soul, Even now, now,...

(This entire section contains 2213 words.)

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very now, an old black ram Is tupping your white ewe! (I.i.86-89)

Here Iago not only informs Brabantio of a matter that is of obvious importance, but he also reveals a lot about himself and the people with whom he deals.

Iago begins a speech pattern he will continue throughout the play, especially when he is speaking about women. He uses animal imagery to categorise the hated Moor. He continues its use to describe the sex act as an act of bestiality and to demean the woman involved. Iago also apparently knows Brabantio's weak spot. His abuse of the woman contrasts starkly to "heart" and "soul" used to describe Brabantio's loss, thus revealing that the woman sleeping with the Moor is very close to Brabantio. The sexual value of this woman is a core issue for the old man.

When Roderigo addresses Brabantio, we learn that Roderigo has been banned from Brabantio's house as an unsuitable marriage candidate. Roderigo, however, tries to calm Brabantio. Iago finally interrupts with the news that "your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs" (I.i.114-116). Once again, Iago is crude and unyielding, incensing Brabantio who begins to search the house for his daughter. Abruptly, Iago tells Roderigo that he must leave since he cannot bring such an open accusation against the Moor.

At first we may find this scene amusing, that Iago, having made the accusation, cannot make the accusation. On consideration, we discover what a great psychologist Iago actually is. He has put forth a truth: the Moor is sleeping with Brabantio's daughter. He has, however, omitted the details and context of the truth, thereby altering its reception and perception. It is not what it is. Iago will do this "truth-bending" throughout the play until we ourselves question what the truth is.

As Iago leaves, an irate Brabantio confronts Roderigo with the fact that his daughter is indeed missing. He wonders if she is married; if so, perhaps she was charmed into it by magic. Brabantio thanks Roderigo and leads his household into Venice's dark streets.

Scene 2 In this scene, we meet the Moor who has apparently kidnapped Brabantio's daughter. His first line is a telling one. When Iago tells Othello that he had wanted to kill a man (possibly Roderigo or Brabantio), Othello responds: "Tis better as it is" (I.ii.6). In 186 lines, Shakespeare has subtly given us the entire play:

I am not what I am. 'Tis better as it is.

We will discover that if Othello had left things as they were, he would not have met tragedy. But for now, Iago informs Othello that he faces an annulment or jail for marrying "the gentle Desdemona" (I.ii.25). Othello responds that he is not afraid of whatever Brabantio may do because of the service he has done for Venice. He tells Iago that his reputation as a general is such that only for his love of Desdemona would he even consider compromising it.

Othello's lieutenant arrives with officers from the Duke of Venice and the Senate. Othello is summoned to the Senate on an urgent matter concerning Cyprus. Othello prepares to leave, and while he does, Iago tells the lieutenant that Othello is married. As the men leave, Brabantio, Roderigo, and others draw their weapons to attack Othello. Brabantio is furious and demands to know the whereabouts of Desdemona. He accuses Othello of casting a spell on the girl. He contends that Desdemona was

So opposite to marriage that she shunned The wealthy, curled darlings of our nation. (I.ii.67-68)

Brabantio goes even further to accuse Othello of using drugs and witchcraft. Brabantio orders the officers with him to arrest Othello and kill him if he resists. Calmly Othello asks the irate father where he would like Othello to go. Brabantio says "To prison" and Othello counters that he is summoned by the Duke. Brabantio does not believe that the Duke has called for a council meeting in the middle of the night, but decides that his cause has such overwhelming importance that it should be presented directly to the Duke.

On the surface, this scene may be viewed as giving us details about and introductions to characters we will meet later. However, the scene also gives us immediate access to the dynamics of the various relationships which shape the play. We meet Othello's lieutenant who Iago had so maligned in Scene 1. From his dialogue, we can see that he is a straight-to-the-point military man. We are unaware that he has any connection to Desdemona at this point, but Iago's comment, "If it prove a lawful prize, he's made for ever" (I.ii.51), serves two purposes. Iago knows something that the lieutenant does not but should know. And Iago, while saying Othello will be "made for ever" is planning the general's downfall as well as that of the lieutenant. Therefore, we see Iago as consistently sarcastic and manipulative without being shown why he is that way.

The scene also gives us a strong first impression of Othello. He is a general who is a career soldier. His handling of Brabantio shows his prowess at dealing with men either in the heat of battle or the heat of passion, which could almost be synonymous. He is so confident in his capabilities that he seems to ride above Brabantio's racial epithets and wrath.

Without our realizing it, Shakespeare has constructed several triangles which will frame the action of the play: Iago, Roderigo, Othello; Iago, Cassio, Othello; Brabantio, Othello, Desdemona; Cassio, Othello, Desdemona. Each of these triangles are interlinked and have as their common thread the inclusion of Othello. The difference in how the problems of these relationships are resolved will be based on how Othello acts or does not act on Iago's "I am not what I am."

Scene 3 This scene opens with the Duke's and the senators' comments on the inconsistencies in the reports of the number of galleys (ships) in the Turkish fleet. This discussion creates a geographical triangle: Venice, Turkey, Cyprus. The Duke arrives at the conclusion that whether the Turkish fleet has 170, 140, or 200 galleys, it is certain that they pose a threat to Cyprus and, as is soon reported, to Rhodes. The messenger comes from the governor of Cyprus who begs the Duke to send help. The Duke wants to send Othello, who enters the senate chamber with Roderigo and Brabantio.

The Cyprus situation is the last thing on Brabantio's mind. When the man wails, "My daughter, O, my daughter" (I.iii.60) in response to the Duke's "what's the matter" (I.iii.59), the Duke thinks Desdemona has died. Obviously, the two men have different criteria for defining "grief" (I.iii.56). Brabantio repeats his accusation that Desdemona has been bewitched and points the finger at Othello. Othello's response to the Duke and the others shows him to be a true tactician.

Othello admits witchcraft and asks for the Duke to bring Desdemona to the Senate, which he does, with Iago showing them the way. During this time, Othello tells a moving story of how Desdemona listened to his stories of "the battles, sieges, fortunes / That I have passed" (I.iii.131-132). The general relates that frequently Desdemona was moved to tears by his tales. When Desdemona indicated she was in love with Othello "for the dangers I had passed" (I.iii.167), he admitted that he "loved her that she did pity them" (I.iii.168). The Duke believes Othello because the story he has just heard moved him. When Desdemona arrives, she tells Brabantio that she is indebted to him "for life and education" (I.iii.182) but that she now must be loyal to her husband. Brabantio concedes and the Duke urges him to be reconciled to his daughter's marriage. But Brabantio knows that the Senate has convened to discuss action against the Turks, and that his personal problem is subordinate to the needs of the State.

Shakespeare cues us to the shift from private problems to public ones through the language. Othello tells his story in blank verse. Brabantio's capitulation is in rhyming couplets. The Duke follows with a speech in prose. The jarring change is also reflected in the content of the Duke's speech: Othello must leave the comfort of Venice as we have left the comfort of rhyming couplet, which is often the way nursery rhymes are constructed. Othello must return to his life as general in command of a "stubborn and boisterous expedition" (I.iii.229).

Othello is unfazed by this assignment. He is accustomed to the hardships imposed on a soldier by war. He knows, however, that Desdemona is not so accustomed, and he asks the Duke to make sure she is cared for. The Duke suggests she stay at her father's. Brabantio immediately refuses and Othello agrees. Desdemona joins the discussion by agreeing with the two men, asking the Duke to allow her to accompany Othello. Othello assures the Duke that if he agrees to let Desdemona go on the long trip, it will not to be to satisfy his needs as a man nor would he ignore his duties as a soldier. The Duke responds that it does not matter to him, but the Turks invasion of Cyprus does. Othello must leave immediately, whatever he decides about Desdemona.

Othello leaves Iago to secure the commission from the Duke and to make arrangements for Desdemona. As the Duke leaves, Othello assures Brabantio that he (Othello) is a man of strong moral fiber. Brabantio, however, leaves him with a bitter truth:

Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has deceived her father, and may thee. (I.iii.293-294)

Othello shrugs off the comment, and tells Iago that Iago's wife would be a good companion for Desdemona. Iago is to bring both women to Cyprus. Othello and Desdemona leave to spend a last hour together before the trip separates them.

Roderigo is despondent over the turn of events and threatens to drown himself. Iago knows that if he does, then Iago loses extra income. In the passages that follow, the word "purse" is used six times in fourteen lines, and "money" seven times in sixteen lines. Iago succeeds in gulling the man who will sell his land and travel to Cyprus in pursuit of Desdemona. Iago then lets us in on his plan. He knows Othello judges men by appearances, and he will use this weakness to manipulate the general into believing that Desdemona and Cassio, the lieutenant, are lovers. This way, he can get revenge on Othello and destroy Cassio. It does not seem that Roderigo figures very prominently in this plan.

We now know all we need to understand the play. We have met the main characters, we have the background of life in Venice, and we are about to move to Cyprus. With Iago's plan now verbalized and Othello's commission for war against the Turks, the play promises plenty of action. But Shakespeare is never so obvious, so simple. The scenes so far have given us just a peek at the psychology of these men and women of Venice. How will things change when they are at war in Cyprus?

Act II Commentary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 883

Scene 1 Act II opens with Signior Montano and his friends discussing the weather and its effect on the sea that surrounds Cyprus. The Turks are attempting an invasion, but with most of their fleet wrecked by a storm, their attack is aborted. The storm, however, has not affected the Venetian ship on which Cassio sailed. He arrives safely in Cyprus, and is nervous about Othello's safe arrival. Iago arrives soon after with Desdemona and his wife, Emilia. Othello has yet to land.

While the company waits for the general, Desdemona engages Cassio, Iago and his wife, Emilia, in a word game that reveals Iago's disdain of women so intensely that Desdemona comments, "O heavy ignorance, thou praisest the worst best" (II.i.143-144). Cassio takes Desdemona's hand, and Iago decides that it will be by such simple actions that he will trap Cassio.

Othello's ship pulls in, and Desdemona greets her husband with a kiss, a very private action in a public forum. Othello announces that the Turks are drowned, and that the war is over. When Othello and Desdemona leave, Iago tells Roderigo that Desdemona is in love with Cassio, but it takes a while to convince him. Ultimately, Iago brings Roderigo around to believing the lie, and they agree to meet later.

This scene poses several perplexing questions. Othello's commission is to fight the Turks and protect Cyprus, but the war is over when he arrives. So, what is this play about? Iago tells Roderigo a deliberate lie. What is he up to? Why does Roderigo believe him? Why does Roderigo stay in Cyprus? Othello and Desdemona are happy newlyweds. How will Iago get his revenge with their love so obviously, and publicly, strong?

The key to these questions can be found in Iago's soliloquy at the end of the scene. He plans to

put the Moor At least into a jealousy so strong That judgement cannot cure. (II.i.304-306)

Iago is a supreme judge of human nature. By seizing on Othello's and Cassio's weaknesses, and by colouring Othello's interpretation of what he sees, Iago will be able to manipulate these people any way he wants.

Scene 2 Othello's Herald reads his proclamation for celebrating the defeat of the Turks and his wedding for six hours from 5-11 PM. This scene provides the transition from Iago's plan to Iago's action.

Scene 3 Othello begins the scene by instructing Cassio to make sure that the celebration does not get out of hand. Cassio replies that Iago is overseeing the feast, but, nonetheless, he will follow the general's order. Othello and Desdemona retire to bed.

When Cassio tells Iago that they must attend to the watch, Iago tells him that it is not yet 10 and the celebration has a bit more to go. Cassio protests that he has no capacity for drinking, but Iago insists. Cassio is soon intoxicated. Iago then tells Montano that Cassio is a habitual drunk, and Montano resolves to inform Othello of this fact. When Iago sends Roderigo after Cassio, Cassio chases Roderigo and gets into a fight with Montano. Roderigo sounds the alarm when Montano is wounded. Othello comes in from his bedroom to break up the brawl. He asks "honest Iago" (II.iii.168) to tell him what is going on. Othello presses for information until Iago is "forced" to confess that Cassio started the brawl. Othello relieves Cassio of being his officer. Cassio is devastated by the loss of his reputation.

Iago assures Cassio that nothing is lost, that all Cassio needs to do is to go back to Othello when the time is right. Cassio curses drinking and says that if he did go to Othello to get his place back, Othello would label him a drunkard. Iago then tells him that he should go to Desdemona instead and have her intercede for him with Othello. Cassio agrees and thanks Iago for his "honest" advice.

Iago tells us how his plan will play out when Roderigo comes in, complaining that he is broke, beaten, and on his way home. Iago tells him he must have patience. Othello has already fired Cassio, and soon Othello will get rid of Desdemona.

This scene not only sets Iago plan into motion, but also achieves one of his goals, the demotion of Cassio. If this goal is achieved, what else could be left for him to do?

What is particularly interesting is the depiction of small personal events against the backdrop of global political events. The war with the Turks is over before it begins as Iago's plan opportunistically is completed before he initiates it. One other notable point is that Othello is now in an arena in which he has a place: he is the general. In Venice he was a subordinate outsider. Here he is the leader. Desdemona, on the other hand, was a daughter in Venice, and is now a wife—both roles subservient to strong, older men. Curiously, Othello demands Christian behavior from his troops in non-Christian Cyprus.

Clearly, Iago realizes that, while in Venice, he has little opportunity to effect his plan because of the proximity of people who can contradict him on Desdemona's reputation, in spite of her father's advice to Othello. However, in this environment, as Othello's ancient, Iago's position is more heavily weighted.

Act III Commentary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1600

Scene 1 To relieve some of the tension already established and perhaps to distract us a little, Shakespeare brings in musicians and a clown to begin this scene. The more practical purpose is to get the Clown to relay a message from Cassio to Emilia, Iago's wife. As Cassio waits for Desdemona, Iago himself comes by to check on the humiliated lieutenant. Cassio is touched to the point where he exclaims: "I never knew / A Florentine more kind and honest" (III.i.40-41). Emilia comes to tell Cassio that Othello and Desdemona are discussing the situation and that Desdemona is on Cassio's side. Cassio asks Emilia to arrange a private meeting between Cassio and Desdemona. She agrees.

Once again the word "honest" is used to describe Iago, but Cassio does so in the context of identifying Iago as a fellow as good as any Florentine. Italian city-states were fiercely separatist and patriotic. For Cassio, a Florentine, to praise an outsider like Iago as kind and honest' "as a Florentine is a high compliment indeed, and, as such, underlines the dramatic irony of the statement. Iago is obviously far from kind, definitely not honest, nor eager to be classified as a Florentine. Furthermore, Iago draws his innocent wife into his web of intrigue.

Scene 2 This six-line scene between Othello, Iago, and some gentlemen allows us to see Othello dispatching his duties as a general. It is also apparent that Iago has replaced Cassio. In addition, we learn that Othello will be on official public business, which becomes important in the following scenes.

Scene 3: Desdemona assures Cassio that she will do her best to get him reinstated with Othello. Emilia adds that her husband is worried too. Desdemona pledges before Emilia that she will persist in Cassio's cause. Cassio leaves hurriedly when Othello and Iago approach.

Iago comments to Othello that he does not like the young man's leaving at the sight of Othello. Desdemona begins her suit on behalf of Cassio. Having completed some official business and having more to do, Othello tells Desdemona that now is not the time to discuss Cassio. Desdemona, however, continues, unwilling to stop talking even when Othello concedes. Finally Desdemona leaves.

Iago questions Othello about Cassio's role as a go-between between Othello and Desdemona when they were courting. Othello is furious at Iago's insinuation that Cassio courted Desdemona for himself. Yet he is unsure. Othello presses Iago to tell him what he is thinking. Iago finally plants the seed: "O beware, my lord, of jealousy!" (III.iii.167). Othello begins to fight the identity of the emotion he has been feeling. Iago seizes the opportunity to remain free of suspicion. When Othello demands proof of Desdemona's deception, Iago tells Othello to use his eyes. He reminds the general that Desdemona deceived Brabantio to marry him, an echo of what Desdemona's father had told him in the Senate chamber.

Although Othello says, "I do not think but Desdemona's honest" (III.iii.229), it is obvious that he has serious doubts by saying that the girl had rejected all other suitors of her own social standing and race to marry Othello—an act way out of character for her.

Iago has struck at the heart of Othello's insecurities, but he has done so in Othello's native environment, a war zone. Desdemona's interference in this area is not only unwise, but presents a challenge to her husband's decisions regarding his army. It is very ironic that Othello would be most vulnerable where he is most secure. Iago knows this full well and presses onward.

Iago advises Othello to hold off on Cassio's reinstatement and observe Cassio and Desdemona together, not giving what Iago has just said a second thought. After Iago laves, Othello verbalizes his inadequacies in assessing human behavior and in knowing about love. Othello suddenly and firmly arrives at the conclusion that he has been wronged by Desdemona and that he can only hate her now. Just as quickly he says:

Look where she comes. If she be false, O then heaven mocks itself, I'll not believe it. (III.iii.281-283)

Critically, Desdemona and Emilia come to call Othello to the state banquet he has arranged. Othello tells his wife he has a headache, and she tries to soothe it with her handkerchief. Almost imperceptibly, she drops it, and she and Othello go to the banquet. Emilia picks up the handkerchief, and because Iago had pressured her for it, Emilia decides to give it to him instead of Desdemona. Iago determines to plant the handkerchief on Cassio, observing that it is the little things that aggravate jealousy.

Othello has left the banquet, tortured by his thoughts, alleging that as long as he did not know of Desdemona's falsity, he was better off. Iago sympathizes with him. Othello again demands proof of Desdemona's sin. Iago is evasive again, but asks if catching Desdemona in bed with Cassio would be proof. Othello angrily responds that that would be impossible, but Iago says "imputation and strong circumstances" (III.iii.409) should be enough. Othello demands "a living reason" (III.iii.412). Iago insists on telling his lies. He says that while he slept with Cassio (as soldiers shared sleeping arrangements), Cassio thought Iago was Desdemona, but then says it must have been a dream. Othello is enraged.

Having worked Othello to a fever pitch, Iago tells him that Cassio has Desdemona's handkerchief. As Othello continues to curse and rage against Desdemona, Iago takes a vow of service to Othello, who orders him to kill Cassio "within these three days" (III.iii.475). He then promotes Iago to lieutenant.

It would seem that Iago has achieved all he set out to do. Yet this is only the middle of the play. The forces Iago has unleashed are beyond his control, and we are uncertain at the end of this very long scene where the play is going. This uncertainty is akin to that felt by Othello. He does not want to believe that his wife is an adulteress, but his experience with women is small when compared to his experience with men on whom he relies and with whom he has shared the majority of his life.

In addition, Othello's tendency to make judgements by appearances, an essential skill for a soldier, will prove to be his downfall in the area of marital relations. It is a dangerous game that Iago is playing and his instinct for self-preservation demands the sacrifice of many innocent lives.

Scene 4 Desdemona and Emilia have been looking for the handkerchief, and Emilia has lied about its whereabouts. Desdemona, unaware of what has transpired between Othello and Iago, comments that Othello is incapable of jealousy. Simultaneously, it is a silly and tragic statement that reveals Desdemona's lack of perception and understanding of her husband.

When she sees him, Desdemona immediately tells Othello that she has sent for Cassio so that Othello may speak with him about reinstatement. Suddenly, Othello says he feels a chill and asks Desdemona for her handkerchief. When she offers it, he asks for the one that he had given her, the one that had belonged to his mother, the one Emilia has given to Iago. He tells Desdemona that the cloth is magic. They begin to squabble about where it could be, and Desdemona tells Othello that his demand for the handkerchief is a trick to distract her from pleading for Cassio. Othello leaves in a fury.

Iago has convinced Cassio that only Desdemona can plead his cause, and when Cassio asks her how things are going, Desdemona responds that Othello is not himself and that she has done her best. Iago cannot believe that Othello is angry and goes off to investigate, ostensibly. Desdemona tried to analyze why Othello should be so irritated, and ascribes it to matters of state. Emilia hopes that this is indeed the reason and jealousy. Desdemona and Emilia leave Cassio to find Othello, and Bianca approaches the dishonored officer.

Bianca, a local prostitute, asks Cassio where he has been. He tells her he has serious problems to consider, and then asks her if she would remove some embroidery from a handkerchief he had found in his chamber. He tells Bianca he is waiting for Othello, but he will walk with her a little, promising to see her soon.

With this scene's beginning with a word play game between Desdemona and the Clown, it would be easy to dismiss it as a light scene that only tells us about the handkerchief, which is such a little thing. But there is a clever structure here. In a comedy, the accidental passing of a small item such as a handkerchief would be a running joke and probably would be very funny. However, at this point in the play, negative passions are abundant. The handkerchief is critical to Desdemona's "defense." By starting the scene with a comic convention and twisting it to fit tragic circumstances, Shakespeare emphasises the intensity of Othello's jealousy and its tragic results. There is nothing funny about this little item, not even the facts that it was given to Othello by his mother and that it has magic powers. These ascriptions underline the effects that irrational jealousy has on Othello's psyche, and quite possibly, on us too.

Emilia's lack of honesty to Desdemona is minor in comparison to Iago's lies to Othello, but it is no less deadly. Both women seriously misjudge their mates and their moods. Such misjudgements counter the males' distorted views of women. Neither is correct, but both are absolute and ingrained on either side of the male-female equation.

Act IV Commentary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1172

Scene 1 This scene illustrates how strong a hold irrational jealousy has on Othello. Iago pushes Othello so far that the general "falls in a trance" (IV.i.43, stage direction) or epileptic fit. Cassio comes in at this point, but Iago sends him away. When Othello recovers, Iago tells him that Cassio came by, and that, while Othello observes, Iago will question the young man.

Iago then engages Cassio in conversation about Bianca, while Othello watches, thinking Desdemona is the topic. When Bianca arrives with the handkerchief, Othello realizes it must be the one he gave Desdemona. Cassio goes after Bianca and Iago goes after Othello. Othello means to kill both Desdemona and Cassio.

Desdemona arrives with Lodovico, who has a letter from Venice. As Desdemona tells Lodovico of the rift between Cassio and Othello, Othello strikes her. Lodovico cannot believe that such behavior has happened publicly right before his eyes. Othello further humiliates Desdemona and leaves in a rage. Left alone with Iago, Lodovico is told that Othello is not in his right mind. Lodovico takes "honest" Iago's word for the truth, commenting, "I am sorry that I am deceived in him" (IV.i.282).

The entire scene clearly illustrates Othello's inexperience with women. He too quickly ascribes the qualities of a loose woman to an innocent woman. Rather than confront Desdemona with Iago's accusations, Othello chooses to believe his "friend." This may seem strange to us, but when we consider that the army has been Othello's life, it becomes easier to understand. On the battlefield, Othello is only as good as the troops under his command. Within a military structure, discipline is handled by a strict, universally observed, code, which may include striking a soldier. Because of the ever-present threat of death, soldiers learn quickly to be co-dependent on each other. Therefore, Othello has no valid reason to doubt a man with whom he would entrust his life, however obvious Iago's lies may seem to us.

Scene 2 Othello opens the scene by questioning Emilia about her observation of Cassio and Desdemona. It may seem a small glimmer of hope, but when Emilia leaves to fetch Desdemona, Othello completely discounts Emilia's story. His mind is made up.

He calls Desdemona "whore," "public commoner," and "impudent strumpet," terms that would never have crossed his mind had they stayed in Venice, and words which were tantamount to curses for Elizabethan audiences. No matter what Desdemona says or does, she cannot prove her innocence to her husband. She also cannot understand why Othello is behaving this way.

When Emilia returns, she interrupts Othello's stream of verbal abuse. Of course, Emilia's first concern is for the dazed Desdemona:

Do not talk to me, Emilia; I cannot weep, nor answers have I none But what should go by water. (IV.ii.104-106)

Desdemona sends Emilia to get Iago, and when he enters, he asks Desdemona what is wrong. Emilia answers for her mistress who cannot even bring herself to repeat the word "whore." Emilia knows that

some eternal villain, Some busy and insinuating rogue, Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office, (IV.ii.132-134)

has spread this tale(s) about Desdemona.

Iago hears his wife speak the truth and instantly denies that such a man exists. But Emilia persists. Finally, Iago calls her a fool. The distraught Desdemona asks her betrayer for advice on how to win Othello back. Iago assures her that Othello is simply under pressure from state business, and Desdemona and Emilia go in to supper as Roderigo arrives.

Roderigo is very annoyed with Iago because Iago has failed to deliver Desdemona to him. Iago turns Roderigo's wrath to purposeful anger by asking him to kill Cassio so that Othello and Desdemona cannot return to Venice. Iago tells Roderigo that Cassio is having supper with a prostitute. Iago will also help Roderigo kill Cassio.

This scene is loaded with dramatic irony. Othello, who did not ask for it, received advice from Iago that leads him to believe Desdemona is a shameful adulteress. Desdemona, who asks for Iago's advice, is told nothing is wrong with her husband and that all will be well. In the meantime, Iago, the villain, further deceives the innocent Roderigo, who seems intent on his own destruction. Single-handedly, Iago has taken him beyond bankruptcy to murder. There seems to be no limit to Iago's evil ventures. But just as Emilia interrupts Othello's tirade, she will interrupt her husband's plan. She has unwittingly spoken the truth, but next time, she will be acutely aware of the truth. For Iago, the limits are soon to be reached.

Scene 3 This scene is often cut in performances, but its inclusion is essential to the unrelenting tension building to the climax of Act V.

Othello, Lodovico, Desdemona, and Emilia leave the state banquet, and Othello orders Desdemona to go to bed alone. But before Emilia leaves, she and Desdemona have a revealing conversation about the relationship between men and women.

Desdemona speaks of dying for love as Emilia prepares her for bed. Desdemona has noted that Lodovico is "a proper man. / A very handsome man" (IV.iii.34-35), indicating two things: (1) that she can note these qualities in a man other than her husband; (2) that she had recognized those qualities in Othello. This second point clearly demonstrates her internal confusion about the sudden change in his behavior toward her. Desdemona begins to sing a sad song that ends "If I court moe women, you'll couch with moe men" (IV.iii.56). In his moments of darkest despair, Othello will repeat this same sentiment almost verbatim.

But for now, Desdemona asks her maid id there are women who will cheat on their husbands. Emilia says that there are, and that if she were offered "the whole wide world" (IV.iii.74), she would too. Desdemona refuses to believe her. Emilia tells her that if wives stray, it is the fault of their husbands, because men sleep with other women when they are abroad, they get jealous over petty things, they restrict their wives' liberty, beat them or reduce them to less than when they were married. According to Emilia, husbands should treat wives as equals and recognize that women's feelings are just as intense as men's.

The placement of this scene before Act V shows us just how well Emilia knows Iago and what her life with him has meant. Thus, the playwright underlines Desdemona's lack of knowledge about sexual politics. Not only is Desdemona naive, but she also refuses to heed Emilia's worldly advice.

It must be remembered that Desdemona was raised in the world of courtly love. Putting the wedding sheets on the bed, asking Emilia to wrap her body in them should she die, and singing "The Willow Song," are all conventions of how a lover should behave, a philosophy to which Emilia does not subscribe. The contrast between the two women is the contrast between illusion and reality, being in love with love and being in love, young idealism and old practicality, inexperience and experience.

Act V Commentary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 773

Scene 1 The last two scenes of the play bring all the plot elements together in the final spiral of destruction of most of the people we have had under observation for four acts. Iago has convinced a reluctant, and we might think hopeless, Roderigo to kill an unsuspecting Cassio with his help. To Iago, however, Roderigo is the one who must be killed in addition to Cassio, because Iago has robbed Roderigo of a fortune that Iago cannot possibly repay. Furthermore, if Cassio lives, Iago risks being exposed to Othello for the conniving villain he is.

Roderigo attacks Cassio, but misses. Cassio stabs Roderigo, and Iago follows suit, wounding Cassio in the leg. When Othello hears Cassio cry "Murder! Murder!" (V.i.27), he is convinced that Iago has slain Cassio as promised. Othello goes off to kill Desdemona.

Lodovico and another Venetian, hearing the commotion, think it is a trap; however, Iago comes upon the scene like an innocent, concerned bystander. Iago fatally stabs Roderigo, binds up Cassio's leg wound, and pretends to be overly concerned in front of the two Venetians. He then tries to implicate the innocent Bianca in the proceedings.

Iago is now in a most precarious situation unless Cassio also dies. But as a prologue to the final scene, Shakespeare sets up the audience well. According to Lodovico, "it is a heavy night" (V.i.41), meaning that it is foggy and dark, but it is also a heavy night because of the number of deaths and the violence that is yet to come. Throughout the play, Shakespeare has been playing with the motif of light and darkness: Othello is black, Desdemona white; Iago wakes Brabantio at night and furthers his plan by day; Othello will soon debate Desdemona's death in terms of light and dark.

In addition, Iago is acting more impulsively without a thought for the consequences. Although his primary concern was the murder of Cassio, he slays Roderigo and does not have the opportunity to follow through on his pledge to Othello. Weighed one against the other, the murder of Roderigo is of less consequence to Iago than that of Cassio. Iago's schemes are beginning to disintegrate.

Scene 2 As Othello comes in to his and Desdemona's bedroom, he has reverted to "civilized" language, unable to mention Desdemona's supposed sin to the "chaste stars" (V.ii.2). He compares Desdemona's life to the light he carries, and realises that once he snuffs out her life, he cannot just bring it back.

Once Desdemona acknowledges him, however, Othello is angry again, accusing her of giving Cassio her handkerchief and of sleeping with him. Her denials fall on deaf ears. Desdemona pleads for her life, but Othello smothers her. Emilia knocks on the door at this crucial moment, and Othello thinks she is there with news of Cassio's death.

Emilia, however, tells Othello that Cassio has killed Roderigo. Desdemona, not yet dead, cries, "O falsely, falsely murdered" (V.ii.115). Emilia discovers her mistress dying, and Desdemona says that she alone is responsible for her death. But Othello confesses it to Emilia.

Emilia further learns that her husband, Iago, has told Othello the story of Desdemona's infidelity. Emilia, against Iago's pleas for her to be quiet, tells Othello the truth about the handkerchief. Othello tries to attack Iago, but Iago stabs Emilia and runs. With her dying breath, Emilia swears to Othello that Desdemona was a good, chaste, and faithful wife.

Othello cannot escape the pain and horror of his own making. The Venetians return with Iago and the wounded Cassio. Cassio reveals that Roderigo left a letter with the full details of Iago's plot. Othello is shattered. He stabs himself, and dies kissing Desdemona.

Lodovico takes control, remands Iago to custody, and prepares to return to Venice to file his report on the situation.

So it would seem that Shakespeare has neatly worked out the fate of all the characters. But has he? We get no further news about Bianca, nor do we know if Cassio is reinstated into the army. Will Othello and Desdemona be buried together in Cyprus or will they be returned to Venice? Will Othello have a full military funeral like Hamlet's? What is "the torture" (V.ii.367) to which Iago will be subjected? Can any punishment really suit his crimes? Are they really crimes or are they the actions of an opportunist, a name that could easily describe any of the Venetians?

Shakespeare has left us the end of the domestic tragedy, the death of two lovers, but he also leaves us with a cautionary parable about politics, race relations and the equivocal definition of "honesty."




Critical Evaluation