Desdemona orders the clown to find Cassio and bring him the message that she has made her suit to Othello. As the clown departs, Desdemona wonders to Emilia where her handkerchief might be. Othello enters and tells Desdemona to give him her hand. She does so, and he chastises her for her hand’s moistness, which suggests sexual promiscuity. He then asks her to lend him her handkerchief. When Desdemona cannot produce the handkerchief he wants to see, Othello explains the handkerchief’s history.
An Egyptian sorceress gave it to his mother and told her that it would make her desirable and keep Othello’s father loyal, but if she lost it or gave it away, Othello’s father would leave her. Othello’s mother gave him the magic handkerchief on her deathbed, instructing him to give it to the woman he desired to marry. Desdemona is unsettled by the story and says that she has the handkerchief, but not with her. Othello does not believe her. As he accuses her, demanding “The handkerchief!” with increasing vehemence, she entreats for Cassio as a way of changing the subject.
After Othello storms off, Emilia laments the fickleness of men. Cassio and Iago enter, and Cassio immediately continues with his suit to Desdemona for help. Desdemona tells Cassio that his timing is unfortunate, as Othello is in a bad humor, and Iago promises to go soothe his master. Emilia speculates that Othello is jealous, but Desdemona maintains her conviction that Othello is upset by some political matter. She tells Cassio to wait while she goes to find Othello and bring him to talk with his former lieutenant.
While Cassio waits, Bianca, a prostitute, enters. She reprimands him for not visiting her more frequently, and he apologizes, saying that he is under stress. He asks her to copy the embroidery of a handkerchief he recently found in his room onto another handkerchief. Bianca accuses him of making her copy the embroidery of a love gift from some other woman, but Cassio tells her she is being silly. They make a plan to meet later that evening.
In this scene, the time scheme of the play begins to unravel. When Bianca talks to Cassio, she says, “What, keep a week away,” suggesting that Cassio has been on the island for at least a week (III.iv.
Critics and editors have named this problem the “double time scheme”: two separate time frames operate simultaneously. This inconsistency is somewhat disorienting—like Othello, the audience feels stuck in a chaotic world. The events onstage are not only beyond our control, they defy logical understanding. For instance, it is difficult to understand how Desdemona could have had time to commit adultery.
From the moment it is introduced into the plot, the handkerchief given to Desdemona by Othello becomes the play’s most important symbol. As a charmed gift given to Othello by his mother, the handkerchief represents Othello’s mysterious and exotic heritage, a heritage that he has repudiated as a Christian and Venetian citizen. More immediately, to Othello the handkerchief represents Desdemona’s chastity, and her giving it away is a sign that she has given her body away. In Act III, scene iii, Iago mentions that the handkerchief’s much-discussed embroidery is a design of strawberries. The image of strawberries on a white background recalls the bloodstains on a wedding sheet that prove a bride’s virginity; moreover, the dye used to color the strawberry pattern actually consists of the preserved blood of dead virgins.
Thus, the handkerchief suggests a number of different interpretations. By positioning the handkerchief in Cassio’s lodging, Iago as good as convicts Desdemona of unfaithfulness. And when, in the following scene, Bianca is found to be in possession of the handkerchief, instructed to copy the embroidery, Desdemona seems no better than a prostitute herself, carelessly allowing what was once a symbol of Othello’s uniqueness to be passed around and replicated. Othello has convinced himself that Desdemona has lost her virtue because she has lost a symbol of that virtue.
Emilia, who betrays her privileged position as Desdemona’s attendant by giving Iago the handkerchief, is an elusive character. Emilia seems to become loyal to her husband in a way she hasn’t been in the past: she decides to give Iago the handkerchief after having denied his request “a hundred times,” and she lies to Desdemona about not knowing the handkerchief’s whereabouts. Yet later, in Act IV, scene ii, Emilia will attempt to convince Othello of Desdemona’s loyalty. She seems deeply skeptical of and knowledgeable about men in general. She immediately recognizes that Othello is jealous, despite Desdemona’s protests, and her comment that jealousy “is a monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself” (III.iv.
Iago mentions at the beginning of the play that he suspects his wife of unfaithfulness, and on one level Iago and Emilia seem to work out their conflict vicariously through Othello and Desdemona. But Emilia also comments that men “are all but stomachs, and we are all but food. / They eat us hungrily, and when they are full, / They belch us” (III.iv.
Act III, scene iv assumes the bizarre shape of a perverted trial. From the moment he enters, Othello plays the role of the prosecutor, demanding that Desdemona produce the handkerchief and accusing her of being a whore. Instead of defending herself against her husband’s accusations, Desdemona responds by advocating Cassio’s case, appealing to Othello as a judge of Cassio’s character. The result is a shouting match, wherein husband and wife completely fail to communicate, Othello repeatedly screaming “The handkerchief!” while Desdemona enumerates Cassio’s noble qualities, all of which Othello takes as testimony against her. He points to her moist hand as evidence of her inherently lascivious nature. Finally, the handkerchief itself is the strong circumstantial proof that Iago promised him.
By this point, the plot unfolds without any further assistance from Iago, although he is still involved in manipulating it in some way. He has thus far been so careful to inform the audience of his every plan that it seems like he must have anticipated every turn in the road. As with the characters onstage, Iago’s power with the audience lies in his ability to make them believe he knows more than he does.