Othello and Iago enter in mid-conversation. Iago goads Othello by arguing that it is no crime for a woman to be naked with a man, if nothing happens. Iago then remarks that if he were to give his wife a handkerchief, it would be hers to do as she wished with it. These persistent insinuations of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness work Othello into an incoherent frenzy. He focuses obsessively on the handkerchief and keeps pumping Iago for information about Cassio’s comments to Iago. Finally, Iago says that Cassio has told him he has lain with Desdemona, and Othello “[f]alls down in a trance” (IV.i.
Cassio enters, and Iago mentions that Othello has fallen into his second fit of epilepsy in two days. He warns Cassio to stay out of the way but tells him that he would like to speak once Othello has gone. Othello comes out of his trance, and Iago explains that Cassio stopped by and that he has arranged to speak with the ex-lieutenant. Iago orders Othello to hide nearby and observe Cassio’s face during their conversation.
Iago explains that he will make Cassio retell the story of where, when, how, and how often he has slept with Desdemona, and when he intends to do so again. When Othello withdraws, Iago informs the audience of his actual intention. He will joke with Cassio about the prostitute Bianca, so that Cassio will laugh as he tells the story of Bianca’s pursuit of him. Othello will be driven mad, thinking that Cassio is joking with Iago about Desdemona.
The plan works: Cassio laughs uproariously as he tells Iago the details of Bianca’s love for him, and even makes gestures in an attempt to depict her sexual advances. Just as Cassio says that he no longer wishes to see Bianca, she herself enters with the handkerchief and again accuses Cassio of giving her a love token given to him by another woman. Bianca tells Cassio that if he doesn’t show up for supper with her that evening, he will never be welcome to come back again.
Othello has recognized his handkerchief and, coming out of hiding when Cassio and Bianca are gone, wonders how he should murder his former lieutenant. Othello goes on to lament his hardheartedness and love for Desdemona, but Iago reminds him of his purpose. Othello has trouble reconciling his wife’s delicacy, class, beauty, and allure with her adulterous actions. He suggests that he will poison his wife, but Iago advises him to strangle her in the bed that she contaminated through her infidelity. Iago also promises to arrange Cassio’s death.
Desdemona enters with Lodovico, who has come from Venice with a message from the duke. Lodovico irritates Othello by inquiring about Cassio, and Desdemona irritates Othello by answering Lodovico’s inquiries. The contents of the letter also upset Othello—he has been called back to Venice, with orders to leave Cassio as his replacement in Cyprus. When Desdemona hears the news that she will be leaving Cyprus, she expresses her happiness, whereupon Othello strikes her.
Lodovico is horrified by Othello’s loss of self-control, and asks Othello to call back Desdemona, who has left the stage. Othello does so, only to accuse her of being a false and promiscuous woman. He tells Lodovico that he will obey the duke’s orders, commands Desdemona to leave, and storms off. Lodovico cannot believe that the Othello he has just seen is the same self-controlled man he once knew. He wonders whether Othello is mad, but Iago refuses to answer Lodovico’s questions, telling him that he must see for himself.
With Othello striking his wife in public and storming out inarticulately, this scene is the reverse of Act II, scene iii, where, after calming the “Turk within” his brawling soldiers, Othello gently led his wife back to bed. Now, insofar as Turks represented savagery in early modern England, Othello has exposed his own inner Turk, and he brutally orders his wife to bed. Iago’s lies have not only misled Othello, they have shifted him from his status of celebrated defender of Venice to cultural outsider and threat to Venetian security.
Lodovico’s arrival from Venice serves as a reminder of how great Othello’s transformation has been. As he stood before the senate at the beginning of the play, he was a great physical as well as verbal presence, towering above Brabanzio in stature and in eloquence, arresting the eyes and ears of his peers in the most political of public spaces, the court. After a short time in Cyprus, Iago has managed to bring about Othello’s “savage madness” (IV.i.
The action of the play takes place almost wholly in Iago’s world, where appearances, rather than truth, are what count. Because of Iago’s machinations, Cassio is perfectly placed to seem to give evidence of adultery, and Othello is perfectly placed to interpret whatever Cassio says or does as such. Throughout the play, Othello has been oblivious to speech, always sure that speech masks hidden meaning.
Othello’s obsession with appearances is the reason why he is content to watch Cassio’s supposed confession, despite the fact that confessions are heard rather than seen. He also turns Lodovico’s letters—which announce that Othello has been replaced by Cassio as governor of Cyprus in the same manner in which he believes Cassio has replaced him in the bedroom—into “ocular proof” that he is being supplanted.
Cyprus serves as a contrast to Venice, a place where the normal structures and laws governing civil society cease to operate. Such a world is common within Shakespeare’s plays, though far more prevalent in his comedies. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, for example, the forest functions as an unstructured, malleable world in which the characters can transgress societal norms, work out their conflicts, and then return to society with no harm done.
In the first act of Othello, Cyprus is clearly not such a world; it is a territory of Venice, to which Othello and company are called as a matter of state. As soon as the Turkish threat has been eliminated, however, the characters seem to lose their connection to Venetian society, and, with its festivities and drunken revelry, Cyprus then seems to have more in common with the alien, pastoral worlds of many of Shakespeare’s comedies.
At many points, in fact, the plot of Othello resembles those of Shakespeare comedies in that it is based upon misrecognition and jealousy. The resemblances to comedy suggest that the misunderstandings of the play will be recognized and all will live happily ever after. But Cyprus, unlike the forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is still connected to Venetian society, and the arrival of Lodovico strengthens the Venetian presence and reminds Othello of the necessity of safeguarding his societal and political reputation. Cyprus, then, becomes a sort of trap, a false escape, in which the societal norms that seem to have disappeared reemerge to capture the transgressors.
This mechanism of capture that exerts its force over the characters of Cyprus also occurs within Othello himself. The play refers on a number of occasions to jealousy as an innate force that cannot be planted, but instead grows from within and consumes itself and its host. Othello falls prey to the illusion of his own strength and power, and the jealousy it hides, just as Cyprus gives the illusion of providing a haven from the workings of the law.
Like Cyprus, Othello is half Venetian, half “other,” and his predicament is the result of forces that are half comedic mischief and half deep-rooted, essential evil. Perhaps as a way of embodying these two clashing worlds, the play continues to upset the audience’s relationship to time. Iago claims, “This is [Othello’s] second fit. He had one yesterday” (IV.i.
Similarly, when Bianca enters and chides Cassio for giving her a handkerchief she believes to be a love token from some other woman, she talks as though she never had almost the exact same conversation with Cassio in Act III, scene iv. The play’s unrealistic lapses, repetitions, expansions, and contractions may contribute to the audience’s sense that Iago’s power is almost like that of a charmer invoking a kind of magic.