Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
The idea of comic relief seems repulsive in this play, but here, when Cassio has some musicians play, a clown banters with them. That there is no important clown figure here is appropriate in that no such perspective really should appear in this tragedy.
The clown asks, “Why, masters, have your instruments been in Naples, that they speak i’ th’ nose thus?” (III.i.3-4). Strained footnotes regarding syphillis aside, this has been taken to show that Shakespeare knew of various dialectic inflections, not just generic Italian he picked up in a pub. The implication is that Stratford Will is again a poor candidate as the author of the plays. The clown quips on the idea of a “wind instrument” (III.i.10), appropriate in a play about lies. And according to the clown, Othello wants the music to stop.
An insomniacal Cassio tells Iago that he’s asked Iago’s wife Emilia to notify Desdemona that he hopes she will make his appeal with Othello. Emilia reports that they are discussing the issue and she agrees to allow Cassio to speak with Desdemona.
Othello now trusts Iago and makes an appointment to meet with him.
Set in a lovely garden of the Cyprian castle, the citadel, this scene has Desdemona promising Cassio that she’ll try to restore him to Othello’s good graces. Unfortunately she calls it his “suit” (III.iii.26), which makes him a “suitor” (III.iii.42), and she says she will be relentless. Whether this is because she is anxious to prove that she can have her requests granted or just that she is young and eager, we know it’s bad news.
When Othello and Iago arrive, Iago subtly draws attention and suspicion to Cassio’s leaving by saying, “Hah? I like not that” (III.iii.35). “What … ?” asks Othello. “Nothing” (III.iii.36). But it works and Othello brings up the subject of Cassio, as does Desdemona immediately, insisting that they discuss his situation soon. And she refuses to drop it, to the point of nagging Othello, who says when she leaves, “Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee! and when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again” (III.iii.90-92).
Without missing a beat, Iago starts in on Othello with what can be called a “seduction” scene, or “temptation scene,” in that Othello’s trust is seduced away from trusting Desdemona. Iago uses baited repetition to hook Othello first (III.iii.102ff), ultimately conveying ambivalence about Cassio’s seeming honesty. Iago offers a handy little speech concerning honorable reputation — “Who steals my purse steals trash; … But he that filches from me my good name…” (III.iii.157-159) — the opposite of what he was saying to Cassio not long ago. Somewhat out of the blue, he warns Othello, “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy. / It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock / The food it feeds on” (III.iii.165-166). Not knowing, he says, is worse than knowing one is a cuckold (III.iii.167-170), something Othello will soon agree with and repeat. For now, Othello insists he could not be made insecure:
Think’st thou I’ld make a life of jealousy?
To follow still the changes of the moon
With fresh suspicions? No! to be once in doubt
Is once to be resolv’d. Exchange me for a goat,
When I shall turn the business of my soul
To such exsufflicate and blown surmises….
The changing moon reference alludes to Elizabeth (Ogburn and Ogburn 510). Iago professes to be glad at Othello’s assertions, suggesting nevertheless to Othello, “Look to your wife, observe her well with Cassio” (III.iii.197) and mentions that those Venetians are not like us: “they do let God see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands” (III.iii.202-203). He reminds Othello that Desdemona deceived her father in marrying Othello (III.iii.206f). Just see “if your lady strain his entertainment / With any strong or vehement importunity; / Much will be seen in that” (III.iii.250-252) — and of course she already has.
Othello faces a conflict we see reflections of elsewhere in Shakespeare: between trusting a new love or a longstanding male friendship (or military camaraderie) — see Benedick or the Sonnets. Men are from Mars — Women are from Venice.
When Iago departs, Othello acknowledges to himself that he is black, a poor conversationalist lacking in social graces, and getting older. “O curse of marriage! / That we can call these delicate creatures ours, / And not their appetites!” (III.iii.268-270). There’s also a bit here proving that Shakespeare knows the aristocratic hobby of falconry: “If I do prove her haggard, / Though that her jesses were my dear heart-strings, / I’ld whistle her off, and let her down the wind / To prey at fortune” (III.iii.260-263). Compare the similarly falconric de Vere poem (Ogburn 380-381; Ogburn and Ogburn 54). Bloom thinks that given Othello’s reluctances and general behavior, that it’s possible that the marriage has not been and never is consummated (Bloom 457).
When Desdemona arrives, Othello claims to have a headache, obliquely referring to the cuckold’s horns (III.iii.284), but when she tries to offer her handkerchief, he casts her hand aside and she drops the handkerchief. When they leave, Emilia pinches it, saying that her husband Iago a hundred times requested that she grab it. She teases Iago with it, but he snatches it from her. He plans to plant it on Cassio: “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealious confirmations strong” (III.iii.322-323).
Othello returns, stating that Iago “hast set me on the rack. / I swear ’tis better to be much abus’d / Than but to know ‘t a little” (III.iii.335-337), a notion he got from Iago shortly ago. He’s tormenting himself with thoughts of Desdemona’s “stol’n hours of lust” (III.iii.338) — something most critics acknowledge is technically impossible given the time frame so far in this play. Although Othello claims that “Her name, that was as fresh / As Dian’s visage, is now begrim’d and black / As mine own face” (III.iii.386-388), he demands more proof — no loopholes — and Iago acts wounded: “How satisfied, my lord? / Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on? / Behold her topp’d?” (III.iii.394-396) — thereby creating more vile mental images: “Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys” (III.iii.403). Iago claims that Cassio essentially confessed to having an affair with Desdemona in his sleep. Iago assures Othello “this was but a dream” (III.iii.426), but to Othello it denotes “a foregone conclusion” (III.iii.425). Iago adds that Cassio was given a handkerchief by Desdemona which “did I to-day / See Cassio wipe his beard with” (III.iii.437-438). Gross!
Othello says, “I’ll tear her all to pieces” (III.iii.431) and rants for vengeance on Cassio. He and Iago make a blood oath. Iago will make sure Cassio is killed and Othello will tend to Desdemona. “I am your own for ever” (III.iii.480), says Iago, bringing the “seduction” scene to a close.
Desdemona has a brief exchange with the clown, who quibbles appropriately enough about “lying” and “lying.” She wonders where she lost the handkerchief and Emilia outright lies: “I know not, madam” (III.iv.24). When Othello enters, Desdemona brings up the Cassio business again. Othello asks her to produce the handkerchief, giving a history of the cloth involving his parents and Egyptian love charms. He is insistent, and Desdemona cannot produce it. When he leaves, Emilia tells Desdemona about men: “They are all stomachs, and we all but food; / They eat us hungerly, and when they are full / They belch us” (III.iv.104-106). She’s obviously jaded by being Iago’s wife, but why she keeps quiet about the handkerchief is anybody’s guess. Iago prods Cassio into requesting help from Desdemona again. She says Othello is moody, but she’ll try. She tells Emilia that she’s never given cause to make Othello jealous, but Emilia says jealousy is self-generated: “It is a monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself” (III.iv.161-162).
Cassio gives his mistress Bianca the handkerchief to be copied. He says he found in his chamber. She wonders if it’s from a new girlfriend of his.