Detailed Summary of Othello, Act 3, Scene 4

Page Index:

Enter Desdemona, Emilia, and Clown:
Desdemona, accompanied by Emilia, asks her servant a simple question, "Do you know, sirrah, where Lieutenant Cassio lies?" (3.4.1). She just wants to know if the servant knows where Cassio is staying, but the servant -- being a clown -- answers with a pun on another meaning of the word "lie." He says that he doesn't dare say that Cassio lies anywhere because Cassio is a soldier, and to say that a soldier lies could get you stabbed. "Go to! where lodges he?" (3.4.7), Desdemona exclaims. "Go to" is an extremely common phrase which means something like "get out of my face" or "stop kidding"; in this case, Desdemona seems to be expressing a kind of exasperated amusement.

After bandying a few more words with the servant, Desdemona gets him to go tell Cassio to come to her, because she has good news for him: "Tell him I have moved [made a strong plea to] my lord [Othello] on his behalf, and hope all will be well" (3.4.18-19).

Once the servant is gone on his errand, Desdemona asks, "Where should I lose that handkerchief, Emilia?" (3.4.23). The modern phrase for "Where should I lose" is "where could I have lost." As Emilia mentioned in the previous scene, Desdemona always keeps that special handkerchief with her, and so she's puzzled that she can't remember where she left it.

Emilia says that she doesn't know where the handkerchief is. This is a lie. Emilia knows that Iago has the handkerchief, but she probably assumes that Iago will eventually return it. We know that the handkerchief is evidence in Iago's case against Desdemona, but the women know nothing about that, and Emilia doesn't mean any harm to Desdemona.

Desdemona also feels a little guilt about losing the handkerchief and is glad that "my noble Moor / Is true of mind and made of no such baseness / As jealous creatures are," because otherwise the loss of the handkerchief might be "enough / To put him to ill thinking" (3.2.26-29). Emilia seems to have a doubt about Othello not being jealous, but Desdemona says confidently, "I think the sun where he was born / Drew all such humours from him" (3.4.30-31). "Humours" (bodily fluids) were thought to control a person's temperament; for instance, a person who was full of phlegm (mucous) would be phlegmatic (dull, cold). Desdemona is sure that the sun of Africa baked out any humours that could have made Othello a jealous man.

Enter Othello:
As Desdemona and Emilia are speaking of Othello, he appears. Desdemona says to Emilia, "I will not leave him now till Cassio / Be call'd to him" (3.4.32-33). But though Desdemona is looking forward to the successful conclusion of her campaign to restore Cassio to his position, Othello has something else on his mind.

Under Iago's influence, Othello has already decided that Desdemona is guilty of adultery, and he has vowed to kill her, but can't just dismiss her from his thoughts and go on with his life. He wants proof that he is right about her, so he wants see the Desdemona that he has never known before, the one he has promised to hate. At the same time, he wants to pretend that nothing has happened, that he still loves her. Thus, when he greets her, the words are hardly out of his mouth when he says to himself, "O, hardness to dissemble! (3.4.34).

The confusion of Othello's emotions leads him to say some confusing things. What he says sounds like it might be love-talk or witty repartee, but it has some odd twists. Taking Desdemona's hand, he comments that it is moist. He doesn't mean that her hand is wet, just that it's soft and smooth, like the hand of a woman that uses a good quality hand lotion. In Shakespeare's time -- as in ours -- a moist hand was a good thing for a woman to have, but as Othello talks on he implies that her hand is too moist. He says that her hand shows that she has "fruitfulness and liberal heart" (3.4.38). These are also good qualities, but then Othello says,
Hot, hot, and moist. This hand of yours requires
A sequester from liberty, fasting and prayer,
Much castigation
[penance], exercise devout [spiritual exercise];
For here's a young and sweating devil here,
That commonly rebels. 'Tis a good hand,
A frank one.   (3.4.39-44)
The "young and sweating devil" is sexual appetite, and Othello is implying that she has too much sexual appetite, but Desdemona could take what he says as just a lover's teasing. Similarly, when he says that she has a "frank" hand, she could take that as a compliment, because a person with a frank hand is honest and generous, although Othello is thinking that she is being dishonest with him and much too generous with Cassio.

Apparently Desdemona takes Othello's remarks as love-talk, because she replies, "You may, indeed, say so; / For 'twas that hand that gave away my heart" (3.4.44-45). She means that hers is indeed a generous hand, because when she gave him her hand, she gave him her heart, too. Othello answers, "A liberal hand. The hearts of old gave hands; / But our new heraldry is hands, not hearts" (3.4.46-47). Othello means that in the good old days someone who had already given her heart then gave her hand, but that now the outward signs of love ("heraldry") are only signs, only hands. In other words, he's accusing her of having given him her hand in marriage without loving him, but he doesn't say that. Instead, he puts it in the form of confusing word-play.

Because she has no suspicion of Othello's suspicions, Desdemona doesn't catch the implications of Othello's words and is only confused. She tries to turn the conversation away from the strange path it has taken, saying, "I cannot speak of this. Come now, your promise" (3.4.48). She's referring to Othello's promise to give Cassio his job back, and she tells her husband that she's already sent for Cassio. She apparently thinks that her efforts on behalf of Cassio are about to succeed, but we know that Othello has already gotten Iago's promise that Cassio will die.

Othello responds to the mention of Cassio only by setting a trap for his wife, saying, "I have a salt and sorry rheum offends me; / Lend me thy handkerchief." (3.4.51-52). He's claiming that he has a bad head cold, and asks her for her handkerchief. She offers him a handkerchief, but he asks for the one he gave her. When she tells him that she doesn't have it with her, she walks into the trap because Othello believes that if she doesn't have the handkerchief, she must have given it to Cassio.

In a barely controlled rage, Othello tells Desdemona that she should have the handkerchief with her because it should never be lost. It was given to Othello's mother by an Egyptian who was "a charmer, and could almost read / The thoughts of people" (3.4.57-58). Egyptians -- like the gypsies who were thought to be descended from them -- had the reputation of being able to cast charms and foretell the future, and this one told Othello's mother that the handkerchief had a special magic. As long as Othello's mother kept it, she would keep the love of her husband, but that "if she lost it / Or made gift of it, my father's eye / Should hold her loathed" (3.4.60-62). When she was dying, Othello's mother gave him the handkerchief and told him to give it to his wife when he married. Therefore, Othello warns Desdemona, "To lose't or give't away were such perdition [loss, damnation] / As nothing else could match" (3.4.67-68).

We know that the handkerchief is precious to Desdemona, but its history is news to her, and she exclaims, "Is't possible?" (3.4.68), to which Othello answers, "'Tis true: there's magic in the web [weave, fabric] of it" (3.4.69). He then tells her that its decorations were sewn by a two-hundred-year-old prophetess, that its silk came from blessed silk worms, and that "it was dyed in mummy which the skilful / Conserved of maidens' hearts" (3.4.74-75). "Mummy" is fluid drawn from embalmed bodies, and to "conserve" something is make a special mixture which will last a long time. (That's why jams and jellies are sometimes called "conserves.")

All of this information, especially the gruesome part about "maidens' hearts," has an ominous tone, and Desdemona understands that she could earn his hate by losing the handkerchief. Alarmed, she blurts out, "Then would to God that I had never seen't!" (3.4.77). Othello jumps on this, with "Ha! wherefore?" (3.4.78). He is asking why she wishes she had never seen the handkerchief, but in such a way that it's more an accusation than a question. Desdemona asks, "Why do you speak so startingly and rash?" (3.4.79). ("Startingly" is a form of the word "start," in the sense of moving suddenly and involuntarily, as when a person is startled by a loud noise.) Othello has lost almost all of his self-control and barks out his words as he asks her if she has lost the handkerchief, if it's gone, if it's misplaced.

Reacting to the intense pressure Othello is putting on her, Desdemona lies. She says, "It is not lost; but what an if it were?" (3.4.83). It's not a big lie. After all, she had it with her earlier, and she's probably thinking that the handkerchief must be around the house somewhere, but it is a lie. Othello knows it is a lie, and therefore believes that he has the final proof that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. After this, their conversation turns into a one-sided shouting match. He demands that she find the handkerchief and show it to him. She tells him that he's just trying to avoid the subject of her request to have Cassio restored to his position. Of course, hearing about Cassio again only further enrages Othello, but Desdemona can't know that, since everything went so well during their previous talk about Cassio.

Three times Desdemona tries to talk about Cassio, and three times Othello shouts "The handkerchief!" (3.4.92), until Desdemona makes a stand and tells him that this argument is his fault. She says, "I' faith, you are to blame" (3.4.97). The idea that he is the one to blame is too much for Othello, and with an oath, he turns and rushes out of the room.

Exit Othello:
As soon as Othello is gone, Emilia comments, "Is not this man jealous?" (3.4.99). Remember, at the beginning of the scene Desdemona had said that Othello was not the jealous type. Now Emilia is questioning that. Desdemona replies that she has never seen Othello like this before, and worries that there really is some magic in the handkerchief that she has lost. Emilia then passes the whole thing off with a joke about how terrible men are: "'Tis not a year or two shows us a man: / They are all but stomachs, and we all but food; / They eat us hungerly, and when they are full, / They belch us" (3.4.103-106). Emilia's "'Tis not a year or two shows us a man" probably means that a woman can't understand a man in a year or two, which would explain why newly-married Desdemona hasn't seen this side of Othello before. However, Emilia's comment could also mean that a woman can look a year or two without finding a real man, one who would not "belch" a woman after he has wooed and won her. In any case, Emilia has a low opinion of men, and therefore isn't particularly surprised at Othello's outburst.

At this moment, Iago and Cassio appear. Still working hard on his evil plot, Iago is encouraging Cassio to appeal again to Desdemona. (At the beginning of the scene Desdemona sent her servant to tell Cassio to come to her because she would probably have good news for him, but apparently her message was never delivered.) Iago is saying to Cassio, "There is no other way; 'tis she must do't: / And, lo, the happiness! Go, and importune her" (3.4.107-108).

Cassio does importune her, and he is even more pathetic than before. He says that he honors Othello, but adds, "I would not be delay'd" (3.4.114). He wants a definite answer, and now. He hopes that Othello will restore him to his position because of his past service, because he is sorry for what he has done, and because he plans to do a better job in the future. But, Cassio continues, if he can't have his job back, it will be best to know it. If that's the case, he says, "So shall I clothe me in a forced content, / And shut myself up in some other course, / To fortune's alms" (3.4.120-122). "Fortune's alms" are the occasional handouts of small change that fortune tosses to beggars. Cassio is feeling rather sorry for himself.

Desdemona is still reeling from Othello's anger, and her reply to Cassio shows how shaken she is. She has lost her self-assurance and her certainty that she knows her husband. She tells Cassio, "My advocation is not now in tune; / My lord is not my lord; nor should I know him, / Were he in favour [appearance] as in humour [attitude] alter'd" (3.4.123-125). In other words, now is not a good time to talk to Othello; he's not himself, and if his appearance had changed as much as his attitude, she wouldn't recognize him. She goes on to tell Cassio that she has done all she can for him, and "stood within the blank of his [Othello's] displeasure / For my free speech!" (3.4.128-129). A "blank" is a white center of an archery target, and Desdemona, who has known only love from Othello, has been wounded by his "displeasure." She will continue to do what she can for Cassio, but he must be patient.

To Cassio's credit, he respects Desdemona enough to shut up. Iago, however, keeps playing his hypocritical game. He pretends great surprise that Othello is angry. He declares that he has seen Othello keep his head in battle, when men were dying all around him, so that if he's angry now, it must be about something important. "I will go meet him" he says as he hurries away. Desdemona replies, "I prithee, do so" (3.4.140), apparently under the impression that Iago is going to find out what's wrong with Othello and calm him down. We, knowing his real intent, feel even more sorry for Desdemona.

Exit Iago:
Iago leaves the scene, but his pretended surprise at Othello's anger has its effect on Desdemona. Emilia had expressed the opinion that Othello was jealous, but now Desdemona starts thinking that the cause of his anger must surely be something else. She says, "Something, sure, of state, / Either from Venice, or some unhatch'd practise / Made demonstrable here in Cyprus to him, / Hath puddled his clear spirit" (3.4.140-143). Something "of state" is something having to do with politics, and an "unhatch'd practice" is a plot that is still being plotted.

At this point Desdemona's thinking takes an unhappy turn. As women sometimes do, she starts to blame herself for what her husband has done to her. She says that when there's a serious problem, "Men's natures wrangle with inferior things, / Though great ones are their object" (3.4.144-145). In other words, something has gone wrong at work, and Othello was just taking it out on her, the "inferior thing." She reasons that if we have a finger that aches, our whole body is filled with a sense of pain, and she concludes that she has been expecting too much of Othello. She says, "Nay, we must think men are not gods, / Nor of them look for such observances / As fit the bridal" (3.4.148-150). If men are not gods, and if they can't be expected to always act as if they are on their honeymoon, then she's the one who is in the wrong. She says,
                  Beshrew me much, Emilia,
I was, unhandsome warrior as I am,
Arraigning his unkindness with my soul;
But now I find I had suborn'd the witness,
And he's indicted falsely.     (3.4.150-154)
An "unhandsome warrior" is one who can't carry out his duties; Desdemona feels she has failed in her duty to stand by her man. In her soul she was bringing Othello up on charges of treating her badly, but now she feels that the witness (she herself) has lied.

Emilia, unconvinced by Desdemona's reasoning, says diplomatically, "Pray heaven it be state-matters, as you think, / And no conception nor no jealous toy / Concerning you." (3.4.155-157). A "toy" is a silly or stupid idea, and Emilia clearly thinks that Othello could be toying with the stupid idea that Desdemona is unfaithful to him. (Later we will learn that Emilia knows that Iago has a "jealous toy" of his own -- the idea that she's having an affair with Othello. Therefore Emilia thinks she knows jealousy when she sees it.) Desdemona replies, "Alas the day! I never gave him cause" (3.4.158), which gives Emilia the chance to remind her that jealousy doesn't need a cause; "It is a monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself" (3.4.161-162). Desdemona exclaims, "Heaven keep that monster from Othello's mind!" (3.4.163), and Emilia -- who probably thinks that she's said all she can -- simply answers, "Lady, amen" (3.4.164).

As though to prove to herself that she's right about Othello, and that he isn't jealous, Desdemona says that she will go seek him out. She tells Cassio to wait while she does so, because if she has a chance she will renew her appeal to Othello to restore Cassio to his position. We know that this a dangerous thing for her to do, but she doesn't and she leaves, taking Emilia with her. (As it turns out, Desdemona doesn't find her husband; the next time we see them together, he has come to find her.)

Exeunt Desdemona and Emilia. Enter Bianca:
Hoping that Desdemona might be able to bring Othello back with a decision about his job, Cassio waits alone, but not for long, because Bianca shows up. She's Cassio's girlfriend, and she's probably wearing clothes that show what her line of work is -- she's a prostitute. Cassio is surprised to see her, and he doesn't want to be seen with her if Othello should come back to speak with him. The first thing he says to her is "What make you from home?" But then he remembers that he probably should be nice to her, and tells a sweet lie: "How is it with you, my most fair Bianca? / I' faith, sweet love, I was coming to your house" (3.4.170-171).

Bianca replies that she was looking for him, and complains that he hasn't been to see her in a week. (If you start asking just when or where Cassio last saw Bianca, the play won't give you a clear answer. Shakespeare often telescopes time.) Cassio is supposed to be Bianca's lover, and she is finding it hard to understand why he has been away so long. Cassio explains that he's had things on his mind, but that he'll soon make everything up to her. In the meantime, he'd like her to copy a handkerchief for him. It is, of course, Desdemona's handkerchief, though Cassio doesn't know it.

(Why does Cassio want the handkerchief copied? Just because. He doesn't know that it's Desdemona's handkerchief, and he doesn't know that Emilia had planned to have it copied. He only knows that it's not his, and that sooner or later its owner will want it back, but he would like to have one just like it.)

The sight of a woman's handkerchief gives Bianca an attack of jealousy, though not Othello's kind of enraged jealousy. She teases Cassio that the handkerchief "is some token from a newer friend: / To the felt absence now I feel a cause: / Is't come to this? Well, well" (3.4.181-183). Cassio is offended by this, and tells her that not only is the handkerchief not a love token, he doesn't know whose it is. He says he found it in his chamber, and we know that Iago has carried out his plan to leave the handkerchief where Cassio would find it.

Despite Bianca's complaints and jealousy, Cassio seems to be sure that there's not much that could scare her off; he tells her curtly, "Take it, and do't; and leave me for this time" (3.4.191). Bianca takes the handkerchief, but naturally she wants to know why Cassio doesn't want her around. He explains that he's waiting for Othello and it wouldn't be helpful "To have him see me woman'd" (3.4.195). When she asks why that is, he answers that it's not because he doesn't love her. Bianca doubts that he's telling the truth, but she talks him into walking with her a little way, so that they can plan their next meeting. Reluctantly, Cassio agrees, and they both exit.