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Welcome to my web site, now under development for more than twenty years.   
-- Philip Weller, November 13, 1941 - February 1, 2021
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.


Detailed Summary of Othello, Act 2, Scene 3

Page Index:
Enter Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, and Attendants:
As the scene opens Othello is reminding Cassio to not let the festivities get out of hand. He says, "Good Michael, look you to the guard to-night: / Let's teach ourselves that honourable stop, / Not to outsport discretion" (2.3.1-3). Cassio replies that he has already given orders to Iago, but that he will give matters his personal attention. Othello says approvingly that "Iago is most honest" (2.3.6) -- that is, reliable. Then Othello sets a meeting with Cassio for the following morning, and leaves with Desdemona so that they can enjoy the pleasures of their wedding night.

As soon as Othello and Desdemona are gone, Iago enters. Cassio tells him that they need start the "watch," the after-hours guard duty, but Iago replies that it's not yet ten, and they still have more than an hour. He adds that Othello left early because "he hath not yet made wanton the night" (2.3.16) with Desdemona. Then, apparently trying to confirm his suspicions about Cassio and Desdemona, Iago makes comments about how sexy Desdemona is. He says that she has inviting eyes, and teasingly asks, "And when she speaks, is it not an alarum to love?" (2.3.26).

Cassio agrees that Desdemona is beautiful, but he doesn't admit to lustful feelings for her, so Iago turns to the business at hand -- getting Cassio drunk. Skillfully applying some peer pressure, Iago says, "Come, lieutenant, I have a stoup of wine; and here without are a brace of Cyprus gallants that would fain have a measure to the health of black Othello" (2.3.29-32). Thus Cassio is challenged to be one of the guys, and to do honor to his general, but a "stoup" is quite a lot (two quarts), and Cassio doesn't want to drink anything at all. He explains that it takes very little to make him drunk, and he's already had enough. He says, "I have drunk but one cup to-night, and that was craftily qualified too, and, behold, what innovation it makes here" (2.3.39-41). When he says "here" Cassio probably points to his head, to indicate that he's already feeling tipsy, despite having diluted his one cup of wine with water. Iago, however, keeps after him until he agrees to go meet the men who want to drink to Othello's health.

While Cassio is gone, Iago reviews this part of his plan. He's sure that when Cassio is drunk he'll get quarrelsome. Furthermore, Roderigo is already drunk, and Iago has gotten three proud Cypriots drunk, too. All of these men are supposed to join Cassio on the watch, and Iago is sure that when these drunks all get together, Cassio will do something that will get him into deep trouble.

Soon enough Iago sees that his plan is on the road to success, because in comes Cassio with Montano and some others, saying, "'Fore God, they have given me a rouse already" (2.3.64). "Rouse" is a word for a drink of liquor; we might call it a "pick-me-up," and it looks like Cassio is already feeling pretty good. Now all Iago has to do is keep the party going, so he calls for wine, sings a drinking song, and talks about how the English can drink everyone else under the table. The drinking song and the drinking talk succeed in getting Cassio even more in the mood, and he drinks "To the health of our general!" (2.3.86). Then Iago sings another song, one about King Stephan and his breeches. It's not exactly a drinking song, except that it's silly and pointless, but Cassio exclaims, "'Fore God, this is a more exquisite song than the other" (2.3.98). When Iago asks him if he'd like to hear the song again, Cassio answers, "No; for I hold him to be unworthy of his place that does those things. Well, God's above all; and there be souls must be saved, and there be souls must not be saved" (2.3.101-104). This seems to show that Cassio retains some dim awareness that he shouldn't be drinking on duty, but then he rationalizes his drunkenness by saying "God's above all" and many of us are sinners.

The singing and drinking have made the time pass, and Cassio tells the rest that it's time to go on watch, but as he goes he reveals just how drunk he is by denying that he is drunk. He says, "Do not think, gentlemen. I am drunk: this is my ancient; this is my right hand, and this is my left: I am not drunk now; I can stand well enough, and speak well enough" (2.3.112-115). Most of us know that when someone starts talking like this, it's time to take his car keys away from him, but Cassio is off to command the watch which is supposed to guard the town and keep the peace during the night.

Montano is about to join Cassio and the others, but Iago detains him by making a comment about Cassio: "He is a soldier fit to stand by Caesar / And give direction: and do but see his vice; / 'Tis to his virtue a just equinox, / The one as long as the other" (2.3.121-125). A "just equinox" is an exact balance of dark and light; Iago first says that Cassio is a great soldier, then says that he is as great a drunk as he is a soldier. He adds that he's afraid that Cassio's drunkenness will sometime make him betray Othello's trust and disturb the peace of Cyprus. Montano asks if Cassio is often drunk, and Iago answers that he gets drunk every night, that he can't go to sleep without getting drunk.

It's obvious that Iago is lying. He certainly doesn't think that Cassio is a great soldier and he knows that Cassio isn't a habitual drunk. What's not so obvious is just why Iago is lying. Perhaps he wants to prepare Montano to draw the right conclusions when Roderigo gets into a brawl with Cassio. Perhaps he wants to plant the idea that Othello should share responsibility for any of Cassio's mistakes, since Othello appointed Cassio to his post. Or maybe Iago is just lying for the fun of it.

As Montano is saying that Othello should be told of Cassio's weakness, Roderigo appears, and Iago, in a quick aside, sends him away again, saying "I pray you, after the lieutenant; go" (2.3.137). It appears that Montano hasn't even seen Roderigo, because he keeps on talking about Cassio, saying that it's a pity that Othello should trust someone such as Cassio, and that Othello ought to be warned. Iago replies he can't do it because Cassio is his good friend. Just then Iago begins to reap some of the fruits of his scheming. We hear someone yelling "help!" and Roderigo comes running on stage, chased by Cassio. Montano asks what's the matter and Cassio rages, "A knave teach me my duty! I'll beat the knave into a twiggen bottle" (2.3.147-148). Apparently Roderigo has made some insulting remarks about how Cassio is performing his duties, and Cassio is determined to make him pay. Roderigo is drunk, and Cassio is threatening to stuff him back into the wine bottle he came from.

At this point Iago gets lucky. He had thought that Roderigo could get Cassio angry, but he didn't foresee the involvement of Montano, who is a leading citizen of Cyprus. Montano tries to calm Cassio down and apparently puts a hand on him, because Cassio, in his drunken rage, says, "Let me go, sir, or I'll knock you o'er the mazzard" (2.3.153-154). "Mazzard" is a slang word for "head," and saying "knock you o'er the mazzard" is like saying "knock your block off." Montano replies, "Come, come -- you're drunk" (2.3.155). This turns out to be exactly the wrong thing to say to Cassio, and they start to fight.

As Montano and Cassio are fighting, Iago sends Roderigo to "go out, and cry a mutiny" (2.3.157). He wants Roderigo to do whatever he can to stir up a riot. Roderigo goes, and in a moment we hear an alarm bell being rung, as though the town were on fire. Meanwhile, Iago pretends to try to stop Cassio and Montano from fighting, all the while yelling for help, so that people will come and see Cassio's shame.

Re-enter Othello and Attendants:
Cassio keeps fighting, wounding Montano, and then Othello appears and puts a stop to the fighting. He tells Cassio and Montano that they ought to be ashamed of themselves, but what probably really calms them down is fear. Othello says, "He that stirs next to carve for his own rage / Holds his soul light; he dies upon his motion" (2.3.173-174). In short, "make a move and you die." Othello also orders the bell to be silenced and then demands to know what happened. He first addresses Iago, saying, "Honest Iago, that look'st dead with grieving, / Speak, who began this? on thy love, I charge thee" (2.3.177-178). Othello's words show us how Iago is playing this. Iago has planned the whole thing, but he manages to look shocked and deeply distressed. Also, Othello believes Iago to be his personal friend, and so he counts on that friendship ("thy love") to make Iago tell him the truth.

Of course Iago doesn't give Othello a straight answer. Claiming that he has no idea how the whole thing started, Iago says that everyone was friends until a few moments ago, and he wishes that he hadn't been there. Othello then asks Cassio, "How comes it, Michael, you are thus forgot?" (2.3.188). Cassio is "forgot" in the sense that he forgot what he was supposed to be doing; he was supposed to keep the peace, not get himself into a street fight. Cassio, his head probably still swimming from the wine and the fighting, answers, "I pray you, pardon me; I cannot speak" (2.3.189), so Othello asks Montano what happened. Montano replies that he's wounded so badly that he can't say much, but he's sure that he's done nothing wrong, unless self-defense is a wrong.

At this point, after he has gotten no satisfactory answers from anyone, Othello feels he's about to lose his temper. In his words, "Now, by heaven, / My blood begins my safer guides to rule; / And passion, having my best judgment collied [darkened, obscured] / Assays [tries] to lead the way" (2.3.204-207). Othello threatens them all, saying "'Zounds, if I stir, / Or do but lift this arm, the best of you / Shall sink in my rebuke" (2.3.207-209). He also promises to be an impartial judge of the matter, but they must know that a great wrong has been done. Othello asks in outraged astonishment, "What! in a town of war, / Yet wild, the people's hearts brimful of fear, / To manage [carry on] private and domestic quarrel?" (2.3.213-215).

Again, Othello asks Iago what happened. Montano warns Iago not to twist things in Cassio's favor, and Iago answers, "I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth / Than it should do offence to Michael Cassio; / Yet, I persuade myself, to speak the truth / Shall nothing wrong him" (2.3.221-224). Iago then proceeds to deliver an account that is truthful, except for leaving out the part about him getting Cassio drunk, and the part about sending Roderigo after Cassio to provoke him. Iago also adds one little thing that did not happen. He says, "Myself the crying fellow did pursue" (2.3.230), which means that he chased after Roderigo. Iago didn't do that, but saying he did would explain why he didn't step in to stop the fight between Cassio and Montano, just in case anyone wondered. Iago concludes his account by giving an excuse for Cassio that is no excuse. He says that men will be men, and though "Cassio did some little wrong" (2.3.242) to Montano (who is still bleeding), "Yet surely Cassio, I believe, received / From him that fled some strange indignity, / Which patience could not pass" (2.3.244-246). That Cassio was insulted by Roderigo is no excuse, and Iago knows it, and he knows that Othello knows it.

Othello fires Cassio on the spot, and just then Desdemona enters, which deepens his anger at Cassio. He says, "Look, if my gentle love be not raised up! / I'll make thee an example" (2.3.250-251). Othello tells Desdemona that the trouble is over, promises Montano that his wounds will be taken care of, commands Iago to keep the peace, and leaves with Desdemona.

Exeunt all but Iago and Cassio:
Alone with Cassio, Iago asks him if he's hurt. Cassio answers that he has a wound that can't be healed: "Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!" (2.3.262-265). Iago is not impressed. He tells Cassio that reputation is "oft got without merit, and lost without deserving" (2.3.269-270), and that the only thing that matters is what a person thinks of himself. He goes on to assure Cassio that he can get back into Othello's good graces. Othello, according to Iago, was just in a bad mood and decided to make an example of Cassio. He concludes with casual confidence, "Sue to [appeal to] him again, and he's yours" (2.3.275-276).

Cassio answers, "I will rather sue to be despised than to deceive so good a commander with so slight, so drunken, and so indiscreet an officer" (2.3.277-279). Here Cassio appears in a better light than he has before. He is ashamed of himself, and knows that he deserves to be ashamed of himself. Iago, however, talks him out it. He asks him who provoked him, and what that person did. Cassio can't remember because he was too drunk. Iago then points out that Cassio is sober now, and Cassio answers "It hath pleased the devil drunkenness to give place to the devil wrath; one unperfectness shows me another, to make me frankly despise myself" (2.3.296-298). Iago replies that what happened was too bad, but every man gets drunk one time or another, and what Cassio needs is a plan to get his job back. Of course Iago has such a plan, which -- out of pure love for his friend -- he now presents. Othello is so deeply in love with Desdemona that he will do whatever she says, and "She is of so free, so kind, so apt, so blessed a disposition, she holds it a vice in her goodness not to do more than she is requested" (2.3.319-322). Therefore, all Cassio needs to do is make an appeal to Desdemona, and he'll have his job back.

Cassio immediately assents to Iago's plan and says that he will approach Desdemona the first thing in the morning. Iago reminds him that he's giving this advice "in the sincerity of [brotherly] love and honest kindness" (2.3.327). Cassio is grateful, and leaves, saying, "Good night, honest Iago" (2.3.335).

Exit Cassio:
Alone, it's as though Iago can hear us thinking what a treacherous, hypocritical bastard he is, because he says, "And what's he then that says I play the villain?" (2.3.336). After all, his advice is free, friendly, and accurate. Desdemona is indeed "framed as fruitful / As the free elements" (2.3.341-342), and it's true that Othello's soul is "so enfetter'd to her love, / That she may make, unmake, do what she list" (2.3.345-346) with him. How then, Iago asks, can he be called a villain?

Answering his own question, Iago gleefully comments, "When devils will the blackest sins put on, / They do suggest [tempt] at first with heavenly shows, / As I do now" (2.3.351-353). Iago then goes on to review his plan to tell Othello that it's lust that makes Desdemona speak up for Cassio. In Iago's mind it's an excellent plan, and he exults in his own badness, saying, "So will I turn her virtue into pitch, / And out of her own goodness make the net / That shall enmesh them all" (2.3.360-362).

Enter Roderigo:
As Iago is winding up his self-congratulations, Roderigo appears again, feeling ill-used. He says, "I do follow here in the chase, not like a hound that hunts, but one that fills up the cry" (2.3.363-364). A "hound that hunts" is one that picks up the trail and follows it; the "cry" is the pack of dogs that do nothing but bark and follow the hound. Roderigo feels like a useless dog, and he doesn't see how he's any closer to what he's chasing -- Desdemona. He goes on to say that his money is almost all spent, he's been beaten, and he suspects that the only thing he's going to get out of all of this is the experience, so that he will return to Venice "with no money at all and a little more wit" (2.3.367-368).

Roderigo is right about one thing at least. He has very little "wit" (intelligence, wisdom); he's so stupid that he lets Iago talk him into staying in Cyprus. Iago tells him that he must have patience. So what, Iago asks, if Cassio has beaten Roderigo? That's gotten Cassio fired, and everything else will follow in the course of time. Roderigo just needs to wait. Then Iago notices that it's morning and says, "Pleasure and action make the hours seem short" (2.3.379). Roderigo may be hurting, but Iago has been enjoying the whole thing.

In a few words, Iago dismisses Roderigo with the promise that he will tell him more later. After Roderigo leaves, Iago fleshes out his plans. He will get his wife to plead Cassio's case to Desdemona, and he'll lead Othello around until they can come upon Cassio and Desdemona at just the right moment. Finally, he again comments on how smart he is, saying "Ay, that's the way / Dull not device by coldness and delay" (2.3.387-388).