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-- 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 3, Scene 3

Page Index:

Enter Desdemona, Cassio, and Emilia:
When the scene opens Cassio has apparently already made his request to Desdemona, who is saying, "Be thou assured, good Cassio, I will do / All my abilities in thy behalf" (3.3.1-2). Emilia encourages her, saying, "Good madam, do: I warrant it grieves my husband, / As if the case were his" (3.3.3-4), and Desdemona responds, "O, that's an honest fellow" (3.3.5). This should give us the chills, as we know that "honest" Iago plans to make Othello believe that she is speaking up for Cassio because she is sleeping with him.

Desdemona sees Cassio as Othello's friend, and she is sure that she can restore their friendship. She tells Cassio, "be you well assured / He shall in strangeness stand no further off / Than in a politic distance" (3.3.11-13). Something is "politic" if it is dictated by policy, and it is good policy for Othello to hold Cassio at arm's length, since Cassio got drunk on duty and wounded a prominent citizen of Cyprus. Cassio knows all of this, but he's too weak to take his medicine like a man. He's afraid that if he's out of sight, Othello will give his job to someone else and forget him.

Pity for Cassio leads Desdemona to make a bold promise, saying "before Emilia here / I give thee warrant of thy place" (3.3.19-20). A "warrant" is a legally binding promise, and that's why Desdemona says "before Emilia here." Emilia is to act as a witness to Desdemona's guarantee that she will persuade Othello to restore Cassio to his position ("place"). Desdemona then goes on to say just how she will do it. "My lord shall never rest; / I'll watch him tame and talk him out of patience; / His bed shall seem a school, his board a shrift" (3.3.22-24). In the sense that Desdemona uses the word, "watch" means "keep awake." Desdemona will keep Othello awake arguing Cassio's case; in bed with Othello, she'll argue Cassio's case; at the dinner table ("board") she'll argue Cassio's case so hard that Othello will think he's in a confessional ("shrift"). She concludes by declaring "Therefore be merry, Cassio; / For thy solicitor [lawyer] shall rather die / Than give thy cause away" (3.3.26-28). Desdemona herself seems to be quite merry. She has just delivered one exaggeration after another, as though she's saying, "I am woman, watch me nag!" At the same time, she is indeed very confident that she will be able to get Cassio what he wants. Meanwhile, we are cringing with fear, because we know about the trap that Iago has set, and Desdemona is walking right in.

At this moment, Othello and Iago appear. While they are still out of earshot, Cassio hastily excuses himself. Desdemona wants him to stay and hear what she has to say on his behalf, but as he is leaving he answers, "Madam, not now: I am very ill at ease, / Unfit for mine own purposes" (3.3.32-33). Of course he's ill at ease; he's hiding behind a woman's skirts.

Enter Othello and Iago:
As Cassio hurries away, leaving Desdemona to do his talking for him, Iago and Othello are still out of earshot of the women, and Iago takes the opportunity to do a little fishing. In a barely audible voice, as though he didn't really mean to say anything, Iago says, "Ha! I like not that" (3.3.35). Othello asks him what he said, and Iago answers that it's nothing, in the way that people do when they want you to drag something out of them so that it can be your fault if you don't like what they have to say. Othello then asks if it wasn't Cassio that they just saw, and Iago replies, "Cassio, my lord! No, sure, I cannot think it, / That he would steal away so guilty-like, / Seeing you coming" (3.3.38-40).

Othello, however, doesn't have a chance to take the bait, because now Desdemona says to him, "How now, my lord! / I have been talking with a suitor here, / A man that languishes in your displeasure" (3.3.41-43). When he asks whom she's talking about, she replies, "Why, your lieutenant, Cassio" (3.3.45). If she shared any of Cassio's own embarrassment she might have fudged this answer a little, perhaps by saying that it was just a friend. That would have looked like she was hiding something, but she has nothing to hide. In fact, she will soon make it clear that she believes she's doing a favor for Othello as well as for Cassio.

The politics of the situation count for little with Desdemona. She thinks that Othello should restore Cassio to his position because he is "one that truly loves you" (3.3.48). She argues that Cassio "errs in ignorance and not in cunning" (3.3.49). In other words, he's not a bad man; he just made a stupid mistake. Othello doesn't disagree with her, but it's too soon to do what she asks, so he tries to put her off with soft words, saying, "Not now, sweet Desdemon; some other time" (3.3.55). Desdemona, however, refuses to be put off. She asks if he'll do it at supper that very night, and when Othello says no, she asks if he'll do it tomorrow at dinner. ("Dinner" is the mid-day meal, usually referred to in the U.S. as "lunch"). To this, Othello makes the feeble excuse that he won't be home for dinner.

At this point Desdemona begins to apply even more pressure. First, she shows a bit of impatience with his excuses: "Why, then, to-morrow night; or Tuesday morn; / On Tuesday noon, or night; on Wednesday morn: / I prithee, name the time, but let it not / Exceed three days" (3.3.60-63). Then she says that Cassio is penitent and that his mistake is "not almost a fault / To incur a private check" (3.3.60-67). A "private check" is a quiet little talking-to, and for "not almost" we would use the word "scarcely" or "hardly." Desdemona is saying that what Cassio did was not bad enough to make him lose his job in the first place. Since Cassio was an officer of the peace who got drunk on duty and wounded an innocent civilian, Othello almost certainly disagrees with Desdemona, but he doesn't say so, perhaps because she doesn't give him a chance.

When Othello still won't give Desdemona a definite answer, she plays her high card: herself and their love. She says, "Tell me, Othello. I wonder in my soul, / What you would ask me, that I should deny, / Or stand so mammering on" (3.3.68-70). To "mammer" is to hesitate or waver, and that is what Othello has been doing. He has denied her request, but at the same time has said that he will grant it, yet has repeatedly avoided saying just when he will grant it. Desdemona says that she wouldn't treat him this way, no matter what he asked of her, and she wants the same respect from him as she gives to him. She then goes on to exclaim, "What! Michael Cassio, / That came a-wooing with you, and so many a time, / When I have spoke of you dispraisingly, / Hath ta'en your part" (3.3.70-73). This is the first time we've heard that Cassio helped bring Othello and Desdemona together, but there's no reason to doubt it. To Desdemona, then, Othello's "mammering" is a betrayal of their love.

At this, Othello gives in. He says, "Prithee, no more; let him come when he will; / I will deny thee nothing" (3.3.75-76). The phrase "let him come when he will" means that Cassio can come talk to him at any time, and it's implied that Cassio will then get his job back. It looks like Desdemona has gotten all she has asked for, but she is still not quite satisfied with Othello's attitude. She doesn't want him to think that he's just indulging a whim of hers. She says, "Why, this is not a boon [favor]; / 'Tis as I should entreat you wear your gloves, / Or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you warm" (3.3.76-78). Cassio is Othello's good friend, and friends belong together, so it's Desdemona who is doing Othello a favor, not the other way around. Besides, what she's asking is easy to do, and she adds that "when I have a suit [request] / Wherein I mean to touch your love indeed, / It shall be full of poise and difficult weight / And fearful to be granted" (3.3.80-83).

Eventually Desdemona will request that Othello let her live, but he won't grant that suit. However, at the moment, Othello is happy with his wife and makes a small joke: "I will deny thee nothing: / Whereon, I do beseech thee, grant me this, / To leave me but a little to myself" (3.3.83-85). Having granted her request, his request is that she stop talking and leave him alone for a while. She immediately grants his request and says goodbye, taking Emilia with her. As she leaves, she has one last thing for him to consider: "Be as your fancies teach you; / Whate'er you be, I am obedient" (3.3.88-89). In other words, he can do whatever he wants, and whatever he is, she will be obedient to him. A wife was supposed to be obedient to her husband, but Desdemona seems to be of the opinion that obedience is a two-way street. She will be as obedient as a wife should be, and he should remember that she's doing her part in this relationship, so that he can also remember that he should do his part.

Exeunt Desdemona and Emilia:
Watching his wife leave, Othello exclaims, "Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul, / But I do love thee! and when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again" (3.3.90-92). A "wretch" is a miserable, low-down person, but in calling Desdemona "excellent wretch," Othello means what the British mean when they smile and call someone a "cheeky beggar." In speaking up on behalf of Cassio, Desdemona has been spunky and assertive, and Othello loves her for it. He loves her so much that if he ever stops loving her, the world won't make sense, so that "chaos is come again."

In a few minutes chaos begins to descend upon Othello. Iago starts fishing again, and again he starts by talking very softly, so that Othello has to ask him what he's saying. Iago asks, "Did Michael Cassio, when you woo'd my lady, / Know of your love?" (3.3.94-95). Othello answers that yes, Cassio knew all along, and then wants to know why Iago asked. Iago replies, "But for a satisfaction of my thought; / No further harm" (3.3.97-98). Iago's use of the words "further harm" is a stroke of evil genius. Iago is reassuring Othello that he was only wondering, and that there's nothing to worry about, but in such a way that shows that he has already had a harmful thought, even though he would rather not say what it is.

Othello takes the bait. He asks Iago why he was wondering about Cassio, and Iago simply says that he didn't know that Cassio had even known Desdemona. Othello replies that Cassio had been a constant go-between for himself and Desdemona, whereupon Iago says, with significant emphasis, "Indeed!" At this, Othello says "Indeed! ay, indeed: discern'st thou aught in that? / Is he not honest?" (3.3.102-103). This is Othello's tragic mistake. Doubting Cassio's honesty means doubting Desdemona's honesty, too, and from this point on, Othello steadily descends into a jealousy that robs him of his dignity, his honor, and the love of his life, Desdemona.

(Students of Othello often complain that they have a hard time sympathizing with Othello because he falls for Iago's trick too easily. Yet Iago has spent a great deal of effort preparing the ground for his trick, and he has brought it off without making any accusations, so that Othello has the sense of discovering something for himself. Above all, Othello trusts Iago, as does everyone else in the play, and Othello has better reason to trust him than others do, because Othello and Iago have been through wars together. Perhaps we have difficulty sympathizing with Othello because we believe that we would do better in his circumstances, but we must remember that Othello is not dealing with a cartoon villain, but with a friend who has shown himself worthy of trust. Think of your oldest, most trustworthy friend, and then put Iago's words in that friend's mouth, and think how you would react -- honestly.)

Othello tries to get Iago to say what he's thinking, but Iago pretends extreme reluctance. While this is going on, we are allowed to see that Shakespeare understood the uses of body language. Othello is convinced that Iago must have something on his mind because when he told Iago of Cassio's role in the wooing of Desdemona, Iago used body language to convey the message that he had a hidden message. Othello says, "thou criedst "Indeed!" / And didst contract and purse thy brow together, / As if thou then hadst shut up in thy brain / Some horrible conceit" (3.3.112-115).

A "conceit" is a thought, and Othello is sure that whatever Iago is thinking must be worth hearing because he is so reluctant to say what he's thinking. Othello says, "And, for I know thou'rt full of love and honesty, / And weigh'st thy words before thou givest them breath, / Therefore these stops of thine fright me the more" (3.3.118-120). "These stops" are the significant pauses Iago has been using, as though he has been trying to decide just what he should say. (Thus we see that Shakespeare knew not only what his characters would say, but how they would say it.) Othello knows that such "stops" can be used to fool a person; as he says, "such things in a false disloyal knave / Are tricks of custom" (3.3.121). But Othello doesn't know that Iago is now using those tricks on him. Othello isn't stupid or inexperienced in the ways of the world; it's just that he's sure that Iago is his honest friend.

Still pretending reluctance, Iago leads Othello on by saying that he thinks that Cassio is honest. When Othello demands to know just what Iago is thinking, Iago prepares the ground for his future insinuations by playing devil's advocate against his own devilish case. He says that Othello shouldn't even want to know his thoughts because they might be false and vile. After all, "Who has a breast so pure, / But some uncleanly apprehensions / Keep leets and law-days and in session sit / With meditations lawful?" (3.3.138-141). "Leets and law-days" are court sessions, and Iago is saying that in the court sessions of our minds all of our irrational fears and suspicions have their say. (Most of us have enough good sense to dismiss such thoughts, but not Iago, who nearly believes that Emilia is having affairs with both Othello and Cassio.) Thus Othello's defenses are lowered, even though Iago's thoughts are indeed vile and false. When we say "this may be just a wild idea," we're using the same kind of psychological maneuver, but usually not as successfully as Iago uses it.

In the name of friendship, Othello again demands to know what Iago is thinking, but Iago keeps playing his game. He again tells Othello that it wouldn't be good for him to know his thoughts. He says to Othello, "It were not for your quiet nor your good, / Nor for my manhood, honesty, or wisdom, / To let you know my thoughts" (3.3.152-154). Someone's reputation could be at stake, and "Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, / Is the immediate jewel of their souls" (3.3.155-156). Here "immediate" is used in the sense it has in the phrase "the immediate vicinity." A person's reputation is very near and dear, and Iago wouldn't want to be the man to ruin anyone's reputation. Of course, by using the phrase "man and woman" Iago also manages to drop a strong hint that he's thinking of Cassio and Desdemona.

After having thus displayed the purity of his motives, Iago warns Othello against jealousy:
   O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But, O, what damned minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!  (3.3.165-170)
This speech is justly famous, not only for its description of jealousy, but also for the cunning of its psychological destructiveness. The meat that the "green-eyed monster" feeds on is a person's heart, which it eats away. At the same time, the monster mocks that person's heart, so that he or she feels shame. And the monster is insatiable, always gnawing away, so that the jealous person is never at peace. If you've met the monster, you know that Iago is right. But Iago offers Othello a way out by saying "that cuckold lives in bliss / Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger." In other words, it's a happy cuckold who knows he's a cuckold and hates the person who is making him a cuckold. In comparison to all of the pain of jealousy, it's "bliss" to just be angry. Thus Iago tempts Othello to make the jump from suspicion to anger, without pausing to determine if the suspicion has any basis in fact.

Iago follows this warning against jealousy with a proverb: "Poor and content is rich and rich enough, / But riches fineless [boundless] is as poor as winter / To him that ever fears he shall be poor" (3.3.172-174). Well, sure. Everyone thinks they know that it's best to be satisfied with what they have, but in the context of the discussion the proverb also suggests that Othello is already poor, that he has already lost Desdemona and just doesn't know it.

Iago's warnings against jealousy have the effect that he was probably looking for: Othello denies that he is jealous. From Iago's point of view, this is a good sign, just as was Cassio's denial that he was drunk. Othello doesn't believe that he is the sort of person who can be jealous, because for him "to be once in doubt / Is once to be resolved" (3.3.179-180). Othello here uses the word "once" in both the sense of "as soon as" and in the sense of "finally." He means that as soon as he is in doubt, he will resolve that doubt once and for all.

The problem is -- and Othello will wrestle with this problem until he kills Desdemona -- he has no way to resolve his doubt. He says to Iago that he will not concern himself with "such exsufflicate and blown surmises, / Matching thy inference" (3.3.182-183). "Exsufflicate" means "overblown," and "blown" probably means "flyblown"; meat gets flyblown when it's so rotten that the blowfly lays eggs all over it. In short, Iago's inferences are disgusting exaggerations. However, Iago has not actually made any inferences; he's implied much, but he's been very careful not to make any accusations, not to say anything that could be refuted or disproved. Instead, it's Othello who is making jealous inferences even as he's denying that he can be jealous. He says, "'Tis not to make me jealous / To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company, / Is free of speech, sings, plays and dances well; / Where virtue is, these are more virtuous"(3.3.183-186). He's right. An outgoing personality doesn't make a woman loose. But he wouldn't have to remind himself of that if he weren't jealous. Similarly, he says, "Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw / The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt; / For she had eyes, and chose me" (3.3.187-189). Again, Othello is right. Before her father and the world Desdemona proclaimed her choice, but if he weren't jealous he wouldn't have to remind himself that she chose him.

Othello ends his speech about his freedom from jealousy by declaring, "No, Iago; / I'll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove; / And on the proof, there is no more but this,-- / Away at once with love or jealousy!" (3.3.189-192). To "doubt" means to suspect, and despite what he says, Othello already has strong suspicions, not from seeing anything, but just from listening to Iago. Still worse, Othello is prepared to hear and believe whatever Iago says next. Othello believes that he's not the jealous type and he believes that Iago is his honest friend, so he believes that Iago couldn't be lying and he believes that he himself can't be mistaken. Thus Iago has trapped Othello with that mind game that people use when they have something nasty on their minds and start by saying, "I didn't want to say anything, but you're my friend, so I'm sure you won't take this the wrong way."

Now, finally, Iago reveals what is on his mind, although he still makes no accusations, and he continually reminds Othello that he's only speaking as a friend. He tells Othello that he should keep an eye on Desdemona, especially when she's speaking with Cassio, because "I know our country disposition well; / In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience / Is not to leave't undone, but keep't unknown" (3.3.201-204). Since Othello is the outsider, and Iago is his honest Venetian friend who knows Venetian women, all Othello can answer is, "Dost thou say so?" (3.3.205).

Iago then proceeds to cast a new light upon all of what Othello knows of his wife. He says, "She did deceive her father, marrying you; / And when she seem'd to shake and fear your looks, / She loved them most" (3.3.206-208). As usual with Iago, he lies by distorting the truth. Yes, Desdemona eloped, rather than asking her father's permission to marry, but if she had asked permission to marry Othello, she probably would have gotten herself locked up. As for the shaking, she was crying with pity at some things in the story of Othello's life; it was Desdemona's father -- not Desdemona -- who thought she would naturally fear a black man. We know all of this because we paid attention when Othello and Desdemona spoke to the Senate, but Othello's mind has been so mangled that he says, "And so she did" (3.3.208).

At this point Iago sees that Othello is in emotional distress, and he finds a way to take advantage of that, too. He apologizes to Othello, assures him that he's motivated only by his "love" for Othello, and says, "I see this hath a little dash'd your spirits" (3.3.214). Othello responds, "Not a jot, not a jot" (3.3.215), but Iago continues to apologize and to say that he's been acting only out of friendship. In this way, Othello is forced into the role of the strong man who can face the truth, so that Iago is free to say more. At the same time, Othello can assume -- as he does a little later -- that Iago could easily say much more if weren't afraid of hurting Othello's feelings.

Othello tries to get hold of himself, saying, "I do not think but Desdemona's honest" (3.3.225). To this, Iago replies with wicked friendliness, "Long live she so! and long live you to think so!" (3.3.226). Then Othello starts trying to think the problem through, saying, "And yet, how nature erring from itself--" (3.3.227). He's probably thinking that Desdemona is naturally honest, even though she could make a mistake, but Iago doesn't let him finish the thought. Iago interrupts him with his own interpretation of Desdemona's nature:
Ay, there's the point: as--to be bold with you--
Not to affect
[consider] many proposed matches [possible husbands]
Of her own clime
[region], complexion, and degree [social station],
Whereto we see in all things nature tends--
Foh! one may smell in such, a will most rank
[rotten, stinking],
Foul disproportions
[abnormalities], thoughts unnatural.(3.3.228-233)
In other words, because Desdemona married Othello instead of a nice white Venetian boy, she must be a slut. This is almost certainly what Iago really thinks, but he senses that he has gone too far and says that he wasn't really talking about Desdemona personally, it's just that he's afraid that she might "match [compare] you with her country forms [appearances of the men of Venice] / And happily [perhaps] repent" (3.3.237-238). Here Iago appeals to the fear that lives at the heart of jealousy, the fear that we are not attractive, not really good enough to deserve the love that makes us happy.

Now Othello needs time to think, and he tells Iago to leave him. As Iago is going, Othello says to himself of Iago, "This honest creature doubtless / Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds" (3.3.242-243). We know that Iago does not know more, that he knows nothing except how to use innuendo, but Othello is caught in his trap.

Before he leaves, Iago gives a little friendly advice. Othello had told Desdemona that he would restore Cassio to his position, but if Othello delays that decision, and Desdemona speaks up strongly on Cassio's behalf, "Much will be seen in that" (3.3.252). This is a safe bet for Iago, since he has already seen Desdemona speak up for Cassio, and can be sure that she will do it again. With this, and with a few more words about how Othello should just put his mind at ease, Iago leaves him to stew in his own juices.

Exit Iago:
Alone, Othello stumbles about in the darkness of his growing jealousy. He says "If I do prove her haggard, / Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings, / I'ld whistle her off and let her down the wind, / To prey at fortune" (3.3.260-263). He's using metaphors from falconry. A "haggard" is an adult hawk captured in the wild; it's "haggard" until it's tame, which may never happen. "Jesses" are leather straps attached to the hawk's legs and tied to its trainer's leash. If a hawk was allowed to take off downwind, there was a good chance it wouldn't return. The phrase "prey at fortune" means "hunt wherever it finds itself." Othello imagines Desdemona as his hawk, tied not to his arm, but to his heart. He tells himself that if she turns out to be wild, he'll set her free, but later in the same scene his jealousy deepens so much that he vows to kill her.

Returning to Othello's soliloquy, we see how much Iago's views have taken root in Othello's mind. Iago told him that Desdemona might start comparing him to white Venetians, and now Othello says, "Haply [perhaps], for I am black / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have, or for I am declined / Into the vale of years,--yet that's not much-- / She's gone" (3.3.263-267). "Soft parts of conversation" are the abilities of men who are used to being in chambers (e.g. parlors, ballrooms and such); such men would know how to make small talk and how to flatter a lady. Othello is used to the field of battle, not chambers. Besides that, he's black and approaching the age of thirty-five. Earlier in the play, when he spoke before the Senate, Othello knew that Desdemona loved him because he was not a chamberer, because he was different, because he had had adventures. But now, under Iago's influence, Othello thinks that those very qualities that made her love him have made her leave him.

(A note on the ages of Othello and Desdemona: Because of high infant mortality and the general lack of effective medicine, the statistical life-span of men in Shakespeare's time is thirty-some, but seventy was thought to be the natural life span, so that the "vale of years" is usually interpreted as age thirty-five, half of seventy. Desdemona's age is not specified, but as a highly marriageable woman, she would probably be about eighteen. However, she is emphatically an adult, with full confidence that she is Othello's partner in marriage. Outside of Othello's soliloquy, the only other allusions Othello's age come from Iago and Brabantio, who both have other and stronger reasons to hate him.)

Then Othello begins to feel sorry for himself. He says, "I am abused; and my relief / Must be to loathe her" (3.3.268). He feels that husbands suffer the curse of marriage because their wives' appetites are uncontrollable. He'd rather live as toad in a dungeon "Than keep a corner in the thing I love / For others' uses" (3.3.273). Then, again adopting Iago's views, he reflects that every prominent man is fated to be a cuckold.

Re-enter Desdemona and Emilia:
As he is becoming increasingly irrational, Othello's jealous soliloquy is interrupted. He sees Emilia and Desdemona coming to him, and -- looking at his beautiful wife -- says, "If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself! / I'll not believe't" (3.3.278-279). She looks like an angel, and it would be a dirty trick of heaven to make a bad woman look so good, so he won't believe that she's bad.

On the other hand, he has a hard time pretending that everything is the same as before. When Desdemona reminds him that he invited some Cypriots to dinner (i.e., lunch), and that everyone is waiting for him, he is so choked up that Desdemona can barely hear him. She asks what's wrong, and he makes the excuse that he has a headache. Desdemona knows what to do about that; she takes out her handkerchief to wrap around his head. Impatiently, Othello says, "Your napkin is too little: / Let it alone. Come, I'll go in with you" (3.3.287-288), and rushes out of the room, followed by Desdemona.

(The handkerchief is a visual reminder of the blindness caused by passion. At this point, editors usually insert the stage direction, "He puts the handkerchief from him, and it drops " (3.3.288, s.d.). In other words, Othello sees and touches the handkerchief, but ten minutes later in the scene, Iago will tell him that Cassio has the handkerchief, and Othello won't remember seeing or touching it.)

Exeunt Othello and Desdemona:
Emilia sees the handkerchief fall and stays to pick it up. She's glad she's found it because it's precious to Desdemona and because, as she says, "My wayward husband hath a hundred times / Woo'd me to steal it" (3.3.292-293). (You probably shouldn't ask yourself when Iago asked Emilia to steal the handkerchief. He could have done it during the sea voyage from Venice to Cyprus, but that would mean he had his whole plan mapped out before he arrived in Cyprus, which doesn't seem to be true.) Emilia knows that the handkerchief was Othello's first gift to Desdemona, and that she always keeps it with her, "To kiss and talk to" (3.3.296). Perhaps this is the reason that Emilia hasn't stolen the handkerchief, and even now she means to give it back to Desdemona. Emilia says she will "have the work ta'en out, / And give't Iago" (3.3.296-297). She means that she will have handkerchief copied and give the copy to Iago, even though she has no idea what he wants with it.

However, Emilia doesn't have a chance to carry out her plan. Iago appears and Emilia hopes to please him by telling him about what she has just found. She says, "I have a thing for you" (3.3.301). Iago replies with a nasty joke, "A thing for me? it is a common thing--" (3.3.302). In guy-talk of Shakespeare's time a woman's "thing" was between her legs, and a "common thing" was one available to any man. When Emilia objects to the joke, Iago changes it to an ordinary insult by saying that it's a common thing to have a foolish wife.

Despite Iago's bad treatment of her, Emilia still wants to please him, and she tells him that she has found Desdemona's handkerchief. Iago immediately tells her to give it to him, and when she asks what he wants with it, he snatches it from her. She protests, "If it be not for some purpose of import, / Give't me again: poor lady, she'll run mad / When she shall lack it" (3.3.316-318). But Iago doesn't give it back. He tells Emilia to keep her mouth shut about it and he sends her away.

Alone for a moment, Iago tells us what he wouldn't tell Emilia. He's going to drop the handkerchief in Cassio's lodging where Cassio will be sure to find it. Iago knows that the fact that Cassio has the handkerchief won't be any kind of real proof that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona, but he is pretty sure that it will be proof enough for Othello, because "Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ" (3.3.322-324). And Iago's poison is already beginning to work upon Othello. Iago goes on to reflect that "Dangerous conceits [ideas] are, in their natures, poisons. / Which at the first are scarce found to distaste, / But with a little act upon the blood / Burn like the mines of sulphur" (3.3.326-329). Sulphur is highly flammable, and sulphur mines can catch fire and burn until they collapse. Iago is sure that Othello is burning up inside.

Re-enter Othello:
As Iago speaks of the corrosive effect of jealousy, Othello appears with such a haunted look on his face that Iago comments, "I did say so. / Look where he comes!" (3.3.329-330). Iago means that Othello's state is proof of what Iago has just been saying. It's as though he is inviting us admire his handiwork; just a glance at Othello should be enough to prove that the poison of jealousy has taken hold. As Othello approaches, Iago says to him, though not so Othello can hear, "Not poppy, nor mandragora, / Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, / Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep / Which thou owedst yesterday" (3.3.330-333). Both "poppy" and "mandragora" are opiates, very powerful sleeping potions, but even they won't do Othello any good. Now that Iago has poisoned his mind, Othello will never sleep again.

Othello, too, is thinking and talking about his poisoned state of mind. He says that before this he was happy. He didn't suspect anything; he couldn't taste Cassio's kisses on Desdemona's lips and everything was right in his world. If he had never known anything about Desdemona's adultery, he would still be happy, no matter what she did, but now his world is falling apart. In a speech so famous that it's often referred to simply as "Othello's farewell to his occupation" he says that even if Desdemona went to bed with the dirtiest, sweatiest soldiers in camp (the "pioners"), he would have been happy so long as he hadn't known, but now he can't be a soldier anymore:
I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O, now, for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars,
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!
And, O you mortal engines
[deadly cannon], whose rude throats
The immortal Jove's dread clamours
[fearful thunder] counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone!   (3.3.345-357)
This isn't a rational statement. There's no rule of war that says that a man can't lead an army if his wife is unfaithful . And Othello isn't about to resign his position. He means what he feels, which is that if Desdemona doesn't love him, he's nothing.

Though this is exactly the kind of thing that Iago has been looking for, he pretends to be surprised that Othello is taking it so hard. At this, Othello's despair turns into anger against Iago. He exclaims, "Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore" (3.3.359), and he threatens Iago with death and damnation if he "dost slander her and torture me" (3.3.368).

Iago handles this outburst with some more of his psychological tricks. First he calls Othello a big fool, saying, "O grace! O heaven forgive me! / Are you a man? have you a soul or sense?" (3.3.374). Then he threatens Othello with isolation. He says, "God be wi' you; take mine office. O wretched fool, / That livest to make thine honesty a vice!" (3.3.376). "God be wi' you" ("God buy you" in some editions) is the grandmother of our word "goodbye," and "take mine office" means "I quit." In short, he's pretending that he's about to leave Othello all alone to solve his problem by himself. As Iago heads for the door, he talks to himself (though loud enough for Othello to hear), telling himself that he's a fool to be so honest, because his honesty has only brought him trouble. He goes on in this way until he promises that from now on he'll "love no friend, sith [since] love breeds such offence" (3.3.380).

Othello, who believes that his best friend and his wife have both betrayed him, can't bear the thought of losing his last friend, so he cries out, "Nay, stay. Thou shouldst be honest" (3.3.381). "Thou shouldst be honest" means that it appears that Iago is honest, but Iago replies that he should be wise enough to not be so honest. This increases Othello's torture, and he looks for a way out, saying, "By the world, / I think my wife be honest and think she is not; / I think that thou art just and think thou art not. / I'll have some proof" (3.3.383-386).

Othello's demand for proof gives Iago his chance to lure Othello into convicting Desdemona without proof. He asks Othello if he would like to see the ultimate proof. He asks, "Would you, the supervisor [spectator] , grossly gape on-- / Behold her topp'd?" (3.3.395-396). The thought horrifies Othello, and Iago makes the horror stronger by telling him that he will never be able to catch Desdemona and Cassio in bed together, while at the same time describing their coupling in most lurid and bestial way: "It is impossible you should see this, / Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys, / As salt as wolves in pride [in heat], and fools as gross / As ignorance made drunk" (3.3.402-404).

Having thus turned Othello away from the possibility of real proof, Iago urges him to put his trust in circumstantial evidence. Othello exclaims, "Give me a living reason she's disloyal" (3.3.409), and Iago concocts a story about a dream. After saying that he doesn't really want to say what he's about to say, and after saying that he's saying it only because he's honest and because he loves Othello, Iago tells Othello that when he was sleeping with Cassio, Cassio said in his sleep, "Sweet Desdemona, / Let us be wary, let us hide our loves" (3.3.419-420). Then, says Iago, Cassio repeatedly gripped Iago's hand, and kissed Iago hard, and laid his leg over Iago's thigh, and cried out, "Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor!" (3.3.426).

(A note on sleeping together: Iago's lie about Cassio's dream may suggest that Iago has some homosexual tendencies, but just the fact that they were sleeping together doesn't point in that direction. Today people in the rich countries of the world share beds only with sexual partners, but there were many fewer beds per person in Shakespeare's time. Even as late as the nineteenth century, as you might remember from reading Moby Dick, staying at an inn might mean that you would share a bed with a total stranger. Also, Iago is probably lying about sleeping with Cassio.)

Hearing Iago's story of Cassio's dream, Othello cries out, "O monstrous! monstrous!" (3.3.427), to which Iago replies, "Nay, this was but his dream" (3.3.427). Thus Iago -- as he often does -- erases any doubts that Othello might have by pretending to have them himself. Othello, already in a rage, says "I'll tear her all to pieces" (3.3.431), but Iago isn't done with him. Iago answers, "Nay, but be wise: yet we see nothing done; / She may be honest yet. Tell me but this, / Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief / Spotted with strawberries in your wife's hand?" (3.3.432-435). Othello says that it was his first gift to Desdemona, and Iago replies that he didn't know that (which is another lie), but earlier in the day he saw Cassio wipe his beard with that very handkerchief.

Of course we know that Cassio has never had that handkerchief, and that Iago now has it in his pocket, and that Othello should remember that Desdemona tried to bind his head with it, but Othello is so blinded by jealousy that he accepts Iago's lie as the strongest possible evidence. Othello's rage now flowers into vows of revenge. He wishes that Cassio had forty thousand lives because killing him just once wouldn't be enough. He declares that his love is now all gone, and demonstrates what he means with a gesture, saying, "Look here, Iago; / All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven. / 'Tis gone" (3.3.444-446). Shakespeare doesn't have a stage direction telling us just what gesture Othello makes; perhaps he opens his hand and blows on it, as though blowing away dust.

Othello goes on to declare that hate has taken the place of all his love, and when Iago tells him to be calm, he cries out, "O, blood, blood, blood!" (3.3.451). Iago continues to egg him on by suggesting that he will change his mind, but Othello swears that his "bloody thoughts, with violent pace, / Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love, / Till that a capable and wide revenge / Swallow them up" (3.3.457-460). Then, to prove that he will never change his mind, Othello kneels and makes his vow of revenge to heaven.

When Othello kneels, Iago kneels, too, and makes his own vow. He promises to give himself up completely to Othello's service. "Let him command," Iago vows, "And to obey shall be in me remorse, / What bloody business ever" (3.3.467-469). Some scholars explain the phrase "shall be in me remorse" as meaning that Iago is promising to do whatever Othello wants because he feels sorry for him. Others explain the same phrase as meaning that whatever bloody business Iago does for Othello will be as right as something done out of pity. Whichever explanation you accept, it's clear that Iago is encouraging Othello to feel sorry for himself and to get bloody revenge.

After they make these horribly ungodly vows to heaven, Othello immediately takes Iago up on his offer to do anything. He asks that Iago make sure that Cassio is dead within three days. Iago answers, "My friend is dead; 'tis done at your request: / But let her live" (3.3.474-475), which incites Othello to exclaim, "Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her! / Come, go with me apart; I will withdraw, / To furnish me with some swift means of death / For the fair devil" (3.3.476-479).

Othello's last words of the scene are "Now art thou my lieutenant" (3.3.479), to which Iago answers, "I am your own for ever" (3.3.480). So Iago gets the job that he wanted in the first place, and more. He gets control of the man he hates. And Othello has descended into that chaos of hatred which was foreshadowed when he said of Desdemona, "Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul, / But I do love thee! and when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again" (3.3.90-92).