Detailed Summary of Othello, Act 4, Scene 2

Page Index:

Enter Othello and Emilia:
Even after he has decided that he will kill Desdemona that night, Othello seems to need more proof of her guilt. As the scene opens, he is questioning Emilia about Desdemona and Cassio. He asks, "You have seen nothing then?" (4.2.1), and Emilia answers that not only has she seen nothing, she has never suspected anything. Othello, however, continues to question her, asking if she's seen Cassio and Desdemona whisper, or if Desdemona ever sent Emilia away when Cassio was there. Emilia not only says that nothing of the sort ever happened, she stands up for Desdemona, telling Othello that she would wager her soul on Desdemona's honesty.

Emilia also intuits the truth about the root of the problem. She says, "If any wretch have put this in your head, / Let heaven requite it with the serpent's curse!" (4.2.16-17). The "serpent's curse" is the curse that God laid upon the serpent for deceiving the innocent Eve. Emilia means that whoever has put these ideas into Othello's head deserves the same curse. Of course she has no idea that the wretch who made Othello jealous is her husband, Iago.

Still defending Desdemona, Emilia declares that "if she be not honest, chaste, and true, / There's no man happy" (4.2.17-18). However, none of this sways Othello. He tells Emilia to fetch Desdemona, and says to himself, "She says enough; yet she's a simple bawd / That cannot say as much" (4.2.20-21). In other words, Emilia has said enough to convince someone that Desdemona is innocent, but it would be a "simple" (stupid) "bawd" (pimp, male or female) who would not say such things, so she can't be believed.

Enter Desdemona:
As Othello is waiting for Emilia to fetch Desdemona, we see how much he has been blinded by his jealousy. He says "This is a subtle whore, / A closet lock and key of villainous secrets / And yet she'll kneel and pray; I have seen her do't" (4.2.21-23). At this point it's not clear whether he's speaking of Emilia or Desdemona, but in either case, the fact that he has seen the woman pray doesn't change his belief that she is a whore who keeps a secret storeroom ("closet") of dirty secrets. In short, what he sees doesn't have a chance against what he thinks he knows.

In this frame of mind, Othello summons Desdemona (who has just entered with Emilia), saying "Pray you, chuck, come hither" (4.2.24). "Chuck" is a term of endearment, probably derived from "chick," but not usually used in the scornful way that Americans now use the word "chick." We would probably say "honey" or "baby." However, Othello's tone frightens Desdemona. When he says, "Let me see your eyes; / Look in my face," she asks, "What horrible fancy's this?" (4.2.25-26). A "fancy" is something that is imagined; Desdemona immediately senses that something is very wrong, that Othello is being sarcastic with the word "chuck" and that there's a nasty something in his head about her.

Indirectly, Othello answers Desdemona's question about his "horrible fancy." He gives Emilia an order: "Some of your function, mistress; / Leave procreants alone and shut the door; / Cough, or cry "hem," if anybody come: / Your mystery, your mystery: nay, dispatch" (4.2.27-30). "Procreants" are people who are having sex, and a person's "mystery" is her special trade or profession. In Othello's view, it's Emilia's trade to stand guard outside the door while people have sex. In short, he is speaking to Emilia as though she is the madam of a whorehouse in which Desdemona is a whore. And when Emilia hesitates, he tells her to "dispatch," hurry up.

As Emilia leaves, Desdemona falls on her knees and says "Upon my knees, what doth your speech import? / I understand a fury in your words. / But not the words" (4.2.31-33). She means that she doesn't know why she is being treated as a whore, not that she doesn't understand the significance of what Othello has just said. Sarcastically, Othello answers her with "Why? What art thou?" (4.2.34). He means that because she is whore she ought to know perfectly well what he means. She replies that she is "Your wife, my lord; your true / And loyal wife" (4.2.34-35). He then demands that she swear it, so that she will be doubly damned, both for being a whore and for lying. Desdemona again says that she is true, and Othello tells her that she is false. She asks, "To whom, my lord? with whom? how am I false?" (4.2.40).

This is a question that Othello can't answer, no matter how much we wish he would be open with her, so that the truth could come out. He can't make a direct accusation because if she is innocent she will deny everything, and if she is guilty she will deny everything. There is no way to get at the truth, and so it is emotionally safer for Othello to demonize her. It's a thing that humans have always done; when we go to war we demonize those we want to kill, calling them "huns," "japs," or "slopes." Othello is being a total jerk because he is planning to kill Desdemona, and if he can persuade himself that she is a whore, it will be a lot easier. But Othello is also a noble man who cannot manage to kill all of his love for his wife, so when Desdemona asks her question, he weeps and says, "Ah Desdemon! Away! away! away!" (4.2.41).

Perhaps he is turning away, or wants Desdemona to turn away, so she won't see his tears. But Desdemona, even after all of the abuse she has received from him, wants to stand by her man. She asks why he is crying, and then offers her loyalty, telling him that "If haply [by chance] you my father do suspect / An instrument of this your calling back [from Cyprus to Venice], / Lay not your blame on me: If you have lost him, / Why, I have lost him too" (4.2.44-47).

If Othello hears her, he doesn't respond. He now seems lost in his own emotional turmoil, and expresses the depth of his pain in a speech which is essentially a soliloquy. He says that if heaven had tested him with disease, poverty, captivity, "I should have found in some place of my soul / A drop of patience" (4.2.52-53), but what has happened to him is much harder to bear. He has become "A fixed figure for the time of scorn / To point his slow unmoving finger at!" (4.2.54-55).

(The metaphor is a little confusing, but Othello seems to envision himself as one whom people will scorn as a man who had everything except a faithful wife. Indeed, we do have such fixed figures of scorn; Nero will probably always be thought of as the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned, and Bill Clinton will probably always be thought of as the president who couldn't keep his pants zipped.)

Even that, Othello says, he could bear, "But there, where I have garner'd up my heart, / Where either I must live, or bear no life; / The fountain from the which my current runs, / Or else dries up; to be discarded thence!" (4.2.57-60). Desdemona is that life-giving fountain; feeling that he has been discarded from her love makes Othello feel dead, but he can't keep her with him. If he keeps her, she would no longer be a fountain, but a tank where ugly toads have ugly sex, "a cistern for foul toads / To knot and gender in!" (4.2.61-62). His anger again mounting, Othello calls upon the angel of patience to see what he sees and become angry too: "Patience, thou young and rose-lipp'd cherubin,-- / Ay, there, look grim as hell!" (4.2.63-64).

Desdemona may not understand all of Othello's speech, but she does know that he has accused her of being false, and so she says "I hope my noble lord esteems me honest" (4.2.65). Othello answers "O, ay; as summer flies are in the shambles, / That quicken even with blowing" (4.2.66-67). A "shambles" is a slaughterhouse or butcher shop. Such a place, especially in summer, is likely to be swarming with flies, which were thought to (and still seem to) "quicken even with blowing" -- come to life as soon as the flies' eggs are laid. If Desdemona is as honest as slaughterhouse flies, she's not honest at all, because the flies buzz about at random, loyal neither to one partner nor to one piece of meat.

This disturbing comparison also suggests that Desdemona is less than human, and that her lack of honesty is simply a fact of her nature, as the randomness of flies is a fact of their nature. This sense of Desdemona as a wild creature is stronger in Othello's next comparison: "O thou weed, / Who art so lovely fair and smell'st so sweet / That the sense aches at thee, would thou hadst ne'er been born!" (4.2.67-69). Though Othello is disgusted with Desdemona, he longs for her so achingly that he wishes she had never been born, so that he wouldn't know this pain.

Desdemona seems to be ready to be sorry for whatever she has done wrong, even though she doesn't know what it is. She asks, "Alas, what ignorant sin have I committed?" (4.2.70), but he -- after weeping over her and longing for her -- again hardens his heart against her. Rather than answer her, Othello denounces her. He says, "Was this fair paper, this most goodly book, / Made to write "whore" upon? What committed?" (4.2.71-72). His "What committed?" is a question which mocks Desdemona's question. He means "Don't ask what you have done as though you don't already know." Continuing to denounce her, he says that what she has done is so disgusting that it can't be spoken of. If he spoke of it, he would blush so hot that he would "make very forges of my cheeks, / That would to cinders burn up modesty" (4.2.74-75). What she has done stinks to high heaven, so that the moon shuts her eyes and even the wind, that blows everywhere, hides itself within the earth. "What committed? he exclaims, "Impudent strumpet!" (4.2.80-81).

Finally, Desdemona stands up for herself, saying, "By heaven, you do me wrong" (4.2.81). This brings only sarcasm from Othello. He twice asks if she isn't a whore, she says she isn't, and he mockingly begs her pardon, saying, "I cry you mercy, then: / I took you for that cunning whore of Venice / That married with Othello" (4.2.88-90). Then, to demonstrate what she is, he shouts to Emilia to come in, and gives her money, saying, "We have done our course; there's money for your pains: / I pray you, turn the key and keep our counsel" (4.2.93-94). As he did at the beginning of this horrible sequence, Othello pretends that Emilia is the madam of a whorehouse, and he now pretends that he's paying her for the services of the whore Desdemona. Then he leaves.

Exit Othello:
After Othello has called her a whore seven ways to hell, Desdemona is in shock. Emilia asks, "Alas, what does this gentleman conceive? / How do you, madam? how do you, my good lady?" (4.2.95-96), and Desdemona replies, "'Faith, half asleep" (4.2.97). Sympathetically, Emilia asks what's wrong with Othello, whom she refers to as "my lord." Desdemona asks who "my lord" is, and Emilia replies, "He that is yours, sweet lady" (4.2.101). Desdemona answers:
I have none: do not talk to me, Emilia;
I cannot weep; nor answer have I none,
But what should go by water. Prithee, tonight
Lay on my bed my wedding sheets: remember;
And call thy husband hither.   (4.2.102-106)
She has no lord because the man who has just been heaping abuse upon her is not the man whom she loves and calls "my lord." She doesn't want to talk about it because she can't cry, yet the only way she could answer Emilia's questions is by crying. She wants her wedding sheets on her bed in hopes that the Othello she loves will return to her. And she wants to speak with Iago, probably because she thinks that he might be able to explain what's wrong with Othello, and what she should do.

As she is waiting for Emilia to fetch Iago, Desdemona has a brief soliloquy. Sadly ironic, she says, "'Tis meet [fitting] I should be used so, very meet," and asks herself, "How have I been behaved, that he might stick / The small'st opinion on my least misuse?" (4.2.107-109).

Re-enter Emilia with Iago:
Though she told Emilia that she didn't want to talk about Othello's abuse, Desdemona responds to Iago's pretended sympathy. He asks, "What is your pleasure, madam? How is't with you?" (4.2.110), and Desdemona immediately begins to pour out her heart. She says that those who teach children do it gently, and Othello "might have chid [reprimanded] me so [i.e., gently]; for, in good faith, / I am a child to chiding" (4.2.113-114).

Iago asks what's the matter, as though he didn't already have a very good idea of what has happened, and Emilia speaks up for Desdemona, saying "Alas, Iago, my lord hath so bewhored her. / Thrown such despite and heavy terms upon her, / As true hearts cannot bear" (4.2.115-117). Then Desdemona asks, "Am I that name, Iago?" (4.2.118). She uses the phrase "that name" because she does not want to say the word "whore." Iago asks what "that name" is, Emilia explains, and Desdemona begins to weep. Then Iago says "Beshrew him for't!" and asks Desdemona, "How comes this trick upon him?" (4.2.128-129). "Trick" in this context means "strange behavior," what we might call "temporary insanity." Iago's question makes us want to throw things at him; he was the one responsible for the "trick."

Desdemona has no idea why Othello is acting as he is, but Emilia has a very definite theory. She declares, "I will be hang'd, if some eternal villain, / Some busy and insinuating rogue, / Some cogging [cheating], cozening [deceiving] slave, to get some office, / Have not devised this slander; I will be hang'd else" (4.2.130-133). This describes Iago exactly, and it makes him uncomfortable. He says, "Fie, there is no such man; it is impossible" (4.2.134). However, Emilia is unconvinced. She continues to denounce the unknown villain until Iago tells her to quiet down, which only inspires Emilia to say, "Some such squire he was / That turn'd your wit the seamy side without, / And made you to suspect me with the Moor" (4.2.145-147). He finally shuts her up by saying, "You are a fool; go to" (4.2.148). "Go to" is an all-purpose phrase which can mean "go to hell," "no way," or "get out of my face." Emilia's mention of Iago's paranoid sexual jealousy has made him quite angry.

Meanwhile, Desdemona isn't concerned about who the villain might be. All she wants to know is what she asks Iago next: "Alas, Iago, / What shall I do to win my lord again?" (4.2.148-149). She implores Iago to intervene on her behalf with Othello, and -- on her knees -- she swears that she has never loved another, that she has always loved him, and that she always will love him, even if he forsakes her. She goes on to say that, "Unkindness may do much; / And his unkindness may defeat my life, / But never taint my love" (4.2.159-161). Seeing that Othello has struck and humiliated his wife in public, then treated her as a whore, what Desdemona calls "unkindness," we would call "cruelty." This cruelty has reduced Desdemona to stunned silence, then tears, and she believes that it could kill her, but it won't make her stop loving Othello. If a woman said such a thing today, we might scorn her as an enabler of her husband's abuse, but it's likely that Shakespeare intends to show her strength, not her weakness.

Finally, Desdemona says that she can't say the word "whore" and that nothing in the world could make her be one. Of course, this heart-rending speech has little effect on Iago. He excuses Othello on the grounds that he's been troubled by affairs of state, and then the sound of trumpets gives him a chance to get himself out of this sticky situation. The trumpets announce the supper to which Othello invited Lodovico, so Iago can pretend that he must hurry to the supper. He gets rid of the women by saying, "Go in, and weep not; all things shall be well" (4.2.171).

Exeunt Desdemona and Emilia. Enter Roderigo:
After pretending to sympathize with what Desdemona has suffered from the jealous Othello, Iago has to deal with another small problem. Roderigo appears and tells him that "I do not find that thou dealest justly with me" (4.2.173). He complains, "Every day thou daffest me [put me off] with some device [excuse], Iago" (4.2.175). Iago has not given him a chance to spend any time with Desdemona, has not even given him any realistic hope that he'll ever see her, and Roderigo declares that he won't put up with it anymore.

Iago tries to get Roderigo to listen to him, but Roderigo has gotten himself all worked up into a snitty fit, and he goes on about how the jewels he sent to Desdemona via Iago were enough to bribe a nun. Iago had told him that because of the jewels, Desdemona had promised to see Roderigo and be nice to him, but that hasn't happened.

At this point Iago changes tactics. Instead of asking Roderigo to listen to his explanations, he acts as if he's so bored he's barely listening, saying, "Well; go to; very well" (4.2.191). This makes Roderigo so mad that he says, "'tis not very well: nay, I think it is scurvy, and begin to find myself fopp'd in it" (4.2.192-194). To be "fopp'd" is to be made a fool of, so Roderigo, who has always been a fool, is getting angry because he's beginning to see what he really is.

Roderigo then makes a threat that could make all of Iago's schemes blow up in his face. Roderigo says that he will go to Desdemona personally and promise to quit bothering her if she will return his jewels. If she won't, Roderigo threatens Iago, "assure yourself I will seek satisfaction of you" (4.2.199-200). If this were to happen, Desdemona (who of course has never received any jewels) would learn that honest Iago is not to be trusted. However, Roderigo's threat doesn't faze Iago. He says, "You have said now" (4.2.201), as though he could not care less.

Roderigo promises that he'll do what he has said, but he's clearly running out of steam, and Iago takes the opportunity to win him over by shaking his hand and congratulating him on his anger, saying, "Why, now I see there's mettle in thee, and even from this instant to build on thee a better opinion than ever before" (4.2.204-206). This tactic works to perfection. As soon as Iago tosses him a tiny crumb of respect, Roderigo is ready to swallow every lie that Iago feeds him.

Iago promises that Roderigo will get to sleep with Desdemona the very next night if only one problem is solved, which is that Cassio is to be governor of Cyprus. Roderigo doesn't see why that's a problem, since that only means that Desdemona will go back home to Venice with Othello. However, Iago comes up with another lie on the spur of the moment; he tells Roderigo that Othello (and Desdemona) will go directly to Mauritania unless something keeps him in Cyprus. And that something is the killing of Cassio.

Roderigo is amazed by this, but he is too much the fool to resist Iago, who promises to help him. They'll get Cassio between them just after midnight, when Cassio is returning from his supper with his harlot. As a matter of fact, Iago adds, it's growing late, and they need to get started right away. All that Roderigo can think of to say is "I will hear further reason for this" (4.2.244), just as though he had enough brain to think clearly about anything. Iago assures him that he'll show him good reason, and they leave on their mission to kill Cassio.