In the garden of the citadel, Desdemona, Cassio, and Emilia are in conversation. Desdemona promises Cassio she will do her best to persuade her husband. Cassio worries that his current estrangement will cause Othello to forget him. But Desdemona vows that her very bed will seem a school where she instructs Othello on Cassio's virtues. She will die, Desdemona says, before she gives up on Cassio. Othello and Iago approach, and Cassio, seeing them, leaves at once. Othello asks Iago if it was Cassio who just left Desdemona, and Iago responds that he doubts it, since the man left so guiltily. Desdemona informs Othello that it was indeed Cassio, and asks him to call Cassio back to hear his case, but Othello declines to do so now. Desdemona demands to know when he will hear Cassio, who, she reminds her husband, was so helpful when Othello was wooing her. Othello relents and says he will meet with Cassio; Desdemona chides him a little for not doing so more willingly. Othello asks to be left alone, and Desdemona and Emilia depart.
Iago begins questioning Othello about Cassio, asking how Cassio helped when Othello was courting Desdemona and whether Cassio is honest. Othello finally demands to know why Iago is speaking so coyly and so suspiciously of Cassio, since he sees Iago's hesitation as his inability to mask something in his heart that he does not want to reveal. Iago feigns reluctance, arguing that his thoughts about Cassio might be foul and false, and that his mind concocts dark fantasies that should not trouble Othello's mind. Iago fears, he says, to harm anyone's reputation, the most valuable thing of all. In response to Othello's continued insistence, Iago warns Othello of jealousy, "the green-eyed monster." Othello answers that he is not the sort of man who would be jealous: he trusts his wife, and would not doubt her without proof, but once he had the proof, that would be the end of it. At this, Iago warns Othello to keep an eye on his wife and Cassio, since women are not to be entirely trusted; he reminds Othello that Desdemona did deceive her father. Othello thanks Iago for his advice, which he will follow. He insists, however, that he knows Desdemona is honest, and Iago insists that Cassio is a good man. Finally, Iago warns the Moor that Desdemona may compare Othello's dark complexion with Venetian standards. Iago begins to leave and overhears, as he does, Othello's fear that Iago knows more than he's revealing. Iago briefly returns to instruct Othello to refuse to see Cassio for a while about his lost job and to pay attention to how forcefully Desdemona pleads his case. Iago leaves again, and Othello, alone, worries. Iago is an honest and wise man, he says. He imagines how horrible it would be if he found out that Desdemona were dishonest; he could not forgive her, he says, probably because he is a Moor and not a gentler man of society. Othello curses marriage, which grants a man control over a woman but not over her desires, and bemoans cuckoldry as the necessary fate of "great ones" like himself.
Desdemona returns with Emilia. Desdemona remarks that Othello doesn't feel well, and he complains of a pain on his forehead (a cuckold is often represented as having horns growing out of his forehead). She tries to tend to the pain with her handkerchief, which she accidentally drops. The couple leaves. Emilia, remaining, picks up the handkerchief: it is the first gift Othello gave to Desdemona, and Iago has asked her to get it for him. Iago enters, and Emilia teases him with what she's found, but Iago takes the handkerchief from her and tells her to leave, which she does. Alone, Iago unfolds his plan: he will put the handkerchief in Cassio's room - this is the "proof" Othello wants. Othello enters and curses Iago for planting ideas in his head - he cannot think of Desdemona without thinking of Cassio. He wouldn't have minded, he says, if all of Cyprus had slept with her, as long as he had not known. But now his content, his delight at all the honors of war, is lost. Othello takes Iago by the throat - if Iago does not give him proof for his accusations, Othello will destroy him with horrors worse than Hell. Iago pretends amazement, and offers to leave at once, but Othello, relenting, asks him to stay. His world, Othello says, is now in doubt, and his name as black as his face - he wants proof. Iago asks if Othello wants to see Cassio and Desdemona having sex, which only enrages Othello even more. Othello insists on proof, and gives Iago the job. Iago remarks that he recently stayed with Cassio, who talks in his sleep. In his sleep, says Iago, Cassio cried out to Desdemona, telling her to hide their affair and kissed and groped Iago, thinking he was Desdemona. Othello is now ready to "tear her all to pieces," but Iago calms him and promises a final proof - he thinks he saw Cassio wiping his beard with the handkerchief that Othello gave Desdemona.
Othello is enraged and ready to wreak his revenge. He demands, repeatedly, blood. Iago feigns prudence, noting that Othello's mind may change, but Othello is sure it never will - he has now given up all thoughts of love. He kneels and, before heaven, vows revenge. Iago kneels beside Othello and vows to serve him. They rise, and Othello orders Iago to kill Cassio within three days. Iago promises to do so, but asks Othello to spare Desdemona. But Othello is already devising a "swift means of death" for the "lewd minx." As they leave together, Othello tells Iago he is now his "lieutenant," his second-in-command, the job that Cassio lost; Iago, attuned to deeper implications, answers: "I am your own for ever."
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Scenes 1.1 and 1.2
Scenes 2.1 and 2.2
Scenes 3.1 and 3.2
Scenes 4.2 and 4.3