Breaking Othello's Psyche (4.1.1-43)
Iago triumphs in the play over all others until the last scene because his interpretation of events prevails. The only one who isn't fully submissive to his various construals is his wife Emilia. She will demonstrate her independence from his manner of thinking in 4.2 but will not insist on her own until 5.2. In the mean time, Iago has fully overcome the minds of at least four other characters: Cassio, Roderigo, Desdemona and, of course, Othello.
Overcoming the Others
Iago vanguishes Cassio because of his desperation, Desdemona because of a combination of her personal suggestibility as well as her growing desperation and Roderigo because of his desire for love. In each case, Iago probes the particular vulnerability of each character and claims to provide the service each needs the most. For example, Roderigo wants to secure Desdemona's love but has the obstacle of Othello to surmount. Because Iago wants to replace Cassio in the lieutenancy, he skillfully convinces Roderigo that Cassio also must be replaced because he is an obstacle to his love. In addition, Desdemona must also be wooed with expensive gifts. Roderigo willingly gives over to Iago most of his money so that Iago can allegedly purchase expensive jewelry to solicit Desdemona's affections. Of course, he pockets the money, and when Roderigo objects in vehement language that things are going nowhere, from his perspective, Iago simply suggests a deft explanation (things don't happen immediately, but you are now needed to knock out Cassio's brains, and then the road will be clear), and Roderigo meekly goes along. Examples could also be provided for how Iago vanquishes Cassio and Desdemona.
Though Iago has won over Othello to a large extent in 3.3, he still must connect Cassio and the handkerchief so that there is no doubt that Othello, who is a man of "weak function," will grasp the connection and be utterly committed to Desdemona's destruction. To that end, in the first few dozen lines of 4.1, Iago continues to goad Othello unmercifully toward the desired goal. Three techniques Iago uses to do this are a downplaying the seriousness of sexual conduct in general, rekindling Othello's memory and an apparently offhand remark. So overloaded is Othello's psyche through these techniques that he suffers a fit and faints.
Downplaying the Seriousness of Sexual Conduct
Iago wonders out loud whether a kiss in private is evidence of infidelity (4.1.2). When Othello reacts with alarm, Iago raises the ante while trying to appear nonchalant at the same time. "Or, to be naked with her friend in bed,/ An hour, or more, not meaning any harm (4.1.3-4)?" In other words, Iago is minimizing the explosive potential of what any adult knows is a terribly tempting act: lying naked with a desirable member of the opposite sex even if "not meaning any harm." Othello, taking Iago's suggestion seriously, solemnly invokes theological realities (the devil is mentioned twice and heaven once) to nix that suggestion. Even if Iago doesn't mention Cassio's name in this connection, he no doubt is preparing the ground for a reference to Cassio. But his first comment is a seemingly innocent one about how far friends may innocently stretch sexual limits.
The Handkerchief Again
Iago quickly proceeds to the handkerchief. "If they do nothing (when lying naked next to each other), 'tis a venial slip;/ but if I give my wife a handkerchief-- (4.1.9-10)." Even though Othello repeatedly mentioned the handkerchief with growing fury to Desdemona in 3.4, he apparently has forgotten about it [an evidence of his "weak function"?] for he responds,
"By heaven, I would most gladly have forgot it./ Thou saidst (O, it comes o'er my memory,/ As doth the raven o'er the infectious house,/ Boding to all) he had my handkerchief (4.1.19-22)."
The raven was believed to spread infection. As I have remarked in another connection, Shakespeare has developed his conception of "planting" an idea through a letter or remark, which he used in Julius Caesar, to "poisoning" a person through noxious influence (cf. 3.3.326). So, Iago further poisons Othello here with the memory of the handkerchief, and when the image of the napkin is firmly affixed in Othello's mind, he can go on to the third technique.
An Offhand Remark
Then, Iago moves in for the kill. He alludes to the fact that Cassio has said something to him, as is the custom with "knaves," "Who having by their own importunate suit,/ Or voluntary dogate of some mistress,/ Convinced or supplied them, cannot choose/ But they must blab (4.1.26-29)." And what did he "blab," Othello wants to know? Iago's seeming unconcern is evident. "I know not what he did." ..."Lie"..."With her? On her; what you will (4.1.34-35)." WHAT???? Reality begins to pass too quickly before Othello's eyes. His breath becomes shorter. "Handkerchief--confessions--handkerchief (4.1.37)" and he quickly loses grip with reality. All he can imagine is the "noses, ears and lips" of two lovers in intimate delight (4.1.42). His system collapses and he falls into a trance.
Conclusion--The Poison is Working
Iago could not be more delighted. What he has started in 3.3 picks up steam in 4.1. The biting torment of Othello continues as Iago assumes complete control over the Moor's mind. Iago responds, "My medicine, work (4.1.45)!" His comment is reminiscent of Antony's in Julius Caesar after he had delivered his inflammatory oration at Caesar's funeral: "Now let it work. Mischief, thou are afoot,/ Take thou what course thou wilt (JC 3.2.260-261)." Instead of Othello's "drugs, charms and conjurations" and "what mighty magic" he used to win Desdemona (1.3.91-94), now we have the poisonous drug of the Iago Apothecary Shop injected into Othello's system. When this is combined with the visual demonstration of infidelity (described in mini-essay Looking On), Othello becomes fully resolved to bring about the death of Desdemona.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long