From Eyewitness Testimony to Circumstantial Evidence
Iago does not want Othello to remain in his desolation or even his desperate situation. He wants to move him to action. So, he further stokes the fire raging in Othello's breast in the next portion of this last mini-scene of 3.3. He does it through three techniques: (1) a vivid example; (2) animalistic language; and (3) a sexual story. As Othello's anger grows, his evidentiary standard, to use lawyer lingo, diminishes. No longer will he require "ocular" (eyewitness) evidence; it will suffice if he has a "living reason" (3.3.409) for Desdemona's disloyalty.
The Vivid Example
In his intellectual vacillation, described in the previous essay, Othello declares that he will be satisfied. Away with doubts and feeble fears! Just as the neighing steed and shrill trump must be bidden farewell, so must the fear of suffering the pain of cords, knives and poison be dismissed. He will be satisfied (3.3.393). As if seeking clarification regarding how he is to be satisfied, Iago plunges the knife deeper into Othello's psyche:
"How satisfied, my lord?/ Would you, the supervisor [onlooker], grossly gape on?/ Behold her topp'd?" (3.3.394-496)
That is, Iago is 'innocently' asking Othello if in order to secure "ocular" proof he needs to view them in flagrante. Does he, in the words of Chauncey Gardiner in the 1980s film Being There, "like to watch?" Of course the mere suggestion of such a vivid and horrific possiblity sends Othello, predictably, over the edge. "Death and damnation! O (3.3.396)!" Does Othello wish death and damnation to Iago? Desdemona? Himself? The entire world? There is nothing like the power of very visual language to evoke the desired spirit of outrage.
Iago continues relentlessly. He admits that it would be difficult if not impossible to catch them "in the act." Then, in an apparently parenthetical remark, put in a long conditional clause, Iago speculates:
"It is impossible you should see this,/ Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys,/ As salt as wolves in pride, and fools as gross/ As ignorance made drunk (3.3.402-405)."
The images of lechery tumble over each other, burning Othello's sensibilities, singeing his soul, incinerating his mind. Whenever Shakespeare wants a character to express the extremity of a situation in Othello, the character makes reference to descending to animalistic instincts. Even in this scene Othello has remarked, after being convinced that Desdemona is disloyal:
"I had rather be a toad/ And live upon the vapor of a dungeon/ Than keep a corner in the thing I love/ For others' uses (3.3.270-273)."
The life of a lowly and despised toad is preferable than living as a cuckold. Again, in the same scene, when he recovers from his quick glimpse into the yawning abyss, he confidently says,
"Exchange me for a goat,/ When I shall turn the business of my soul/ To such exsufflicate and blown surmises./ Matching they inference." (3.3.180-183)
That is, 'I'll be a goat if I were to listen to such inflated stories and suspicions [Iago's warning to beware the green-eyed monster of jealous] and occupy my mind with such trash.' Here, when Iago refers to the various lowly animals in heat, he is trying to bring Desdemona and Cassio to that level. 'They are just a bunch of animals.' Parenthetically-speaking, of course.
A Sex Story
If this isn't enough to kindle Othello's fire, the next story is. Othello says that he no longer needs "ocular" proof of infidelity. "Give me a living reason [one based on fact rather than conjecture] she's disloyal" (3.3.409) now suffices. Circumstantial evidence is enough. Hearsay (the testimony to what someone else told you) will suffice. And so, Iago is ready with the steamy story of Cassio's actions in bed (3.3.410-426).
Three aspects of this long story (space does not permit full quotation here) call for brief mention. First is Iago's attempt to establish verisimilitude. It was when he was "troubled with a raging tooth" (3.3.414) and unable to sleep that he heard Cassio speak in his sleep. Indeed, Cassio is one of the "kind" who "will mutter their affairs" in sleep (3.3.416-418). We all know people who talk in their sleep. We know what it is like not to be able to sleep because of bodily pains. Verisimilitude is established. Second, Iago tells of the suggestive words he heard Iago utter. In sleep Cassio was supposed to have said, "O sweet creature!" and, to remove all doubt as to who is intended, "Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor." (3.3.422,426) Then, third, Iago tells Othello of Cassio's actions during his dream. After crying "sweet creature," Cassio would:
"kiss me hard,/ As if he pluck'd up kisses by the roots/ That grew upon my lips; then laid his leg/ Over my thigh, and sigh'd, and kiss'd." (3.3.422-425)
Though Iago could not testify that he had beheld Desdemona "topped" by Cassio, his delicious and delightfully visual image of Cassio groping and passionately kissing in the night not simply completes Othello's humiliation but steels his resolve. "O monstrous! monstrous" (3.3.426) is all he can say. The image is so powerful because it is both a homosexual and heterosexual image, and it can play on the sense of sexual confusion and longing that Iago also may be trying to communicate to Othello. By the end of Iago's narration, Othello is ready for action. His life may be over but he still has at least one more grand act to perform before it really is over. Iago will see to that.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long