Overview Act IV
Scenes and Themes
Act IV functions further to steel Othello's resolve to kill Desdemona. Even though he stressed his resoluteness in 3.3 and began to treat Desdemona with unrelenting suspicion in 3.4, Othello does not reconcile himself to the deed of killing until Act IV. By the end of Act IV not only does Othello know that Desdemona's death is near, but she knows it as well. The audience just has to gape on in horror as the plot leads to its inexorable "tragic loading of this bed" with corpses (5.2.363)." As I mentioned in the Introductory mini-essay, it was the somber determinacy of the plot, the unyielding march to death, that has even made some theatergoers leap on stage to try to prevent the certain death of Desdemona.
4.1. Othello's Antics. If Othello's actions in 3.4 in examining Desdemona's hand and mercilessly questioning her about the handkerchief were an expression of his perverse sense of justice, his actions in 4.1 represent a growing crescendo of anger and anguish until and after the dramatic high point of the scene: his striking Desdemona in rage. (4.1.240). If we were to diagram the emotional flow of the scene, we would first have an immediate spike of feeling during the first 45 lines, until Othello passes out because of the tension, and then have a gradual building of emotion again beginning when Othello revives (4.1.60) and culminating in his striking Desdemona (4.1.240). The last several lines of the scene allow people to express their disbelief at the sudden change in the Moor's deportment.
The scene begins with Iago's egging Othello on to more fury by making use of the triple devices of downplaying sexual conduct, reminding Othello of the handkerchief and offhand comments about Cassio's lying "with" and "on" Desdemona (4.1.1-40). After Othello faints and Cassio enters, Iago convinces Cassio to depart quickly and then tells Othello to hide himself so that he can view Cassio's reaction to questions put to him by Iago. Iago will get Cassio's reaction to Bianca's romantic overtures but Othello is led to believe that Cassio's reactions represent his feelings toward Desdemona. The viewer stands with Iago as the omniscient witness to the scene; we know that Othello's rage is being stoked by misinformation and misconstrual. When Othello then receives a letter calling him back to Venice and Desdemona says she is "glad on't (4.1.238), he strikes her. The effect of the acquiescent and submissive Desdemona being struck by a powerfully-built large black man, and her one-line protest ("I have not deserv'd this" --4.1.241), is overwhelming to viewer and reader alike. We immediately resonate with Lodovico, the noble Venetian, when he asks, "Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate/ Call all in all sufficient (4.1.264-265)?"
4.2. The Die is Cast. This scene moves with tragic intensity from Othello's quizzing of Emilia about Desdemona's fidelity (and then dismising her comments because she is a "simple bawd"--4.2.20) to a series of insulting actions and words directed against Desdemona and Emilia by Othello. After Othello has insulted Emilia by supposedly paying her as brothel keeper for his "course" with Desdemona, Desdemona is at a loss because of his strange behavior. Her plaintive response to the query of Emilia on how she is doing ("half asleep"), and her admission that she no longer has a "lord (4.1.102)," leads Emilia to blurt out what actually will be a prophetic insight, "I will be hang'd if some eternal villain,/ Some busy and insinuating rogue,/ Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office,/ Have not devis'd this slander (4.2.130-133)."
Nevertheless, in her wounded condition, Desdemona seeks out the only one she can think of for an explanation of his strange behavior: Iago. Iago assures her that "all things shall be well (4.2.171),"--advice that sends chills through the audience not least because it seems to comfort Desdemona temporarily. The scene concludes with Roderigo's insistent demand on Iago for him to perform according to his promise, by alienating Desdemona's affections from Othello and Cassio and directing them to him. The scene shows not only Roderigo's newly-discovered boldness but also the deftness needed by Iago to continue to maintain his multi-faceted ruse. Roderigo is finally appeased, and buys into Iago's scheme to make "him (Cassio) uncapable of Othello's place: knocking out his brains (4.2.229-230)."
4.3. The Willow Song. Desdemona feels that her life is over, and so she, at Othello's command, retires to their bedroom. Emilia helps her undress while Desdemona tells the story of a "maid call'd Barbary" whom her mother employed. Barbary [and the play on the Moor's Barbary--African--heritage is evident] was, like Desdemona, in love but the one whom she loved proved mad and forsook her (4.2.25-28). Barbary had a song called Willow that expressed her fortune, and she died singing it.
Perceiving that her life was now running a similar course to Barbary's, Desdemona began to sing the song. It is a song of resignation, a realization that lovers depart from one another and move on, even if both are not ready to do so. So engaged is she in the song that she "misquotes" one of the verses by adding words descriptive of her own situation: "Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve"--/ Nay, that's not next (4.2.52-53)." The Willow Song is a generic song that becomes a flexible song, as it were, flexible enough to accommodate the individual torment of the singer.
When Desdemona finishes singing the song and bursts out, "O, these men, these men! (4.2.60)," she decides to quiz Emilia on her idea of fidelity. Indeed, Desdemona has just remarked, somewhat unexpectedly, that the noble Venetian Ludovico "is a very proper man (4.2.35)." So, she asks Emilia, "Dost thou in conscience think--tell me, Emilia--/ That there be women do abuse their husbands/ In such gross kind (4.2.61-63)?" They then have an earnest exchange, with Desdemona taking the position that fidelity to her husband is paramount, while Emilia represents the position that "I do think it is their husbands' faults/ if wives do fall (4.2.86-87)." As a teachable wife, Emilia claims that "The ills we do, their ills instruct us so (4.2.103)." While preparing for death, then, the two women have a most vivid and perceptive conversation on the way to live in relationship. Both of them, in ways that are not obvious in 4.2, will get a chance to put their respective philosophies to work in the last scene of the play.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long