Overview Act II
Scope and Issues
Act II is much less "heavy" or freighted than Act I with ideas and language that require exposition. It is a rather short Act, and it is primarily concerned with moving the action of the play from Venice to Cyprus (2.1) and then in generating a situation that embarrasses Cassio (2.3) so that he will be in a position with respect to Desdemona and Othello that Iago can easily exploit. Act II shows the villainous genius of Iago as his plan to "abuse Othello's ear/ That he (Cassio) is too familiar with his wife (i.e., Desdemona--1.3.395-396)" takes shape. The plan evolves as the play unfolds, but each link in the fast chain of causation is very strong indeed.
2.1 The first scene accomplishes three things. First, it gets all the main characters safely to Cyprus while, at the same time, seeing to it that the Turkish fleet is destroyed by the storm. The purpose for which the expedition was sent is no longer valid. Yet, ironically, the disappearance of the Turkish threat causes another more personal or intimate threat to emerge, that of Othello's jealousy regarding Desdemona's fidelity. Though the Turks no longer menace, the Venetians are now "turn'd Turks (2.3.170)" and violence and destruction will be the result. Second, it provides the occasion for a reunion scene of great emotion where hugs and kisses are exchanged and suspicions rise (when Iago sees Cassio touch Desdemona's hand). Third, the scene gives a detailed description of Iago's plot with Roderigo to "brave" Cassio "upon the watch," to use language of the final scene of the play (5.2.326). In the last part of the scene we also get a window into Iago's growing jealousy against both Othello and Cassio. The former, he thinks, "Hath leap'd into my seat (2.1.296)," while he also fears the latter "with my night-cap too (2.1.307)." He knows his plan to bring down Othello is full of "knavery (2.1.312)."
2.2 consists of only 12 lines, and is a proclamation of the "perdition" of the Turkish fleet, which will permit each person to "put himself into triumph," through dance, sports or other "addiction."
2.3 then moves the action to the night of revelling. Othello still hasn't consummated his marriage with Desdemona (2.3.9), and he wants to hasten off with her while the others are partying. Is this contrary to his solemn pledge in 1.3? Maybe Desdemona had something to say in the matter! In any case, Iago sidles up to Cassio, urging him to join in the revelry because it is not yet time to man the watch. Cassio is reluctant to drink because he cannot hold his liquor, but Iago persuades him to go with some drinking buddies who will lubricate him well. 50 lines later Cassio emerges drunk, and we see the successful results of Iago's cruel genius. Then, on schedule, Roderigo does something to offend Cassio, Cassio chases him, Roderigo escapes and Cassio ends up fighting and wounding the former governor of the island, Montano. Othello emerges after alarms are rung, and gets increasingly agitated as no one seems to be able to say what happened. Finally, Iago relents, seemingly wanting to protect Cassio, but tells the story of what transpired in a way that makes Othello discipline Cassio by firing him. The scene closes with Cassio lamenting to Iago about his new condition of humiliation, and Iago pledging his help to try to get his position (lieutenant) back for him. Finally, Iago rubs his hands in glee, as it were, while he plans his next step: to turn Desdemona's virtue "into pitch," and then, "out of her own goodness make the net/ That shall enmesh them all (2.3.360-362)."
In ancient Greek tragedy we have the specter of the gods and their ability to intervene in human life as the constant threat to human happiness and peace; in Othello we have the roguish machinations of Iago. What need has Shakespeare for divine intervention when he can invent humans who can torment other humans with such great skill?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long