Act III, Scene iii Overview
Scope and Flow
In its 480 lines, Act III, Scene iii covers more psychological ground than any other scene in the play. Often called the "Temptation Scene," it is the liteary and ideological center of the play. While 3.1 and 3.2 set the stage for Cassio's request to Iago to arrange for Desdemona to plead with Othello on his behalf, 3.3 describes her attempted plea but, even more, the psychological breakdown of Othello at the hands of Iago. In the space of these 480 lines, Othello goes from calm, unquestioned military leader to a distrustful and crazed husband thirsting for his wife's violent death. This overview can only hope to hit some highlights of the scene, leaving for the 15 or so individual essays on it to explore deeper themes. I divide this long scene into six "subscenes," with emphasis being placed especially on subscenes 4 and 6.
1) 3.3.1-28. Desdemona pledges her best efforts to help Cassio regain his lieutenancy, which he had lost after his drunken brawl with Montano in 2.3. The language is curiously strong and sexually charged, however, leading us to wonder if some of Iago's suspicions about Desdemona's affection for Cassio are true. She will "perform" her friendship with Cassio "to the last article (3.3.22)." In our terms, she won't let her husband get a moment's rest until he reconsiders his decision about Cassio. In a statement subject to at least two interpretations, she says, "thy solicitor shall rather die/ Than give thy cause away (3.3.28)."
2) 3.3.29-92. Desdemona's plea to Othello is interlaced with comments by Iago to Othello about Cassio, who quietly slipped away from a conversation with Desdemona when Othello and Iago entered the room. Othello is clearly bothered by Iago's open-ended comments about why Cassio darted away so "guilty-like," but Desdemona is oblivious to her husband's discomfort. She plies him with requests, which he answers with the seemingly favorable, "I will deny thee nothing (3.3.76)." His mind, however, is elsewhere, and he asks his wife to leave him.
3) 3.3.93-257. The BIG subscene where Othello and Iago engage in a linguitic duel regarding Cassio's intentions, Iago's knowledge, and Othello's need to know things about his wife. Iago subtly shifts the emphasis of the conversation from his withholding of information to his revealing of other information that puts Othello in his debt for yet more information. In other words, a power shift of sorts is going on in the scene, where Othello is gradually transformed from commanding leader who can demand information to bruised suppliant who must wait for and be led by Iago's interpretation of events. Though Othello's suspicion of Desdemona's unfaithfulness grows gradually as the scene progresses, I think the crucial line where Othello's mental world begins to collapse is 3.3.227, "And yet how nature erring from itself--." Iago doesn't let Othello finish the thought; he will "complete" it himself in ways that will lead to the Moor's inner self-torment.
4) 3.3.258-299. Once Iago has established psychological dominance over Othello he withdraws, and Othello is left to contemplate his fate. He goes through several reasons for why he thinks she may be unfaithful, though commits himself to no explanation. Though troubled deeply, he does not quite know what to do. Desdemona enters, and he complains to her of a headache. She applies a strawberry-embroidered handkerchief, a handkerchief given to her by Othello as a wedding present, to the troubled spot. But, in an ominous note, the handkerchief is "too little" to assuage the pain (3.3.287). In a further ominous note, the handkerchief falls to the ground and is picked up by Emilia, Iago's wife.
5) 3.3.300-329. Iago reenters and is given the handkerchief by Emilia (well, he actually snatches it from her hand). The handkerchief (called "the napkin") will be the external sign used by Iago to reveal Desdemona's supposed infidelity as the play develops, but in this short vignette the emphasis is on Iago's plans to plant the napkin in Cassio's room. He gleefully then returns to thoughts of Othello and opines that Othello is now suffering under the poisonous effects of the "dangerous conceits" with which Iago has filled his mind. These poisonous beliefs at first "are scarce found to distaste,/ But with a little act upon the blook/ Burn like the mines of sulphur (3.3.327-329)."
6) 3.3.329-480. This is the other BIG subscene, where Othello returns in mental torment, and Iago leads him to the seemingly inexorable conclusion that he must kill Desdemona for her supposed infidelity. Othello demands "ocular proof (3.3.360)" of his wife's infidelity, but Iago, digging the knife deeper into Othello's fragile psyche, protests that it would be difficult for Othello to be "the supervisor" and "grossly gape on" while she is "topp'd" by Cassio (3.3.395-396). Othello therefore relaxes his proof requirements from eyewitness testimony to circumstantial evidence. Iago offers "imputation and strong circumstances (3.3.406)," and Othello agrees that if he has "a living reason she's disloyal (3.3.409)," he will hear it. After a particularly salacious story by Iago which repulses Othello, Othello calls on "black vengeance, from the hollow hell (3.3.447)" to guide him in his revenge. The scene closes with Iago's vow of eternal fidelity to Othello ("I am your own for ever"--3.3.480), which has the ring not just of a vassal's fealty to a lord but of a wife's to her husband. The sexual mystery, therefore, is subtly enhanced even as Othello's mental state has collapsed.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long