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Free Study Guide-Othello by William Shakespeare-Free Online Booknotes
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Act III, Scene 4

Summary

In a light-hearted vein, Desdemona talks to the clown and asks him to find Cassio for her. She also talks about the loss of her handkerchief, for she treasured it as a gift from Othello. Emilia, who knows the truth, keeps silent about it.

Othello enters and asks her to lend the handkerchief to him. She says that she does not have it with her at the moment. Her husband becomes so enraged that she is afraid to say that she has lost it. She tries to talk of Cassio, but Othello shouts, "the handkerchief," now convinced that she has given it to Cassio. Othello says that there is witchcraft in the handkerchief, and the woman who loses it will also lose her husband’s love; Desdemona is almost ready to believe it. Desdemona cannot fathom the cause of Othello’s odd behavior. Emilia thinks that Othello’s trouble is jealousy, but Desdemona is sure that is impossible.

Iago and Cassio now arrive. Iago, who withholds the information that he has been appointed the new lieutenant, presses Cassio to talk to Desdemona again, as there is no other way for him to be reinstated. When Desdemona says that Othello was upset over her pleadings on behalf of Cassio, Iago suggests that he must be worried about some state affairs. Desdemona accepts Iago’s explanation and tells Cassio to be patient, for she will make her request again at the appropriate time.

Iago and Desdemona go away, and Cassio is left alone. His mistress Bianca arrives and scolds him for ignoring her. He gives her the strawberry handkerchief and asks her to copy its pattern. He then tells her to leave the place, at once, as the General would he angry if he saw her there. However, he promises to meet her soon, and if possible, he would dine with her that very night.

Notes

The scene opens with at attempt at comic relief from the mounting tension of the play. Desdemona and Othello’s clown enter into a brief play on words that is too short, however, to be very humorous.


The innocent Desdemona is still not aware of what has caused the changes in Othello and is not overly concerned with his moodiness, which she attributes to some matter of state. Unfortunately, she is more concerned at the moment about Cassio and sends the Clown to find him. She wants to reassure Cassio that she has spoken to her husband, who has promised to reinstate him in the future. Ironically, in the interim, Othello has ordered Iago to kill Cassio.

After the clown departs, Desdemona asks Emilia about the handkerchief. The maid lies and says she does not know its whereabouts. Their talk turns to Othello. Desdemona says her husband is noble, true, clear-minded and not capable of being suspicious or jealous. Emilia is not so certain about Othello, who soon enters the scene. It is obvious that he is a changed man, ravaged by doubt and jealousy. Desdemona is too naive to realize his state of mind and presses him about the issue of restoring Cassio, which just makes matters worse with Othello. He rants and raves, hinting of her sexual liberties. The conversation between Desdemona and Othello reaches great heights of dramatic irony and intensity, where there is double meaning to almost every utterance.

Othello asks to borrow his wife’s handkerchief, trying to entrap her. When she does not produce the strawberry embroidered one, he tells about how the handkerchief is magical; if lost, the owner of the handkerchief will lose her lover. The story fits with Othello’s mysterious, Moorish background. It becomes not just a symbol of the love of Othello for Desdemona, but also the love of his parents. The innocent Desdemona is fearful about its loss and cries that she wished she had never seen the handkerchief. Othello’s magical account of the handkerchief fits his and Desdemona’s circumstances at the moment. He has not previously talked of its magical quality or of his attachment to it; the handkerchief was merely his first gift to Desdemona, which she truly treasured and lost only because of Othello. In the first act, Othello rejects notions of magic, and his giving magical meaning to the handkerchief now suggests that he produces this account to cover up the real reason for his passion over such a trifle. He is not ready to confront Desdemona openly, but he wants his final proof.

Emilia’s silence is unforgivable. She listens to the ranting and raving of Othello and says nothing about the handkerchief that she has given to Iago. Obviously, she wants to protect herself, for she has "filched" the missing handkerchief. She also has a fear of Iago and does not want to incur his wrath by revealing to others that she has given him the lost handkerchief. She indicates her cynicism about her husband, and all men, by saying "they are all but stomachs, and we all but food. They eat us hungerly, and when they are full, they belch us." Othello, according to Emilia, is no different. The worldly maid goes on to tell Desdemona that she thinks Othello is jealous. The naive and faithful Desdemona can hardly believe her ears and denies the truth.

Bianca’s part is small but, from the point of view of plot, important. First, she grows jealous over Cassio’s having the handkerchief, which is a mirror reflection of Othello’s jealousy over Cassio. Secondly, her entry into the play is really the prelude to her next appearance in Act IV, where she throws the handkerchief at Cassio in sight of Othello. The handkerchief truly does seem to have magical powers in the play. A mere piece of embroidered cloth creates total and tragic havoc.

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