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Free Study Guide-Othello by William Shakespeare-Free Online Booknotes
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Act IV, Scene 1


At the beginning of the scene, Othello is hovering uneasily between Iago’s wicked version of events and his knowledge of Desdemona’s pure nature. When Iago tells him that Cassio has confessed to him of his affair with Desdemona, Othello’s defenses crumble, and he collapses on the ground unconscious and paralyzed. Cassio arrives on the scene, and Iago explains to him that Othello is epileptic, now having a fit. He must not be disturbed, for he will soon come to his senses. He asks Cassio to return shortly, for he has something important to tell him. Iago proceeds very cautiously. As soon as Othello revives, Iago tells him to hide behind the curtains and, from there, listen to his conversation with Cassio. He tells Othello that Cassio will probably speak most insultingly of Desdemona, providing further proof of her unfaithfulness.

When Cassio returns, Iago talks to him about Bianca in a joking and bawdy way. Othello overhears only a part of the conversation and misunderstands everything. He thinks Cassio is talking insultingly about his wife. As fate would have it, Bianca arrives at this time and throws the handkerchief at Cassio, angrily claiming it must be a token of love from some beloved of his. Cassio follow her out, trying to appease her.

Othello is mad with rage at what he hears and sees. He wants Cassio and Desdemona killed immediately. Iago promises to help him. He will undertake to murder Cassio that very night; Othello must strangle Desdemona in the very bed that she has defiled. Othello agrees.

Lodovico and Gratiano, messengers from Venice, arrive, accompanied by Desdemona. Lodovico hands Othello a letter from the Duke with orders for the recall of Othello to Venice and the appointment of Cassio as the Governor in his place. Desdemona expresses her joy at the promotion of Cassio. The jealous Othello misunderstands her emotions and, throwing aside all dignity and self-control, he strikes her in the presence of others and torments her until she weeps and leaves. He then leaves in great anger. Lodovico and others are amazed at his brutality. The two messengers feel that the confidence they had reposed in Othello is misplaced. He is not worthy of the high post to which he has been appointed.


Othello is now Iago’s creature and can be handled with increasing boldness. Iago torments him with visual suggestions of Desdemona and Cassio lying in bed together. He then tells Othello that Cassio has actually confessed to the affair. Othello’s sufferings can be measured in intensity by his falling into a fit and by his striking Desdemona in public. It is now safe for Iago to do whatever he chooses, for Othello will believe him. The tragic hero is now thoroughly brainwashed about Desdemona and still trusting and praising of Iago. He is truly a pathetic character, especially when compared to the strong, proud, self- confident general seen in the opening scenes of the play.

Iago hides Othello behind the curtain and then talks to Cassio about Bianca. Othello assumes the bawdy slurs are about his wife and grows angry. Then Bianca arrives and throws down Desdemona’s handkerchief, which provides the physical proof that Othello has been seeking. He is totally enraged. When he emerges from behind the curtain, Othello’s mind is completely made up. He immediately asks Iago, "How shall I murder him?" He is equally determined to murder Desdemona, to "chop her into messes" or to poison her. Cassio suggests that he strangle her in their bed that she has defiled.

The arrival of Lodovico and Desdemona at this particular moment is highly dramatic, and the Messenger’s greeting to Othello, "Save you, worthy General," is filled with irony, for Othello definitely needs to be saved from Iago’s wicked hold. When Lodovico inquires after Cassio, who is now to become the Governor of Cyprus in Othello’s absence, Desdemona answers, flattering Cassio. As Desdemona mentions his name, Othello flies into a rage. He calls his wife a devil, hits her, and tells her to get out of his sight. The innocent Desdemona sobs uncontrollably and leaves. Except for the delighted Iago, the onlookers are horrified. Iago speaks in understatement when he tells Lodovico that Othello is "much chang’d".

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