Literature Study GuidesOthelloAct 3 Scene 3 Summary

Othello | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Act 3, Scene 3

Professor Bradley Greenburg of Northeastern Illinois University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 3, Scene 3 of William Shakespeare's play Othello.

Othello | Act 3, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

At scene's opening, Desdemona is assuring Cassio she'll help him get his rank back. When Cassio sees Othello and Iago approaching, he leaves in a hurry. In response, Iago makes one of his signature remarks: "Ha! I like not that" When Othello asks, "What dost thou say?" Iago responds, "Nothing, my lord. Or if, I know not what." By encouraging Othello to think he knows something he's keeping hidden, he opens a space in which doubt, then jealousy, can grow. This is emphasized in Iago's next reply, to Othello's "Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?" He says, "Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it, that he would steal away so guilty-like seeing your coming."

When Othello asks Desdemona what she's been doing, she tells him she's been talking to a suitor, which could mean "a man who has a romantic interest," but in this case means "someone who needs something from her." Desdemona then asks Othello when he'll consider listening to Cassio's suit. Othello says not now.

When she exits, Iago piles on the inferences. That, for example, "She did deceive her father, marrying you, and when she seemed to shake and fear your looks she loved them most." When Desdemona re-enters the scene, to inform him that his dinner guests await, he tells her he has a headache, she offers her handkerchief, he rejects it and it falls to the ground.

Emilia picks it up, then Iago demands it. It's the perfect object to plant in Cassio's quarters. Othello's increasing jealousy is exacerbated by Iago's claim that he's heard Cassio talk in his sleep about having sex with Desdemona. He claims he's seen Cassio with the handkerchief. Othello swears he'll kill Desdemona. Iago promises to kill Cassio.

Analysis

This long scene demonstrates Iago's method of leading Othello to think the worst possible thoughts about his wife. He does this by suggesting possibilities, by indirection, and by innuendo. It also provides the material—the handkerchief—for the "ocular proof" Othello demands at the scene's end.

For anyone studying this play, it's crucial to pay close attention to the method Iago deploys to trap Othello. It begins with his language early in the scene, at line 35 quoted above: "Nothing, my lord. Or if, I know not what." The inference is that Iago knows something he'd rather not say. This temptation proves too strong for a man who already has reason to feel doubt in his status in Venice, since he's an outsider, and in his marriage, which he has had to begin in secret.

In Iago's language are traps set specifically for a character he has carefully observed for weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Iago's greatest weapon is to turn his victims' deepest desires against themselves: the confidence Othello shows in Act 1, when he confronts Brabantio and the Duke, is shattered when he believes Desdemona has betrayed him. As Othello says in this scene: "Perdition catch my soul but I do love thee, and when I love thee not, chaos is come again."

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