Literature Study GuidesOthelloAct 4 Scene 1 Summary

Othello | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Othello | Act 4, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Iago continues to stoke Othello's jealousy. He tells him that Cassio has admitted to an affair with Desdemona. Othello is so upset he faints, and while he is unconscious, Iago sees Cassio and tells him to come back in a few minutes. When Othello recovers, Iago tells him to hide and observe as Iago and Cassio talk. Iago talks about Bianca with Cassio, and makes Cassio laugh, while Othello watches them but cannot hear the entire conversation. Othello believes Cassio is talking about Desdemona, and becomes enraged. Then Bianca enters with the handkerchief Cassio told her to copy. To Othello, this seems like final proof that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him.

Two noblemen, Lodovico and Graziano, arrive from Venice, bringing messages from the Duke of Venice. These contain orders for Othello to return to Venice, leaving Cassio in charge in Cyprus. Desdemona is glad to hear of Cassio's good fortune, but Othello interprets her reaction all wrong. He yells and strikes her. Lodovico is shocked at how Othello has changed, and Iago acts shocked as well. However, Iago says he is loyal to Othello and doesn't want to speak badly of him.

Analysis

As Iago sees jealousy take hold of Othello, he escalates the situation, manufacturing evidence of an affair. He builds a false case against Desdemona bit by bit, and now he plays his final card: He gives Othello the "ocular proof" Othello has demanded. The ocular, or visible, proof is the handkerchief Cassio has given to Bianca, his lover.

At best, Othello only hears part of the conversation between Cassio and Iago. At first, Iago positions Othello too far away to hear clearly what Iago and Cassio say, for they refer to Bianca by name. But then the conversation becomes more ambiguous, using pronouns instead of names, so that the "she" they are speaking of could be any woman: "She was here even now. She haunts me in every place." At this point, Iago motions for Othello to come closer: Othello says, "Iago beckons me. Now he begins the story." So by the time Othello can hear any words spoken—and it is somewhat unclear just how much of the conversation he does hear—the two men could be talking about Desdemona. And this is how Othello takes it.

Eavesdropping is a common device used in Shakespeare's plays. Famously, both Benedick and Beatrice eavesdrop in Much Ado About Nothing, and hilarity ensues. Although they are being tricked, ultimately the information they learn is close to the truth. In Hamlet, both Polonius and Hamlet eavesdrop, Polonius on Hamlet and his mother, and Hamlet on Claudius's prayers. In both of these cases, the eavesdroppers are privy to secret information that is basically true. For Polonius, the eavesdropping ends badly. Othello's eavesdropping results in his belief in a lie, and the results are tragic.

Iago's actions show that his plan includes not just the death of Desdemona and the madness of Othello, but the undermining of Othello's reputation with his men. Iago digs and digs at Othello, forcing him to visualize his wife with Cassio in bed together, until Othello's language becomes disjointed, and then he finally falls unconscious. When Othello falls "into a trance," Iago tells Cassio it is his second epileptic fit (not true), and "The lethargy must have his quiet course./If not, he foams at mouth, and by and by/Breaks out to savage madness" (also not true). By inventing a history of "fits," Iago sets the stage for people to believe that Othello is not a noble military leader but a mad savage. And when Lodovico asks, "Is this the noble Moor, whom our full senate/Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature/Whom passion could not shake, whose solid virtue/The shot of accident nor dart of chance/Could neither graze nor pierce?" Iago replies, "He is much changed." He will destroy Othello the man. But he will also destroy Othello the legendary military leader, whom readers met in Act 1 as a calm and strong, yet gentle, hero.

At the end of the scene, when Othello is at his most vulnerable, Iago actually suggests to Othello the exact method of murdering Desdemona: "Do it not with poison. Strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated." No longer is Iago the soldier under Othello's command. Othello is now taking Iago's commands.

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