Literature Study GuidesOthelloAct 4 Scene 1 Summary

Othello | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Act 4, Scene 1

Professor Bradley Greenburg of Northeastern Illinois University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 4, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare's play Othello.

Othello | Act 4, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

This scene begins with a crucial exchange between Iago and Othello. Pivoting on the word "so," Iago again opens a space in which Othello might fill his mind with images of Desdemona's affair with Cassio.

And now, things get graphic. "To kiss in private?" Iago suggests, faking innocence. Then, "Or, to be naked with her friend in bed an hour or more, not meaning any harm?" Iago offers explicit displays of sexuality, only to disavow them. The effects are swift and devastating: Othello "falls down in a trance" as the stage directions say.

After Othello recovers, Iago instructs him to hide and observe as Iago and Cassio have a conversation. Iago talks about Bianca with Cassio, and makes Cassio laugh, while Othello watches but cannot hear what they're saying. 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 certain proof Desdemona has been unfaithful to him. Lodovico arrives 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 Othello's uncharacteristic behavior. Iago pretends to be shocked as well. However, he reiterates his loyalty to Othello, about whom he will not speak badly.

Analysis

As jealousy takes hold of Othello, Iago 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.

This comes after the scene's opening conversation between Iago and Othello in which Iago aggressively plants animated images of sexual congress between Cassio and Desdemona. While the audience can see the absurdity of these moments, Othello is drawn into them by Iago's skill in enlisting Othello's own imagination.

It's clear from the intensity of Iago's language here and elsewhere that the goals of his revenge are not just to get something he has lost but the destruction of a marriage, madness, and the death of Othello and Desdemona.

By the time 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 can reply, "He is much changed," and in this understatement lies the full force of his cold vengeance.

At the end of the scene, with Othello at his most vulnerable, Iago suggests the most intimate method of murdering Desdemona: "Do it not with poison. Strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated."

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