Detailed Summary of Othello, Act 4, Scene 1

Page Index:

Enter Othello and Iago:
When we see Othello and Iago, they are in the middle of a conversation, and Iago is saying, "Will you think so?" (4.1.1). As the conversation progresses, we discover that Iago is torturing Othello by suggesting that it will be very hard to prove that Desdemona has done anything wrong. Is it possible, Iago asks, that she just gave Cassio an innocent kiss? Or could it be that she was just "naked with her friend in bed / An hour or more, not meaning any harm?" (4.1.3-4). (And maybe that guy pouring gasoline on your carpet is just trying to get it clean.)

Next Iago leads Othello's thoughts to the handkerchief: "So they do nothing, 'tis a venial slip; / But if I give my wife a handkerchief --" (4.1.9-10). So, if Othello is thinking as Iago wants him to think, Othello is thinking that even if he caught Desdemona naked in bed with Cassio, that wouldn't prove anything. But, on the other hand, if Othello has given her a handkerchief, and . . .  "What then?" (4.1.11) Othello asks. But of course Iago does not give him a direct answer; Othello must make his own inferences.

Pretending to not know the significance of the handkerchief, Iago remarks that if it's her handkerchief, she may give to any man. Othello says, "She is protectress of her honour too: / May she give that?" (4.1.14-15), and Iago replies that her honor is an "essence that's not seen" (4.1.16), "But, for the handkerchief --" (4.1.18). Iago wants Othello to think about that handkerchief; Othello hasn't seen Desdemona kiss Cassio, won't seen her naked in bed with Cassio, can't see the unseen essence of her honor, but the handkerchief is something which can be seen. And so Othello is forced to think about the handkerchief. He says, "By heaven, I would most gladly have forgot it. / Thou said'st (O, it comes o'er my memory, / As doth the raven o'er the infected house, / Boding to all) he had my handkerchief" (4.1.19-22).

Iago pushes forward, asking "Ay, what of that?" But all he gets from Othello is "That's not so good now" (4.1.23), so Iago asks if it would make a difference if he said he saw Cassio do something or if he heard him say something. Othello asks if Cassio did say anything, and Iago answers that he did, but he would deny it. Of course Othello wants to know what Cassio said, but Iago replies, "Faith, that he did--I know not what he did" (4.1.32), as though he doesn't remember or doesn't want to say. Now Iago has his fish hooked, and Othello asks, "What? what?" (4.1.33), but Iago only answers "Lie--"; he lets Othello fill in the blank, which he does by asking, "With her?" Cruelly casual, Iago answers, "With her, on her; what you will" (4.1.34).

Othello's head is spinning:
Lie with her! lie on her! We say lie on her, when they belie her. Lie with her! that's fulsome. -- Handkerchief -- confessions -- handkerchief! -- To confess, and be hanged for his labour; -- first, to be hanged, and then to confess. -- I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. -- Is't possible? -- Confess -- handkerchief! -- O devil!
Falls in a trance   (4.1.35-43)
To lie with (have sex with) someone is not the same thing as to belie (tell a lie about) someone, but the two get mixed up in Othello's mind. The handkerchief is a kind of proof, but not a confession. If he could get a confession from Cassio, he would hang him, but it would be more satisfying to hang him first, and then get the confession. Othello's passionate irrationality makes him tremble, but he believes that "Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction." He believes that he couldn't possibly feel so terrible without a good reason; in our cliché, "where there's smoke, there must be fire." But the smoke is all in Othello's mind, and it is words which make him shake. He gets worse and sees in his mind's eye "Noses, ears, and lips" (Whose? His? Hers? Theirs?), then returns to confession and the handkerchief. Finally he is completely overwhelmed and "Falls in a trance."

Othello was a man whose self-possession was so complete that he could command an angry crowd to be calm. Now, having lost all his command of himself, he lies at Iago's feet. It is a great triumph for Iago, and he savors it, saying, "Work on, / My medicine, work! Thus credulous fools are caught; / And many worthy and chaste dames even thus, / All guiltless, meet reproach" (4.1.44-47).

Enter Cassio:
After boasting of his bad work in using insinuations to make Othello fall into a trance, Iago starts yelling at Othello to wake him up. Or perhaps he spots Cassio a moment before we do, and is only pretending to be trying to wake Othello. Cassio enters, asks what's the matter, and Iago says, "My lord is fall'n into an epilepsy. / This is his second fit; he had one yesterday" (4.1.50-51). (Iago's assertion that this is Othello's second fit is a lie. Perhaps Iago tells this lie so that Cassio won't think that Iago is responsible for Othello's sorry state, or maybe lying is just a habit with Iago.) Cassio suggests that Iago rub Othello's temples, but Iago says that if he doesn't sleep it off, he will foam at the mouth and go mad. Then Othello begins to stir, and Iago persuades Cassio to withdraw and wait for him, because he has something important to tell him. Cassio does as he's told.

When Othello wakes up, Iago asks, "How is it, general? Have you not hurt your head?" (4.1.59). Othello answers, "Dost thou mock me?" (4.1.60), because he thinks that Iago might mean that cuckold's horns have "hurt" his head. A cuckold was a man whose wife was having a sexual affair with another man; folklore said that cuckolds grew horns on their heads. This silly myth portrays such men as dumb animals deserving of scornful laughter.

Iago denies that he was mocking Othello, and urges him to "bear your fortune like a man!" (4.1.61). Iago's point is that Desdemona's unfaithfulness is just a matter of "fortune," bad luck, and that it's nothing to swoon over. Othello replies that "A horned man's a monster and a beast" (4.1.62), which probably describes how he is feeling--strange, non-human. Iago replies that Othello has plenty of company because every city is full of cuckolds.

Picking up the conversation from where it was before he fell into a trance, Othello asks if Iago has heard Cassio confess that he had sex with Desdemona. Rather than give a direct answer to Othello's question, Iago keeps talking about the difference between a beast and a man. He says, "Good sir, be a man; / Think every bearded fellow that's but yoked / May draw with you" (4.1.65-67). "Think," like "be," is a command; Iago is again telling Othello that there are many other men who are cuckolds, and that he should take it like a man. At the same time, his metaphor suggests that Othello is a beast after all. Oxen are yoked so that they can pull ("draw") a plow, and Iago uses the oxen's yoke as a metaphor for marriage. In short, any married man is likely to be a beastly cuckold.

Iago goes on to claim that millions of men are cuckolds without knowing it. At least Othello knows it and can have the right attitude, which Iago illustrates by saying, "let me know [that I am a cuckold]; / And knowing what I am, I know what she shall be" (4.1.72-73). What shall she be? A whore? Dead? Iago leaves that up to Othello's imagination, but Othello is so impressed with Iago's manliness that he says, "O, thou art wise; 'tis certain" (4.1.74).

Now Iago is ready to play another trick on Othello. Cassio is nearby, waiting to talk with him, so he tells Othello to hide himself "And mark the fleers [sneers], the gibes, and notable scorns, / That dwell in every region of his [Cassio's] face" (4.1.82-83), as he makes Cassio "tell the tale anew: / Where, how, how oft, how long ago, and when / He hath, and is again to cope your wife" (4.1.84-86). ("Cope" means "encounter," but as Iago uses the word, it's clear that all the encounters are sexual.) Iago then warns Othello that he must have manly self-control ("patience") as he observes all this. Othello replies, "Dost thou hear, Iago? / I will be found most cunning in my patience; / But--dost thou hear?--most bloody" (4.1.89-91). He is promising to be patient, but also seems anxious to prove to Iago that he is man enough to take bloody revenge when the time comes.

As Othello goes to his hiding-place, Iago fills us in on the next part of his scheme. He will ask Cassio about Bianca, Cassio's prostitute girlfriend, and because Bianca is so crazy in love with him, Cassio will laugh.

Re-enter Cassio:
In the middle of Iago's explanation of his evil plan to make Othello think that Cassio is talking about Desdemona when he's really talking about Bianca, Cassio appears. Nevertheless, as Cassio approaches, Iago finishes telling us what he's going to do to Othello. Othello is going to interpret everything wrong, so that "As he [Cassio] shall smile, Othello shall go mad" (4.1.100).

Iago greets Cassio as "lieutenant," which makes him uncomfortable because his problem is that he isn't a lieutenant anymore. Iago loudly urges Cassio to "Ply Desdemona well, and you are sure on't" (4.1.106). Then, speaking lower, so that Othello can't hear, he says to Cassio, "Now, if this suit lay in Bianca's power, / How quickly should you speed!" (4.1.107-108). As Iago has predicted, the mention of Bianca makes Cassio laugh. Though he doesn't love her, Bianca seems to be the one bright spot in Cassio's life, and her crush on him strikes him as funny.

Iago teases Cassio by saying that he has heard Cassio is about to marry Bianca. This makes Cassio laugh even more, and it makes him say things about Bianca that are true enough about her, but which Othello is hearing as scornful insults to Desdemona. Cassio describes her as a "poor caitiff [wretch]" (4.1.108), a "poor rogue" (4.1.111), "a customer [whore]" (4.1.119), and a "monkey" (4.1.127). Then Iago beckons Othello to come closer, so that he can hear Cassio describe how "she haunts me in every place" (4.1.132), and how, when he was talking to some friends, "comes the bauble" (4.1.134), and "So hangs, and lolls, and weeps upon me; so hales, and pulls me"(4.1.139-140).

Listening to Cassio, Othello not only thinks that it's Desdemona who is in love with Cassio, he imagines that he is hearing more than he actually is. When Cassio talks about Bianca hanging on his neck and pulling at him, Othello says, "Now he tells how she plucked him to my chamber" (4.1.141). Thus Cassio's story of Bianca's public display of affection becomes--in Othello's mind--a story of how Desdemona took Cassio away to have sex in Othello's bed.

Enraged, Othello promises revenge, muttering, "O, I see that nose of yours, but not that dog I shall throw it to" (4.1.142-43). At the same time Cassio is saying that he should quit seeing "her," but just then Bianca appears.

Enter Bianca:
When Bianca shows up, Iago has a bit of luck. If Cassio had said of Bianca, "And here she comes," or used a similar phrase, it would have been clear that Cassio had been talking about Bianca, not Desdemona. Luckily for Iago, what Cassio says is, "'Tis such another fitchew! marry a perfumed one" (4.1.146). A "fitchew" is a polecat, which is a kind of bad-smelling weasel which had the reputation of being extremely lecherous. The phrase "'Tis such another" literally means "it is one just like the one we were just talking about," but Cassio is being sarcastic. Bianca is not just like the fitchew he was discussing; she is that same fitchew. However, because Cassio uses that particular phrase, Othello can hear it without learning the truth.

Also luckily for Iago, Bianca has the handkerchief with her and has something to say about it. Her jealousy has returned. She has decided that she was a fool to agree to copy the handkerchief, and a fool to accept Cassio's story that he found it in his room. She now throws it back at him, tells him that he should give it to the whore he got it from, and declares that no matter where he got it, she's not about to copy it. She says, "There; give it your hobby-horse: wheresoever you had it, I'll take out no work on't" (4.1.154-155). Then Bianca storms out, though not before telling Cassio that he can come to supper at her place if he wants. Cassio, not wanting to lose his girlfriend or his supper, follows her.

Exit Bianca, followed by Cassio:
Desdemona's handkerchief in his hand, Cassio chases after Bianca. As he does so, Othello comes out of hiding and says, "How shall I murder him, Iago?" (4.1.170). Iago encourages Othello's murderous mood by reminding him that Cassio gave the precious handkerchief to his whore. Iago's point is that both Cassio and Desdemona are trash, like the whore. For once, however, Othello doesn't respond exactly as Iago has planned. Othello says, "I would have him nine years a-killing. A fine woman! a fair woman! a sweet woman!" (4.1.178-179). No punishment would be too cruel for Cassio, but when Othello thinks of killing his wife, he thinks of how beautiful and loving she is.

To us, Othello's anguish may be heartbreaking, but it makes Iago nervous and he says, "Nay, you must forget that" (4.1.180). Othello understands that if he's going to kill Desdemona he must harden his heart against her, and he says, "my heart is turned to stone; I strike it, and it hurts my hand" (4.1.182-183), but then he adds, "O, the world hath not a sweeter creature! she might lie by an emperor's side and command him tasks" (4.1.183-185). Again Iago warns Othello against such thoughts, but Othello goes on until Iago tells him that her beauty makes her crime worse. To that, Othello responds, "Nay, that's certain. But yet the pity of it, Iago! O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!" (4.1.195-196).

Iago, who loves no one and despises all, does not sympathize. To him, Othello's agony over the loss of his love is mere silliness. Sarcastically, he says to Othello, "If you are so fond over her iniquity, give her patent [permission] to offend; for, if it touch not you, it comes near nobody" (4.1.197-199). Thus threatened with emotional isolation, Othello responds as Iago wants him to and says, "I will chop her into messes. Cuckold me!" (4.1.200).

Now Othello declares that he will kill Desdemona that very night, and he asks Iago to get him some poison so that he won't have to talk to her and so that the sight of her won't tempt him to change his mind. He says, "I'll not expostulate with her, lest her body and beauty unprovide my mind again" (4.1.204-206). It might seem that this declaration would be exactly what Iago wants from Othello, but Iago responds, "Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated" (4.1.207-208). This suggestion, which Othello accepts, sets up the final scene between Othello and Desdemona, so it's a necessary part of the plot, but it also shows another creepy aspect of Iago's character. He not only wants to destroy Othello, he wants to punish Desdemona. Why? It can't be because of her affair with Cassio because she isn't having an affair with Cassio. Perhaps he wants to punish her for giving Othello a love that he, Iago, could never have or give.

Iago also promises to make sure that Cassio is dead by midnight, and Othello is saying "Excellent good" (4.1.213) when a trumpet announces the arrival of a delegation from Venice.

Enter Lodovico, Desdemona, and Attendants:
Just as Othello determines the time, place, and method of Desdemona's murder, Desdemona herself appears.

Desdemona is with Lodovico, who has come with letters from the Senate of Venice. Lodovico delivers the letters to Othello, who immediately opens them. As Othello is looking at the letters, Desdemona, Lodovico, and Iago converse. Desdemona asks for the news from Venice; Iago greets Lodovico; Lodovico asks how Cassio is doing. At the mention of Cassio, Iago says that he "Lives, sir" (4.1.223), as though Cassio is a subject not to be discussed. Iago probably realizes that with Othello present it wouldn't be good to say anything favorable about Cassio.

On the other hand, Desdemona is eager to talk about Cassio. She says to Lodovico, "Cousin, there's fall'n between him and my lord / An unkind breach; but you shall make all well" (4.1.224-225). (We haven't seen Lodovico before, and we never do find out just how he is a cousin to Desdemona.) Hearing this, Othello mutters, "Are you sure of that?" (4.1.226). (The scene is usually staged with Desdemona and Othello standing shoulder-to-shoulder, but facing away from one another.) Hearing Othello speak, Desdemona says, "My lord?" (4.1.227), but Othello pretends that has said nothing and reads a few words from his letter, so that Lodovico says, "He did not call; he's busy in the paper" (4.1.230).

Thus begins a passage of rapidly rising tension. Othello hears every word that Desdemona says about Cassio, and at every word his anger heats up, then finally boils over. Lodovico, continuing the conversation, seems surprised that there's a problem between Cassio and Othello, so Desdemona assures him that there is a problem, and adds, "I would do much / To atone [reconcile] them, for the love I bear to Cassio" (4.1.232-233). At this, Othello mutters "Fire and brimstone!" (4.1.234), and she turns to him and says, "My lord?" He asks, "Are you wise?" (4.1.234), which means "Do you know what you're talking about?" or "Do you know how much trouble you're getting into?" However, Othello doesn't look at Desdemona, or acknowledge her presence, so she turns back to Lodovico and asks if Othello is angry. Lodovico answers, "May be the letter moved [upset] him; / For, as I think, they do command him home, / Deputing Cassio in his government" (4.1.235-237). At this, Desdemona exclaims, "By my troth, I am glad on't" (4.1.238).

We can understand why Desdemona is glad. As she sees it, she hasn't been able to make any progress on Cassio's problem because Othello has been bothered by some problem in Cyprus. Therefore the news that Cassio has been appointed governor of Cyprus solves everything. Cassio will have a position, and she will go with her husband as he leaves Cyprus and its problems behind.

Othello, on the other hand, thinks that she has been parading her love for Cassio in public, just as Cassio described "her" as doing when we knew he was really talking about Bianca.

This powerful dramatic irony climaxes in one of the most painful moments of the play. When Othello hears Desdemona say that she is glad that Cassio has been appointed governor of Cyprus, Othello thinks she is being outrageously brazen. "Indeed!" he exclaims, and again Desdemona turns to him, saying "My lord?" (4.1.238). Now he speak directly to her; angrily, he mocks her gladness for Cassio, saying "I am glad to see you mad" (4.1.239). Startled by his sudden anger, she starts to say, "Why, sweet Othello" (4.1.239), but he slaps her.

In Shakespeare's day wives suffered more physical abuse than they do now, but a gentleman wouldn't strike a lady, especially in public. Seeing such a thing is shocking, then as now. Weeping, Desdemona says, "I have not deserved this" (4.1.241), and Lodovico springs to her defense, telling Othello that he has done something so outrageous that no one in Venice would believe it if he told them. He also tells Othello that he should make it up to her because she is crying. Othello, however, has no pity for Desdemona's tears. He says, "O devil, devil! / If that the earth could teem with woman's tears, / Each drop she falls [lets fall] would prove [prove to be] a crocodile" (4.1.244-246). Crocodiles were thought to shed hypocritical tears as they ate their victims; crocodiles were also supposed to grow spontaneously out of the mud of the Nile. Othello is saying that if the earth were covered with the tears of women, Desdemona's tears would give birth to crocodiles. In other words, Desdemona is not only a hypocrite, she's the mother of all hypocrisy.

Othello then yells at Desdemona, "Out of my sight! Desdemona turns to leave, saying, "I will not stay to offend you" (4.1.247), but Lodovico says, "Truly, an obedient lady: / I do beseech your lordship, call her back" (4.1.248-249). At this, Othello, who has just struck his wife, proceeds to humiliate her. "Mistress!" he shouts, and she stops and turns, asking "My lord?" (4.1.250). Then Othello asks Lodovico what he wants with her. Dumbfounded, Lodovico asks, "Who, I, my lord?" (4.1.251), and Othello vents his sarcasm on both Lodovico and Desdemona:
Ay; you did wish that I would make her turn:
Sir, she can turn, and turn, and yet go on,
And turn again; and she can weep, sir, weep;
And she's obedient, as you say, obedient,
Very obedient. --Proceed you in your tears.--
Concerning this, sir,--O well-painted passion!--
I am commanded home. --Get you away;
I'll send for you anon. --Sir, I obey the mandate,
And will return to Venice. --Hence, avaunt!   (4.1.252-260)

With heavy sarcasm, Othello implies that Desdemona is available to Lodovico -- or any other man -- because she can turn any which way and because she is so obedient. She's weeping, but that's just so much "well-painted passion." Meanwhile, Desdemona has to take all of this abuse, not knowing whether she should go or stay, until Othello finally sends her away.

After Desdemona goes, Othello invites Lodovico to supper and storms out, muttering, "Goats and monkeys!" (4.1.263), which are those same lecherous beasts to which Iago earlier compared Cassio and Desdemona. When Othello has gone, Lodovico comments on the difference between the Othello that he (and we) knew before, and the one he has just seen. 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?" (4.1.264-266).

We may think it a pity that the noble Othello has acted in such a disgusting way, but Iago, who is without pity, immediately tries to make things even worse for Othello. Lodovico asks if Othello has lost his wits, and Iago insinuates that it's worse than that. Iago answers Lodovico's question by saying, "He's that he is; I may not breathe my censure [opinion]/ What he might be. If what he might he is not, / I would to heaven he were!" (4.1.272). In other words, Othello is what he is, and Iago doesn't want to say if he's lost his wits, but if he hasn't lost his wits, Iago wishes he had, because that's the only possible excuse for what Lodovico has just seen him do.

Still amazed, Lodovico exclaims, "What, strike his wife!" (4.1.272), which Iago takes as an opportunity to suggest that Othello might do even worse things. Then, when Lodovico asks if Othello is like this all the time, Iago pretends that his loyalty to Othello forbids him to say any more. He says, "Alas, alas! / It is not honesty in me to speak / What I have seen and known" (4.1.276-278). However, Iago continues, Lodovico could see for himself if he would follow Othello and observe him.

Once again Iago's powers of manipulation are effective. Lodovico goes after Othello and Iago follows him out.