David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s OTHELLO: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scenes 2-3

— 2.2 —

On a street of Cypress, a herald read a proclamation out loud:

It is the pleasure of Othello, our noble and valiant general, since certain and reliable news has now arrived that the Turkish fleet has been entirely destroyed, that every person enjoy public festivity and revelry. Dance. Make bonfires. Enjoy whatever entertainment your inclination leads you to. In addition to celebrating the destruction of the Turkish fleet, celebrate also the marriage of Othello and Desdemona.”

The herald added, “This is the proclamation that Othello wanted to be read out loud. All kitchens and pantries are open, and everyone is invited to feast from now until the bells have tolled eleven. Heaven bless the isle of Cyprus and our noble general, Othello!”

— 2.3 —

In a hall in the castle, Othello said to MichaelCassio, “Good Michael, be in charge of and keep an eye on the guards tonight. Let us exercise self-control and not revel so much that we are indiscrete.”

“Iago has his instructions for what to do, but nevertheless, I will keep my eye on things.”

“Iago is a very honest and very good man,” Othello said. “Michael, good night. Tomorrow at your earliest convenience meet with me.”

To Desdemona, Othello said, “Come, my dear love. We have made our purchase — we have gotten married. However, the fruits are to ensue. Our profit is yet to come between me and you — we have not yet consummated our marriage.”

He said to Cassio, “Good night.”

Othello, Desdemona, and their attendants departed, and Iago arrived.

Cassio said, “Welcome, Iago; we must go and stand watch.”

“Not yet, lieutenant,” Iago said. “It is not yet ten o’clock. Our general left us so early because of his love for Desdemona. We cannot blame him for that. He has not yet slept with her, and she would be good sport for Jove, the Roman god who enjoyed many affairs with immortal goddesses and with mortal women.”

“She’s a most exquisite lady,” Cassio replied.

“And I bet that she is vigorous in bed.”

“To be sure, she is a most fresh and delicate creature.”

“Her eyes are beautiful! I think that they give provocative invitations.”

“Her eyes are beautiful, but I think that they are modest, not lascivious.”

“When she speaks, doesn’t she cause men to feel passion?” Iago asked.

“She is indeed perfection,” Cassio said.

“Well, happiness to their sheets!” Iago said.

He thought, I have tried to tempt Cassio to try to seduce Desdemona, but he is having none of it, although he clearly admires her. Pity.

Iago said, “Come, lieutenant, I have a jug of wine. Just outside are a couple of Cyprus gallants who would like to drink a toast to the health of black Othello.”

“Not tonight, good Iago. I do not have a good head for alcohol — I am easily intoxicated. I wish that society had a different and better — and yet polite — way of celebrating than drinking.”

“The men outside are our friends,” Iago said. “Have one cup of wine with them. I will do most of the drinking for you.”

“I have drunk only one cup of wine tonight, and that was secretly and carefully diluted with water, too, but I — and probably you — can tell that it has affected me. I am unfortunate in that I cannot tolerate alcohol, and I dare not drink any more wine.”

“What, man! This is a night of revels and parties — we are celebrating! The gallants I mentioned want you to celebrate with them.”

“Where are they?”

“Just outside the door; please, call them in.”

“I will do it, but I dislike it,” Cassio said.

He left to invite the people outside to come in.

Iago thought, If I can persuade Cassio to drink one more cup of wine in addition to the cup that he has already drunk tonight, he will be as ready to fight and to take offense as a young lady’s feisty pet dog. Already, that lovesick fool Roderigo, whom love has almost turned inside out, has drunk many toasts in honor of Desdemona. He is awake and watching for his opportunity to get Cassio in trouble. Three lads of Cyprus, noble swelling spirits, who are touchy about the respect that they think is due them and who are characteristic of the men on this warlike isle, are already drunk with the full and flowing cups of wine I have given them. They will be guards tonight, too, along with Montano, the former governor of Cyprus. I will put Cassio in the midst of this flock of drunkards and make him commit an action that will outrage the citizens of this isle. Here Cassio and the three young drunks come. Soon Roderigo will arrive. If my plot has the consequences it should, my boat will sail freely with a favorable wind and current — I will enjoy success.

Cassio returned. With him were the three young men whom Iago had already gotten drunk and Montano, the former governor of Cyprus. The three young men and Montano would serve as guards this night. Servants carrying wine also entered the room.

Cassio said, “By God, they have already given me some wine, which I have drunk.”

Montano said, “Just a little wine, I swear — not more than a pint, as I am a soldier.”

Iago called to a waiter, “Bring some wine!”

He then began to sing a song to which he and others clinked their tankards together:

And let me the tankard clink, clink;

And let me the tankard clink.

A soldier’s a man;

A life’s but a span;

Why, then, let a soldier drink.”

He then said, “Some wine, boys!”

Cassio, made drunk by only two servings of wine, one of them diluted with water, said, “That is an excellent song.”

“I learned it in England,” Iago said, “where, indeed, they are most expert in drinking. Your Dane, your German, and your sagging-bellied Hollander — waiter, bring more wine! — are nothing compared to your English.”

“Is an Englishman so expert in his drinking?” Cassio asked.

“Why, he drinks, easily, until and after your Dane is dead drunk; he does not have to sweat to outdrink your German; your Hollander will vomit while the Englishman’s tankard is being refilled.”

Cassio cried, “To the health of our general!”

“Good toast,” Montano said. “I will drink to that.”

Iago sang again:

Oh, sweet England!

King Stephen was a worthy peer,

His breeches cost him a crown;

He held them sixpence all too dear,

With that he called the tailor low-down.

He was a man of high renown,

And you are of low degree.

It is extravagant clothing that pulls the country down,

So wrap your old cloak around you.”

Iago called, “Bring more wine!”

Cassio said, “Why, this is a more exquisite song than the other one.”

“Will you hear it again?” Iago asked.

“No — because I hold a man to be unworthy of his position who does such things as drinking, singing, and carousing. Well, God’s above all; and some souls must be saved, and some souls must not be saved.”

“That’s true, good lieutenant,” Iago said.

“For my own part — no offence to the general, or to any man of rank — I hope to be saved,” Cassio said.

“And so do I, lieutenant.”

“Yes, but, by your leave, I hope that you are not saved before me,” Cassio said. “According to military protocol, the lieutenant must be saved before the ancient because he outranks him. But let’s have no more of this; let’s attend to our affairs. We have a job to do: guard duty. May God forgive us our sins! Gentlemen, let’s attend to our business. We have guard duty. Do not think, gentlemen, that I am drunk. I know what I ought to know. This is my ancient; this is my right hand, and this is my left hand. I am not drunk now; I can stand well enough, and I can speak well enough.”

An impartial observer might think, Cassio, you are unsteady on your feet and you are slurring your words, but the men with Cassio said, “You are excellent and well.”

“Why, so I am,” a drunken Cassio said. “I am also not drunk.”

He departed.

“Let us go to the ramparts, men, and start our guard duty,” Montano said.

The three young men of Cyprus followed after Cassius.

Montano would have gone, too, but Iago spoke to him, saying, “That drunken fellow who left before the three young men is a soldier fit to be Caesar’s right-hand man and give military commands, but he has a vice that is the equal of his virtue. They form a perfect equinox; his vice is as black as his virtue is fair. It is a pity. I fear the trust that Othello has in him. Sometime in the future, this fellow is likely to do something that will hurt this island.”

“Is he often drunk?” Montano asked.

“He gets drunk every night before he sleeps. If his drunkenness did not put him to sleep, he would stay awake a couple of days in a row.”

“This is something that the Moor, our general, should be made aware of,” Montano said. “Perhaps he does not know about it, or perhaps he so prizes the virtues that are in Cassio that he ignores his vice. That seems likely.”

Roderigo entered the room, and Iago whispered to him so that Montano could not hear, “You have come at a good time. Cassio just left; go after him. You know what to do.”

Montano continued, “It is a great pity — and a great danger — that the noble Moor should have as second in command someone with such a vice as drunkenness. It would be a good deed to tell the Moor that.”

“I won’t — not even for all of this island!” Iago said. “I respect Cassio, and I would do much to cure him of his vice —”

Noises sounded, and someone shouted, “Help! Help!”

Iago asked, “— but what is going on?”

Roderigo, chased by Cassio, ran into the room.

Cassio, drunk and angry, shouted at him, “You rogue! You rascal!”

Montano asked, “What’s the matter, lieutenant?”

“This knave is trying to teach me my duty! He is trying to tell me how to do my job! I’ll whip the knave until the marks on his skin resemble a bottle covered with wickerwork.”

“Will you whip me?” Roderigo shouted.

“Stop babbling, rogue,” Cassio ordered, hitting Roderigo.

Montano said, “Stop, good lieutenant.” He grabbed Cassio’s hand and added, “Please, sir, stop hitting this man.”

“Let me go, sir,” Cassio said, “or I’ll hit you on the head.”

“Come, come, you’re drunk,” Montano said.

“Drunk!” Cassio said.

He attacked Montano, who fought back.

Iago said quietly to Roderigo so that no one could hear, “Go out, and cry that there is a mutiny, an insurrection.”

Roderigo left to carry out Iago’s command.

Iago then pretended to be a peacemaker: “Good lieutenant … for pity, gentlemen … help! … lieutenant, sir … Montano, sir … help! … this is an excellent watch — not!”

An alarm bell rang.

Iago shouted, “Who is ringing the bell? … Diablo — the devil! … The townspeople will start a riot. … For God’s sake, lieutenant, stop fighting! You will be disgraced forever.”

Othello and some attendants entered the room.

“What is the matter here?” Othello said.

“Damn! I am bleeding! I am likely to die!” Montano said.

“Everyone, stop fighting, if you value your lives,” Othello ordered.

Iago said, “Everyone, stop fighting! … Lieutenant Cassio, sir … Montano … gentlemen! Have all of you forgotten all sense of dignity and duty? Stop! The general is speaking to you! Stop! Stop, for the love of God!”

“What is going on here?” Othello said. “What is the cause of this disturbance? Have we all become Turks, and are we going to fight ourselves although Heaven sent a tempest to prevent the real Turks from fighting us? For Christian shame, stop this barbarous brawl! He who angrily moves next to attack someone values his own soul only lightly — he will die as soon as he makes a move! Silence that dreadful bell! It frightens the citizens of this isle and destroys its normal peace and quiet. What is the matter, people? Honest Iago, you who look as if you will die with grief, speak. Tell me who began this fight. Loyal soldier, I order you to tell me.”

“I do not know who started the fight,” Iago replied. “Everyone seemed to be friends until just now in their conduct. They were like a bride and a groom undressing in preparation for bed, and then, just now, as if some malignant planet of astrology had driven these men out of their minds, they took out their swords and made each other’s chests their targets in a bloody fight. I cannot identify any cause of this senseless quarrel, and I would prefer that I had lost my legs in a glorious battle than that they brought me to this quarrel.”

“How is it, Michael, that you have this night forgotten the right and honorable way to act?” Othello asked Cassio.

“Please, pardon me,” Cassio replied. “I cannot speak in my defense.”

“Worthy Montano, you are accustomed to be law-abiding,” Othello said. “Everyone has noticed the gravity and sober behavior of your youth, and people of the wisest judgment praise you greatly. What is the reason you are willing to act in such a way as to exchange your good reputation for the bad reputation of a night-brawler? You are spending the wealth of your reputation on trifles. Answer me.”

“Worthy Othello, I am seriously injured,” Montano said. “Iago, your officer, can inform you about this fight — I should not talk because talking causes me pain — and about my actions I know of nothing that I have said or done wrong this night unless valuing one’s life is sometimes a vice, and defending ourselves is a sin when someone violently attacks us.”

“By Heaven, my anger begins to overwhelm my reason. My strong feelings, having shut down my best judgment, now begin to control me,” Othello said. “If I move in any way, or lift this arm, even the best and highest ranking of you shall feel my anger. Tell me how this foul rout began and who started it. Whoever is guilty of this offence, even if he were my twin brother, will lose my friendship. What a way to act! Here we are in a town that was a target of the Turkish enemy, the people are still riled up and afraid, and yet you are fighting in a private and domestic quarrel, at night, and while you are on guard duty! This behavior is monstrous! Iago, who began this fight?”

Montano put his hand on Iago’s arm and said, “If you deliver more or less than the truth, you are no soldier. Do not let your friendship with Cassio bias you.”

“Don’t touch me, but you do know me well,” Iago said. “I would rather have my tongue cut from my mouth than use it to do offence to Michael Cassio. However, I persuade myselfthat to speak the truth will not harm him. This is what I know, general. While Montano and I were talking, a fellow came in this room crying out for help. Cassio was chasing him with his sword drawn, determined to use it. Sir, this gentleman, Montano, stepped in and spoke to Cassio, and entreated him to be calm. I myself pursued the fellow who was crying out for help because I was afraid that his cries — as in fact did happen — would frighten the citizens of this town. The fellow was swift of foot and outran me. I returned to this room rather than try to follow him because I heard the clink and fall of swords and Cassio swearing mightily — something I had never heard him do before this night. When I came back — I was away only a short time — I found them fighting together, trading blow and thrust. They were fighting exactly as you saw when you yourself separated them. More of this matter I do not know, but men are men; the best sometimes forget themselves. Though Cassio did some little wrong to Montano, as men in rage strike those who wish them best, yet surely Cassio, I believe, received from the man who fled some strange indignity or insult that a man could not honorably ignore.”

“I know, Iago, that your honesty and respect for Cassio affect the way you are telling your story,” Othello said. “You are deliberately minimizing Cassio’s fault.”

He said to Cassio, “I respect your virtues, but you will no longer be an officer of mine.”

Desdemona now arrived, accompanied by a few attendants.

Othello said, “Look! My gentle love has been awakened by this commotion.”

He said to Cassio, “I will make an example of you.”

“What’s the matter?” Desdemona said.

“All’s well now, sweetheart,” Othello said. “Go back to bed.”

He said to Montano, “Sir, I myself will pay a doctor to look after your injuries.”

Some people helped Montano leave the room and seek the services of a doctor.

Othello said, “Iago, go throughout the town and calm anyone whom this brawl has upset.”

He added, “Come, Desdemona. It is normal in the soldiers’ life to have their balmy slumbers waked with strife.”

Everyone departed except for Iago and Cassio.

Iago asked, “Are you hurt, lieutenant?”

“Yes, and a doctor cannot help me.”

“Heaven forbid!”

“Reputation, reputation, reputation!” Cassio cried. “Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, I have lost my reputation!”

“As I am an honest man, I thought that you had received some bodily wound; that would hurt you more than a wounded reputation. Reputation is an idle and very false concept. It is often gotten without merit, and it is often lost without just cause. You have lost no reputation at all, unless you regard yourself as such a loser. Remember this proverb: A man is weal — happy — or woe — sorrowful — as he thinks himself so. What, man! There are ways to regain the general’s good opinion of you. You are cast aside now only because he is angry, and this punishment is in accordance more with policy than with malice. It is like someone beating his innocent dog in order to frighten an imperious lion. Othello is making an example of you so that his troops and the citizens of Venice will respect his authority. If you plead to him to give you your job back, he will do so.”

“I would prefer to be despised than to deceive so good a commander with so slight, so drunken, and so indiscreet an officer as I have been tonight,” Cassio said. “Drunk? And speak nonsense like a parrot? And squabble? Swagger? Swear? And talk rubbish to my own shadow? Oh, you invisible spirit of wine, if you have no name that you are known by, let us call you devil!”

“Who was he whom you chased with your sword drawn?” Iago asked. “What had he done to you?”

“I don’t know.”

“How can that be possible?”

“I remember a mass of things, but nothing distinctly. I remember a quarrel, but not what the quarrel was about. Oh, God, how is it possible that men should put an enemy — wine — in their mouths that will steal away their brains! How is it possible that we should, with joy, pleasure, revel, and the desire for applause, transform ourselves into beasts!”

“Why, you are sober enough now,” Iago said. “How is it that you are now thus recovered?”

“It has pleased the devil drunkenness to give place to the devil wrath,” Cassio said. “My anger drove out my drunkenness. One imperfection gave way to another, and both make me frankly despise myself.”

“Come, you are too hard on yourself,” Iago said. “Considering the time, the place, and the condition of this country, I wish that this had not happened to you, but since it has, solve this problem and make things right again for yourself.”

“If I ask him to give me my job back, he shall tell me that I am a drunkard!” Cassio said. “Had I as many mouths as Hydra, the nine-headed serpent that Hercules killed, such an answer would stop them all. To be now a sensible and intelligent man, and then a fool, and then a beast! Oh, strange! Every cup of wine too much is cursed and the contents include a devil.”

“Come, come, good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well used — exclaim no more against it,” Iago said.

He thought, That is true, and it is also true that good wine is a bad familiar creature — a witch’s personal devil-servant, usually in the form of an animal — if it is badly used.

Iago added, “Good lieutenant, I think that you know that I am your friend.”

“I know it well and have good evidence of it, sir,” Cassio said. “I can’t believe that I got drunk!”

“You or any other living man may at times be drunk,” Iago said. “I’ll advise you what you shall do. Our general’s wife, Desdemona, is now the general in this respect: The Moor has devoted and given up himself to the contemplation, observation, and noting of her qualities and graces. Confess freely to her what has happened and beg her to help you get your job again. Desdemona is of so generous, so kind, so helpful, and so blessed a disposition that she thinks that it is a sin not to do more than is requested of her. Ask her to mend this break between Othello and you. I will make a bet that she will help you. This break will be mended and your friendship with the Moor will be made stronger than before, just like a bone that has healed after being broken is stronger than it was before it was broken.”

“You advise me well,” Cassio said.

“I do so because of the sincere friendship I have for you and the honest kindness I feel for you.”

“I well believe it,” Cassio said. “Early in the morning, I will beg the virtuous Desdemona to plead my case to her husband. My future is desperate if I don’t get my job back.”

“You are doing the right thing,” Iago said. “Good night, lieutenant. I must resume my guard duty.”

“Good night, honest Iago,” Cassio said.

He departed.

Iago thought, How can anyone say that I am a villain when this advice I give is open and generous and honest, reasonable, and in fact exactly what is needed for Cassio to get in the good graces of the Moor again? It is very easy to persuade the generous and sympathetic Desdemona to take one’s side in a good cause. She is naturally as generous as the Earth that freely gives us oxygen and water. She can easily persuade the Moor to do what she wants him to do. Even if she wanted him to renounce his Christian religion and his baptism and all other seals and symbols of redeemed sin, his soul is so chained to her love that she may create, ruin, and do what she wishes. The Moor’s weak willpower will make his sexual appetite for her his god. Can I be considered a villain when I advise Cassio to do what I want him to do — when what I advise is something that will lead to something good for him? This is the divinity of Hell! When devils want to do the blackest sins, the devils mislead people by appearing Heavenly. That is what I am doing now. While this honest fool, Cassio, pleads for help from Desdemona to regain his job, and she pleads for him strongly to the Moor, I will pour poison into the Moor’s ear. I will tell him that Desdemona pleads for Cassio because she lusts for him. The more she strives to do Cassio good, the more she shall undo the Moor’s love for her. So will I turn her fair virtue into black pitch, and out of her own goodness will I make the net that shall enmesh them all.

Roderigo now entered the room.

“How are you, Roderigo?” Iago asked.

“I am like a dog that follows in a hunting chase,” Roderigo said. “I am not one of the dogs that sniffs out the prey, but merely one of the dogs who barks in the pack — I am an also-ran. I desire Desdemona, but I am not in the running for her affection. My money is almost spent, I have been tonight exceedingly well beaten by Cassio, and I think the conclusion will be that I shall have much experience and nothing else for my pains, and so, with no money at all and a little more sense, I shall return again to Venice.”

“How poor are they who lack patience!” Iago said. “What wound did ever heal but by degrees? You know that we work by intelligence and cunning wit, and not by witchcraft — cunning wit depends on dawdling time. To achieve your goal of sleeping with Desdemona will take time. Aren’t things going well? Cassio did beat you, but by that small hurt, you have gotten Cassio fired. Many plants grow well in the sunshine, but whatever blossoms first will ripen first. The firing of Cassio is the blossom, and the fruit you desire will follow. You will sleep with Desdemona, but for now be content and peaceful. Look, the sky is lightening; it is morning. Pleasure and action make the hours seem short and time pass quickly. Go to bed; go to your lodging. Go away, I say. We will talk later, but for now go to bed.”

Roderigo departed.

Iago thought, Two things are to be done. One: My wife, Emilia, must plead for Cassio to her mistress, Desdemona. I will tell her to do that. Two: Meanwhile, I must draw the Moor aside and then bring him back when he will see Cassio asking Desdemona for her help. Aye, that’s the way. Dull not an evil scheme by coldness and delay. I am willing and eager to put my plot in action.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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