David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s OTHELLO: A Retelling in Prose — Act 3, Scene 4

— 3.4 —

Desdemona and Emilia were standing on a street in front of the castle. Also on the street was a man whom Desdemona recognized; he was a clown, aka Fool, aka comedian. Desdemona knew that he played with language, and although she was worried about her handkerchief, which had turned up missing, she decided to speak to the clown while using the clown’s own somewhat peculiar style of language: “Do you know, please, where Lieutenant Cassio lies?”

“I dare not say he lies anywhere,” the clown replied.

“Why not, man?”

“Cassio is a soldier, and when a person says that a soldier lies, that person is in for a stabbing.”

Desdemona laughed and then said, “Where does he lodge? Where does he dwell?”

“To tell you where he lodges is to tell you where I lie.”

“Can any sense be made of what you just said?”

“I do not know where he lodges, and for me to make up a lodging and say that he lies here or that he lies there would be to lie in my own throat.”

“Can you inquire about him, and be edified by report?”

“To be edified is to be educated; therefore, I will catechize the world for him; that is, I will ask questions, listen to the answers, and so learn where he is, and then I will bring the information to you.”

“Seek him, find him, and tell him to come here,” Desdemona said. “Tell him that I have talked to my lord and husband on his behalf, and I hope that all will be well.”

“To do this is within the scope of a man’s intelligence, and therefore I will attempt the doing of it.”

The clown departed.

Desdemona asked, “Where could I have lost that handkerchief, Emilia?”

Emilia lied, “I don’t know, Madam.”

“Believe me, I prefer to have lost a purse full of gold coins marked with the Christian cross. Fortunately, my noble Moor is true of mind and trusts me and is not like a base and jealous man. If he were not, my losing that handkerchief could make him think badly of me.”

“Is he not jealous?” Emilia, whose husband was jealous, asked.

“Who? Othello?” Desdemona replied. “I think that he was born without a jealous atom in his body.”

“Look, here he comes,” Emilia said.

“I will not leave him until he promises to make Cassio his lieutenant again,” Desdemona said. “This is a good opportunity for me to act in behalf of Cassio. I expect to give Cassio good news when he arrives.”

Othello walked up to them.

“How are you, my lord?” Desdemona asked.

“I am well, my good lady,” Othello said.

It is hard to pretend that I am well, he thought. I am far from being well.

“How are you, Desdemona?” he asked.

“Well, my good lord,” she replied.

“Give me your hand,” Othello said. He held it and said, “This hand is moist, my lady.”

Othello thought, A moist hand is evidence of a lustful nature.

“My hand has of yet felt no age nor sorrow.”

She thought, A moist hand is evidence of a youthful and carefree nature.

“A moist hand is evidenceof fruitfulness and a liberal heart,” Othello said.

He thought, The word “liberal” means either “generous” or “licentious.”

“Your hand is hot — hot and moist,” he added. “Based on these symptoms, this hand of yours requires less liberty, much fasting and prayer, much corrective discipline, and many religious observances. Here is a young and sweating devil, and that kind of devil commonly rebels. But it is a good hand because it is a frank hand.”

To be frank is to be generous or to be open and free from restraint,Othello thought. People should appear to be what they really are. Desdemona’s hand is good because it frankly — openly and freely — reveals what she really is: lustful.

“You may, indeed, say that my hand is generous,” Desdemona replied, “because that hand gave away my heart.”

Desdemona meant that her hand gave away her heart to Othello.

“Your hand is a liberal hand,” Othello said, meaning that her hand had given away her heart to men other than him.

He added, “The hearts of old gave hands, but our new heraldry is hands, not hearts.”

He thought, People used to give away their heart and hands to one person, but nowadays the fashion is to give away one’s hand in marriage to one person and one’s loving heart to another person. Hearts, united in love, used to give away hands in marriage, but nowadays, hands, despite belonging to a married person, give away hearts to people to whom they are not married.

“I don’t know about that,” Desdemona said. “But come now, remember your promise.”

“What promise, darling?”

“I have sent a messenger to ask Cassio to come and speak with you.”

“I have an irritating and constant cold that is bothering me,” Othello replied. “Lend me your handkerchief.”

“Here, my lord,” Desdemona replied, handing him a handkerchief.

“Not that one. Give me the one I gave you.”

“I don’t have it with me.”

“You don’t?”

“No, indeed, my lord.”

“That’s too bad,” Othello said. “An Egyptian gave that handkerchief to my mother. The Egyptian was a magician who used charms and spells; she could almost read people’s minds. She told my mother that as long as she had that handkerchief, it would make her beloved and keep my father in love with her, but if she lost it or gave it away, my father would hate the sight of her and he would chase other women. On her deathbed, my mother gave it to me and told me that when I married to give it to my wife. I did so. Take care of it and regard it as precious as your own eyes. To lose it or give it away would cause such damage that nothing could match it.”

“Is that really true?” Desdemona asked.

“It is true,” Othello said. “When the Egyptian wove it, she wove magic into the cloth. A Sibyl in her prophetic fury sewed the handkerchief. Some say that the Sybil was two hundred years old; others say that she had calculated that the world would end in two hundred years. But the worms were consecrated that produced the silk, and it was dyed in the liquid called mummy — medicinal fluid that skillful magicians had made from the liquid of the hearts of embalmed virgins.”

“Really! And is that true?”

“It is very true,” Othello replied. “Therefore, take good care of that handkerchief.”

“If what you said is true, then I wish to God that I had never seen that handkerchief!”

“Why?” Othello shouted.

“Why do you speak so abruptly and urgently?” Desdemona asked.

“Is it lost? Is it gone? Speak! Is it missing?”

“Heaven bless us!” Desdemona said, startled by Othello’s urgency.

“What do you say?”

“It is not lost,” Desdemona said.

I think that my handkerchief is not forever lost, Desdemona thought. I must have mislaid it somewhere, and it will turn up again.

“But what if the handkerchief were lost?” she asked.


“I say again that the handkerchief is not lost.”

“Go and fetch it. Let me see it.”

“Why, I could do that, sir, but I will not now. This is a trick that you are playing to distract me from asking you to reinstate Cassio as your lieutenant. Please, reinstate him.”

“Fetch the handkerchief for me. I don’t think that you are telling me the truth.”

“Come, come. You’ll never meet a man more competent than Cassio.”

“The handkerchief!”

“Please, let us talk about Cassio.”

“The handkerchief!”

“Cassio is a man who has counted on your support for his good fortune. He has shared dangers with you —”

“The handkerchief!”

“Truly, you are to blame.”

“That’s enough!” Othello shouted and then stalked away.

“You said that he is not jealous?” Emilia asked.

“I have never seen him like this before,” Desdemona said. “Surely, there really is some wonderful magic in that handkerchief. I am very unhappy because of the loss of it.”

“It takes more than a year or two to learn a man’s true nature,” said Emilia, whose marriage to Iago was not happy. “Men are nothing but stomachs, and we women are nothing but food. They eat us hungrily and then vomit us up.”

She looked up and said, “Look, Cassio and my husband are coming!”

Cassio and Iago had been conversing, and Iago said now, “There is no other way; it is she who must do it.”

He looked up and added, “Look, happily she is here! Go, and ask her.”

“How are you, good Cassio! What is the news with you?” Desdemona asked.

“Madam, I have come to talk with you about my former lieutenancy,” Cassio said. “I beg you to do all you can to help me get my life back and be on good terms again with your husband. I greatly respect him, and I don’t want to wait any longer. If my offence is of such a serious kind that my past services, nor the repentance I have now for what I did wrong, nor the service that I can render to him in the future, can make him forgive me, I want to know it now. My benefit will be to know the truth so that I can force myself to move on and hope that I have the good fortune to find another occupation.”

“I am sorry, thrice-gentle Cassio,” Desdemona said, “but I am unable to help you at this time. My lord and husband is not acting like my lord and husband. I would not be able to recognize him if his face were as altered as his personality. I swear to every sanctified spirit that I have pleaded your case to the best of my ability — because I have spoken so freely, I am suffering from my husband’s displeasure. You must be patient for a while longer. I will do what I can for you, and I will do more for you than I dare to do for myself. Let that satisfy you for now.”

“Is the general angry?” Iago asked.

“He left just now,” Emilia said, “and he was greatly upset.”

“I did not know it was possible for him to be angry,” Iago said. “I have seen cannon blow Othello’s soldiers into the air and like the devil kill Othello’s brother while his brother was standing by his side, yet he showed no emotion — and nowhe is angry? Something of great importance has occurred. I will go and talk to him. If he is angry, it is about something of great importance.”

“Please, go and talk to him,” Desdemona replied.

Iago departed.

She added, “Iago must be right. Some great affair of state — something that concerns Venice or a plot in Cyprus that he has just learned about — must have disturbed and muddied his mind. In such cases, men will argue about unimportant things although great, important matters are on their minds. It is often like that. If only one finger aches, it negatively affects our whole body and mind even though they are healthy. We must remember that men are only mortal — they are not gods. At such times, we must not expect men to act as they did during the marriage ceremony. I am at fault, Emilia. I was, unskillful ‘warrior’ as I am, accusing him in my soul of being unkind, but now I find that I have caused the witness — myself — to lie by misinterpreting Othello’s behavior. I have unfairly accused Othello.”

“Pray to Heaven that it is matters of state, as you think, that cause Othello to act this way,” Emilia said, “and not a misconception that is causing him to be jealous concerning you.”

“I have never given him any reason to be jealous,” Desdemona said.

“But jealous souls will not care about that,” Emilia said. “They are not jealous because they have a just reason to be jealous. No, instead they are jealous because they are jealous. Jealousy is a monster that gives birth to itself; it does not need a reason to come into existence.”

“May Heaven keep that monster from Othello’s mind!” Desdemona said.

“Lady, amen to that!” Emilia said.

“I will go and seek him,” Desdemona said. “Cassio, stay here. If I find Othello in a better mood, I will plead that you regain your lieutenancy.”

“I humbly thank your ladyship,” Cassio said.

Desdemona and Emilia left to seek Othello.

Bianca, who had been looking for Cassio, now walked up to him. She was a prostitute, and she loved Cassio, but he did not return her love although he slept with her.

“May God save you, friend Cassio!” Bianca said.

“What are you doing away from home? How are you, my most beautiful Bianca? Truly, sweet love, I was coming to your house.”

“And I was going to your lodging, Cassio,” Bianca replied. “You have not visited me for a week! Seven days and nights! Eight score and eight hours! When lovers are away from each other, each hour lasts eight score times longer than it usually does! Such arithmetic is disheartening.”

“Pardon me, Bianca, for my absence,” Cassio said. “I have this past week been burdened with heavy problems, but I shall, in a time less burdened and interrupted with problems, make my long absence up to you. Sweet Bianca, I want you to do something for me.”

He handed Desdemona’s handkerchief to her and said, “Please copy this embroidery.”

“Cassio, where did this come from?” Bianca asked. “This is some keepsake from a new lover. Now I know why I have not seen you for so long. Has it come to this?”

“No, woman!” Cassio said. “Throw your vile suppositions back in the devil’s teeth from whence you got them. You are jealous now because you think that this is a keepsake from some woman. No. I swear that it is not, Bianca.”

“Why, then whose handkerchief is it?”

“I don’t know, sweetheart. I found it in my bedchamber. I like the embroidery well — it is a pattern of strawberries. I expect that its owner will show up and want it back — that is likely to happen. But before it happens, I would like to have it copied. Take the handkerchief, and copy the embroidery onto another handkerchief, and leave me for a while.”

“Leave you for a while! Why?”

“I am waiting here to speak to the general,” Cassio said. “I do not think it will help my cause if I have a woman with me during this serious business.”

“Why don’t you want me here?”

“It is not that I don’t love you.”

“You don’t love me,” Bianca said petulantly. Then she relented and said, “Please walk with me for a little while as I return home and please tell me whether I will see you soon one night.”

“I can walk with you for only a little way because I have important business here,” Cassio said, “but I will see you soon.”

“Very well,” Bianca said. “I must be happy with what I can get.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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