David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s OTHELLO: A Retelling in Prose — Act 4, Scene 1

— 4.1 —

Othello and Iago were speaking in front of the castle.

“Do you think that?” Iago asked.

“Think what?” Othello asked.

“That they kissed in private?”

“An unauthorized, illicit kiss!”

“Do you think that it is possible she was naked with her friend in bed for an hour or more, not meaning any harm?”

“Naked in bed, Iago, and not mean harm!” Othello thundered. “That would be hypocrisy against the devil. Those who seem to be acting sinfully and yet are virtuous in their heart are people whom the devil would call hypocrites. If they did act like that, they would be setting themselves up for the devil to tempt them, and they would be tempting Heaven to damn them.”

“As long as they are naked in bed together and do not commit adultery, it is a venial slip — less serious than a venial sin, which is still a sin that can be forgiven,” Iago said, “but if I give my wife a handkerchief —”

He paused.

“What then?” Othello asked.

“Why, then, the handkerchief belongs to her, my lord, and since it belongs to her, she can give it to any man she pleases.”

“Her honor belongs to her, too,” Othello said. “Does it follow that she can give that away, too?”

“Her honor is an essence that cannot be seen. Women very often have a reputation for honor although they lack honor. But, as for the handkerchief —”

“By Heaven, I would very gladly forget about the handkerchief. Now that I know — because you told me — that Cassio has it, each time I remember it, it affects me like a raven on the roof of a house that has been infected with the plague. It is an evil omen of death and doom to all who see it or know that it is there.”

“It is true that I told you that.”

“That was bad news for me.”

“Suppose that I have more bad news for you,” Iago said. “Suppose I say that I have seen Cassio do you wrong? Or suppose that I have heard Cassio say — you know, of course, that adulterers exist in the world who have seduced and overcome a woman or been seduced by a willing woman and in either case have been sexually satisfied and have been eager to blab —”

Othello interrupted, “Has Cassio said anything?”

“He has, my lord, but be assured that he will deny that he ever said anything.”

“What has he said?”

“Truly, he said that —”

Iago hesitated, and then he said, “I don’t know what he said.”

“He said something so horrible that you don’t want to tell me what he said, but tell me anyway.”

“He talked about lying —”

Again, Iago hesitated.

“Lying with her?” Othello said.

“With her. On her. Whatever,” Iago replied.

“Lying with her? Lying on her? I would prefer that people lie about her than lie on top of her — adultery is disgusting! I have the evidence of the handkerchief and this verbal confession. My handkerchief! He has confessed, and he should be hanged for what he did! I am willing to hang him first and allow him to confess his sins after he is dead. I am so angry that I am trembling. It would not be natural for me to feel this way and to tremble in this way unless there was a good reason to do so. It is not merely words that make me tremble like this. No! I will cut off their noses, ears, and lips! Can all this really be true? He confessed, and he has my handkerchief — damn!”

Othello fell down in an epileptic fit.

Work on, my “medicine,” work on!Iago thought. In this way credulous fools are caught, and in this way many worthy and chaste women meet reproach although they are guiltless.

Seeing Cassio coming, Iago put on an act for his benefit. Iago pretended to be concerned about Othello and said loudly enough for Cassio to hear, “My lord, wake up! Othello!”

He looked up and said, “Cassio!”

“What’s the matter?”

“My lord is having another epileptic fit. This is his second fit; he had one yesterday.”

“Rub his temples.”

“No, we better not,” Iago said. “His unconsciousness must run its course. If it does not, he foams at the mouth and then breaks out in a savage madness. Look, he is regaining consciousness. Go away for a little while. He will recover quickly. After he leaves, I want to talk to you about something important.”

Cassio departed, and Othello regained consciousness.

“How are you, general? Does your head hurt?”

“Are you making fun of me?” Othello said angrily, thinking that Iago was saying that his head hurt because he was growing the horns of a cuckold.

“Making fun of you? No, but by God, I wish that you would bear your ill fortune like a man!”

“A horned man is a monster and a beast.”

“In that case, there is many a beast in a populous city, and many a civilized monster.”

“Did Cassio confess?”

“Good sir, be a man,” Iago said. “You should think that every mature man who has been married — yoked like a horned beast to pull a burden — has the same burden as you. Millions of men are now alive who each night lie in beds that they think belong only to them but which they share with their wife’s lovers. Your situation is better than theirs: You know that your wife is unfaithful. The malice of Hell — the worst mockery — is to kiss a wanton whore on a bed that the husband thinks is his alone. No, I prefer to know that I have been cuckolded. Knowing that, I know what revenge to take on my wife.”

“Certainly, you are a wise man.”

“Stand for a while at a little distance,” Iago said, “and control yourself. While you were overwhelmed with your suffering and had fallen into a fit — grief most unsuitable for such a man as you — Cassio came here. I came up with an excuse to get him to go away and made a good excuse for your falling into a fit. I also asked him to return here and speak to me, which he promised to do. Therefore, conceal yourself and witness the sneers, the mockery, and the obvious contempt that can be seen in every region of his face. You can witness these things because I will make him tell the story again of where, how, how often, how long ago, and when he has slept — and will again sleep — with your wife. Watch his gestures carefully. But be patient and do not reveal yourself, or I shall say you are consumed with passion and ruled by anger and are not a real man.”

Iago thought, If Othello were to actually talk to Cassio, he would learn how I have been tricking him.

“Listen to me, Iago,” Othello replied. “I will control myself, but I will have blood — lots of blood.”

“There is nothing wrong with that,” Iago said, “but make those who have wronged you bleed at the right time. Will you conceal yourself nearby and watch as I talk with Cassio?”

Othello walked a short distance away and hid himself.

Iago thought, Now I will ask Cassio questions about Bianca, the whore who loves him — by selling her body she is able to buy herself food and clothing. She loves Cassio — prostitutes seduce many men but are often themselves seduced by one man. Cassio does not love her. When he hears about her and her love for him, he cannot stop himself from laughing. Here comes Cassio now. Cassio shall smile and laugh, and Othello shall go insane. The Moor’s ignorant jealousy will interpret Cassio’s smiles, gestures, and cheerful behavior completely the wrong way. He will not be able to hear our words; he will only be able to see our gestures and hear Cassio’s laughter.

Cassio walked up to Iago, who asked, “How are you, lieutenant?”

“I feel worse because you have called me by a title I don’t have anymore — the lack of that title is killing me.”

“Keep pushing Desdemona to help you, and you are sure to regain your lieutenancy.”

Iago lowered his voice and said, “Suppose that Bianca were able to plead your case. How quickly would you become lieutenant then!”

Cassio laughed and said, “That poor woman.”

Othello thought, Already he is laughing!

Iago said, “I have never known a woman to so love a man.”

“That poor rogue!” Cassio said. “I think, indeed, that she loves me.”

Othello thought, Now he is faintly denying the affair, and he is laughing about it.

“Listen to me, Cassio,” Iago said.

Othello thought, Now Iago is asking Cassio to tell him about his affair with my wife. Well done, Iago.

“Bianca is telling everyone that you will marry her,” Iago said. “Will you really marry her?”

Cassio laughed loudly.

Othello thought, Are you laughing about triumphing over me like a Roman conqueror?

“I marry her!” Cassio said. “Please, give me credit for some intelligence — don’t think that I am stupid enough to marry a whore.”

You are laughing now, Othello thought, but it is better to be the last one who laughs.

“Indeed, the gossip is everywhere that you will marry her.”

“Tell me the truth.”

“This is truly what people are saying — or else I am a villain.”

Have you wounded me?Othello thought. Just wait.

“Thatis the monkey’s own story. She ispersuaded that I will marry her because of her own love for me and because of her belief that I love her. I have never told her that I will marry her.”

Iago gestured to Othello to come closer, and Othello thought, Now Cassio is going to tell the tale of his affair with my wife.

Cassio said, “She was here just now; she haunts me in every place. Just the other day I was talking on the seashore with some people from Venice, and here she — this plaything — comes and throws her arms around my neck.”

Othello thought, Desdemona must have hugged him and called him “dear Cassio”! That is what his gesture means.

Laughing, Cassio said, “She had her arms around my neck, and hung from me, and cried. She tugged at me and pulled me.”

Othello thought, Now he is telling how Desdemona pulled him into my bedchamber. I can see your nose, Cassio, but I cannot see the dog that I will throw it to after I have cut it off.

“Well, after hearing what you have told me,” Cassio said, “I must stop seeing her.”

“Look!” Iago said. “Bianca is walking toward us!”

“She is a polecat,” Cassio said to Iago. “They stink when they are in heat. Bianca drenches herself in perfume.”

He said to Bianca, “What do you mean by this haunting of me? Why are you following me everywhere?”

“Let the devil and his dam haunt you!” Bianca replied.
“What did you mean by that embroidered handkerchief you gave me just now? I was a fine fool to take it. You want me to copy the embroidery? You told me quite a tale — you found it in your bedchamber and you don’t know how it got there! A likely story! This is a keepsake from some slut. Take it — give it to your slut. Wherever you got this handkerchief, I will not copy the embroidery.”

“Sweet Bianca, don’t be upset,” Cassio said.

Othello thought, That’s my handkerchief!

Bianca said to Cassio, “If you want to eat supper at my place tonight, you may. If you don’t come tonight, then come the next time I prepare a meal for you — that will be never.”

She left.

“Go after her,” Iago urged Cassio.

“I had better,” Cassio said. “She will scream complaints about me in the streets if I don’t.”

“Will you dine with her?” Iago asked.


“Well, perhaps I will see you. I would like very much to talk more with you.”

“No problem. You come, too.”


Cassio went after Bianca.

Othello came out of hiding and asked, “How shall I murder him, Iago?”

“Did you see how he laughed at his vice?” Iago asked.

“I did!”

“And did you see the handkerchief?”

Othello knew that the handkerchief was his, but he sadly asked, “Was that mine?”

“I swear that it was your handkerchief,” Iago replied. “And you can see how much he values your wife, that foolish woman! Your wife gave him that handkerchief, and he gave it to his whore.”

“I would like to take nine years to torture and kill him!” Othello said, adding sarcastically, “My wife is a fine woman, a fair woman, a sweet woman!”

“No, you must not think about that,” Iago said.

“Let her rot!” Othello said. “Let her perish. Let her be damned tonight. She shall no longer live. My heart has turned to stone.”

He hit himself in the chest and said, “When I hit my heart, my hand hurts. The world does not have a sweeter woman than my wife. She could lie beside an emperor and give him orders.”

“This is not the best way for you to act.”

“Hang her! I do but say what she is. She is so delicate with her needlework; she is an admirable musician! When she sings, she makes a savage bear become gentle. She is very witty and imaginative.”

“She’s all the worse for having so many fine qualities and yet being evil.”

“Oh, a thousand thousand times, and also she is nobly born and has a gentle and yielding disposition.”

“Yes, too yielding.”

“That is certain, but it is such a pity, Iago! Such a pity!”

“If you are so foolish as to accept her unfaithfulness to you, then let her run wild and cuckold you. If that does not bother you, it will not bother anyone else.”

“I will chop her into small pieces of meat!” Othello said. “She has cuckolded me!”

“It was foul of her.”

“With my own officer!”

“That’s fouler.”

“Get me some poison, Iago, this very night. I will not talk to her, lest her body and beauty change my mind. Get it tonight, Iago.”

“Don’t kill her with poison. Strangle her in her bed — the bed she has contaminated.”

“Good, good,” Othello said. “The poetic justice of it pleases me very well.”

“And as for Cassio, let me undertake his murder. You shall hear more by midnight.”


A trumpet sounded, and Othello said, “What is the purpose of that trumpet sounding?”

“It is surely a message from Venice. I see Lodovico coming toward us. The Duke of Venice must have sent him here. Look, your wife is with him.”

Lodovico, Desdemona, and some attendants walked up to Othello and Iago.

“God bless you, worthy general!” Lodovico said.

“I thank you with all my heart, sir,” Othello replied.

“The Duke and senators of Venice greet you and have sent you this letter.”

He handed the letter to Othello.

“I kiss the instrument of their pleasures,” Othello said courteously. He kissed the letter and then opened it and began to read it.

“What news have you brought, kinsman Lodovico?” Desdemona asked.

She came from a noble and well-known family and was related to many important men in Venice.

Iago said to Lodovico, “I am very glad to see you, signior. Welcome to Cyprus.”

“I thank you. How is Lieutenant Cassio?”

“He lives, sir,” Iago replied quietly, implying that something was wrong.

“Kinsman, there has fallen between Cassio and my husband an unnatural breach, but you shall make all well between them,” Desdemona said.

“Are you sure of that?” Othello asked.

“My lord?” Desdemona replied. “What do you mean?”

Othello read part of the letter out loud, “Do not fail to do this—”

“Othello will not answer you right now,” Lodovico said. “He is busy reading the letter. What is this about a breach between Cassio and Othello?”

“It is very unfortunate,” Desdemona said. “I would do much to reconcile them because I respect Cassio’s good qualities so much.”

Overhearing her, Othello said, “Damn, damn, and damn!”

“My lord?” Desdemona asked. “What’s wrong?”

“Haven’t you any intelligence at all?” Othello said.

“What — are you angry?” Desdemona asked.

“Maybe the letter has angered him,” Lodovico said. “I understand that his orders are to return to Venice and to leave Cassio here as governor in charge of Cyprus.”

“I am glad that those are the orders,” Desdemona said.

“Indeed!” Othello said.

“My lord?” Desdemona asked. “What’s wrong?”

“I am happy to see that you have completely lost your mind,” Othello said, thinking that she was mocking him by praising Cassio and being glad of Cassio’s promotion.

“Why, darling Othello —” Desdemona began.

Othello struck her and said, “Devil!”

Shocked, and crying, Desdemona said, “I have not deserved this.”

Also shocked, Lodovico said to Othello, “My lord, this would not be believed in Venice even if I swore that I saw it with my own eyes. Make this up to Desdemona. Apologize. She is crying.”

“She is a devil!” Othello said. “If this woman’s tears could impregnate the Earth, each tear she lets fall would produce a crocodile, which lures its prey near with its crocodile’s tears.”

He shouted at Desdemona, “Get out of my sight!”

“I will not stay here and offend you with my sight,” Desdemona said and obediently left.

“Truly, she is an obedient lady,” Lodovico said. “That is what a wife should be. I beg your lordship, please call her back and apologize to her.”

“Mistress!” Othello called.

“My lord?” Desdemona asked. “What do you want?”

“What do you want to do with and to her, sir?” Othello asked Lodovico.

“Who, I, my lord?” Lodovico asked.

“Yes, you said that you wanted me to ask her to turn back. Sir, she can turn, and turn, and yet go on, and turn again.”

Yes, Othello thought. She can turn to one sexual position and then another sexual position and then yet another sexual position. And she can service one brothel customer and then another brothel customer and then yet another brothel customer.

Othello added, “And she can weep, sir, she can weep.”

Yes, Othello thought. She can weep crocodile tears.

Othello added, “And she’s obedient, as you say, obedient, very obedient.”

Yes, Othello thought. She obeys Cassio’s orders in bed.

Othello ordered Desdemona, “Keep crying.”

“About this letter, sir —” Othello began saying to Lodovico.

He said to Desdemona, “You fake sadness so well!”

He said to Lodovico, “I am commanded to return to Venice.”

He said to Desdemona, “Get away from me. I will send for you soon.”

He said to Lodovico, “Sir, I will obey my orders; I will return to Venice.”

He shouted at Desdemona, “Leave me! Now!”

Desdemona left.

He said to Lodovico, “Cassio shall take over my place as governor. And, sir, I ask you to dine with me tonight. You are welcome, sir, to Cyprus.”

Overcome by anger at the thought of Cassio and Desdemona in bed together, Othello shouted the names of two animals known for their horniness: “Goats and monkeys!”

He departed.

Shocked by what he had witnessed, Lodovico said to Iago, “Is this the noble Moor whom our entire senate regards with such esteem? Is this the man with such a reputation for self-control? Is this the man whose excellence and virtue cannot be harmed by either a cannon shot of fortune or an arrow of fate? Othello is supposed to be able to maintain his self-control and composure no matter what enemy forces he faces.”

Iago replied, “He is much changed.”

“Is his mind sound? Has he become insane?” Lodovico asked.

“He is what he is. As an officer serving under him, I ought not to state my opinion about his state of mind, but if he is not insane, I wish to God that he were because that would excuse his actions!”

“He actually struck his wife!”

“That was an evil action, but I wish that I knew that that was the most evil thing he would do!”

“Is this the way that he usually acts?” Lodovico asked Iago. “Or is he so upset by the letter that he is acting abnormally?”

“I am sorry, but as his officer I ought not to speak about what I have seen and known him to do. You should watch him — his own actions will reveal his character to you and so I need not reveal his character by talking about it. Watch him, and see how he acts.”

“I am sorry that I was mistaken about his character,” Lodovico said.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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