David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s OTHELLO: A Retelling in Prose — Act 4, Scene 2

— 4.2 —

In a room in the castle, Othello was questioning Emilia, Desdemona’s attendant and Iago’s wife.

“You have seen nothing suspicious?”

“I have never seen or heard anything suspicious,” Emilia replied, “and I have never suspected Desdemona of doing anything wrong.”

“You have seen Cassio and her together.”

“Yes, but I have never seen them do anything wrong, and I have heard every syllable that they have spoken to each other.”

“Did they ever whisper?”

“Never, my lord.”

“And they never sent you away?”


“Not even to fetch her fan, her gloves, her mask, or something else?”

“Never, my lord.”

“That’s strange.”

“I would bet my immortal soul that she is faithful to you. If you think otherwise, you are wrong and you need to change your thinking. Remove any thought that Desdemona has done you wrong; such thoughts abuse your heart. If any wretch has put such a thought in your head, let Heaven repay that deed with the serpent’s curse! Remember Genesis 3:14-15: ‘And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.’ If Desdemona is not honest, chaste, and true to you, then no man is happy — the purest of their wives is as foul as slander.”

“Tell Desdemona to come here,” Othello said. “Go now.”

Emilia left the room.

Othello said to himself, “She says that Desdemona is faithful to me, but it would have to be a stupid and foolish brothel-keeper who would not lie as well as Emilia. Emilia is a subtle whore who acts like a lock and key and keeps villainous secrets, and yet she kneels and prays — I have seen her do it.”

Desdemona and Emilia both entered the room.

“My lord, what is your will?” Desdemona asked.

“Please, chick, come here,” Othello said.

Desdemona walked to Othello and asked, “What do you want?”

“Let me see your eyes; look at my face,” Othello angrily said.

Wary, Desdemona asked, “What horrible notion is this?”

Othello said to Emilia, “Do your job, mistress. Leave us procreants — we who procreate — alone and shut the door. Cough, or cry ‘ahem,’ if anybody comes. That is your job, so do it.”

Emilia knew that she had been insulted. The words that Othello had used implied that she was the keeper of a brothel and that her job was to help people have illicit and immoral sex. But she was afraid, and she left.

Desdemona, who knew much less of the evils of the world than Emilia, understood the tone of voice that Othello had used. She knelt before Othello and said, “What do you mean? I understand from your tone of voice that you are angry, but I do not understand your words.”

“Why, what are you?” Othello asked her.

“Your wife, my lord; your true, faithful, and loyal wife.”

“Come, swear it, and damn yourself,” Othello said. “You are beautiful, and you look like you belong in Heaven. I do not want the devils of Hell to be afraid to seize you after you die, so therefore swear to me that you are faithful to me, and be double-damned.”

He thought Be damned once for adultery and once for perjury.

“Heaven knows that I am faithful to you.”

“Heaven knows that you are as false as Hell.”

“To whom am I false, my lord? With whom am I false? How am I false?”

“Desdemona, stay away from me!” Othello said, crying.

“This is a horrible day,” Desdemona said. “Why are you crying? Am I the reason for these tears, my lord? If you suspect that my father is the cause of your being recalled to Venice, do not blame me. If you have lost his good will, I also have lost his good will.”

“Had it pleased Heaven to test me by afflicting me, by raining all kinds of sores and shames on my bare head, by steeping me in poverty up to my lips, by imprisoning me and chaining up all my hopes, I still would have found in some place of my soul a drop of patience. Unfortunately, Heaven has made me a fixed figure for everyone to scorn and to point at like the numbers on a clock. It is as if my disgrace were written on the face of a clock in the marketplace. Still, I could bear that, too, well — very well. But in the place where I have given my heart, where either I must live, or have no life, where is the fountain from which my current runs, or else dries up — I am referring to you, my wife — I have been thrown out from that place, I have been discarded from there! It is now a cistern where foul toads copulate and breed. Change your complexion, like the young and rose-lipped cherub known as Patience when she looks at the place where I have given my heart. That’s right — now you look as grim as Hell!”

“I hope my noble lord believes that I am honest and faithful to him and morally pure.”

“Yes, I do believe that you are chaste,” Othello said sarcastically. “As chaste as summer flies are in the slaughterhouses, flies that become pregnant again as soon as their eggs are laid. You weed, you are so lovely and so beautiful and you smell so sweet that my senses ache when they behold you — I wish that you had never been born!”

“What sin have I committed without being aware of it?” Desdemona asked.

Othello looked at Desdemona’s face and said, “Was this beautiful paper, this excellent book, made to write the word ‘whore’ upon? What sin have you committed!”

He thought, You know Exodus 20:14; it is one of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

He said, “You are a common whore! I should make forges of my cheeks; they would burn with embarrassment if I were to mention your evil deeds out loud. What sin have you committed! Heaven stops its nose at it so it will not smell your sin and the Moon — a symbol of chastity — closes its eyes so it will not see your sin. Even the bawdy wind that kisses all it meets is hiding in a hollow cave under the ground so it will not hear about your sin. What sin have you committed! You are an impudent whore!”

“By Heaven, you do me wrong,” Desdemona said.

“Are you not a whore?”

“No, I am not. I swear it as I am a Christian,” Desdemona said. “If to preserve this vessel — my body — for my lord from any foul unlawful touch means that I am not a whore, then I am not a whore.”

“What? You say that you are not a whore?”

“I am not a whore. If I am, then I give up my eternal salvation eternally.”

“Is it possible that you can say such a thing?”

“Heaven forgive us!”

“I beg your pardon, then,” Othello said sarcastically. “I mistook you for that cunning whore of Venice who married Othello.”

Othello raised his voice and called Emilia: “You, mistress, who have the office opposite to that of Saint Peter, and keep the gate of Hell while he keeps the gate of Heaven, come here.”

Emilia entered the room.

Othello threw a few coins at her and said, “We have finished; here’s money for your pains. Please, keep the door and keep the secrets of Desdemona and me.”

He left the room.

Emilia knew that she and Desdemona had been insulted. Othello was treating Desdemona like a whore and Emilia like the keeper of a brothel. He was acting as if he had been one of a whore’s — Desdemona’s — customers and was tipping Emilia for her services as a procurer and to have her not gossip about his use of a prostitute’s services.

Emilia said, “What is going on in your husband’s brain? How are you, madam? How are you, my good lady?”

“I am in shock. It is as if I am half-asleep.”

“Good madam, what’s the matter with my lord?”

“With whom?”

“Why, with my lord, madam.”

“Who is your lord?”

“The same person who is your lord, your husband, sweet lady.”

“I have no lord, no husband,” Desdemona replied. “Do not talk to me, Emilia. I cannot cry, and tears would accompany the only answers that I can give you. Please, lay my wedding sheets on my bed tonight. Remember that. Also, call your husband here so I can talk to him.”

“Things have certainly changed around here!” Emilia said.

She left to get her husband, Iago.

Desdemona said sadly but sarcastically and bitterly, “It is fitting that I should be treated this way, very fitting. What have I done that he should make even the smallest criticism about my greatest fault?”

Emilia and Iago entered the room.

Iago looked at Desdemona, whom he was hoping to manipulate her husband into murdering, and asked, “What do you want, madam? How are you?”

“I do not know how I am,” Desdemona replied. “Those who teach young babes do so gently and give them easy tasks to do. My husband might have criticized me gently because, indeed, like a child I am unaccustomed to being scolded.”

“What’s the matter, lady?” Iago asked.

“It’s a shame, Iago, but my lord treated her as if she were a whore. He has called her spiteful and scornful names that good people cannot bear.”

“Am I deserving of the names he called me, Iago?” Desdemona asked.

“What names, fair lady?”

“Such names as your wife says my lord did say I was.”

“He called her a whore,” Emilia said. “Not even a drunk beggar would have called his slut such names as Othello called Desdemona.”

“Why did he do that?” Iago asked.

“I do not know why,” Desdemona said. “I am sure that I did not deserve to be called such names.”

“Do not cry, Desdemona, do not cry,” Iago said. “This is a sorrowful day!”

“Has Desdemona given up so many noble marriages that she could have made, has she given up her father and her country and her friends, just to end up being called a whore?” Emilia said. “Doesn’t this make you want to cry?”

“It is my wretched fate,” Desdemona said.

“Curse him for this,” Iago said. “Why is he acting this way?”

“I don’t know,” Desdemona said. “Only Heaven knows.”

“I can guess the cause,” Emilia said. “I will be hanged if some eternal villain, if some busy and insinuating rogue, if some lying, cheating slave, to get some job, has not devised some slander. I will be hanged if this is not true.”

Iago said, “No man can be that evil. That is impossible,” but he thought, That is a good part of the truth — I did it in part so that I could be lieutenant, and now I am lieutenant.

“If any such man exists, may Heaven pardon him!” Desdemona said.

“May a halter around his neck pardon him!” Emilia said. “And may Hell gnaw his bones! Why should Othello call Desdemona a whore? How is it even possible for her to have an affair? Who keeps her company that she could have an affair with? In what place could an affair take place? At what time could an affair take place? How could an affair happen? What is the evidence for an affair? Some very villainous knave, some base and notorious knave, some scurvy fellow has abused the Moor. I wish that Heaven would reveal such villains for what they are and put in every honest hand a whip to lash the rascals naked through the world from the East to the West!”

Iago did not like hearing his wife say this. He said, “Speak more quietly. We are indoors.”

“To Hell with such men!” Emilia said. “Such a man spoke with you and turned your brain inside out and made you suspect that I had an affair with the Moor.”

Iago replied, “You are a fool. Shut up.”

Desdemona said, “Good Iago, what can I do to win my lord again? Good friend, go to him and talk to him. By this light of Heaven, the Sun, I swear that I do not know how I lost him. Here I kneel and swear that if ever my will trespassed against his love, either in thought or in actual deed, then may I never be happy. I swear that if my eyes, my ears, or any other sense ever delight in any man except my husband, then may I never be happy. I swear that if I never dearly loved my husband or do not dearly love my husband now or do not continue to dearly love my husband — even if he were to shake me off and divorce me and make me a beggar — then may I never be happy. Unkindness may do much, and his unkindness may take away my life, but it can never take away my love for him. I can hardly say the word ‘whore’ — to say the word now abhors me. I would not do the act that would make me a whore for all the world’s mass of vain finery.”

“Please, control yourself,” Iago said. “This is a temporary mood of Othello’s. He is bothered by affairs of state and so he quarrels with you.”

“I hope that is the reason and there is nothing else —” Desdemona began.

Iago interrupted, “That is the reason. I promise you that.”

Trumpets sounded.

Iago said, “The trumpets are sounding to announce that the evening meal is ready. Your guests — the messengers from Venice — are ready to dine. Go in to the meal, and do not cry. Don’t worry — all shall be well.”

Desdemona and Emilia went in to the meal, while Iago went outside, where he found an angry Roderigo waiting for him.

“How are you, Roderigo?”

“You have not been treating me fairly!”

“What have I done to make you think that?”

“Every day you put me off with some excuse, Iago. It seems to me now that you keep me from taking advantage of any and all opportunities that would further me even a little in my pursuit of Desdemona. I have not even met Desdemona. I will no longer endure it, and I am not about to let you get away with having treated me this badly.”

“Listen to me, Roderigo —”

“I have listened to you too much already because your words and your actions do not match.”

“You accuse me most unjustly.”

“My accusation is nothing but true,” Roderigo said. “I have wasted my capital. The jewels you have received from me to give to Desdemona would have half corrupted a Catholic nun. You have told me that Desdemona has received my gifts and in return has given to you to deliver to me words of hope and expectation that she and I will meet on intimate terms, but that never happens.”

“Well, go on. Continue,” Iago said.

“Go on! Continue!” Roderigo said. “I cannot go on and continue. My money is almost gone. I am in a scurvy situation, and I think that you have cheated me.”

“Go on.”

“I tell you that I cannot go on in this way. I intend to introduce myself to Desdemona and tell her that if she returns my jewels to me, I will stop pursuing her and repent my immoral solicitation of a married woman. If she will not return my jewels to me, assure yourself that I will seek satisfaction from you.”

Iago thought, If he talks to Desdemona, he will discover that I have delivered to her no jewels. Instead, I put them in my pocket.

“Have you said all you have to say?”

“Yes, and I have said nothing but what I intend to do.”

“Why, I see that you have spunk, and I now have a better opinion of you than I ever had before,” Iago said. “Shake my hand, Roderigo. You have greatly criticized me, but I say that I have always been honest in trying to help you achieve your goal of sleeping with Desdemona.”

“It does not look like it.”

“I grant that you have not yet enjoyed Desdemona’s body, and so your suspicion of me is founded on intelligent and good judgment. But, Roderigo, if you have some qualities in you that I indeed have greater reason to believe now than ever before — I refer to purpose, courage, and valor — this night you need to prove that you have those qualities. Prove that this night, and if you are not enjoying Desdemona’s body tomorrow night, then form treacherous plots against my life and kill me and take me from this world.”

“What do you want me to do?” Roderigo said. “Is it something reasonable that can likely be accomplished? Is it feasible?”

“Sir, a letter from Venice has arrived with orders to replace Othello with Cassio as governor of Cyprus.”

“Is that true? Why, then Othello and Desdemona will return to Venice.”

“No,” Iago lied. “Othello will go into Mauritania in Western Africa and take away with him the fair Desdemona, unless his stay here be lengthened by some event — definitely, if Cassio were to be removed, Othello and Desdemona would stay here in Cyprus.”

“What do you mean by the removing of Cassio?”

“I mean that Cassio needs to be made incapable of taking Othello’s place, as will be true if his brains are knocked out.”

“And that is what you want me to do?”

“Yes, if you dare to do something that will profit you and give you something — Desdemona — that ought to be yours by right. Cassio is dining with a prostitute, and I will go and join them. Cassio does not yet know of his good and honorable fortune — his being made governor of Cyprus. If you will wait for him to leave, which I will make happen between midnight and one, you may kill him at your pleasure. I will be near to give you support, and with both of us attacking him, he shall die.”

Roderigo looked shocked.

Iago said, “Come on. Don’t just stand there. Come with me. I will give you such reasons why his death is necessary that you will feel obliged to kill him. It is now suppertime, and the time is passing quickly. Let’s go.”

“I need to hear further reasons why Cassio’s death is necessary.”

“And I will tell them to you,” Iago replied.

They departed.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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