Emilia, Desdemona and Cassio sat in the state reception room. ‘You can be sure, good Cassio,’ Desdemona was saying, ‘I’ll do everything I can for you.’
‘Please do, good madam,’ said Emilia. ‘I know this has upset my husband as if it were he this has happened to.’
‘Oh, that’s an honest fellow!’ said Desdemona. ‘Don’t worry, Cassio, I’ll make sure that you and my husband are as friendly as you were.’
‘Generous madam,’ said Cassio. ‘Whatever happens to Michael Cassio, he will always be your true servant.’
Desdemona squeezed his hand. ‘I know. Thank you. You love my lord. You’ve known him a long time and it’s certain that he won’t distance himself more than is diplomatically necessary.’
Cassio frowned. ‘Yes, but that diplomacy might last so long, or become so watered down, or be overtaken by events, so that I not being there, and someone else taking my place, my General will forget me.’
‘Don’t think that,’ said Desdemona. ‘In front of Emilia I promise you your place. Be sure that if I say I’ll do something I’ll do it to the last letter. I’ll give him no peace. I’ll keep my eye on it and talk him to death. His bed will be like a school and his dinner table a confessional. I’ll intermingle everything he
does with Cassio’s suit. So, cheer up, Cassio, because your advocate will die rather than give up.’
Emilia glanced towards the door. ‘Madam,’ she said, ‘here comes my lord.’
Cassio looked uncomfortable. ‘Madam, I’ll go now,’ he said and stood up.
‘Why?’ Desdemona stretched out her hand. ‘Stay and hear me speak.’
‘Madam,’ he said. ‘Not now. I’m very uneasy – I don’t feel up to it.’
‘Well, if you insist,’ she said, as he left by the other door.
Iago stopped Othello at the door. ‘Ha,’ he said. ‘I don’t like that!’
‘What?’ said Othello.
Iago shook his head. ‘Oh it’s nothing. Or perhaps … No, I don’t know.’
‘Wasn’t that Cassio just leaving my wife?’
‘Cassio, my lord? No, surely not. I can’t believe Cassio would sneak away so guiltily, seeing you coming.’
‘I really do think it was him.’
Desdemona walked across the room to them. ‘Hello, my lord. I’ve just been talking to a petitioner here – someone who’s languishing in your displeasure.’
‘Who do you mean?’
‘Your Lieutenant, Cassio, of course. If I have any power to influence you, accept his apology because if he isn’t a man who truly loves you and only errs in ignorance and not out of malice then I’m no judge of honesty. I beg of you, call him back.’
‘Did he just leave?’
‘Yes. So humiliated that he’s made me sad. Dearest love, call him back.’
Othello kissed her. ‘Not now, sweet Desdemona. Some other time.’
‘But will it be soon?’
‘Very soon, Sweet, just for you.’
‘Tonight, at supper?’
‘No, not tonight.’
‘Tomorrow at dinner?’
‘I won’t be dining at home. I’m meeting the captains at the citadel.’
Desdemona put her arms around his neck. ‘Come on, tomorrow night or Tuesday morning, or Tuesday noon, or night; on Wednesday night. I beg of you, name the time, but don’t let it exceed three days. I’m telling you, he’s penitent, even though his offence can’t be considered something to warrant a serious punishment, although I can understand that because it’s wartime he should set an example.’ She stroked his beard. ‘When can he come, tell me Othello. I wonder what you would ask me that I would deny you, or stand hesitating like this. What! Michael Cassio, who came wooing with you? And so many times, when I have spoken critically of you, has taken your side. To have so much of a to-do to re-instate him?’
Othello laughed and kissed her. ‘Please, no more; he can come whenever he likes. I won’t deny you anything.’
‘Come on, this isn’t a favour to me. It’s as though I would ask you to wear your gloves or eat nourishing food, or keep yourself warm, or ask you to do something in your own interest. No, when there’s something I want out of love it will be more complex and tricky for you and difficult to grant.’
‘I will deny you nothing,’ he said. ‘But I do beg you to give me one thing; that is to give me a little time to myself.’
‘Would I deny you that? No, goodbye, my lord.’
‘Goodbye, my Desdemona, I’ll come to you soon.’
‘Come Emilia.’ Desdemona paused at the door. ‘See? Whatever you want of me I’ll give you.’
Othello watched them go. He muttered, almost to himself. ‘Hell take my soul, but I love you. And when I love you not it will be a return to chaos.’ He stood staring at the closed door.
Iago cleared his throat. ‘My noble lord…’
Othello turned. ‘What, Iago?’
Iago spoke slowly, thoughtfully. ‘When you were wooing my lady, did Cassio know of your love?’
‘He did, from beginning to end. Why are you asking?’
‘Just a thought I had. Nothing more.’
‘What thought, Iago?’
‘I didn’t think he knew her.’
‘Oh yes, and was often a go-between.’
‘Really? Yes, really. Is there anything wrong with that? Isn’t he honest?’
‘Honest, my lord?’
‘Honest?’ Othello nodded irritably. ‘Yes, honest.’
‘My lord, for all I know.’
‘What do you think?’
‘Think, my lord?’
‘Think my lord!’ Othello was exasperated. ‘By heaven, he echoes me, as though there were some monster in his thought, too hideous to be revealed.’ Othello took a step towards Iago and looked down at him menacingly. ‘You’re insinuating something. Just now you said you didn’t like that. What didn’t you like? And when I told you he was my confidant all through my wooing you cried ‘Really!’ And you contracted and pursed your brow as if you had some horrible idea in your brain. If you love me tell me your thoughts.’
Iago sighed. ‘My lord, you know I love you.’
Othello stepped back but did not take his eyes off Iago. ‘I think you do. And as far as I know you are full of love and honesty, and you’re weighing your words before you voice them. So your hesitation scares me. Such things are common in a false, disloyal knave, but in a man that’s just they’re sincere, coming from the heart; things he can’t control because of genuine feeling.’
Iago spoke slowly, as though feeling for the right words. ‘Regarding Michael Cassio, I would swear that he is honest.’
‘I think so too.’
‘Men should be what they seem, or those that aren’t, it would be better if they didn’t seem to be anything.’
‘Certainly, men should be what they seem.’
Iago smiled and seemed relieved. ‘Well then, I think Cassio’s an honest man.’ He shrugged and turned to the window.
Othello gripped his shoulder. ‘No, there’s more to this. Please tell me what you’re thinking, exactly what’s in your mind, and speak plainly.’
‘My lord,’ said Iago, ‘forgive me. ‘Although I’m bound to you in every act of duty, I’m not bound, as even slaves are not, to utter my thoughts. What if they are vile and false? And whose mind doesn’t sometimes have foul intruders? Who has such a pure heart that some unclean considerations don’t sit alongside lawful ones?’
‘You conspire against your friend, Iago, if you think him wronged and don’t tell him.’
Iago said nothing for a moment, then smiled sadly. ‘I beg of you,’ he said. ‘Although I’m perhaps judging too harshly – and I admit it’s a fault in me, that I’m very sensitive to abuses, and my suspicions make me imagine faults that don’t exist – I’m sure that you’re too wise to take any notice of someone whose judgment is so imperfect. It’s not in the interest of your peace of mind, nor to your advantage, nor in the interest of my humanity, honesty and wisdom, to tell you what I’m thinking.’
Othello took a step towards him and looked him squarely in the eyes. ‘What are you talking about?’ he said.
Iago didn’t avert his eyes. ‘Good name in man or woman, my dear lord, is the most precious jewel of their souls. Whoever steals my purse steals trash – it’s something of no value. It was mine, now it’s his, and money has enslaved thousands. But he who steals my good name robs me of something that doesn’t enrich him but makes me very poor.’
Othello stepped even closer. ‘By heaven, I want to know your thoughts,’ he roared.
‘You can’t,’ said Iago, ‘even if you held my heart in your hand. Nor will you as long as it’s in my custody.’
Othello’s eyes widened. He was speechless. He raised his hand then stopped himself. All he could say was ‘Ha!’ Then he turned away.
‘O beware, my lord, of jealousy!’ said Iago, and Othello turned back to face him again. ‘It is the green-eyed monster that mocks the meat it feeds on. The cuckold who, knowing he is one and hates his wronger, lives in bliss. But oh, what terrible minutes he who adores, yet doubts, suspects but foolishly continues to love, endures.’
Othello buried his head in his hands. ‘Oh misery!’
‘Being poor and content is to be rich, and rich enough. But unlimited riches are as poor as winter to him who is always afraid that he is going to be poor. Dear God defend the souls of all my tribe from jealousy.’
‘What? What’s this?’ said Othello. ‘Do you think I would live with jealousy; to live through the changes of the moon with new suspicions all the time? No, as soon as I have doubts I do something about it immediately. Turn me into a goat when I allow my soul to suffer as a consequence of your inferences. It doesn’t make me jealous when someone says my wife is beautiful, likes company, speaks freely, sings, plays and dances well. When someone is virtuous these things add to that. Nor because of my own lack of attractiveness will I have the smallest fear or doubt about her fidelity, because she had eyes and chose me. No, Iago, I have to see evidence before I’ll doubt. When I have doubts I’ll try and prove it. And when it’s been proved that’s all there is to it: love and jealousy will be immediately banished.’
‘I’m relieved,’ said Iago. ‘Because now I have reason to show my love and duty with greater frankness. So, because it’s my duty, I’ll tell you. I’m not talking about proof yet, mind, but watch your wife – watch her closely with Cassio. Be objective – neither jealous nor secure. I wouldn’t want your open and noble nature taken advantage of. Watch. I know the nature of the women of our country. In Venice they let God see tricks they get up to that they dare not show their husbands. They would rather keep them secret than not get up to them.’
‘Is that so?’ Othello gave him a disapproving look.
Iago shrugged. ‘In marrying you she deceived her father. ‘And when she seemed to tremble and fear the looks you gave her, that’s when she loved you most in reality.’
Othello nodded. ‘Yes, she did.’
‘There you are then,’ said Iago. ‘She who when so young could appear so affected, and to seal her father’s eyes up so soundly that he thought it was witchcraft… But this is all my fault. I humbly beg your pardon for loving you too much.’
Othello put his hand on Iago’s shoulder. ‘I’m grateful to you for ever.’
‘I see this has lowered your spirits,’ said Iago.
Othello laughed. ‘Not a bit, not a bit.’
‘Really, I think it has. I hope you will understand that what I have said is because of my love for you.’ Othello tied to laugh again but failed. ‘But I can see it’s affected you,’ said Iago. ‘I’m asking you not to force me to tell you worse things, not to go beyond suspicion.’
‘I won’t,’ said Othello.
‘If you did I would say things I didn’t mean to say. Cassio’s my best friend. My lord. I can see you’re moved.’
‘No.’ Othello shook his head. ‘Not very moved. I’m sure Desdemona’s honest.
‘May she always be. And may you always think so!’
‘And yet.’ Othello was reflective. ‘I’m thinking about how nature is sometimes freakish…’
‘Yes,’ said Iago. ‘That’s the point.. To be quite frank, to reject so many proposed marriages to men of her own country, colour and position, which would be the most natural thing …. Foh! One could interpret that as having too strong a will, foully disproportionate, unnatural thoughts. But forgive me, I’m not talking about her specifically, although I could have cause to fear that her will, giving way to her better judgment may begin to compare you with her own countrymen so that perhaps she will be regretting marrying you.’
Othello was staring at him. ‘Go now, go. And if you notice anything more tell me. Get your wife to watch her. Leave me, Iago.
Iago turned away. ‘My lord, I’m going.’ He went to the door.
‘Why did I marry?’ said Othello. ‘This honest creature no doubt sees and knows much more than he’s telling me.’
Iago went back My lord.’ His tone was one of concern. ‘I would ask you not to think about it. Give it time. Although it’s right that Cassio should have his position, because he occupies it with great ability, yet if you were to hold him off for a while, you’ll be able to watch him and see his methods. See if you wife pleads strongly or passionately for his reinstatement. That will tell you a lot. In the meantime, just think of me as too interfering – although in a just cause – and regard her as honest. I beg of you.’
‘Don’t worry about me,’ said Othello.
‘Now I’ll go,’said Iago.
Othello stood alone, gazing out the window. He knew that Iago was an honest man. He also had a lot of knowledge of human behaviour. If Desdemona proved unfaithful he would cast her out and leave her to fortune. Maybe it was because he was black and didn’t have the refined way of speaking that Venetian gentlemen had; or perhaps it was because he was older – although not all that much older …. She was gone, he had been deceived and his only relief would be to loathe her. Marriage was a curse! That men could call these delicate creatures theirs and yet not own their appetites. He would rather be a toad and live in a foul dungeon than keep a woman that he loved for the use of other men, even for a moment. This was the plague of great men, more privileged than the lesser. It was a destiny as unavoidable as death, and fated to them at the moment of their birth.
He heard Desdemona and Emily coming into the room behind him. He turned. She was smiling; pleasure at seeing him was in her eyes. If she was unfaithful it would be a case of heaven mocking itself. He wouldn’t believe it.
‘Hello, my dear Othello! she exclaimed. ‘Dinner is ready and the islanders you have invited are waiting for you.’
‘I’m at fault,’ he whispered.
She kissed him tenderly. ‘Why are you speaking so faintly? Are you unwell?’
‘I have a headache,’ he said.
She stroked his forehead. ‘We’ll have to do something about that. It will go away again. Let me bind it up for you and it will be better.’ She took a handkerchief from her sleeve.
‘That’s too small,’ he said and pushed her hand away. She dropped the handkerchief and when she reached for it he took her arm. ‘Leave it,’ he said. ‘Come, let’s go in.’
They walked to the door, her hand on his arm. She said: ‘I’m so sorry you’re not well.’
Emilia picked up the handkerchief. She was glad she had found it. It was Desdemona’s first gift from the Moor. Her husband had asked her a hundred times to steal it. But Desdemona loved it so much, because he had told her that she should keep it forever, that she always carried it with her to kiss it and talk to it. She would take it now, and unpick the embroidery then give it to Iago. Heaven knew what he would do with it but all she wanted to do was indulge him.
And here he was. ‘Well,’ he said. What are you doing here all by yourself?’
‘Don’t reprimand me,’ she said. ‘I’ve got something for you.’
‘Something for me?’ Iago glared at her. ‘It’s a normal thing.’
‘To have a stupid wife.’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Is that all?’ She went up close to him, holding her hand behind her back. ‘What will you give me for that handkerchief?’
She laughed. ‘What handkerchief! The one the Moor first gave to Desdemona of course. The one you’ve been naggin me to steal.’
‘Have you stolen it from her?’
‘No, I didn’t have to. As luck would have it she dropped it by accident. I happened to be there and picked it up.’ She held the handkerchief up. ‘See? Here it is.’
‘Good girl. Give it to me.’
She thrust it behind her back again. ‘What do you want it for that you’ve been so keen for me to steal it?’
Iago pulled her arm from behind her back and snatched the handkerchief. ‘What’s it got to do with you?’
Emilia tried to snatch it back but he held it tightly. ‘If it’s not something important give it back to me. Poor lady, she’ll be distraught when she misses it.’
Iago fondled the handkerchief. ‘Don’t say anything about it. I have a use for it. Go. Leave me.’
She looked hurt but did as she was told. When she had gone Iago examined the handkerchief. He was very pleased. He would drop it in Cassio’s lodgings and let him find it. Any small thing would be proof to the jealous. This handkerchief could contribute. The Moor was already changing with his poison. Daring ideas are poison by their very nature. They may be dismissed at first but once they take root in the blood they burn like sulphur.
Someone was coming. It was Othello, looking devastated. Iago watched him. It was as he had thought it would be. No drugs, neither poppy nor madragora, nor any drug in the world would ever restore that sweet sleep that he had known as recently as yesterday.
Othello stumbled towards him, muttering to himself. ‘Oh, oh,’ he said. ‘Unfaithful to me!’
Iago helped him to his desk and sat him down. ‘Now, now, General,’ he said. ‘Enough of that.’
Othello looked up at him. ‘Get away. Go! You’ve put me on the rack. I swear, it’s better to be terribly abused than to know anything of it at all.’
‘Come on, my lord,’ said Iago.
Othello sank his head on to the desk. ‘What intimation did I have of her stolen hours of lust?’ he said, speaking softly. ‘I didn’t see it, didn’t think it, it didn’t affect me. I slept well, I was free and happy. I didn’t sense Cassio’s kisses on her lips. When a man is robbed, if he doesn’t miss the thing that’s stolen, if he doesn’t know, he’s not robbed at all.’
‘I’m sorry to hear this,’ said Iago solicitously.
‘I would have been happy if the whole regiment, navvies and all, had enjoyed her sweet body,’ said Othello. ‘As long as I hadn’t known.’ He looked up at Iago. There were tears in his eyes. ‘Oh, now, forever, farewell to peace of mind! Farewell contentedness! Farewell to the decorated army and the big wars that make one proud. Oh farewell! Farewell to the neighing horses and the shrill trumpet, the spirit-strirring drum, the ear-piercing fife, the royal banner and all the good things – the pride, pomp and pageantry – of glorious war! And, oh, the shouts of soldiers who imitate Jove’s dread thunders, farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone.’
Iago shook his head. ‘Is it that bad, my lord?’
Othello sprang up and bore down on Iago. He grasped the front of his tunic. ‘Villain!’ he exclaimed. ‘Be sure you can prove my love’s a whore. Be sure of it. Give me visual proof or by everything I am it would be better that you had been born a dog than that you should have to answer my awakened wrath!’
Iago looked shocked. ‘Has it come to this?’
‘Let me see it with my own eyes,’ said Othello. ‘Or at the very least, prove it beyond doubt. Your life depends on it!’
‘My noble lord…’
‘If you’re slandering her, and torturing me, don’t ever look for mercy again: abandon all hope of redemption. Let horror be piled upon horror for you. You could do any wicked act, deeds to make heaven weep, to amaze the whole world, because you wouldn’t be able to add anything worse to that.’
Iago thrust his hands over his ears and looked up to the ceiling. ‘Oh grace!’ he exclaimed. ‘Oh heaven defend me!’ He shook his head. ‘Are you a man? Do you have a soul? Or any intelligence?’ He turned and began walking away. ‘God be with you then. Take my office away from me.’ He got to the door and paused. Then speaking to himself, but loudly enough for Othello to hear he said: ‘O wretched fool, who loves to make your honesty a vice! Oh cruel world! Take note, take note, oh world: to be straightforward and honest is not safe.’ He turned and looked at Othello with infinite sadness etched on his features. ‘I thank you for doing this. From now on I’ll love no-one since loving acts breed such offence.’
Othello stretched his arm toward him. ‘No, don’t go,’ he said. ‘I’m sure you’re honest.’
‘I should be more wise,’ said Iago, ‘because honesty’s a fool and destroys its good intentions.’
Othello slumped on to a chair. ‘I’m confused. I think my wife is honest and I also think she isn’t. I think you’re just and I also think you’re not. I want some proof. Her name, that was as fresh as Dian’s face, is now soiled and black as my own face. There are ropes and knives, poison, fire, drowning, available. Why should I endure this? I wish I were satisfied.’
Iago hadn’t moved. He went, now, and stood before Othello. ‘I see Sir,’ he said, ‘that you’re eaten up with passion. I’m sorry now, that I said anything. You want to be satisfied?’
Othello sprang up. ‘Want? No, demand!’
‘And you may be. But how? Satisfied in what way, my lord? Would you be a voyeur, crudely watching? See her topped?’
Othello swayed. His eyeballs bulged and he spluttered. ‘Death and damnation! Oh!’
Iago continued with his theme, appearing not to notice Othello’s state. ‘I think it would be incredibly difficult to arrange that. If any mortal eyes were to see them sharing a bed they would be eternally damned. What then? How shall we do this? What can I say? Where can we get satisfaction? It would be impossible to arrange for you to see this, even if they were as lecherous as goats, as hot as monkeys, as lustful as wolves on heat, and if they were such fools, made drunk by ignorance. But still, if inference and circumstantial evidence which would lead directly to the door of truth will give you satisfaction, you could have it.’
‘Give me one reason you have for thinking she’s disloyal.’
‘I don’t like doing this,’ said Iago. ‘But since I’ve gone so far, moved to it by my foolish honesty and love, I’ll tell you. I stayed with Cassio recently, and being troubled with a raging toothache, I couldn’t sleep. There are some people who are so unguarded that they expose their private affairs by talking in their sleep. Cassio is one of those. I heard him say, while still asleep: ‘Sweet Desdemona, we must be careful, we must hide our love.’ And then, Sir, he gripped my hand and wrung it, and cried ‘Oh sweet creature!’ and kissed me passionately as though he was pulling up by the roots the kisses that grew on my lips. Then he put his leg over my thigh and sighed and kissed me and then cried ‘Cursed fate, that gave you to the Moor!’’
Othello’s mouth fell open. ‘Oh monstrous!’ he exclaimed. ‘Monstrous!’
‘No, no,’ said Iago. ‘It was only a dream.’
‘But it showed his real thoughts.’
‘It’s an indication, although it was only a dream, and it may add to other less obvious proofs.’
Othello pulled himself up. ‘I’ll tear her to pieces,’ he said.
‘No,’ said Iago. Be cautious. ‘We haven’t seen him do anything. She may still be honest.’ His brow furrowed. ‘Just tell me something. Have you ever seen your wife with a handkerchief decorated with strawberries?’
‘I gave her one like that. It was my first gift to her,’
‘I don’t know anything about that,’ said Iago. ‘But it was a handkerchief just like that – I’m sure it was your wife’s – that I saw him wipe his beard with only today.’
‘If it was that one…’
‘If it was that one, or any other one that was hers, it adds to the other proofs.’
Othello extracted a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. ‘Oh, I wish the slave had forty thousand lives! One is not enough, not enough for my revenge. Now I can see that it’s true. Look here, Iago – all my foolish love I hereby blow to heaven. It’s gone.’ He drew in a deep breath. ‘Arise, black vengeance, from your hollow cell! Oh love, give up your crown and hearted throne to tyrannous hate! Swell, bosom, with your pain, it’s full of snakes’ tongues.’
‘Calm down,’ said Iago.
Othello swayed from side to side. ‘Oh blood, blood, blood!’ he moaned.
‘Calm down, I say,’ said Iago.’ You may change your mind.’
‘Never, Iago. Just like the Pontic sea, whose icy current and compulsive thrust, never relaxes in a retiring ebb, but keeps pushing on to the Propontic and the Hellespont, just like that, my bloody thoughts with their violent pace, will never look back, never ebb to the calm I felt before until a huge revenge swallows them up. Now, by heaven above, I’m taking a vow.’ He knelt down.
Iago placed his hand on Othello’s head. ‘Don’t rise yet,’ he said, and facing him, knelt too. ‘I swear,’ he said, ‘before the lights of heaven and the elements that surround us, I swear that Iago surrenders his mind, hands and heart to the service of wronged Othello. Let him command, and to obey, whatever it may be, will be my goal, however bloody the business is.’
He took Othello’s hands in his and they rose together.
’I accept your love,’ said Othello. ‘Not with a superficial gratitude, but completely. And I’m going to test you immediately. Let me within the next three days hear you say that Cassio’s not alive.’
‘My friend is dead,’ said Iago. ‘It’s done at your request. But let her live.’
Othello looked as though he was going to burst. ‘Damn her, lewd minx! He roared. ‘Damn her, damn her! Come with me. I’m going to go straight away and find a way of killing the beautiful devil. You’re my lieutenant now.’
‘I’m yours forever,’ said Iago.