Iago had to work fast. Every minute’s delay increased the risk that he would be exposed. He found Othello at his desk, where he sat brooding, and he introduced the subject immediately.
‘What do you think about it?’ he said.
‘Think about it Iago?’ Othello was far away.
‘What! To kiss in private’?
‘It would be an unauthorised kiss then.’
‘Or to be naked in bed with her friend and not mean any harm?’
He had the General’s attention. ‘Naked in bed and not mean harm?’ said Othello. ‘That’s hypocrisy against the devil. Those who do that without meaning harm are being tempted by the devil and they are tempting heaven.’
‘If they do nothing it’s just a venial slip,’ said Iago. ‘But if I give my wife a handkerchief…’
‘What then?’ said Othello.
‘Well, then, it’s hers, my lord, and she may give it to any man.’
‘By that logic, being the owner of her honour, may she give that too?
Iago smiled. ‘Her honour is invisible: they often have it when they don’t. But as for the handkerchief…’
Othello sprang up. ‘By heaven, I’ve been trying to forget that! You told me – oh it comes to my memory like the raven visiting the infectious house, boding ill to all in it – he had my handkerchief.’
‘Yes, and what does that mean?’
Iago sat down in Othello’s vacated chair. ‘What if I told you I had actually seen him doing you wrong, or heard him say – as there are such rogues who, having seduced some married woman, can’t help blabbing about it.’
‘Has he said anything?’
Iago nodded sadly. ‘He has, my lord, but you can be sure he’ll deny it.’
‘What did he say?’
‘In faith, that he… No, I don’t know what he did.’
Othello went down on his knees and looked up at Iago. ‘What? What?’
‘With her, on top of her, everything.’
Othello put his hands up and blocked his ears. ‘Lie with her? On top of her? Lie with her! God’s wounds, that’s evidence!’ He began swaying. ‘Handkerchief – confession – handkerchief! To confess and be hanged for it. First the hanging then the confession!’ He was shaking violently. He examined his hands, trying to hold them steady. ‘I’m shaking at it. I couldn’t feel such passion if I didn’t know it was true. It’s more than words that’s making me shake like this.’ He tried to rise. ‘Noses, ears and lips – all shaking. Is it possible?’ He stood up and lurched forward like a drunken man. ‘Confess? Handkerchief! O devil!’ He crashed to the floor in a faint.
Iago got up and looked down at him. He smiled. He put his foot on his head. ‘Work on, my medicine, work,’ he whispered. ‘This is how gullible fools are caught, and so many worthy and chaste women too, all innocent, but condemned.’ He heard someone coming. He knelt down beside Othello and took his face gently in his hands. ‘’Wake up, my lord!’ he said. ‘My lord, I say! Othello!’
It was Cassio.
‘Hello Cassio,’ he said and beckoned him.
Cassio bent over Othello’s inert body. ‘What’s the matter?’ he said.
‘My lord has had an epileptic attack. This is the second. He had one yesterday.’
‘Rub his temples,’ said Cassio and began to do that.
‘No, stop,’ said Iago. ‘The fit must take its natural course. If not he foams at the mouth and eventually breaks out in savage madness. Look, he’s stirring. Just leave us for a while. He’ll recover in a moment. When he’s gone there’s an important matter I want to talk to you about.’
Cassio went out quickly.
Othello groaned and opened his eyes.
‘How are you General?’ said Iago. ‘Have you hurt your head?’
Othello sat up and glared at Iago. ‘Are you mocking me?’
‘I mock you? No, by heaven! I wish you would take this like a man!’
‘A horned man’s a monster and an animal.’
‘In that case there are lots of animals in big cities and many monsters of rank.’
‘Did he confess it?’ said Othello.
‘Good sir, be a man. Think of it like this, that all men are in the same situation. There are millions now alive who sleep every night with unfaithful women who they take to be faithful. You’re better off. Oh, it’s the spite of hell to have a woman in what one took to be a secure marriage bed and take for granted that she’s chaste. No, I would rather know, and knowing the situation I can decide what action to take.’
Othello got up shakily. ‘Oh you’re wise, that’s certain.’
‘Go and stand behind that pillar,’ said Iago. ‘Hide away and wait patiently. While you were unconscious, overwhelmed with your grief – a passion so unsuited to such a man as you – Cassio was here. I got rid of him and made an excuse for your condition, and told him to come back later and talk to me, which he promised to do. Just go and hide and watch the sneers, the mockery and awful scorns that live in every part of his face. Because I’m going to make him tell me the story again: where, how often, how long ago and when he did, and will again, have your wife.’
Othello opened his mouth to cry out but Iago put his hand up. ‘Listen to me. Just watch his gestures.’ Othello opened his mouth again and Iago stopped him again. ‘For heaven’s sake, have patience! Or I will think you’re all spleen and nothing of a man.’
Othello raised his hand in a fist. ‘Do you hear, Iago? I will control myself and I will be patient, but – do you hear? – most bloody.’
‘Nothing wrong with that,’ said Iago. But all in due course. Will you go and hide?’
Othello went and stood behind the pillar. Cassio would arrive in a minute. Iago knew exactly how he was going to do it. He would question Cassio about Bianca, a housewife who sold herself to buy food and clothes. She doted on Cassio. Iago grinned. It was the fate of prostitutes to beguile many men and be in love with just one. As soon as he mentioned her name Cassio wouldn’t be able to stop himself from laughing about her. And here he was. When Othello saw him laughing he would go mad. His naïve jealousy would completely misconstrue Cassio’s smiles, gestures and frivolous behaviour.
‘How are you, Lieutenant?’
‘The worse for you calling me by the title the lack of which is killing me,’ said Cassio.
Speaking very quietly Iago said: ‘Keep going with Desdemona and you’ll be sure of it. Now if this suit lay in Bianca’s power you’d have it very quickly.’
Cassio’s sad face brightened and he laughed. ‘Poor wretch,’ he said.
Othello, watching from behind the pillar, saw the sudden laughter.
‘I never knew a woman who loved a man so much,’ said Iago.
‘Alas, poor rogue!’ exclaimed Cassio. ‘I think she loves me.’
Othello was astounded by his dismissive gesture and the renewed laughter.
‘Do you know what, Cassio?’ said Iago. ‘She’s telling everyone that you’re going to marry her. Is that what you intend?’
Cassio threw his head back and laughed loudly. It came across to Othello as triumphant.
‘I marry her!’ Cassio laughed even louder. What! A customer! Please! Give my intelligence more credit; don’t think it’s so low.’ More laughter.
Othello vowed that the winner would be the one to laugh.
‘Honestly,’ said Iago, ‘the gossip has it that you’re going to marry her.’
‘It’s true, or I’m a villain.’
‘The monkey has spread the rumours herself. She flatters herself. She does it out of self love, not because of any promise I made her.’
Iago unobtrusively drew Cassio closer to the pillar behind which Othello was hiding so that he could hear the rest of the conversation.
‘She was here just now,’ said Cassio. ‘She haunts me wherever I go. The other day I was at the beach, talking to some Venetians, and the toy comes along and, by this hand, starts hugging and kissing me.’
Othello tried to digest that.
‘And holds on to me and sighs and cries and pulls at me,’ said Cassio, still laughing.
Othello filled in the rest – her dragging him to their bedroom. He was going to feed Cassio’s nose to the dogs.
‘Well, I’ll have to get rid of her,’ said Cassio.
There was shouting and scuffling and the door burst open and Bianca came running in, followed by a guard.
Iago waved the guard away as she ran towards them.
‘What do you think you’re doing, stalking me like this?’ said Cassio.
‘Let the devil and his mother stalk you,’ she shouted. ‘What did you mean by giving me that handkerchief? I was a real fool to take it. A likely story that you found it in your bedroom and not know who left it there. This is a gift from some hussy, and I must take the embroidery out. Here!’ She threw the handkerchief at him. ‘Give it to your mistress, whoever gave it to you. I’m not taking the embroidery out.’
Cassio caught her in his arms. ‘Come on, my sweet Bianca. He held her close to him. ‘Come on, come on now.’
Othello recognised the handkerchief but stayed where he was.
Bianca responded to Cassio’s kiss then struggled free. ‘If you’d like to come to supper tonight you may,’ she said. ‘If not, come when you like.’
‘After her, after her,’ said Iago.
‘Yes, I must,’ said Cassio. ‘Or she’ll shout it out in the streets.’
‘Will you go to her for supper?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘Well I may bump into you. I need to talk to you.’
‘Please come.’ Cassio paused at the door. ‘Will you?’
‘Go on. Say no more.’
Othello came out from behind the pillar. He clenched his fists. ‘How shall I murder him, Iago?’
‘Did you see how he laughed at his vice?’ said Iago.
‘And did you see the handkerchief?’
‘Was that mine?’
‘Yours, by this hand! And to see how he values the foolish woman, your wife: she gave it to him and he has given it to his whore.’
‘I want him killed slowly.’ Othello sank down at his desk and put his head on it. ‘A fine woman, a beautiful woman, a sweet woman,’ he moaned.
Iago put his hand on the General’s shoulder. ‘No, you must forget that,’
Othello looked up at him. His eyes were wet. ‘Yes, let her rot and die and be damned tonight because she’ll not live beyond that. No, my heart has turned to stone.’ He beat his chest. ‘I strike it and it hurts my hand.’ He put his head on the desk again. ‘Oh, there’s not a sweeter creature in the world. She could lie at the side of an emperor and tell him what to do.’
‘No,’ said Iago. ‘That’s not your way.’
‘Hang her!’ Othello rallied for a moment then sank down again. ‘I’m only saying what she is. So delicate with her needle, such an admirable musician. Oh, she could sing the savageness out of a bear. Such high intelligence, so creative.’
‘She’s the worse for all that,’ said Iago.
‘Oh, a thousand thousand times! But then, so gentle.’
‘Yes, too gentle.’
‘No, that’s certain!’ Othello shook his head. ‘But yet, the pity of it, Iago. Oh, Iago, the pity of it, Iago!’
‘If you’re going to be so foolish about her crime just go ahead and give her permission because if it’s not your business it’s no-one else’s.’
‘I will chop her into pieces of meat!’ said Othello. ‘Cuckold me!’
‘Oh it’s so foul of her,’ said Iago.
‘With my officer!’
‘That’s even fouler.’
‘Get me some poison tonight, Iago. I won’t delay in case her body and beauty make me change my mind. Tonight, Iago.’
‘Don’t do it with poison. Strangle her in bed – the very bed she’s contaminated.’
Othello gripped Iago’s sleeves. ‘Good. Good! The justice of it is appropriate. Very good!’
‘And as for Cassio, let me deal with him. You will hear more by midnight.’
There was a loud fanfare from the castle’s trumpeters.
‘What’s that?’ said Othello
‘Something from Venice, I’ll bet,’ said Iago. He went to the door. There were people coming along the corridor. He turned back to Othello: ‘It’s Lodovico, come from the Duke, and see, your wife is with him.’
‘God save you, worthy General!’ exclaimed Lodovico and shook Othello’s hand vigorously.
Othello tried a smile. ‘With all my heart, Sir.’
Lodovico handed him a letter. ‘The Duke and senators of Venice greet you.’
Othello opened the letter and started reading it. The others chatted as they waited for him.
‘And what’s the news, good cousin Lodovico?’ said Desdemona.
‘I’m very glad to see you, signor,’ said Iago. ‘Welcome to Cyprus.’
‘Thank you,’ said Lodovico. ‘How is Lieutenant Cassio?’
‘Lives, Sir,’ said Iago.
‘Cousin,’ said Desdemona. ‘He and my lord have sadly fallen out. But you’ll make that all well.’
‘Are you sure of that?’ said Othello suddenly.
‘My Lord?’ said Desdemona.
Othello ignored her. His lips moved as he read. ‘ ‘This you must not fail to do, if you…’ he muttered.
Lodovico laughed. ‘He wasn’t talking to you. He’s engrossed in the letter. Has there been a quarrel between my lord and Cassio?’
‘A most unfortunate one. I would do a lot to bring them together for the sake of the love I have for Cassio.’
‘Fire and brimstone!’ roared Othello.
Desdemona looked shocked. ‘My lord?’ she said.
He threw the letter down and came up to Desdemona. ‘Are you wise?’ he said.
Desdemona appealed to Emilia: ‘What? Is he angry?’
‘Perhaps the letter has upset him,’ said Lodovico. ‘I believe they’re recalling him, replacing him with Cassio.’
Desdemona smiled excitedly. ‘I’m so happy about that,’ she exclaimed.
Othello glared at her. ‘Really!’ he said.
‘I’m happy for you then,’ said Othello.
Desdemona caught the pain on his features and took his arm. ‘Why, sweet Othello,’ she said.
He shook her off roughly. ‘Devil!’ he shouted, lifted his hand and struck her hard in the face.
They all watched, shocked, as she looked up at his angry face with tears in her eyes. ‘I haven’t deserved this,’ she said.
Lodovico found his voice. My lord,’ he said. ‘Even if I were to swear that I saw this with my own eyes no-one in Venice would believe it. It’s too much. Apologise to her. She’s crying.’
Othello turned and gave him a hard look. ‘Oh devil, devil,’ he said. ‘If the whole earth were flooded with woman’s tears, each drop would be a crocodile tear.’ He turned his head toward Desdemona. ‘Out of my sight!’ he snapped.
‘I won’t offend you by staying,’ she said and began walking fast to the door.
Lodovico stared after her. ‘She’s an obedient lady,’ he said. ‘I beg of you, call her back.’
‘Mistress!’ said Othello.
She stopped and turned. ‘My lord?’
‘What do you want her for, Sir?’ said Othello.
‘Who I?’ said Lodovico.
‘Yes. You wanted me to make her turn. Sir, she can turn, and turn, and leave again, and turn again. And she can weep, Sir, weep. And she’s obedient, as you say, obedient – very obedient.’ His tone was bitter. He shook his finger at Desdemona. ‘You carry on with your tears.’ Then to Lodovico: ‘Concerning this, Sir,’ and then to Desdemona again: ‘Oh well counterfeited passion!’ To everyone: ‘I am commanded home,’ and to Desdemona, shouting: ‘Get away, I’ll send for you presently.’ To Lodovico: ‘Sir, I obey the mandate and will return to Venice.’ He saw Desdemona stop at the door and shouted after her: ‘Go, vanish!’
She almost ran. Othello tried to speak calmly but his breath was laboured. ‘Cassio will take my place. And, Sir, I invite you to supper with me tonight. You are welcome, Sir, to Cyprus.’ He turned abruptly and strode off. He lifted his head to the heavens and roared: ‘Goats and monkeys!’
Iago was silent as Lodovico paced for a moment then swung round to him.
‘Is this the noble Moor, whom our full senate call unmatchable? Is this the temperament that couldn’t be shaken by emotion? Whose solid virtue couldn’t be affected by anything? ‘
‘He is much changed,’ said Iago.
‘Is his mind stable? Has he gone mad?’
‘This is what he’s like. I wouldn’t dare to breathe my judgment about what he’s capable of. If he’s not what he should be I wish to heaven he were.’
‘What! To strike his wife!’
‘Yes, that was bad. But I wish I could feel that that violence would
prove the worst thing he could do.’
‘Is this what he’s usually like? Or did the letters stir his blood and create this fault in him?’
‘Sadly, it would be disloyal of me to speak of what I have seen and known. You watch him and he will reveal himself so that I won’t have to tell you. Just follow him and see how he behaves.’
Lodovico shook his head sadly. ‘I regret to say that I’m disappointed in him.’