Act III, scene i: Before the castle.
The third act begins with a bit of comic relief; a clown is mincing words with a few musicians, then has a little wordplay with Cassio, who bids the clown to go and see if Desdemona will speak with him. Iago enters, and Cassio tells him that he means to speak to Desdemona, so that she may clear things up with Othello. Emilia comes out, and bids Cassio to come in and speak with Desdemona about his tarnished reputation.
Othello is unlike other Shakespearean dramas in that there is a scarcity of comic relief, which only appears briefly at the beginning of this short scene. Even Hamlet had Polonius and the gravedigger to lighten up certain scenes, but in Othello, there is no relief from the tragedy that unfolds. Also, there are no subplots running through Othello, as in most Shakespearean plays. Both of these differences make Othello one of Shakespeare's most focused, intense tragedies.
The minor comic relief that is present is reminiscent of Feste's wit in Twelfth Night. As in Twelfth Night, a man entreats a servant to fetch someone hither; but since the servant is a clown, there is a bit of frustration and word-play before anything is done. The fool-figure receives money, then goes to do his bidding; this is a common set-up for comic relief. However, the clown in Othello does not reappear; he has less personality than Feste, if only because he gets just a brief appearance.
Cassio seems to be one of the only "honest" people in the play; he discloses his plans, his thoughts, and his concerns to Iago, omitting little or nothing. It is therefore ironic that he refers to Iago as "honest", since Iago is the complete opposite of everything Cassio is. By this point,"honest" has become tainted by its over-association with Iago; it has no simple meaning and is a watchword for shady dealings.
Act III, scene ii: A room in the castle.
Othello gives Iago some letters that need to be delivered back to Venice, which Iago is in turn supposed to give to a ship's pilot who is sailing back to Venice.
Act III, scene iii: The garden of the castle.
Desdemona decides that she wants to advocate for Cassio. She tells Emilia so, and that she believes Cassio is a good person, and has been wronged in this case; she pledges to do everything she can to persuade her husband to reinstate Cassio. Cassio speaks with her briefly, but leaves just as Othello enters because he does not wish for a confrontation. Iago seizes on this opportunity to play on Othello's insecurities, and make Cassio's exit seem guilty and incriminating. Othello then speaks to Desdemona, and Desdemona expresses her concern for Cassio; she is persistent in his suit, which Othello is not too pleased about. Othello says he will humor her, and the subject is dropped for a while.
Iago then plays on Othello's insecurities about Desdemona, and gets Othello to believe, through insinuation, that there is something going on between Desdemona and Cassio. Othello seizes on this, and Iago works at building up his suspicions. Soon, Othello begins to doubt his wife, as Iago lets his insinuations gain the force of an accusation against her. Othello begins to voice his insecurities when it comes to Desdemona, and himself as well. Desdemona enters, and they have a brief conversation; Othello admits that he is troubled, though he will not state the cause.
Desdemona drops the handkerchief that Othello gave her on their honeymoon; Emilia takes it and gives it to Iago, who decides to use the handkerchief as the key prop in his bitter play. Othello re-enters, and tells Iago that he now doubts his wife; Othello demands "ocular proof" of Desdemona's dishonesty, so Iago makes up stories about Cassio talking in his sleep, and says that Cassio has the handkerchief that Othello gave to Desdemona. Iago knows how important this handkerchief is to Othello; it was his first gift to Desdemona, and was given to him by his mother. Othello is incensed to hear that Desdemona would give away something so valuable, and is persuaded by Iago's insinuations and claims to believe that Desdemona is guilty. Othello then swears to have Cassio dead, and to be revenged upon Desdemona for the non-existent affair.
"His bed shall seem a school, his board a shrift," Desdemona says of Othello; these paradoxes highlight Desdemona's determination to set things right. Ironically, it is this determination to "intermingle everything [Othello] does with Cassio's suit" that precipitates her death (III.iii.24-26). Had Desdemona not felt such a sense of justice or been good enough to advocate for a case in which she was not involved, she might have survived. Desdemona is undone by her own goodness, and her need to step into affairs on a public level, which upsets Othello.
In this scene, Iago begins his machinations to make it seem like Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. However, Iago refrains from saying very much; "I cannot think it that he would steal away so guilty-like" is the most incriminating thing he says about Cassio. He makes Othello start to think uneasy thoughts by saying, "I like not that" about Cassio's exit; Othello immediately seizes the bait, his jealousy playing off of Iago's calculated insinuations (III.iii.34-38).
Desdemona's choice of words to describe Cassio is unfortunate; she calls him a "suitor," not meaning it in a romantic sense, although Othello could certainly take it that way. Desdemona binds her reputation to Cassio's, to the detriment of them both; she says that if Cassio is wrong, "I have no judgment in an honest face". Of course Desdemona means well, but she gambles too much on another person's honor (III.iii.50).
Iago begins to echo Othello, which makes Othello even more uneasy. He asks questions that are fundamentally related to the issues at hand, such as whether Desdemona and Cassio have known each other for a while. In Othello's state, he believes Iago's empty statements to be a real attempt to hide the truth about what is going on, rather than lies crafted to stoke Othello's jealousy. "he echoes me, as if there was some monster in his thought, too hideous to be shown" (III.iii.106-107). Iago's words are the shadow of Othello's inner turmoil, and there is indeed a monster in his thoughts. This simile highlights the skill with which Iago operates. He does not need to plant emotions, he merely preys on the weaknesses that already exist in each man, allowing his victims to jump to their own worst conclusion.
Iago says that he believes Cassio is "honest"; yet again, this word sets Othello off, and Iago's fake uncertainty in his tone makes Othello think that Cassio lies. Iago then asks, "who has that breast so pure that some uncleanly apprehensions keep leets and law days" (III.iii.138-140). In the context in which it is spoken, Othello takes this to mean that Cassio is flawed, which is true; but notice how Iago says no names, and doesn't explicitly apply the statement to any one person. Othello takes the statement to mean that Iago is protecting Cassio's good name, but Iago says no more than his statements suggest; all the connections are done by Othello's grasping mind.
Jealousy, a major theme, is soon addressed specifically by Iago. "It is the green-eyed monster," Iago famously tells him; the "green-eyed monster" becomes a symbol representing Othello's dark feelings, a specter lurking in his mind and beginning to steer his behavior (III.iii.166). Iago's speech is also deeply ironic, since it points out Othello's flaws, and the root of his tragedy; Othello has no idea of the significance of these statements, and so neglects to take them to heart. Othello then begins to say that he believes his wife is virtuous, which means that Iago finally addresses her directly, and further misleads Othello.
Othello is deeply insecure about his personal qualities and his marriage, which weakens his sense of self. Othello comments on the color of his skin, turning it into a symbol for how poorly spoken and unattractive he is; he is plagued by self-doubt. Of course, his words are actually more complex and beautiful than those spoken by any other character in the play. Othello doubts that Desdemona could love him, because of his misconception of himself as being uncouth, poorly spoken, and old; because he begins to believe that Desdemona cannot love him, he starts to believe her guilty of infidelity. How Othello sees himself directly influences how he views Desdemona's love.
Othello's dialogue includes the pervasive black/white imagery to express his grief and rage at Desdemona's alleged treachery: "My name, that was as fresh as Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black as mine own face"(III.iii.386-388). Although the allegations against Desdemona are personally hurtful to him, Othello focuses more on the public ramifications, rather than the private. Iago's "proofs" also rely on the animal imagery which has run throughout the play; he makes Desdemona and Cassio seem like lustful lovers, describing them as "prime as goats, as hot as monkeys" (III.iii.403). This comparison is calculated, since Iago knows that thinking of Desdemona as lusting after another man disturbs Othello greatly.
The handkerchief, the most crucial symbol and object in the play, first appears here. The handkerchief, to Desdemona, symbolizes Othello's love, since it was his first gift to her. Othello thinks that the handkerchief, quite literally, is Desdemona's love; and when she has lost it, so has she forsaken his love. The handkerchief becomes Othello's "ocular proof" of her dishonesty (III.iii.360). "Proof" is a key word in this scene; Othello demands that Iago prove Desdemona unfaithful through tangible, visual evidence of her guilt. But Iago, ever clever and persuasive, manages to work around this completely; he plays off of Othello's jealousy, telling him stories that damn Cassio and mention the handkerchief, which make Othello angry and distract him from the fact that he has seen no evidence at all. Othello trusts Iago's words to convey proof, and is thwarted by Iago's dishonesty.
Iago subverts Othello's wish for "ocular proof" by making it seem painful and impossible to achieve; they would have to catch Desdemona and Cassio actually being unfaithful, which Othello cannot bear to imagine. So, instead, Iago offers up other proof; he tells Othello, "if imputation and strong circumstances which lead directly to the door of truth will give you satisfaction, you might have't" (III.iii.406-408). Naturally, Othello, already in doubt of his wife's honor, falls into this rhetorical trap; Iago is now free to condemn Desdemona through suspicion.
This act represents the beginning of Othello's giving up language; until this point in the play, Othello has spoken with beautiful images, convincing rhetoric, and used his language to express the eloquence and beauty in his soul. From this point forward, notice how Othello's use of imagery and story become less and less frequent, and how he begins to rely upon Iago for speech and explanation. Othello is reduced by Iago and his own jealousy to single lines of speech, monosyllabic utterances of "O!" and the like. And just as language is the power with which Othello was able to woo Desdemona, his loss of it is a resignation of this power which attracted her to him. Othello suspects his wife's language, and Cassio's as well; he is distracted from suspicion of Iago, even though it is Iago's language which has taken away Othello's ability to speak because of overwhelming grief and jealousy. Othello begins to lose his power over himself, and over others, when he loses his beautiful language; and this resignation marks a huge shift in the balance of power between Othello and Iago, as Iago becomes more dominant in the relationship, and begins to steer Othello.
Iago's assumption of Othello's power of language, and the beginning of his dominance, is illustrated by the story he tells of Cassio talking in his sleep. He describes in detail Cassio's actions, making them all too vivid for Othello to dismiss; indeed, they are so vivid that Othello forgets that they are merely words, and seizes them as true evidence against Desdemona. Othello's language, from this point on, is bent by anger; he has his last bit of eloquence in this act, and then in Act IV, cedes his powers and his language to Iago, as Iago drives the events toward their conclusion.
Act III, scene iv: Before the castle.
Desdemona asks the clown where Cassio is, and the clown goes off to fetch him. Desdemona is looking everywhere for the handkerchief, as she knows that her losing it will upset Othello greatly. Othello enters, and asks for Desdemona's handkerchief; she admits that she does not have it, and then Othello tells her of its significance and alleged magical powers. Desdemona does not like Othello's tone; he seems obsessed with this object, and Desdemona is so frightened by him that she wishes she had nothing to do with it. She interrupts Othello's inquiry by bringing up Cassio's attempt to get back into Othello's favor; Othello becomes angry, and storms out. Desdemona and Emilia both note that Othello is much changed; he is unkind and seems jealous, and they are suspicious of the change in him.
Cassio then enters, with Iago; he laments that his suit is not successful, and that Othello does not seem likely to take him back. Desdemona is sorry for this, since she knows that Cassio is a man of worth; she tells Cassio and Iago that Othello has been acting strangely, and is upset, and Iago goes to look for him, feigning concern. Emilia thinks that Othello's change has something to do with Desdemona, or Othello's jealous nature; they still cannot fathom what has happened, and exit, leaving Cassio.
Bianca comes in, and Cassio asks her to copy the handkerchief that he found in his room; it is Desdemona's handkerchief, though Cassio has no idea. He claims he does not love her, and gets angry with her for allegedly suspecting that the handkerchief is a gift of another woman. But, Bianca is not disturbed, and leaves with the handkerchief.
Othello's words in this scene often have a double meaning, unassuming on the surface, but also accusing Desdemona of unfaithfulness. When he is describing Desdemona's hand, he says it is "moist" and "hot"; this is an allusion to signs of a lustful nature. He says she is of a "liberal heart"; this could mean a generous heart, but could also be indicating Desdemona's supposed licentiousness (III.iv.36-38). "Here's a young and sweating devil here, who constantly rebels," Othello says. Yet, in the next breath, he says, "tis a good hand"; the juxtaposition of the two statements shows that Othello is trying hard not to betray his disappointment in Desdemona (III.iv.43). He is deeply disturbed, and seems to be questioning and examining her to prove that she really is the harlot he believes her to be; however, he is so bent upon proving her guilty, that he does not consider that these tests mean nothing, or perhaps even exonerate her.
Here, Othello elaborates upon the handkerchief's importance for Desdemona. She realizes finally how symbolic and important it is to Othello; she becomes upset, wishing that she had not been given such a meaningful thing. "There's magic in the web of it," Othello says; his language is full of mystical, dark images, like the dye coming from virgins' hearts, that are beautiful, but yet upsetting (III.iv.69). Othello actually believes in the magic of the object, to his and Desdemona's detriment. Although Othello claimed ignorance and disregard for magic when Brabantio accused him of witchcraft, here he takes the opposite position; the handkerchief, though it embodies no actual magic, has an almost supernatural hold over Othello. He believes fervently in the handkerchief, and seems to be enchanted by the token.
"Why do you speak so startlingly and rash?" Desdemona asks Othello (III.iv.79). His tone is accusatory, tinged with bitterness, at times very biting. Othello's behavior, and Desdemona's sudden distrust of it, foreshadows Othello's violent rage at the end of the play. Desdemona, especially, knows that something is gravely wrong, though she can do nothing to help Othello, and assuage his anger. "Some unhatched practice, made demonstrable here in Cyprus to him, hath puddled his clear spirit," Desdemona says (III.iv.140-142). She is very perceptive, and Emilia even more so, for she knows that though Desdemona has given Othello no cause to act toward her as he does; if he is jealous-natured, he needs little cause, and will not be convinced otherwise.
Cassio's behavior toward Bianca is in sharp contrast to the courtly politeness he shows Desdemona and Emilia. This is because of Bianca's station as a courtesan; such women were not accorded the same respect as ladies, although Bianca proves to be as perceptive as Emilia and Desdemona, and even more realistic about matters of love. The change in Cassio's tone and behavior around Bianca betray a cultural bias of the time toward women of certain stations; indeed, his behavior would not have been thought mean at the time, because of Bianca's lowly status.