Act IV, scene i: Cyprus. Before the castle.
Othello is trying, even after swearing that Desdemona was unfaithful, not to condemn her too harshly. He is talking with Iago about the handkerchief still, and its significance in being found; but, soon, Iago whips Othello into an even greater fury through mere insinuation, and Othello takes the bait. Othello falls into a trance of rage, and Iago decides to hammer home his false ideas about his wife. Iago calls Cassio in, while Othello hides; Iago speaks to Cassio of Bianca, but Othello, in his disturbed state, believes that Cassio is talking of Desdemona, which is the last "proof" he needs before declaring his wife guilty. Bianca comes in, and gives the handkerchief back to Cassio, since she swears she will have nothing to do with it.
Othello is incensed by Cassio, still believing that he was speaking of Desdemona, rather than Bianca. Now, Othello is resolved to kill Desdemona himself, and charges Iago with murdering Cassio. Lodovico, a noble Venetian whom Desdemona knows, has recently landed; Desdemona and Othello welcome him there. But, when Desdemona mentions Cassio, Othello becomes very angry and slaps her in front of everyone; she rushes off, very upset. Lodovico especially is shocked at this change in Othello, and has no idea how such a noble man could act so cruelly.
Iago continues his insinuations when speaking to Othello; he provides more "proofs" that are anything but, though Othello has calmed, and seems more troubled and less angry. In the last act Othello was trying to act as Desdemona's defender, and Iago was the accuser; ironically, they seem to have switched places here, and Iago seems to be defending Desdemona, all while producing more "evidence" to condemn her. The handkerchief, however, is as important a symbol as ever; Othello says, "it comes o'er my memory as a raven doth over an infected house" (IV.i.20-21). The handkerchief is an omen of the destruction of their marriage.
Othello, again, is primed for suggestion; notice how Iago merely says "lie," and Othello takes that word to mean "lie with her," further condemning both Cassio and his wife. It is a paradox that Iago is supposed to be the persuader, though Othello seems, in instances such as this one, to be persuading himself, of things Iago has not even said. Note the contrast between Othello's language as he falls into a trance, and Othello's language in any previous part of the play, including Act III. He speaks in single, disconnected words "handkerchief - confession - handkerchief," (IV.i.37) or "Noses, ears, and lips," (IV.i.42) that belie his ability to speak coherently and elegantly, as Othello has before, especially in Act I with Brabantio. The lack of connection in his language parallels his descent into emotional and logical chaos; as he becomes more upset, without a true cause, he falls farther and farther from himself, and the order which typically rules him. Again, the theme of order vs. chaos comes into play.
Othello's trance also marks his descent into savagery; ironically, he becomes the passion-stirred, wicked beast that others had erroneously accused him of being because of his race. Iago notes that Othello "breaks out into savage madness" in this fit; indeed, the primal seems to be taking over the more civilized aspects of Othello (IV.i.55). Othello refers to himself as a "horned man," ashamed of this descent; yet it has settled upon him, and he will struggle in vain to regain his dignity (IV.i.62).
Iago continues to become the master of Othello's perception; Iago tells Othello to observe Cassio closely and "mark the fleers, the gibes, the notable scorns" that he shows toward Othello (IV.i.82). Othello, observing with this in mind, sees everything Cassio says as an affront to him and Desdemona, though Cassio's tone is not mocking, and he is speaking of another woman. Othello's imaginative powers now turn against him; whereas, before he used his imagination to conjure up potent stories and vivid language, here he uses it to imagine Desdemona's infidelity, and Cassio's treachery. But, unfortunately for Othello, Bianca coming by and giving Desdemona's handkerchief back to Cassio seems to confirm all of Othello's suspicions.
"O, the world hath not a sweeter creature," Othello declares of Desdemona; yet, against his reason and better nature, he decides that she shall not live for what she has supposedly done (IV.i.186). There is great irony in this scene, as Othello declares that Desdemona is of a soft and kind nature, yet condemns her for being lustful and immoral. Note Othello's reticent tone, even when he is condemning Desdemona to death; although chaos and jealousy have triumphed over reason, still there is a part of him that knows Desdemona is good, and does not want to condemn her.
When Othello strikes Desdemona, he illustrates the severity of his change. Just her mention of Cassio sends him into an unreasonable rage; every little thing he regards with suspicion, even if he has no cause. Although one of his greatest fears regarding Desdemona's alleged infidelity was that it would blacken his name and reputation, the irony is that Othello is doing that himself; in striking Desdemona out of unreasonable cruelty, he besmirches his own good name. His civility ebbs, as he continues to become the cruel, jealous, passion-spurred "savage" that Brabantio accused him of being. He is beginning to become a stereotype by his own doing, as he falls farther and farther from himself.
Act IV, scene ii: A room in the castle.
Othello questions Emilia about Desdemona's guilt, or the chance she has had an affair with Cassio. Emilia admits to having seen nothing, though Othello does not believe her. Emilia swears that she has seen and heard all that has gone on between Cassio and Desdemona, and that Desdemona is pure and true. Othello believes that Emilia is in on the deception; he accuses Desdemona, and her insistence that she is innocent only infuriates him further.
Othello leaves, and Desdemona and Emilia try to figure out what has happened to Othello, and what they can do; Desdemona feels especially helpless, and Emilia is very angry. Emilia thinks that someone has manipulated Othello into accusing Desdemona, and has poisoned his mind; however, Iago is there to dispel this opinion, so that Emilia does not inquire further into her theory. Upon leaving the women, Iago comes across Roderigo; he is not pleased with how Iago has handled things, and knows that although Iago is promising him Desdemona's favor, he has done nothing to indicate that he has worked to achieve this. Iago quiets him by making him believe that if he kills Cassio, then he will win Desdemona; Roderigo decides to go along with it, but Iago is coming dangerously close to being revealed.
Othello still swears, after speaking with Emilia, that Desdemona is "a subtle whore"; the irony is that Othello takes Desdemona's piety and goodness as proof of the corruption lying beneath the surface, when these traits are as straightforward as possible. His words still condemn Desdemona, and Emilia too; Emilia is a "bawd," and the mistress of the whorehouse of which Desdemona is a part (IV.ii.20-21). Othello believes that Desdemona's denial is a sign of her deep-seated betrayal; but it is really a function of her honesty, and she has committed no wrongs.
Othello then launches into a scathing condemnation of Desdemona; his tone is bitter and angry, although Desdemona cannot deduce what he is talking about. "I took you for that cunning whore of Venice that married Othello," Othello tells Desdemona (IV.ii.88-89). This statement shows Othello at his most unfair and vindictive, but it also shows his distrust of Venice, and its very subtle, highly mannered people. Venice is a place of hidden deceits and carefully crafted appearances, somewhere that Othello has never truly been comfortable; and now, Othello is taking his grievances as an outsider out on Desdemona. Othello is finally condemning his outsider status, even though it was a source of his pride and a defining theme of his rise to power.
Desdemona's order to Emilia to put her wedding sheets on her bed seems peculiar; but it is meant as a reminder to Othello of her purity, and of their union. Some critics argue that there is no time in the play for Desdemona and Othello to have consummated their marriage; if so, the wedding sheets are as white as Desdemona, both pure and untouched still, and the handkerchief is also thus a symbol of Desdemona's virginity - an object Othello cannot bear to see in any other man's possession.
Emilia, ever perceptive, knows that someone has behind Othello's sudden change; she believes that "some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office, have not devised this slander," which is, of course, the truth (IV.ii.133). It is ironic that Emilia thinks of this, and condemns the man who must be manipulating Othello, since the one who has devised this whole thing is her own husband. Iago, of course, is there to hush this suspicion, but still, Emilia and Desdemona know that something is awry, but do not know what to do about it.
Roderigo, at last, is the one to accuse Iago of treachery; he has discovered the truth, that Iago's "words and performances are no kin together" (IV.ii.184). Iago does his best to deny this, and convinces Roderigo to kill Cassio in order to win Desdemona; still, Roderigo's accusation means that either Iago will be revealed by Roderigo if Roderigo is not satisfied, or that Roderigo will have to die so that Iago's plans will go through. Since Othello is a tragedy, however, this confrontation foreshadows Roderigo's death by one of Iago's devices.
Act IV, scene iii: Another room In the castle.
Othello tells Desdemona to go to bed, and dismiss Emilia; Emilia regrets Desdemona's marriage, although Desdemona cannot say that she does not love Othello. Desdemona knows that she will die soon; she sings a song of sadness and resignation, and decides to give herself to her fate. Desdemona asks Emilia whether she would commit adultery to win her husband the world. Emilia, the more practical one, thinks that it is not too big a price for a small act; Desdemona is too good, and too devout, to say that she would do so.
Desdemona knows of her impending death, but she is too good and too devout to do anything about it. The "Willow Song" and her tale of her mother's maid also foreshadow Desdemona's death; yet her resignation is still strange. She is not trying to fight it; she seems like a totally different woman than the one who stood up to her father and the Venetian nobles in defense of Othello. Desdemona, although she is good, is suddenly depicted as being meek; this sudden shift in her character is strange, and the source is unknown.
Desdemona is almost too good to live; indeed, had she admitted some fault or sin to Othello, it would have shattered his view that she was merely pretending to be good, in order to hide her treachery. Her character is parallel to that of Hamlet's Ophelia; both are good, virtuous, obedient, but both are subjected to tragic fates in spite of - or because of - their innocence. Desdemona's fate is unfair and unearned, yet she is the martyr of the play, the tragic female heroine who ends up being sacrificed to satisfy the fates.
Emilia pronounces what seems like a theme of the play, up until this point; "let husbands know, their wives have sense like them they see, and smell, and have their palates both for sweet and sour, just as their husbands have" (IV.iii.96-99). Indeed, this is one of the reasons why Othello is so angry with Desdemona; the thought that she could have desire in her, just as he does, bewilders and angers him. That she could have opinions and ideas independent of his own, especially about Cassio and his rightful place, also upset him. Othello is good at heart, but he cannot reconcile himself with the idea that Desdemona might be as human and as independent as he is, although the sudden shift of characterization in this scene belies this somewhat.