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William Shakespeare


Act 4, Scene 1
lines 57 - 220
Othello strikes Desdemona!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 22 January 2014
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In order to get Othello convinced, Iago sets him up to eavesdrop on a conversation between himself and Cassio.

Iago and Cassio will, however, be speaking about the courtesan, Bianca, whereas Othello believes they are talking about Desdemona. When Desdemona appears, Othello strikes her in anger.


Etiquette -- i.e. how to behave when in company -- is a relatively new thing dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries, the time of the Renaissance.

In the medieval world -- that era which preceded the Renaissance -- etiquette virtually did not exist. People behaved instinctively, as children do. They belched if they felt like belching. They farted if they desired to relieve themselves.

There were no rules for how to treat a lady. Men sulked publicly if they felt offended, or would launch into fist fights at the drop of a hat. The stories of knights rescuing damsels in distress? It is far more likely that the knights would put an unprotected damsel into distress!

This all changed during the Renaissance -- or, for England, the Elizabethan Age -- when suddenly men became concerned about how they should be behaving when in public. To give them guidance, manuals began to drafted on what manners were good and what was to be avoided.

The manuals examined almost every facet of life: from eating to drinking, how to speak, how to walk and dress, how to behave in the presence of women. Men in high society now had something to guide them, rules which they could follow meticulously.

The rules were first formulated in Northern Italy, in Venice and Milan. From there, Renaissance etiquette slowly filtered across the length and breadth of Europe. It would take time, however, and sometimes even centuries for the upper classes to change.

Indeed, during the Elizabethan Age, the English were generally regarded as uncouth, while the English in turn viewed the Italians as fops.

Notice how Iago is highly critical of the way in which Cassio continually kisses his fingers when he speaks to Desdemona. Iago thinks it stupid, and his viewpoint probably echoed that of the average Englishman.

Etiquette would also take ages to filter down to the lower classes of society, with the working classes not being affected until the 19th century, perhaps even later. Indeed, even today, people of the lower socio- economic class battle with the elementary rules of behaviour at formal gatherings like weddings, where they still like to drown out anyone making a speech.

One finds this differentiation of manners very obvious in Othello. Desdemona and the Duke are perhaps the most sophisticated. Brabantio's behaviour, on the other hand, was at times questionable in that he allowed his instincts to lean towards revenge. Cassio knew the rules but possibly applied them slavishly, while at times overdoing it.

Iago? Well, he was very much a law unto himself, although he appeared to know how to behave in the presence of a lady. Note, for example, how he treated Desdemona with the utmost respect but, on the other hand, treated his own wife in the most uncouth way. And Iago was a person who took revenge to an extreme.

Emilia is almost typical of the lower cast, so much so that she is often referred to almost as if she were a prostitute. At the same time, however, she was able to recognise poor behaviour in others, and especially noted the intense jealousy which Othello exhibited.

Othello himself found it a problem to balance his own behaviour. When he was in Venice and everyone about him was behaving to the book, he followed suit. When in Cyprus, on the other hand, and there were few people to guide him, his etiquette slipped badly.

Notice his outbursts of jealousy even when there was little to provoke it -- typical of pre-Renaissance behaviour. Observe his crassness when addressing his innocent wife about her apparently missing handkerchief. And, of course, his unprovoked striking of Desdemona in full view of the gathered dignitaries.

In many ways, therefore, the play is all about Othello's descent from the status of a dignified man who portrays all the expected etiquette of Venice. By the end of the play, however, he is behaving like an uncouth medieval barbarian.

With the various levels of etiquette -- or lack thereof -- all around them, the sophisticated Elizabethan audiences would have noticed immediately Othello's slide into pre-Renaissance depravity.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"Good sir, be a man;
Think every bearded fellow that's but yoked
May draw with you"
  • Comment on the way in which Iago plays with the word "yoked". (6)

[Need help?]

"Stand you awhile apart;
Confine yourself but in a patient list."
  • What is Iago planning to do? (4)

[Need help?]

"Now will I question Cassio of Bianca,
A housewife that by selling her desires
Buys herself bread and clothes: it is a creature
That dotes on Cassio; as 'tis the strumpet's plague
To beguile many and be beguiled by one:
He, when he hears of her, cannot refrain
From the excess of laughter."
  • What does Iago mean when he describes Bianca as "a housewife . . . selling her desires"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What does Iago mean when he says that it is "the strumpet's plague to beguile many and be beguiled by one"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Is it true that Cassio, when hearing that Bianca wants to marry him, will laugh himself silly? What does this tell us of Cassio's character? (4)

[Need help?]

"As he shall smile, Othello shall go mad."
  • Why would Othello "go mad" if Cassio smiles? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What in fact does happen when Othello overhears the conversation? (4)

[Need help?]

"What did you
mean by that same handkerchief you gave me even now?
I was a fine fool to take it."
  • What does Othello believe when he sees that Bianca is holding his precious handkerchief, the one he had given Desdemona as a courtship present? (2)

[Need help?]

"Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even
the bed she hath contaminated."
  • Why does Iago suggest that Othello strangle Desdemona personally rather than poison her? (2)

[Need help?]

OTHELLO: [Striking her] "Devil!"
DESDEMONA: "I have not deserved this."
  • What would Lodovico think when he witnesses Othello striking his wife? (4)

[Need help?]

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