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Giuseppe Verdi


What Fires the Intensity of Otello?

After proof (Otello has his supreme laws),
love and jealousy together shall be resolved!

Thus, the stage is set for Act Three in which one thing has to happen. This is of course the visible proof of the sin for Otello. How will Iago orchestrate this? What will be involved? We know it will involve the handkerchief, but that is all. At this point, several things could still occur to derail Iago's plot. Emilia could mention something to Desdemona about the handkerchief and Iago forcefully taking it from her. Imagine the anguish she must be suffering. She is close to Desdemona, in fact, probably more so than to her own husband Iago, and yet she remains quiet. Is Iago's power over her that potent? The power of matrimony has nothing to do with it. She absolutely fears the evil of Iago because only she knows the true depths of his infamy. Otello could still sway back the other way. When one is unbalanced in situations such as this, unforeseen factors can sway one's feelings back and forth like the tides of the Oceans. To have serious doubts is enough, yet to be unsure makes them even worse. Once Otello has his undeniable proof, the fireworks will begin.

"After proof (Otello has his supreme laws),
love and jealousy together shall be resolved!"

What if Desdemona puts the disjointed facts together and realizes the true feelings of Otello. Will she be in time? It has often been argued that the transformation from devoted husband to jealous husband occurs to quickly. Some fault Boito and others Verdi. The truth is, the transformation begins in Act Two, but extends well into the Third Act. Iago has skillfully led Otello along the path to jealousy, but has yet to fully immerse him.

Act Three begins in the great hall of the castle. Otello has had the time to compose himself and accept the reality of the situation. But, even if he has accepted that reality, he is still looking to avoid the inevitable end. Iago has also had time and made the most of it. The curtain opens and Iago and Otello are conversing. A Herald enters to report that the Ambassador's ship has been sighted. The Herald leaves and Otello tells Iago to continue. Iago has been saying that he will bring Cassio in and lead him into gossiping. He will hide Otello for him to observe Cassio's manner, jokes, words and gestures. Iago sees Desdemona coming and makes to leave. He remains for a moment, however, and turns to remind Otello, "The handkerchief…" Otello abruptly interrupts him, "GO! How could I forget it?"

Otello sees Desdemona and remembers his love for her and her supposed love for him. They embrace for a few moments, each clinging to the other. Desdemona offers a warm and beautiful greeting while Otello takes her hand and examines it. Desdemona says that it has not felt the ravages of age or sorrow yet. Otello agrees but adds, "Yet there is a demon hiding there." Desdemona ignores the remark and replies, "But it was this hand that gave you my heart." Otello's mood is calm and composed. Desdemona unwittingly destroys this as she again brings the subject of Cassio's pardon up for discussion. Otello says that his head hurts again and asks her to bind it. She offers him a handkerchief, but he refuses asking for the one he first gave to her. She replies that she has not got it with her.

Otello's mood turns dark and threatening as he tells her to be on guard if she has lost it. "Take care! To lose it or give it away is terrible misfortune." One has to wonder at the symbolism of the handkerchief. Is this Otello's way of questioning her fidelity? Otello orders Desdemona to fetch the handkerchief at once. She starts to leave but stops and says, "I do believe you are using it as a matter of putting off the discussion of Cassio's pardon." Otello demands the handkerchief three times. Desdemona speaks of Cassio twice during this angering Otello even further. The third time he asks, his voice is a terrible anguished cry. Desdemona comments on this, raising her own voice to match his.

Otello seizes Desdemona by the chin and forces her to look him in the eyes. He demands, "Tell me what you are!" Desdemona responds, "Otello's faithful wife." Otello tells her to "swear it and damn yourself." She calls upon him to believe her and he tells her he believes her false. "Run to your damnation crying you are chaste." She responds once again that she is chaste and he tells her once more to, "Swear it and damn yourself!" Desdemona responds:

"Terrified, I face your terrible look;
a fury speaks in you; I feel it, but understand it not.
Look at me…my face and my soul I reveal to you. Search
my broken heart. I pray heaven for you with my weeping;
for you I sprinkle the ground with these scalding drops.
See the first tears that suffering draws from me."
(Frank 1991, 48.)

Otello looks at her and comments, "If your demon were to see you now, he would think you an angel and leave you alone." Desdemona tells him that heaven sees her honesty and Otello counters, "No! Hell sees it." Desdemona calls for justice as he tries to send her away as he groans in agony. She questions this wondering if she is the cause of his grief. Remember, she knows he thinks her to be having an affair, but does not realize the depths nor cause of his suspicion. She also does not know her alleged partner. She asks of him, "What is my fault?" Otello replies, "Do you need to ask? The blackest of crimes is upon your head. What? Are you not a vile courtesan?" She stands her ground and tells him, "No! I was baptized as a Christian. I am not the thing that horrid word expresses."

Otello's rage seemingly vanishes as his mood turns to one of terrible ironic calm. He takes her by the hand and leads her to the door. The music has returned to her first greeting. Otello takes her hand in a gesture of seeking her forgiveness. "Let me make amends. I thought you (and forgive me if I am wrong) were the cunning whore who married Otello!" He sends her from the room. So, twice Otello has referred to her as a courtesan. (1) To find why Otello is labeling her thus for one alleged affair, we must go back to Shakespeare. In Act Three of the play, Othello is beginning to contemplate her unfaithfulness. Iago tells him:

"I know our country disposition well:
In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience
Is not to leave't undone, but kept unknown.
(Othello, III, iii, 201-4.)

In other words, Iago is telling Othello that it is the norm in his society for women to commit adultery. Morality does not forbid adultery, but it does forbid being found out. Othello trusts Iago and he has seen enough of Venice to see its prejudices and other vices. The one thing that eludes him is the fact that she consented to, and even defended her decision to marry him in front of her father, Senators and the Duke. This was not easy. If blacks were shunned, think of those in interracial marriages. Her father even mentioned this:

"Would ever have, t'incur a general mock."

In the fourth act of Shakespeare, the equivalent of where we are in the opera, Othello insults Desdemona as a courtesan. He even accuses Emilia as being Desdemona's keeper and procurer of engagements. He then pays her for her "pains." The fact that Otello and Desdemona have just been married must be considered. If Otello had had the time to grow more secure in the marriage and his trust of Desdemona, he surely would have dismissed Iago's "vague fears". He should have developed a deeper sense of security and trust in her virtue. Hopefully better communication skills and problem-solving abilities would have been added to his marital palate of skills. Alas, he has not had that time.

Otello's mood changes to one of utter dejection. The interview has done nothing to assuage his suspicions. Why would one whom is guilty and confronted with the "sin" not deny the charges? This is exactly the reaction he was looking for. Left alone, he asks of God, "Why have you afflicted me in this manner?" His speech is broken and quiet:

"God! Thou mightest have tried me with
afflictions of poverty, of shame;
made of my brave triumphal trophies
a heap of rubble, and a lie…
And I would have bourne the cruel cross
of suffering and of disgrace
with unruffled brow and have
been resigned to the will of heaven."
(Frank 1991, 50.)

Here, his speech pattern becomes more legato (2) as he builds to another emotional climax:

"But, O grief, O anguish! Torn from me is the mirage
wherein I blithely lull my soul.
Quenched is that sun, that smile, those rays
by which I live, that give me joy!
Clemency, sacred immortal genius
of the roseate laughter,
now you must cover your holy face
with the horrible mask of hell!"
(Frank 1991, 50.)

Otello's rage has reached a climax as Cassio is sighted by Iago, who is headed in their direction:

Otello: "She shall confess her sin and then die! Confession!
Iago: "Cassio is there!"
Otello: "There? Heaven! Joy!"
(Frank 1991, 50-1.)

His mood has gone from rage to joy and to horror at the emotions he has experienced. Iago tells Otello to calm himself and to hide. Otello conceals himself behind a pillar as Iago runs to meet Cassio, who enters hesitantly. Iago greets him and tells him his pardon is in good hands. Cassio mentions he had hoped to find Desdemona there. Otello observes, "Cassio has spoken of her." Iago leads Cassio closer to the hidden Otello and asks him to tell of his latest love. Otello is only able to hear fragments of the conversation. Cassio asks of whom Iago was speaking and he responds Bianca. Mistress Bianca is a character we do not meet in the Opera. She is Cassio's lover and a courtesan in the bordellos of Cyprus. Cassio smiles at the mention of Bianca's name. It is the embarrassed laugh of one who has a secret passion revealed. Cassio goes on to laugh with Iago. Otello thinks they are laughing at him, "The villain gloats, his scoffing is killing me. God, restrain the fury that is in my heart!" Cassio says he is tired of quick kisses, protests and short-lived romances. Iago tells him he desires something more permanent which draws a laugh from both. Otello remarks again that they are mocking him and calls again on God to restrain his fury.

Cassio begins to relate finding the handkerchief in his lodging. Iago leads him farther from Otello and bids him to speak quietly. Otello thinks Cassio is telling Iago, where, how and when. He mentions the handkerchief as Iago motions Otello closer. Iago asks if Cassio has it with him. Cassio says yes and takes it from his uniform. He makes sure he has Otello's attention and subtly waves it for him to see. Otello declares it is his, "All is over! Love and Pain! Nothing can touch my soul any longer." Iago warns Cassio to beware, for he is becoming entangled in a spider's web. Cassio marvels at the craftsmanship of the cloth and it's beauty. Otello observes that he now has his proof. We have now come full circle. Iago has planted the seed of suspicion in Otello's mind, goaded him into taking it seriously and provided the proof as well as germination of that seed. With this proof, the last shreds of hope for Desdemona's innocence have disappeared as well as his last shreds of love.

"After proof (Otello has his supreme laws)
love and jealousy together shall be resolved!"

Trumpets sound from outside the castle and the great cannons of the castle are fired announcing the ambassador's arrival. Iago tells Cassio he had better leave lest he run into Otello. Cassio bids a farewell and leaves quickly as Otello emerges from hiding. He asks, "How shall I kill her?" Iago ignores him, and, as if to reinforce Otello's anger, asks if he saw the laughter of Cassio and the handkerchief. Otello replies that he saw everything and adds, "She is condemned." He asks Iago to get him a poison, but he refuses. The Cypriots and Trumpets are heard in the background praising Otello - "Long Live the Lion of St. Mark!" Iago offers, "It would be better to strangle her in the bed she desecrated. As for Cassio, let Iago provide." Otello approves of the plan and promotes Iago to Captain. Iago reminds Otello of the Ambassadors, "They must be welcomed. To avoid suspicions, Desdemona must be in attendance." Otello agrees and Iago leaves to get her.

The scene fills with dignitaries and Cypriots. All praise their hero and his victory. The man who stood up to the Turks and Nature. Instead of the hero, they are treated to a glimpse of rage at its ugliest. Otello insults Desdemona repeatedly. He calls her a Demon and tells her to be silent. The crowd stands by helplessly, not sure of what is occurring. Lodovico tries to restrain Otello, but he pays him no heed. Otello has announced that he has been recalled to Venice - probably to be rewarded for his victory. Cassio has been appointed by the Doge as Otello's successor. This angers both Otello and Iago immensely. Lodovico points out Desdemona's heart break when Otello seizes her and throws her to the ground exclaiming: "On your knees and weep!"

The crowd is horror-stricken and we are reminded of another Verdian lover venting his rage on his loved one, Alfredo in La Traviata. Unlike Alfredo is, however, Otello's anger is not replaced with remorse. Even though Violetta also dies, the show of Otello's violence leads us to believe that something worse is in store for Desdemona. Otello shows no remorse for his actions. Quite the contrary. He wanders through the crowd as various people shy away from him. Iago approaches him and angers Otello further. He builds Otello's resolve until Otello could not turn back if he wanted. Iago vows to dispose of Cassio and tells Otello that idle chatter is worth nothing. "Now is the time for action!" Iago then goes to Roderigo and convinces him that Cassio must be killed so Otello and Desdemona will have to remain on Cyprus. They both vow to see their work to its completion.

The music has been building in volume until Otello turns on the crowd and orders them to leave - "He who does not leave is my enemy." Iago tells everyone that Otello has been taken ill and deprived of his senses. Lodovico tries to lead Desdemona away, but she resists. She calls after Otello who turns on her and shouts, "My soul, I curse you!!" The crowd flees from Otello as he works himself into a terrible rage. His thoughts come furiously. "I cannot flee from myself! Blood! 'I like not that.' To see them embracing! The Handkerchief!" He faints to the floor as Iago enters from the shadows and stands over the fallen Otello. The Cypriots are heard praising Otello as Iago gloats over his victory. Iago stands over Otello and asks, "Who could stop me from killing the Lion now?" The Cypriots once again praise Otello. Iago listens and puts his foot on Otello proclaiming, "Behold the Lion!" He waves the handkerchief over Otello and throws it contemptuously onto him. The Cypriots are heard once again praising Otello as Iago walks to the back of the stage laughing victoriously. The curtain falls swiftly.

Iago has seen his plan to its full fruition. He has destroyed the marriage of Otello and Desdemona and more importantly, extracted the vengance he coveted. The wheels are now in motion and cannot be stopped. At this point, one has to wonder about Desdemona. She has been beaten emotionally and mentally and still does not question the circumstances of the situation. The public humiliation she has suffered has left her mentally unbalanced. She has no idea which direction to turn, who to confide in or even what to do next. Many thoughts have crossed her mind. "Perhaps this is my reward for defying my father." "This is my punishment for going against the laws of nature and marrying "The Moor." Or perhaps she senses some higher purpose in her death. The redemption of Otello?

Why has not Emilia said something about the handkerchief? The whole opera until now has taken place in private scenes. The outbursts and curse in the Third Act is the first indication the Cypriots and delegation have had that something is not right. Why does not someone stop and question the events? Just the evening before, Otello and Desdemona were in love, in fact they had just been married. Now, the events are completely turned around.

To: Ecco la fine del mio cammin … Otello fu.


  • 1. Courtesan - courtly whore or prostitute.
  • 2. Legato - Smooth succession of notes. (Picerno 1976, 208.)

Copyright © 1996, Stephen L. Parker.