The Temptation Scene in Othello

The third scene of the third act of Othello is famous as the 'temptation scene' in Othello, though Iago's temptation of Othello continues up to the first scene of the fourth act.Iago's provocation of Othello's jealousy and anger is referred to as 'temptation' in the sense that it is like the ‘temptation' of Eve by Satan in the form of a snake. Here, 'temptation' is understood in the Christian sense of 'attracting someone towards some evil or danger', rather than in its modern, neutral, non-Christian meaning of 'attracting someone towards something attractive'.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

In Othello Iago 'tempts' Othello towards the horrible dangers of doubting, hating and killing his most innocent wife. That is the Satan's path to ugliness, destruction, sin and misery. Iago is a devil and Othello is a fallible human being, like Eve or Adam, who was also indirectly seduced out of his heavenly and blissful life in Eden and into the world of misery, shame, guilt, disease and death. Thus, the word 'temptation' may be used in this context in the sense of Satan's tempting Eve to eat the forbidden apple, because Iago is comparable to Satan who destroyed the happiness of Adam and Eve and of all human beings. Normally, 'tempt' means to attract someone towards something pleasing or entertaining; but, even in that ordinary sense of 'attracting somebody towards something,' the word has a touch of negative feeling. The object of temptation is usually evil or dangerous. In the case of Othello, Iago tempts the hero towards the evils and dangers of jealousy and hatred, violence and murder. One of the most 'dramatic' scenes of the play, the ‘temptation' scene is a scene that occurs during the stage of "rising action" in the plot. This is when Cassio has lost his job and comes to meet Desdemona, and so Iago starts sowing the seeds of doubt and jealousy in the mind of Othello. As soon as Iago sees that Othello can be blinded by anger and misguided by utilizing his gullibility, he begins to 'tempt' him towards jealousy and revenge.

The 'temptation' scene is one of the major turning points in the development of the plot. Just after Cassio has lost his job and the favor of his master Othello, Iago tells him to go to Desdemona and plead for reinstatement; and indeed, Cassio starts visiting Desdemona with a blind and foolish hopefulness. One late evening, Iago takes Othello out to see the fort at the moment when he has called Cassio for meeting Desdemona. As planned, Iago brings Othello back into his room where Cassio is talking to his wife. Unfortunately, Cassio is so afraid to meet Othello that he slips out from the back door as soon as he sees Othello coming. In fact, Cassio is afraid of his respected senior and so he requests his wife to make the appeal for him and runs away, but Iago has manipulated the situation so as to make Othello take it otherwise. Othello has no particularly bad feelings towards Cassio, and absolutely no doubt about his wife's character. But when Iago murmurs and lets Othello hear a comment about Cassio, poor Othello's simple mind is pricked. Iago says: "Ha! I like not that," which means that he dislikes Cassio visiting someone's wife at that time of the night. When Othello hears this comment from Iago, he asks what he said, but Iago pretends to speak unconsciously. This gives Othello the impression that Iago knows something bad going on between Cassio and Desdemona, but he doesn't want to speak out. Iago begins this temptation when Cassio has just left Desdemona's room from the back door, which is already doubtful to Othello. Othello's mind is disturbed when Iago acts like knowing something very bad about Desdemona-Cassio relationship but unwilling to tell it. lago's pretension is so skillful. After a brief meeting between Othello and Desdemona, when silly Desdemona childishly insists that Cassio be invited for lunch very soon, Iago restarts the temptation. It is almost natural for Othello to doubt the visit of Cassio because of the insistence of Desdemona to call him hack, and to give him back his post of lieutenant.

After Iago understands that Othello is already disturbed by his initial efforts, he starts pouring more poison of doubt and jealousy into his mind. He asks whether Cassio and Desdemona were intimate before he married her; this is to arouse more doubt, but when asked why he's asking this question, he pretends to avoid giving the right answer by saying that it is only- "for a satisfaction of my thought; no further harm..." This makes Othello think that there is some hidden truth or information in the mind of Iago, and he thinks that Iago is not telling him for saving his good name. When Othello says that Cassio used to go between him and Desdemona when they were in love, Iago pretends to be surprised: "Indeed?" He echoes the speech of Othello as if he is nervous because of the hidden information that he knows. In this way, Iago slowly "suggests" that Cassio has an immoral relationship with his wife.

Finally, Othello starts pressurizing Iago to tell the truth that he knows. But, now confident that Othello has lost his patience and sanity, lago pretends to be lamenting for the poor fate of Othello. He suggests more and more clearly that Desdemona has an illicit relationship with his subordinate Cassio. But, the more Othello insists him to speak it out, the more Iago insists that he will not say what he knows. This makes it clear to Othello that Cassio and Desdemona are degraded. Now, when Othello has totally lost his mental and spiritual energies, Iago starts delivering lectures about morality, the value of happiness and the bad name of a cuckolded person (whose wife sleeps with another person). But then he also warns Othello not to be too angry and jealous, and to confirm what he has suggested by finding a proof himself. Othello, mad with anger, now believes everything that Iago says or suggests.

Iago also adds insults and mockery upon Othello indirectly so that Othello is more strongly blinded by the storms of passions. He says that being cuckolded is not a great problem because there are many men who tolerate it, and in Venice that is an ordinary phenomenon. He also adds that since Desdemona has deceived her father by eloping with him, she may deceive him too. Besides, he adds, Desdemona may be regretting for having married a black man, and that now she is satisfied and is looking for a white young man like Cassio. Meanwhile, this devil's agent is also convincing Othello that he has told him everything out of the goodwill of a true friend — and poor silly Othello believes all that! At the end of this ‘temptation', Iago goes out and then comes back again to tell him to carefully observe Cassio's and Desdemona's behaviors. Othello says: "This honest creature doubtless sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds (tells).”

Iago cunningly reminds that Desdemona behaved deceitfully when she married Othello, adding the painful reminder that Othello is an outsider, a black man who has married a white aristocrat and so it is likely that his wife has begun to like the white young man Cassio. From time to time, Iago also keeps telling Othello that he is speaking out only because of his great respect of Othello's 'free and noble nature' though he loves Cassio as his truest friend. This makes Othello that Iago is telling less than he knows, because he is Cassio's friend! Iago understands such weaknesses of Othello, and then pours more and more poison into his head.

By the end of this long scene, Iago changes the role of a loyal servant and boldly asserts that he is Othello's friend because of his strong sense of justice and the understanding of how a good and great man is wronged by a mere soldier Cassio. It is then that he "seems" to become angry and bold enough to tell the story of Cassio's murmuring in his dream about Desdemona. Gradually feeling the pulse of Othello, Iago reaches the peak of suggesting that he saw Desdemona lying naked in her bed with Cassio, adding that Cassio, not only lay with her but also on her, and so on. Othello jumps into hasty conclusions on the basis of hearsay remarks and dream mutterings (even if they were true); his simplicity and openness coupled with undue trust in Iago goes to show the gross lack of even the basics of common sense. The temptation of Iago is possible due to the extreme credulity/ gullibility and stupidity of the foolish general; and the temptation is the whole cause of the tragedy in the drama.