This passage is primarily a monologue of Othello’s realisation that he cannot forgive Desdemona for being unfaithful, however much it hurts him. The destruction of Othello’s mind, due to Iago’s manipulation, is clearly evident in this passage as well because we see the unreasonable motives, driven by persuasion, behind everything he says and how he reacts to everything Desdemona says.
Othello’s monologue begins with a repeat of the ironic declaration that Iago is ‘honest’, ‘This fellow’s of exceeding honesty And knows all quantities, with a learned spirit, Of human dealings’, this irony is also enhanced by suggesting that Iago knows a lot about human behaviour because this is true but in a different way. Iago is clever with the way he manipulates the people around him in order to fill his plan without having to be directly involved with it himself. Othello, however, is suggesting that Iago can interpret what the behaviour of the people around him well and, in that way, advise Othello to do the right thing with Desdemona.
His modesty comes to show once again when he’s contemplating why Desdemona might have been inclined to cheat on him, ‘…I am black And have not those soft parts of conversation That chamberers have, or for I am declined Into the vale of years’, suggesting that he is black and old and therefore undesirable and that he cannot speak well, which is a repeat from Act 1, Scene 3, when he belittles his ability to use words intelligently. This could also be a reference to the fact that Cassio can speak well and so this heightens the jealousy Othello feels towards him.
Othello’s love for Desdemona is then affirmed for the audience when he shows the difficulty this situation brings him, ‘O curse of marriage That we can call these delicate creatures ours and not their appetites’, which means that he finds it hard to not have total control over his wife, he can call her his, but cannot control her desires and wants. This proves to us that Desdemona is not as naïve and dependent as she has previously come across, as Othello is clearly struggling to come to terms with the fact that she has a certain level of independence which is a contrast to the general status of women we know of most of Shakespeare’s plays.
Shakespeare then uses an interesting metaphor to portray Othello’s frustration, ‘I had rather be a toad And live upon the vapour of a dungeon Than keep a corner in the thing I love For others’ uses.’, which is saying that Othello would rather be a toad locked in a mouldy basement than only have part of the one he loves, and share the rest with others. This also demonstrates the pain he is caused by the idea of Desdemona being in bed with someone else, particularly Cassio. The use of the toad in this metaphor is an anticipation for his later monologue in Act 4 Scene 2 in which he compares Desdemona to a ‘cistern for foul toads To know and gender in’.
Desdemona’s innocence is proven to us when she inquires, concerned about why Othello is feeling ill, ‘Let me but bind it hard, within this hour It will be well’, but Othello, however, does not take notice of any evidence that might be proving in her favour as his opinions have been blinkered by Iago’s powerful persuasion techniques, and he rejects her sympathy, ‘Your napkin is too little, [She drops her handkerchief] Let it alone. Come, I’ll go in with you’.
The stage directions in this quote are arguably some of the most important in this play. Whether the drop of the handkerchief is before or after Othello says ‘Let it alone’ varies in different versions of the play but the very act of the handkerchief could be a strong ironic symbolism of everything falling to pieces soon in the plot. The handkerchief was given to Desdemona by Othello on their marriage and was an important item in his family which is why the whereabouts of the napkin and whose hands it ends up in, determines and finalises Othello’s judgement of Desdemona’s guilt. In the Arden Shakespeare copy, we cannot be sure as to whether Othello’s following comment is referring to abandoning the handkerchief and leaving it on the floor, or whether he refers to his headache. We assume he means the latter when the handkerchief goes missing and ends up in Cassio’s possession but no-one knows how it got there. This chain of events, curious to every character except Iago, confirms Othello’s mistrust and his plan to kill Cassio and Desdemona.