AC Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy) points out that Othello has an unusual structure for a Shakespeare tragedy. The main conflict doesn’t arise until the third act, and then the pressure and movement is relentless from that point to the end. In the other tragedies, the crisis emerges earlier, Act 4 is more relaxed, before the crescendo at the end.
One effect of this unusual structure is to throw the subplot of Iago and Roderigo into prominence in the first two acts. The fact that Iago doesn’t really start working on Othello until Act 3 forces the Roderigo subplot to the forefront.
This is only one of several indications of a bipartite structure, in the play, a caesura between acts 2 and 3.
There is the famous issue of “double time.” This is partly a matter of pacing. The first two acts move with the speed of normal time, but in Acts 3-5, things suddenly shift into hyperdrive. In the course of one lengthy scene, Othello moves from defending Desdemona to becoming mad with jealousy.
There is, further, a temporal gap between the action of the first two acts and the action of the last three. The play opens on Othello’s wedding night, which is interrupted by civic business and Brabantio’s challenge. Othello leaves for Cyprus. We’re not told how long it takes to get there, but the first night when Othello and Desdemona are together on Cyprus is again a wedding night. Still in the middle of Act 3, Othello and Desdemona have not consummated their marriage: “the profit’s yet to come ‘tween me and you” (2.3.6ff).
Act 3 moves us immediately to a completely different time frame. Though there is no explicit indication in the text that time has passed—it seems to be the next morning—the details make it clear that a long time has passed. By Act 3, Iago has spoken to Emilia of Desdemona’s handkerchief “a hundred times” (3.3.289-90). It’s hyperbole, but still indicates something more than one evening has passed. Othello says he doesn’t care whether all the regiment has had Desdemona, so long as he doesn’t have to know it (3.3.342-4), something he could not say shortly after his wedding. Desdemona says that one cannot expect a man to show the same attention as befits the wedding night (3.4.144ff), an ironic complaint given the interruptus of their original wedding night. Bianca charges Cassio with staying away from her for “seven days and nights” (3.4.168-170). Desdemona asks for the wedding sheets on the bed the night of her murder, an odd request if it’s only the day after her wedding night (4.2.105-6).
Recognizing that considerable time has passed resolves some difficulties. Desdemona takes up Cassio’s cause immediately in Act 3: if this is the day after the wedding night, it is a highly imprudent move, but if some time later, less so. It is odd that Othello would suspect Desdemona of being unfaithful to him the day after the wedding: When would Cassio have had a chance? (Unless perhaps he’s suspecting that Cassio was wooing Des when he was supposed to be wooing for Othello.)
A number of studies of the play have traced the movement of imagery from one character to another, and that gives us an insight into how the structure of the play serves its themes.
Iago is a tempter. He lies to Othello until Othello is persuaded he is telling the truth. As Othello comes to see things as Iago wants him to see them, he slowly begins to take on Iago’s voice. He adopts the imagery and language of the tempter. Throughout the play, Iago’s imagery is bestial, often crudely so. He arouses Brabantio by telling him that “an old black ram” is with his “white ewe” and calls Desdemona a “guinea-hen,” slang for prostitute.
Othello’s imagery, on the other hand, is often lofty, poetic, even exotic. Full of classical allusions, he speaks in a contrived and roundabout manner. As Iago gets a hold on his mind, he descends rhetorically to the animal imagery of Iago. A jealous man is a goat (3.3.180), but later he exclaims “goats and monkeys” to express his exasperation and jealousy (4.1.264). He’d rather be a toad in a dungeon than be cuckolded (3.3.270), and he calls Desdemonais a producer of toads (4.2.60). He swells himself with rage, “for ‘tis of aspics’ tongues” (3.3.451). Iago has gained control of his imagination by taking control of his imagery. Like Iago, Othello believes that he lives among beasts.
Iago is already full of poison at the beginning, and his hate and jealousy spread. Suspicion and covetousness become all-encompassing passions for Othello, until what he loves is dead.
Iago hates the Moor, but his main attack is to persuade him that he’s been cuckolded. It hardly seems a supreme form of revenge. In another setting, it wouldn’t be tragic, but would only make Othello look ridiculous. It could be comic villainy. Iago even arranges a “gulling scene” in which Othello overhears a conversation between himself and Cassio and encourages Othello to misinterpret it. The handkerchief token plays with comic conventions, as does the stock character of the old father whose daughter has deceived him. Brabantio could be Baptista, the Father of Katarina in Taming of the Shrew.
Iago is twins the villainous Don John from Much Ado About Nothing. Under pretense of loyalty and love, Don John makes Claudio believe that Hero has been unfaithful to him. Claudio is angry, and rejects Hero: even thinks he’s killed her. Don John’s plot is undone by Dogberry, who unwittingly uncovers the truth (everything Dogberry does is unwitting). Iago uses Don John’s play book, except that his “Claudio” really does kill his “Hero.”
This suggests a couple of possible directions for interpreting the play. Iago is often seen as the supreme Shakespearean villain, full of cold, calculating, motiveless malignancy (Coleridge). But the echoes of comedy suggest that he may be more a devilish prankster. This fits with what appears to be his completely amoral vision of life and his chameleon like ability to change color from one scene to another. He’s not a brooding villain, but a happy one, the kind of villain who delights in the ruin he causes. One critic has called him a “moral pyromaniac”: He starts fires because he likes to see things burn.
As Moor, Othello is not part of the “supersubtle” Venetian society. Iago’s diabolical genius is to spot Othello’s discomfort and to seize on Cassio as Othello’s nemesis. Cassio is everything that Othello is not: White, suave, refined, an aristocrat, a man of society.
Othello is a man of war, a mercenary, who knows only the obvious kind of battle. Iago is also a soldier, but he knows how to fight the supersubtle battles of Venetian society with lies, intrigue, role-playing, misdirection. Iago is always at war, but he’s fighting a kind of battle that Othello is ill equipped to engage. If Iago would take off his mask and fight like a man, Othello would know what to do. Then, his sword would not rust. Manipulated by Iago, he is filled with Iago’s hate, and when that happens he doesn’t know anything to do but to strike out but murderous force.