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In William Shakespeare's Othello, Act 3, Scene 3, Desdemona assures Cassio that Othello's anger at him is only dictated by wise policy and that Othello will restore him to his position in the future. But Cassio is still nervous and says,

That policy may either last so long,
Or feed upon such nice and waterish diet,
Or breed itself so out of circumstances,
That I being absent and my place supplied,
My general will forget my love and service. (3.3.14-18)

I'm not sure what Cassio means by the above-mentioned clauses in bold. According to Shakespeare-navigators.com, "feed . . . diet" means "require so little to keep it alive". But it's still ambiguous to me. What do "require" and "it" refer to here?

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  • Hi, please add a link (Etymonline for instance) to your “deadly” question or will be closed for lack of reasearch.
    – user 66974
    Apr 13 at 6:55

1 Answer 1

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The policy (of Othello choosing to be distant from Cassio) may not come to an end, and Cassio's place may not be restored, for three cited reasons:

  1. It may "last so long": after a long time, Cassio will not be in Othello's mind.
  2. It may "feed upon such nice and waterish diet": due to their lack of continuing contact, Cassio will not have the opportunity to show Othello his love. "Nice" means something like "meagre" or "thin". The relationship is compared to a watered-down soup, lacking flavour and nourishment.
  3. It may "breed itself so out of circumstances": further developments may yet push them apart, as opposed to leading to their reconciliation. Events as yet unknown might deepen the rift.

For the two problematic phrases, note that Othello is full of references to both food and breeding (the latter both in the sense of "good breeding" and of mating). Iago uses many of these, as in 2.1 where he talks about the need to "to give satiety a fresh appetite", and how Othello will cause Desdemona "to heave the gorge" - that is, he says she needs novel sexual experiences and that conversely the old Othello will make her vomit. Likewise, in 1.3, he says that Desdemona will prove bitter food for her husband. Othello talks of tasting her sweet body, while cursing women's uncontrollable "appetite". Emilia famously has that men are "all but stomachs, and we all but food", but also talks about women's "palate" for different men. Cassio's words here are another example of the continuing imagery throughout the play.

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