Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Iago hides Roderigo in preparation for the ambush on Cassio. Iago privately admits that whoever kills the other, it’s all good, but best if they both are dead. Cassio comes by, and Roderigo attacks, but Cassio wounds Roderigo. Iago secretly, from behind, attacks and wounds Cassio in the leg. (De Vere received a leg wound in an attack by Knyvet and his men in the early 1580s.)
Othello hears the noise and thinks Cassio is a goner. He also probably thinks that Roderigo’s lament, “O, villain that I am!” (V.i.29), is actually Cassio admitting his guilt, and thus mutters, “It is even so” (V.i.29), as Goddard points out (Goddard, II 93). In the noise and confusion, Iago takes the opportunity to stab Roderigo, who dies saying, “O damn’d Iago! O inhuman dog!” (V.i.62). Iago then pretends concern for Cassio. When Bianca chances upon the scene, Iago takes advantage of the same kind of trick he’s been using all along; he tries to blame her and have the others read guilt into her behavior. Iago’s final line suggests he thrills at the gamble of all this: “This is the night / That either makes me, or foredoes me quite” (V.i.128-129).
Othello enters the bedroom and says, “Put out the light, and then put out the light” (V.ii.7), referring to the candle and Desdemona’s life (and maybe reason itself, unintentionally). He kisses her and seems in control again, albeit that of a priest at sacrifice. He notifies her what is coming and smothers her, presumably with a pillow.
Emilia is at the door with news of the doings outside: Roderigo is dead, but when Othello learns that Cassio is not, he remarks, “Not Cassio kill’d? Then murther’s out of tune” (V.ii.115). Emilia hears Desdemona moaning, but Desdemona protects Othello, jeopardizing her soul by lying — saying Othello did not kill her. Emilia and Othello argue, and when Othello insists Iago knew the sordid truth too, Emilia can only repeat, “My husband?” (V.ii.140, 146, etc.). Emilia gradually realizes the truth and calls Othello a “gull” and a “dolt” (V.ii.163). She confronts Iago when he arrives, and the business about the handkerchief comes out, making Emilia recognize that aspect of the plot. Iago calls her “Villainous whore!” (V.ii.229). Othello charges at Iago but is disarmed. Iago kills Emilia, who dies insisting Desdemona loved Othello.
The question of Desdemona’s murder has prompted lots of speculation. If she was strangled, why can she speak still and why is she called “pale” instead of purple? S. Weir Mitchell, the “nerve specialist” Charlotte Perkins Gilman skewered in The Yellow Wallpaper, asserted that Othello choked Desdemona insufficiently and then finished her off with a dirk. Goddard agrees that Othello did a poor job at strangulation and so he stabs her when he is saying “So, so” (V.ii.89). Or does Desdemona recover but die of a broken heart, or is it a “fracture of cricoid cartilage of the larynx [?] … Tracheotomy was the only thing that might have saved her…. Is not Shakespeare’s universality wonderful?” (qtd. in Sutherland 36).
And by the way, as Marilyn French points out, “if Desdemona had been inconstant, would she have deserved death? Does Othello have the right to kill her if she is guilty? He [Shakespeare] does not deal with these questions in Othello, because this play is about male attitudes towards women — and each other — and thus Desdemona must stand as a symbol of what men destroy” (French 219).
Somehow, Othello has another sword in the room and when Iago is captured and brought forth, Othello wounds him. “I bleed, sir, but not kill’d” (V.ii.288). Othello asks why he did all this, to which Iago replies, “Demand me nothing; what you know, you know: / From this time forth I never will speak word” (V.ii.303-304).
Thus Iago pleads the Shakespearean fifth and lapses into silence. Is he silent because no lies are possible now and that was his only mode of expression? Or is this the artistic impulse for perfect proper completion. He spoke of his plots as children, indicating a sort of creative energy pervertedly invested. His work here is done — so there’s nothing more to say that wouldn’t seem like a cheap coda. His was the perfect work of anti-art, so there’s no more voice, no more identity outside that role as anti-artist.
Cassio explains what he knows as Othello suffers his own awareness. “Othello, however, has one last thing to say. With an effort, he manages to pull himself together into almost the man he once was and speaks once more, a little in self-pity, much more in self-hate. He asks them all to tell the tale honestly” (Asimov 631). Othello’s first assertion — “I have done the state some service, and they know ‘t” — is grossly inappropriate to a murderer’s testimony and, so, awkwardly inserted and immediately dismissed. But, autobiographically, it fits the hypothetical hushed-up secret-service-funded 1000-pound-annuity scheme to have Oxford boost national pride through his pro-England, pro-Tudor edutainment.
I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then you must speak
Of one that lov’d not wisely but too well….
Othello ends his final speech:
… a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduc’d the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him — thus.
Othello pictures himself as a Turk, as one of his own enemies, which he did indeed become to himself. “‘Uncircumcised dog’ was a common derogatory phrase for Christians among Moslems, indicating that they were outside the pale of the true religion. Othello’s use of the reverse phrase in his last agony is like a return to his origins” (Asimov 632). However, he dies speaking of himself in the third person, perhaps signifying — but in a way controlling — his lost identity. He stabs himself, falls on the bed, and dies. Along with Iago, we “Look on the tragic loading of this bed” (V.ii.363).
Most critical attention, naturally, is paid to Othello’s 19-line speech here, a “famous and problematic outburst” (Bloom 474), alternately considered a regaining of the character’s “magnanimity and ease of command” (Wells 250) or a demonstration of “obtuse and brutal egoism” (F.R. Leavis, qtd. in Wells 258). As Stanley Wells puts it,
The basic question raised by the play’s closing episodes is whether Othello remains a beast or recovers his manly stature. Or, to put it in theological terms, whether he is destined for damnation or ‘saves himself’ by acknowledging his crime, repenting it, and punishing himself for it. (Wells 256)
Samuel Johnson called it, ambiguously, “this dreadful scene; it is not to be endured” (qtd. in Garber 615). Neutral or somewhat forgiving critics emphasize Othello’s “self-exculpation,” declaring it a speech “of self-condemnation, and it culminates in self-execution” (Wells 257). Despite his crimes, “He dies in the act of describing a noble public gesture, the killing of a public enemy” (Garber 615). Other critics have been harsher. T.S. Eliot claimed in 1927 that he had “never read a more terrible exposure of human weakness — of universal human weakness — than the last great speech of Othello” (qtd. in Wells 257). F.R. Leavis influenced Laurence Olivier’s 1964 performance, after which Dover Wilson protested the depiction of “an Othello in which he ‘could discover no dignity … at all, while the end was to me, not terrible, but horrible beyond words'” (qtd. in Wells 258). Harold Bloom, although he bemoans “a bad modern tradition of criticism” from T.S. Eliot to F.R. Leavis and New Historicism that “has divested the hero of his splendor, in effect doing Iago’s work” (Bloom 433), nevertheless recognizes that Othello “seems incapable of seeing himself except in grandiose terms” (Bloom 445). Worse, in declaring himself “one that loved not wisely but too well” and “one not easily jealous,” Othello is guilty of “absurd blindness” and “outrageous self-deception” (Bloom 474). Othello’s final words have, as Goddard notes, a “preternatural calm” (Goddard, II 105), but is there “pathos in the eloquence” or “bombast” (Wells 256)? “His appeal is finally to the civilizing power of language” (Garber 615). Othello’s use of language is so beautiful that G. Wilson Knight called it “the Othello music” (Garber 596).
Stratfordians and Oxfordians agree that despite the horrified spectators surrounding him, Othello, like Hamlet, directs his final speech to us (Garber 614, Ogburn and Ogburn 520). Read so, and as an autobiographical utterance from Lord Oxford, some of the dissonances resolve.
A Venetian witness to the suicide notes in despair, but oddly, “All that’s spoke is marr’d.” Everything Othello said is corrupted? How so? The statement has a sweeping quality that renders it more sensible if taken in a much wider context. The severity of this tragedy has made all language itself corrupt somehow. All reports are erroneous. Truth and authenticity are nearly inaccessible. What you will hear is not going to be the truth, Oxford suggests.
Cassio laments and eulogizes, less abstractly but also oddly, “This did I fear, but thought he had no weapon; / For he was great of heart.” I find it difficult to piece together all three components of this sentence to make any stable sense. Perhaps all that’s spoke is marred already. At any rate, some may not have thought so, but Oxford did have a “weapon” with which to exercise some control over the final story. Some may think that disconnecting the artist’s name from the title page does the job permanently, but Oxford buried enough materials so that with some serious textual excavating, a restoration can be accomplished.
Lodovico then addresses Iago: “O Spartan dog, / More fell than anguish, hunger, or the sea! / Look on the tragic loading of this bed; / This is thy work.” Asimov envisions an Iago probably smiling at the tragic loading of the bed (633). He glosses “Spartan dog” as a bloodthirsty hound trained to hunt and kill (633). But “Spartan” has another association that has gone unnoticed. The ancient Spartans were famous for their laconic nature — that is, of being of few words. When in the play recently Iago was asked the key question of “why,” his answer was, “Demand me nothing; what you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word” (V.ii.303-304), an enigmatic and Spartan final utterance from this villain.
Lodovico continues: “To you, Lord Governor, / Remains the censure of this hellish villain, / The time, the place, the torture, O, enforce it!” It is doubtful that torture will matter much. Iago has already been stabbed! You cannot faze this guy. Nearly inhuman himself, he seems immune to the forms of human suffering. “That Iago himself is trapped and is to be destroyed by torture must seem quite irrelevant to him. The victory is his” (Asimov 633).
With Lodovico left, here are the final lines from Othello: “Myself will straight aboard, and to the state / This heavy act with heavy heart relate” (V.ii.370-371). Thus Othello, like numerous other plays in the canon, ends with a promise of recounting, retelling the events we the audience have just witnessed. These endings certify the experiences as narratives and look forward to their re-presentation. Further, in the Shakespeare tragedies, “retelling becomes the tragic hero’s only path to redemption” (Garber 615).
Consider how focused Othello has been all along on narratives, or stories. Othello claims to have entertained Desdemona and her father, and to have won the love of the former, with dramatic autobiographical stories of his adventures. Iago’s success was in “constructing a narrative into which he inscribes … those around him” (Greenblatt 234). And in terms of his self-fashioning, “not only does Iago mask himself in society as the honest ancient, but in private he tries out a bewildering succession of brief narratives that critics have attempted, with notorious results, to translate into motives” (Greenblatt 236). The infamous handkerchief has at least one story attached to it, so even stage props in this play can be caught up in the rampant narrativizing. In this respect, the tragedy of Othello is that Othello allowed himself to submit to, essentialize, and participate in the generation of a narrative involving infidelity and uncontrolled jealousy. Once activated by Iago, the narrative did its work all too well. “Even with the exposure of Iago’s treachery, then, there is for Othello no escape — rather a still deeper submission to narrative, a reaffirmation of the self as story, but now split suicidally between the defender of the faith and the circumcised enemy who must be destroyed” (Greenblatt 252). Othello, ultimately, is a tragic testament to the powerful hold a story can have over a human soul.
* * * * *
“Tarry a little, there is something else,” as was once said in Shakespeare’s Venice. Right after Othello’s final speech and his stabbing of himself, Lodovico had remarked, “A bloody period” (V.ii.357). Even if we take the word “period” as temporal — referring to a time period — there is an unmistakable finality to the utterance: “so ends a real rough patch for Cyprus.” But Lodovico probably means “period,” more appropriately, as “end-point.” (Think of the Weelkes madrigal examined by Altschuler and Jansen: “Thule, the Period of Cosmography” = “Iceland, the End-Point of the World.”) In other words, “A bloody ending to a once noble general.” More significance has been recognized, though, by über-Stratfordian Greenblatt — not, of course, in his faux biography Will in the World, but in his much more intelligent Renaissance Self-Fashioning. He calls Lodovico’s remark “bizarrely punning” and says that it “insists precisely upon the fact that it was a speech, that this life fashioned as a text is ended as a text” (Greenblatt 252). Othello has ended his life as he led it: playing out his role in a fashioned narrative that bestows on him his identity.
Death is the terminal punctuation mark to a life. A period is the terminal punctuation mark to a life lived as a narrative. But perhaps suicide is the act of wresting back basic control of the end of that narrative. Shakespeare, we know, was tormented by the tyrannically obliterating narrative control that posterity would have (unless the Sonnets expressing this were indeed mere pen exercises). Oxford, we suspect, had good reason to agonize about losing control of that narrative. And we, we happy few, we band of sisters and brothers, are commissioned to restore that narrative — to pin the right story on the right man. “He shall have a noble memory. Assist.”
The play demonstrates that “sometimes the heuristic reading may be the true reading, while the hermeneutic reading may offer only illusory significance” (Sutherland 82). Humans depend on the stability in the reactions of those around them for their own sense of identity (Wells 253). In the construction of the identities of selves and others, much depends on the attitude of the minds of others. Desdemona is a temptress to Iago, a lady to Cassio.
Shakespeare begins at a certain point to explore evil in weird ways. Far beyond Richard III, but more like Aaron in Titus Andronicus, Don John in Much Ado About Nothing and Iago seem to have no real motivation that isn’t trumped up as an excuse after the hatred is underway. Iago has no redeeming qualities, and apparently no remorse. The Ashland Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Iago in 1999 was led offstage screaming “No!” — a terrible directorial choice. Iago announces his silence and remains so — he will never explain and always remain an enigma, and he inhumanly registers no real physical pain — witness his eerie reaction to Othello wounding him. There is nothing you can do to this guy.
Today Iago would be in advertising. Is it possible to explain him? Students in a prior class made suggestions and these were my responses:
- Is it self-interest? In what? What does he derive satisfaction from and why?
- Is it revenge? It’s a fairly contrived and twisted insistence on injustice if this is his retribution — and why all the other deaths vs. just Othello and Cassio if this were a focused vengeance?
- Is he insane (as the giggling Bob Hoskins portrays in the 1981 BBC production)? But what kind of mental/emotional disorder is this? What specific pathology?
- Yes, he’s like a spoiled brat but not one in a candy store since he doesn’t have interest in candy. Ah, but in controlling abstractly, yes!
- Evil? Like “insane” doesn’t quite explain specifically — there are lots of “evil” presumably. But yes, some people are just evil — no explanation, no unfortunate childhood traumas, just plain evil.
Wells sees him as “a surrogate playwright, controlling the plot, making it up as he goes along with improvisatory genius” (249) and retreating into silence at the end. Coleridge called Iago’s excuses “the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity” — he seems to bring up so many spurious motives that they cancel each other out. Bloom says Iago has no inner self — it’s just an abyss. Iago does seem like perverse intellectual exercise with no sense of morality, as pure intellect cut off from humanity, where cold “revenge” becomes a combination of intellect and hate, as Goddard feels (Goddard, II 76): “intellect and hate–the most annihilating of all alliances” (Goddard, II 78).
Goddard makes an eloquent case for the modern relevance of Iago:
The ideological warfare that precedes and precipitates the physical conflict … ; the propaganda that prepares and unifies public opinion; the conscription, in a dozen spheres, of the nation’s brains; the organization of what is revealingly known as the intelligence service; but most of all the practical absorption of science into the military effort: these things, apart from the knowledge and skill required for the actual fighting, permit us to define modern war, once it is begun, as an unreserved dedication of the human intellect to death and destruction.
But that is exactly what Iago is–an unreserved dedication of intellect to death and destruction. To the extent that this is true, Iago is an incarnation of the spirit of modern war. (Goddard, II 78)
But the last words should concern the playwright. “For such an autobiographical artist as the earl of Oxford, extreme agony and disturbance in life ultimately provided profound inspiration” (Anderson 118). Or, more eloquently,
Literature’s debt to Oxford’s remorse is incalculable, but none would have accrued had Oxford not had the capacity to stand apart from his emotions and observe them with detachment, plotting their dramatization and contriving the verbal alchemy with which he would capture, reshape, and refine reality, milling human lives, most notably his own, to artistic ends with no more compunction than Iago in manipulating his victims to his inscrutable purposes. (Ogburn 571)