Othello, Act 5


Act 5 is filled with action and business, and as it progresses, every element of Iago’s plot is finally unraveled. Iago says he can’t lose in the matter of the Roderigo/Cassio confrontation, and the best thing would be for them to kill each other. But it’s useful for the unraveling that Cassio is only wounded so he can bear witness to his lack of guilt in having the handkerchief. Iago wounds Cassio, but later he gives Roderigo the coup de grace. In fact this whole scene is a bit confusing, and in the middle Bianca turns up. Roderigo is killed, but he must make his own way off stage, as there’s no indication of his being taken off.

5.2 is the killing of Desdemona. But does his realization of the finality of what he’s about to do bring Othello to something like his earlier state of mind? The language, the poetry, is such that we wonder if he can really bring himself to murder. When she wakes, his concern with her spiritual state, and her speaking back, may make us wonder momentarily whether he can really kill her. Do we momentarily imagine her eloquent protestations can actually turn him back? Maybe not. But maybe that hangs as a possibility, especially since he’s worried about her spiritual state and wants her to confess and to clear her spiritual state. But of course he does go against all of her protestations of innocence and kills. I wonder what stage business accompanies his “So, so,” which seems to signal his final killing. Since Emilia is calling, there is some need to hasten the killing. Some have wondered how she could have revived and spoken if she has been smothered to death. Does the “So, so” represent the thrust of a dagger, which might make her calling out more plausible? Or is there some other possibility? In any case the crucial thing is her forgiveness in response to Emilia’s question “who hath done /This deed?”: “No one, I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind lord — O, farewell.” Othello rather horribly first takes it as exoneration, then just as horribly seems to reject the forgiveness in calling it a lie. Then Emilia must take in the fact that Othello reports that it was her husband who made the accusation and caused the murder. Iago must have been hiding his true nature from her. She ignores Othello’s sword in calling out the murder. Is Othello unable to kill her too? Is the truth of the matter just beginning to penetrate? Or do Montano and Gratiano rush in just in time to save her? Emilia becomes the essential truth-teller in all that follows. Othello’s “O! O! O!” denotes a sustained howl as the stage direction says he falls on the bed. But he still maintains his motive for the killing — but only until Emilia speaks the truth about the handkerchief. The stage direction in the quarto text states that Othello runs at Iago and Iago kills Emilia. Othello now knows the full truth, it seems. That line of Othello’s – “Are there no stones in heaven,/ But what serves for thunder?” – seems oddly metatheatrical, since stones in some sort of basin served to make the sound of thunder on the stage. But it doesn’t seem to function self-reflexively here. Instead we have Emilia still alive enough to convict Othello and sing a line of the willow song. Othello retrieves a sword, but doesn’t use it. Since Iago has fled, Montano and Gratiano have to go after him. Othello’s speech, “Behold I have a weapon,” suggests that in the disclosure of truth, some sense of his mind and his soldierly identity have returned. And consequently he uses the sword against Iago, but right after he suggests that if Iago is the devil, he cannot be killed. And Iago is not killed. He must be then a version of the devil? Othello calls him a demi-devil, who has ensnared him body and soul, and this seems to be the judgment of the play; Iago says he will not speak again. Othello’s self-characterization that he was an honorable murderer and killed not in hate but in honor is of course entirely inadequate, just like his later claim that he loved “not wisely, but too well.” The final detail to be sorted in Othello’s mind is how Cassio came by the handkerchief.

Othello’s final speech seems to restore the “Othello music,” and perhaps returns some measure of what he was. The great crux of the speech is whether he compares himself to the “base Indian” or the “base Judean,” both of which are textually possible. To me the “base Judean” makes better thematic sense, comparing himself to Judas, the only Judean disciple of Jesus, and the rejection of the “pearl of great price.” But the Arden text I read used “Indian.” Othello’s suicide seems the only possible conclusion of the play, recognizing as he does the enormity of what he’s done.

What can we say of Othello in relation to the other great tragedies? Is it the most emotionally powerful? We may tend to favor Lear (as I do) or Hamlet, but it’s hard to deny the concentration and just gut-wrenching sadness and horror of Othello.


You make a good point about the breakdown of Othello’s language — and the restoration of it in the final scene. But it is odd, isn’t it, that he recovers his poetry at the beginning of that scene, well before he kills Desdemona? I think the “Othello music” resumes with “It is the cause . . .”

Othello seems to have two weapons with him, a sword and a dagger. He tries to kill Iago with the first and kills himself with the second. I incline to think he “stifled” her and took her “breath.” If he had stabbed Desdemona, would not there need to be some stage business with the bloody dagger? Would there not be some comment about the blood on it when he pulls it out again? Or would Othello not say something about killing himself with the same weapon that he used on Desdemona?

When Desdemona dies does she “forgive” Othello, or lie in order to try to save him?

I had not focused on the Judaean/Indian, but am persuaded by the Arden editor that Indian is the more likely reading. Who could be worse than Judas, so if that’s what Othello means is it likely that he would top Judas with the “malignant and turban’d Turk”? And doesn’t “tribe” fit better with Indian than Judean?

The self-silencing of Iago is remarkable. In another play, some way would have been found to kill him. But he lives, and will presumably be tried in a court of justice. (Probably not for his most damnable crime, the destruction of Othello, but, according to the two letters that show up, for conspiring against Roderigo and Cassio.) Iago’s power had been in his language, his ability to use it to manipulate and entrap people. At the end of the play he is not dumbfounded, unable to speak, unable to defend himself and wriggle out of yet another corner. Instead, he refuses to speak, and so in some way still retains a kind of power. As he says, he is wounded but not killed. And I think that even torture will not open his lips. But his silence also means that it’s Othello’s speech that dominates the end of the scene.

Yes, I agree that the play is gut-wrenching. There are deaths of the protagonist at the end of the other tragedies, and there are suicides (Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Antony), and a play in which both lovers die (Romeo and Juliet), but no play (I think) in which a husband kills a wife — whom he still loves. It’s emotionally powerful because of the TWO deaths — either one would have been devastating, and we wait more than 200 lines after Desdemona dies before Othello kills himself. And there is almost no sense, despite what Othello says about Desdemona’s soul, that flights of angels will wing them to their rest.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell