“Then must you speak/Of one that loved not wisely but too well/Of one not easily jealous…”

Othello

Act Five, Part One

By Dennis Abrams

Screen shot 2011-02-09 at 10.49.10Act Five:  At Iago’s bidding, Roderigo attacks Cassio but only managed to wound him, and in the confusion that follows Iago stabs Roderigo to death. Othello, meanwhile, is about to kill the sleeping Desdemona when she wakes up, and despite her anguished denials, he smothers her in her own bed. Discovering them both, Emilia insists on her mistresses’ innocence, and when Othello mentions the fatal strawberry handkerchief, the full extent of Iago’s villainy is revealed. Iago has since arrived, but when Othello attacks him, he flees after killing Emilia. Returning under arrest, he refuses to give any reason for his actions. Othello finally realizes the truth and, after asking Cassio’s forgiveness, stabs himself.  He dies, clutching Desdemona’s body.

Even though we know how it’s going to end, there is still something infinitely moving about Othello’s torment.  Of course, he’s not its main victim – instructing Desdemona to prepare herself for bed, he is readying himself for her cold-blooded execution. Even so, the testimony of her sleeping body almost (I said almost) persuades him not to go through with it. “It is the cause, it is the cause,’ he murmurs, stepping silently into her bedroom,

Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars,

It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood,

Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow.

Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.

(5.2.1-6)

69227_mHe will not (and probably cannot or could not) “scar” her alabaster skin, but he will kill her before the scene has ended. This is probably the most chilling of Iago’s many purely malicious victories: as well as robbing Othello of his sanity, he turns him into a villain created by a racist’s worst fantasy – a black murderer entering into a white girl’s bedchamber.  Worse still, Othello seems all too aware of the fact, drawing attention to her “whiter” complexion rather than his “foul,” “filthy” murder. Emilia informs Othello what many seventeenth audiences would have suspected all along: “O, the more angel she, and you the blacker devil.”

And with that, the play is almost over…but not quite.  Though it is too late for either Desdemona or Othello, the truth does come out. Following Emilia’s furious testimony (like her namesake in The Winter’s Tale she is a fierce guardian of the truth), the real story emerges. “O thou dull Moor,” she yells, “that handkerchief thou speak’st of/I found by fortune and did give my husband…(5.2.232-3). Realizing that his lies are collapsing around him, Iago makes a last attempt to rewrite the conclusion and lunges brutally at Emilia, wounding her. Othello, meanwhile, begins his slow and tragic journey back to himself, to realization. He, too, is desperate to be understood. ‘When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,” he tells the assembled crowd, as it gathers around the corpses on the stage,

Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak

Of one that loved not wisely but too well,

Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,

Perplexed in the extreme, of one whose hand,

Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe…

(5.2.350-7)

But for Iago, the storytelling has come to an abrupt end.  “Demand me nothing,” he says sneeringly, “What you know you know.”  (5.2.309-10).  There will be no more answers.

—————————————–

From Harold Bloom:

“Desdemona dies so piteously that Shakespeare risks alienating us forever from Othello:

Desdemona:

O, banish me, my lord, but kill me not.

Othello:

Down, strumpet!

Desdemona:

Kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight!

Othello:

Nay – if you strive –

Desdemona:

But half an hour!

Othello:

       Being done, there is no pause –

Desdemona:

But while I say one prayer!

Othello:

It is too late.

othelloeRather operatically, Shakespeare gives Desdemona a dying breath that attempts to exonerate Othello, which would strain credulity if she were not, as Alvin Kernan put it, ‘Shakespeare’s word for love.’ We are made to believe that this was at once the most natural of young women, and also so loyal to her murderer that her exemplary last words sound almost ironic, given Othello’s degradation: ‘Commend me to my kind lord – O, farewell!’ It seems to much more for us to bear that Othello should refuse her final act of love: ‘She’s like a liar gone to burning hell:/Twas I that killed her.’ The influential modern assaults upon Othello by T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis take their plausibility (such as it is) from Shakespeare’s heaping up of Othello’s brutality, stupidity, and unmitigated guilt. But Shakespeare allows Othello a great if partial recovery, in an astonishing last speech:

Soft you, a word or two before you go.

I have done the state some service, and they know’t:

No more of that. 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 must you speak

Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;

Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,

Perplexed in the extreme, of one whose hand,

Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,

Albeit unused to the melting mood,

Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees

Their medicinable gum. Set you down this,

And say besides that in Aleppo once,

Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk

Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,

I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog

And smote him – thus! He stabs himself.

This famous and problematic outburst rarely provokes any critic to agree with any other, yet the Eliot-Leavis interpretation, which holds that Othello essentially is ‘cheering himself up,’ cannot be right. The Moor remains as divided a character as Shakespeare ever created; we need give no credence to the absurd blindness of ‘loved not wisely, but too well,’ or the outrageous self-deception of ‘one not easily jealous.’ Yet we are moved by the truth of ‘perplexed in the extreme,’ and by the invocation of Herod, ‘the base Judean’ who murdered his Maccabean wife, Mariamme, whom he loved. The association of Othello with Herod the Great is the more shocking for being Othello’s own adjustment upon himself, and is followed by the Moor’s tears, and by his fine image of weeping trees. Nor should a fair critic fail to be impressed by Othello’s verdict upon himself: that he has become an enemy of Venice, and as such must be slain. His suicide has nothing Roman in it: Othello passes sentence upon himself, and performs the execution. We need to ask what Venice would have done with Othello, had he allowed himself to survive. I venture that he seeks to forestall what might have been their politic decision: to preserve him until he might be of high use again. Cassio is no Othello, the state has no replacement for the Moor, and might well have used him again, doubtless under some control. All of the rifts in Othello that Iago sensed and exploited are present in this final speech, but so is a final vision of judgment, one in which Othello abandons his nostalgias for glorious war, and pitifully seeks to expiate what cannot be expiated – not, at least, by a farewell to arms.”

Bloom had me until we got to his “venture” of what Venice would have done with Othello?  Really?  Your thoughts?

———————————-

And from Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare For All:

othello03“The death scene itself is framed in legalisms. Othello has sought ‘proof’ (‘Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore’). When he comes to her bedside he speaks of ‘the cause,’ as if submitting his case to a heavenly – or infernal – judge:

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.

Let me not name it to you, you chase stars.

It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood,

Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,

And smooth as monumental alabaster.

Yet she must dies, else she’ll betray more men.

Put out the light, and then put out the light.

If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,

I can again thy former light restore

Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,

Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,

I know not where is that Promethean heat

That can thy light relume. When I have plucked the rose

I cannot give it vital growth again.

It needs must wither. I’ll smell thee on the tree.

In dramatic action as well as in language the play has been seeking light all this time, from the moment in the first scene when Brabantio called for light, and in scene after scene, shrouded in darkness, when the call went up for ‘lights, lights.’  Here Othello compares Desdemona’s life to the candle he holds in his hand, prefiguring later moments in other tragedies (Macbeth’s ‘brief candle’ speech; Lady Macbeth’s desperate command to have light by her continually). Yet even here, shrouded in the mocking whiteness of her wedding sheets, Desdemona’s purity and generosity make themselves manifest. Othello smothers her, and yet she speaks. He has closed the bed-curtains, making of the marriage bed and death bed another inner stage, and from behind the curtains, as if from death itself, Desdemona speaks: ‘O, falsely, falsely murdered!…A guiltless death I did.’ When Emilia asks ‘who hath done this deed,’ Desdemona’s answer is exculpatory and enigmatic: ‘Nobody, I myself. Farewell./Commend me to my kind lord.’ Her recovery to speech, which has been so insistently equated with humanity, it itself brief, but essential. She speaks from the brink of the grave, as Iago refuses speech. He is dead, even as he lives; she alive, even as she dies.

As for Othello, at the close of the play surrounded by horrified spectators who represent the return of Venetian law, he speaks to them, and through them to the audience in the theater. Like Hamlet at the close of his tragedy, he speaks finally to us, his first words like the restraining arm of Coleridge’s Ancient mariner, enforcing attention even on the unwilling:

Soft you, a word or two before you go.

I have done the state some service, and they know’t:

No more of that. 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 must you speak

Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;

Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,

Perplexed in the extreme, of one whose hand,

Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,

Albeit unused to the melting mood,

Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees

Their medicinable gum. Set you down this,

And say besides that in Aleppo once,

Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk

Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,

I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog

And smote him thus.

robeson othello murderOthello kills Othello. He is both Turk and Venetian, as he has been all along, and he dies in the act of describing a noble public gesture, the killing of a public enemy, in front of Venetian ambassadors who are public men themselves. The famous textual crux, ‘base Indian (the Quarto reading) or ‘base Judean’ (the Folio reading), is produced by the fact that the capital letters for modern I and J were the same, and the letter n could look like the letter u (the piece of type – u or n – could also be inserted upside down within the frame). Like many textual ambiguities in Shakespeare, this one, however accidental, is salutary, for it has produced competing readings of great power. If the image is that of the ‘base Indian,’ the context is New World exploration and discovery, the ‘savage’ man who does not know the value of the jewel he finds. If the phrase is read as ‘base Judean,’ the figure invoked is that of Judas Iscariot. The ‘pearl of great price’ (Matthew 13: 44-52) he throws away, ‘richer than all his tribe,’ is the Kingdom of Heaven. [MY NOTE:  Compare this reading with that of Bloom, above.]

Othello wants to be remembered for his private sins and for his public virtue. His appeal is finally to the civilizing power of language: ‘a word or two before you go; ‘[w]hen you shall these unlucky deeds relate’; ‘[s]peak of me as I am’; [t]hen must you speak.’ As at the end of Hamlet and indeed throughout Shakespearean tragedy, retelling becomes the tragic hero’s only path to redemption. The request to retell is an injunction to replay the play, to speak of Othello again and again, to learn from tragic drama as we learn from history, by taking its example seriously as a model of conduct.

Samuel Johnson, the great eighteenth century lexicographer, biographer, essayist, and editor of Shakespeare, wrote at the conclusion of his edition of Othello: “I am glad that I have ended my revisal of this dreadful scene; it is not to be endured.’ As was the case in Romeo and Juliet, womb becomes tomb, wedding becomes funeral, marriage bed becomes deathbed. But Johnson’s response is a sign of the scene’s power. It is to be endured – that is its purpose. ‘Look on the tragic loading of this bed,’ says Lodovico, the Duke’s emissary, to Iago. ‘This is thy work.’ In the final scene the audience in the theater is offered its chance to measure the tragic work of two competing dramatists, Iago and Shakespeare. Throughout the play Iago had made us his unwitting and unwilling co-conspirators, presuming on our silence. Now, through Othello’s plea, ‘Speak of me as I am,’ the audience can be said to find its own role in the drama. Language, refused by Iago, regained by Desdemona, becomes at last the joint instrument of actor, playwright, and spectators. By gazing upon the final tableau, the tragic loading of the bed, and by replaying, remembering, and even editing the play, the silent audience can find its voice.”

—————————

And so, too can silent readers.  Follow Othello’s words, and share with the group your thoughts…Speak of him…

My last post on Othello:  Thursday evening/Friday morning.

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5 Responses to “Then must you speak/Of one that loved not wisely but too well/Of one not easily jealous…”

  1. GGG says:

    Here’s a thought and sorry if it has been said: Desdemona sees Othello’s mind in his visage, but he seems not to really see the outward image of Desdemona (angelic, supreme beauty)–he sees her visage, not her mind, which makes him easier prey for Iago. He has hardly spent any time with her–how could he know her!

    Liked the image from the previous post of Iago as the spider and Othello as the fly.

    From the first I thought this play was as much about Iago’s jealousy of Othello as Othello’s of Desdemona. Has anyone seen Iago as a spurned lover (maybe unrequited of course) as much as a spurned officer?

    • Let me quickly reply to your last remark: It has been theorized — in fact, in a 1930s production, Laurence Olivier played Iago in just that manner to Ralph Richardson’s Othello. It wasn’t well received.

  2. GGG says:

    I read my first paragraph again, and I said it backwards: Desdemona sees Othello’s visage in his mind–he sees her outer visage but not her inner character. Oops!

    Fascinating about the Richardson/Olivier play. I thought you would say it had been done in the 80s or 90s not the 30s!

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