Othello in 4.2
I have previously argued that one way Othello manifests his mental decompensation in Act IV is to insult people in word and action. His last insults come in a conversation with Emilia and Desdemona in 4.2. The insults arise because of the raging despair in his own mind, and his unsuccessful attempt to control his emotions. He so much would like to settle on a strategy of control where his reason outweighs his "mortal instruments" (JC 2.1.66--his "lower" sentiments or emotions) but the more he needs to come to a decision, the more his emotions take over. He is in thrall to the racing torment of his own mind and his need to decide on a quick course to restore a level of equilibrium within. But even that restoration of equilibrium is deceptive because it is purchased at the expense of any kind of appeal to reason from someone else. Emotions have so overcome Othello's consciousness, so convinced him that he can control what is an uncontrolled bonfire within that he acts in an "untouchable" fashion in 4.2.
By untouchable I mean that he becomes inaccessible to the questions, comments or helpful remarks of others. He becomes unable to hear Desdemona's questions about her supposed infidelity ("To whom, my lord? With whom, How am I false?"--4.2.40), and must plow ahead in his own grief and self-absorption. To quote a phrase from 2004, it is "all about Othello." Even his questioning of Emilia about Desdemona's activity in 4.1.1-20 is not really an attempt to discover information. Othello has already concluded that the women are unreliable, either that they are deceptive or are "subtile whores" or "simple bawds." His tidal wave of personal anguish cascades over all who come in contact with him.
Hurting with Words
He tries to hurt the women with his words. When Emilia and Desdemona are present together, Othello treats the former as a brothel keeper and the latter as a whore. "Let me see your eyes;/ Look in my face (4.2.25-26)," he says to Desdemona, no doubt to descry whether she is in fact a prostitute. Desdemona immediately realizes his perverse intent: "What horrible fancy's this (4.2.26)?" Instead of answering Desdemona, Othello turns to Emilia and treats her as a madam. "Some of your function, mujstress;/ Leave procreants alone, and shut the door (4.2.27-28)." That is, 'leave us alone now, so that we can screw in peace.' "Cough, or cry 'hem,' if anybody come (4.2.29)."
The frenzied rage of Othello is all that comes through to Desdemona. "Upon my knee, what doth your speech import?/ I understand a fury in your words,/ But not the words (4.2.31-33)." What Othello is trying to do is to inflict the same level of pain he is experiencing upon the person who he feels is responsible for his pain. It is Desdemona who has so shabbily treated him. It is she who must bear the unmitigated fury of his words and power. His fury also erupts on Emilia but it is a derivative acrimony: he is mad at Emilia because of his anger at Desdemona.
But his fury cannot conceal his emotional vulnerability. What he really wants from Desdemona is not her admission, not her words of comfort, but for her to hear him as he speaks his protest to the world and the gods and whoever will listen about how his inner collapse (see mini-essay on Othello and Job) has utterly destroyed his soul. He has been ravaged, sacked, demolished and now he wants to do all he can to bring others into the inky darkness with him. All he can do is viciously attack with violent words ("Impudent strumpet!"--4.2.81) or sardonic humor ("I took you for that cunning whore of Venice/ that married with Othello"--4.2.89-90) and then try to debase, humiliate, shame Emilia by throwing her some money as he leaves:
"You, mistress,/ That have the office opposite to Saint Peter,/ And keps the gate of hell! You, you! ay, you!/ We have done our course; there's money for your pains./ I pray you turn the key and keep our counsel (4.2.90-94)."
Capacity to be Hurt
But what Othello does not know, as all who hurl insults do not know, is that the hurt they inflict is not primarily on those whom they address. Insult-hurling is more a window into a mind diseased than an arrow that destroys the target of the insult. Emilia brings this out in a brief comment in the last scene of the play after Othello threatens her with physical violence:
"Thou hast not half that pow'r to do me harm/ As I have to be hurt (5.2.162-163)."
In other words, the whole idea behind Othello, which I have characterized as different reactions to various kinds of loss, can also be said to be an exploration of the capacity to be hurt by others. Rejection brings hurt in its wake, enervating hurt, humiliating pain, knifing dislocation, unresolved longings. Othello, among others, has been so hugely injured by the supposed infidelity of Desdemona that he is overmastered by grief. And he tries to hurt others as a result. He is almost like a drowning swimmer who wants to bring down all those who try to rescue him. But Emilia puts hurt in a different perspective. Othello can't really harm her, even though she retains the capacity to be hurt.
So it is in 4.2. Othello is trying to hurt the women through his words and intolerable actions. So injured is he, so marred, so damaged, so personally violated that he wants them also to bear the pain. The verisimilitude of Shakespeare's description from 4.2.20-94, when Othello abruptly departs the scene, is arresting. Here we have the great man, twisted in his anguish, striking out at the woman he most loves, then weeping in a combined symphony of sadness and self-pity as he pours out his soul, a soul he feels has already been poured out to death, and then recovers himself to utter his last insults against both his wife and Emilia. He, who most wants to show that he is in control of his emotions and his situation, that he has come to a mind-settling decision about Desdemona, is now so fully overcome by the his numbing grief that he is inaccessible to anyone. The claustrophobia of the play is here most stark: Othello himself is now imprisoned in the 4 x 6 cell of his own mind, and the dimensions of confinement are shrinking rapidly.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long