Realizing his Terrible Error (5.2.195-235)
When Emilia realizes the full extent of the evil plot concocted by her husband, she wants to kill herself in grief; when Othello comes to the same realization he wants to kill Iago. Violent death can only follow the revelation of such treacherous and malefic manipulation of people. But it takes Othello longer to understand what has transpired. He is so committed to the honesty of Iago and the strength of his two pieces of "evidence" (Iago's "proof" about Cassio and the handkerchief) that he does not see things as clearly or as quickly as Emilia. In addition, it may be that his "weak function (cf. 2.3.348)," which Emilia mercilessly attacks by calling him "ignorant as dirt" and "thou dull Moor" keeps him from coming to a knowledge of the truth. When he finally awakens to Iago's perfidy, however, Othello is ready to burst.
What's in an "O"?
Shortly after Emilia bursts out with her "villainy" mini-speech, Othello likewise explodes with his more brief, but possibly no less painful, line. It is simply, "O, O, O! [Othello falls on the bed.] (5.2.197)." What has happened to Othello here? Is this a full recognition of his guilt and Iago's deception, a clear awareness of his culpability for Desdemona's killing? I don't think so. I think it functions like his "O misery (3.3.171)" did in 3.3. In that passage, where Iago has been trying to convince Othello of Desdemona's alleged betrayal, Iago warns Othello to beware of jealousy. Othello's reaction "O misery!" is a premonition of bad news, a foretaste as it were of something terribly unsettling and possibly chaos-inducing that is coming his way but it is not a firm belief in Desdemona's infidelity. That belief will come later, after Iago continues to insinuate himself in and around Othello's mind.
Here his collapse on the bed betokens an awareness that something absolutely horrible impends, something that might leave him "affrighted" so that he yawns at alteration, but he does not yet know clearly what it is. It is a more emotional way of saying what Desdemona said just before her death: "my fear interprets (5.2.73)." Or, in words that Othello himself used when asking Desdemona to fetch the handkerchief, "my mind misgives (3.4.89)." Othello now knows that something very terrible is in the immediate offing for him.
Upping the Ante
Othello gamely calls upon the two pieces of evidence that supported his case. Note that for the first he relies not on "ocular" proof but on the knowledge of Iago.
"'Tis pitiful; but yet Iago knows/ that she with Cassio hath the act of shame/ A thousand times committed. Cassio confess'd it,/ And she did gratify his amorous works/ With that recognizance and pledge of love/ Which I first gave her. I saw it in his hand;/ It was a handkerchief, an antique token/ My father gave my mother (5.2.210-217)."
He mentions the thousand-fold act of infidelity. In order to quell his teeming mind, he has to exagerrate infidelity to a humanly impossible number of times. But Emilia has already dealt with the "lie" of infidelity. Now all she needs to do is focus on the handkerchief. In words dripping with irony, because they confirm the truth of Iago's statement in 3.3.322 that "trifes light as air" become proofs as convincing to the jealous mind as statements of holy writ, she says:
"O thou dull Moor, that handkerchief thou speak'st of/ I found by fortune, and did give my husband;/ For often, with a solemn earnestness/ (More than indeed belong'd to such a trifle),/ he begg'd of me to steal't (5.2.225-229)."
Rather than being a "trifle," it might be more accurate to say, in words that echo Othello, "'Tis true; there's magic in the web of it (i.e., the handkerchief--3.4.69)." Iago is again at the root of the problem.
Another "Triggering" Word
But what will finally tip Othello against Iago, causing him to run against him with his sword, are the following words of Emilia:
"O murd'rous coxcomb, what should such a fool/ Do with so good a wife (5.2.229-230)?"
Just as the word "truth" used earlier by Emiia (5.2.128) triggered Othello's crazed allegation of Desdemona's falseness, now the use of the word "good" also provokes a deep reaction from Othello. But now he has been brought around to see the deceptiveness of Iago. All the pent-up energy and attempted emotional nescience surrounding Desdemona's death now comes out in two furious lines spoken by Othello:
"Are there no stones in heaven/ But what serves for the thunder?--Precious villain! [The Moor runs at Iago; Montano disarms Othello; Iago kills his wife] (5.2.234-235)."
Zeus is the god of the thunderbolt, and he hurls them from heaven in the thunder. Just as Othello thought that the earth should "yawn at alteration" when "Justice" killed Desdemona through him, so he believes that the gods should have rained down their "extra" stones in heaven in judgment on Iago.
Worlds collapse around us all the time. A teen's world collapses when his parents tell him unexpectedly that they will be divorcing. It collapse for the innocent spouse in a situation of marital infidelity. It erodes whenever a belief on which we have staked our lives or fortunes or sacred honor has come tumbling down right before our eyes. People use the cliche today, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger," but that is patently untrue. Othello's realization that Iago manipulated him didn't literally kill him nor did it make him stronger. It did, however, lead to a ghastly ending for him.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long