Othello's Collapse III
Guilt, Self-Loathing and Rehabilitation
Until the mid-point of Othello's speech (5.2.259-282), the focus is upon himself and the fruitlessness of any attempt to fight against his captors. Then, he turns, looks around and asks, "Where should Othello go (5.2.271)?" When he does so his eyes fall on his dead Desdemona, as smooth as "monumental alablaster" lying before him, and a flood of emotions engulfs him. Guilt, self-hatred, anguish, sorrow, regret all vie for attention as he comes completely undone.
The "Cold" Desdemona
Othello might have said to his captors that Desdemona lying dead before them "shows horrible and grim (5.2.203)," but now he does not focus so much on the horror of her death as on the physical or medical realities of her lifelessness. She is "pale" as a "smock," and "cold, cold," even as her chastity. Earlier Othello had examined her hand in his frenzy and pronounced it "hot, hot, and moist." It was a hand that counseled a "sequester from liberty (3.4.40)" because its heat and moistness hinted at Desdemona's loose living. But now all Othello can see is her coldness, a chaste coldness. Just as he realizes he was wrong about the handkerchief, now he understand he was mistaken about Desdemona's chastity. Othello now knows she was, as Emilia said in her dying lines, "chaste (5.2.249)."
He also notices the look her face has assumed in death, and that look becomes frozen in Othello's consciousness. It is as if the gorgonian character of the face doesn't freeze Othello but freezes Desdemona in Othello's mind. "When we shall meet at compt (i.e., the last judgment),/ This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,/ And fiends will snatch at it (5.2.273-275)." Thinking about the last judgment then unleashes a tsunami of emotions in Othello.
Exploring Othello's Self-Hatred
The full force of what he has done in killing Desdemona now overcomes Othello:
"Whip me, ye devils,/ From the possession of this heavenly sight!/ Blow me about in winds! roast me in sulphur!/ Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!/ O Desdemon! dead, Desdamon! dead!/ O, O (5.2.277-282)!"
Though Shakespeare's picture of Othello's judgment may have been indebted to the great judgment scene in Revelation 20, he quickly goes beyond that. In Rev. 20 the great and small will be gathered in orderly arrangement before the throne of God awaiting the pronouncement of their fate, and then they are cast into the fire or kept in the heavens. Here, however, Othello portrays his judgment as having already taken place and not through some kind of divine pronouncement but through the stinging blows of the demons. He is whipped, blown about, washed in scalding fire, roasted in sulphur. The sharp lash, the uncontrolled winds, the laving tongues of fire, the slow agony of roasting--all these are Othello's fate. He wants them; he welcomes them; he longs for them. They will do to him what he is now doing to himself; they will provide the "complement extern" for the internal anguish which he now feels.
And then comes the expression of unparalleled, unremitting, unstanchable grief. He has killed the "sweetest innocent/ That e'er did lift up eye (5.2.199-200)." She is gone, gone, cold as her smock. Nothing can redeem her. Othello could tell Brabantio and Desdemona "of my redemption (1.3.138)" from the clutches of slavery or opponents, but no redemption is available for him now either. The blood of Christ couldn't wash away an iota of the full alphabet of guilt he now feels. He erupts in heaving grief, crying out his "O's" like Oedipus screamed his "O's" when it dawned on him that he had fulfilled the oracular word by killing his father and sleeping with his mother. It is the "O" of overwhelming, overbearing, overburdening, overmastering, life-ending, life-nullifying grief. Othello is inconsolable because he realizes that he can no longer evade responsibility for the murder of his wife, and this fully undoes him.
Will the Real Othello Please Stand Up?
When Lodovico enters to ask about "this rash and most unfortunate man (5.2.283)," Othello replies cryptically, "That's he that was Othello; here I am (5.2.284)." What is that supposed to mean? That the one who just wished judgment on himself is another person than the one who now answers Lodovico? The "I" is not fully the same as the "Othello" in the previous clause. So, what kind of person do we have now? Will it be an empty shell of the former person, like a bombed-out building in a war zone, whose frame remains but whose interior is gutted? Or, will Othello try to engage in an act of personal reconstruction, possibly to portray himself more favorably to the audience and himself as long as he still lives? Surprisingly, there is evidence for the latter.
Two tantalizing hints in the next thirty or so lines suggest that Othello will not be so emotionally devastated by what he has done as to forget his political instincts. When Lodovico pronounces a kind of judgment on Othello, that he was once "so good," but now has fallen in the "practice of a damned slave (i.e., come under the influence of Iago), and then asks Othello, "What shall be said to thee (5.2.294)?," Othello answers without a hitch:
"Why, any thing:/ An honorable murderer, if you will;/ for nought I did in hate, but all in honor (5.2.294-295)."
WHAT?? We have to take seriously that we do have a new Othello here. These lines ring so strangely in our ears. They are so full of special pleading and extenuation and self-justification as to bring us up short. After admitting he has not only killed his wife but that he deserves all manner of eternal punishment for it, he now tries to say that the murder was "honorable." This seems almost identical to "It is the cause (5.2.1)," the statement that enabled Othello to go through with the murder in the first place.
Then, when he is quizzed by Lodovico about whether Othello consented in Cassio's death, he tersely answers, "Ay (5.2.298)." When Cassio gently upbraids him for that conduct, all Othello says, is, "I ask your pardon," before launching into a verbal attack on Iago (5.2.300-302).
We thought we finally knew Othello when he came clean with his confession. Now we see that our picture of him cannot be complete without considering his valedictory speech (5.2.338-356).
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long