Repetitions and Rhythms (5.2)
Words and Phrases to Retard the Action
In an earlier essay entited Claustrophobia I argued that Shakespeare's unusual use of words beginning with "en" to signify "inside" or "in" contributed to the growing claustrophobic feeling of the play. Likewise, here I will contend that repetition of words, such as wife, husband, honest, truth (true), lies, villain, and murder in the second sub-section of 5.2 converts the swift action beginning in 5.1 to the slower pace of conversation, discovery, and ultimate death and suicide in 5.2.
We are immediately ushered into the world of repetition in the first line of the scene:
"It is the cause [i.e., the act of Cassio or the action of Othello to rectify that 'crime'], it is the cause, my soul;/ Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars,/ It is the cause (5.2.1-3)."
Multiple repetitions of "light" and "One more [i.e., kiss]" also fill the first fifteen lines. When the word light and its cognates or synonyms is used ("relume" or "heat"), the effect on the reader is to pause, to think on light and darkness, on Desdemona as Othello's "light," on the darkness of the scene, and of the inexorable march to murder that fills us with dread.
Emilia's Entry (line 84)
Once Emilia stands at the door and knocks, however, the repetitions begin to pile up. Othello hears her voice and says, "Yes--'Tis Emilia' (5.2.91)," and then thinks about how Emilia will want to tend to Desdemona, who now lies dead or seemingly dead on the bed. "If she come in, she'll sure speak to my wife./ My wife, my wife! what wife? I have no wife (5.2.96-97)." Five times in eleven words the word "wife" is repeated. It is almost as if we are meant to grasp the horror that Othello now feels as he repeats the word. The solemn declaration that it was the "cause" that actuated him is now swallowed up in the multiple appearances of "wife."
"Husband" also calls for comment. When Othello tries to explain to Emilia that he killed Desdemona because of proof her husband Iago supplied of Cassio's guilt, Emilia cannot get past the unlikelihood of this occurrence. The word "husband" is used 9 times in 19 lines to express Emilia's growing confusion and consternation about Othello's misleading statement. "Cassio did top her; ask thy husband else...Thy husband knew it all...My husband? Thy husband...My husband? What needs this iterance, woman? I saw thy husband....My husband say she was false? ...I say thy husband; dost understand the word? My friend, thy husband, honest, honest Iago (5.2.136-154)." Immediately we think of the conversation between Iago and Othello in 3.3 where Iago's hesitant repetition of "think" and "honest" makes Othello nearly frantic: "Therefore these stops of thine fright me the more (3.3.120)." Othello's solemn asseveration here finally breaks through Emilia's incredulity, and she says: "If he say so, may his pernicious soul/ Rot half a grain a day (5.2.155-156)."
"Villain" and "villainy" are other repeated words. After Emilia cries for help Iago appears with Montano and Gratiano (5.2.168). Barely restraining herself, Emilia demands of her husband, "Disprove this villain (i.e., Othello)....thou'rt not such a villain (5.2.172,174)." But then, when Emilia sees that Iago cannot extricate himself from the barrage of her questions, and when the full scope of his conduct has become evident to her, she screams, "Villainy, villainy, villainy!/ I think upon't, I think--I smell't--O villainy!/ I thought so then--I'll kill myself for grief--/ O villainy! villainy (5.2.190-193)!"
Emilia's emotional intensity is also evident in her repeated use of "lie" or "lies" in this section. While falsehood and lies play a role in Emilia's and Othello's conversation about Desdemona (Othello says, "She's like a liar gone to burning hell..." Emilia responds, "Thou dost belie her...She was false as water....Thou art rash as fire to say she was false..."--5.2.129-135), when Emilia makes Iago admit that he told Othello that Desdemona was false, she cannot contain her rage:
"You told a lie, an odious damned lie;/ Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie (5.2.180-181)."
Every mention of the word "lie" is like a stripe or lash stinging her husband's back, a knife thrust penetrating into the very heart.
Several other repetitions in this section are references to Iago as honest (148,154,154); references to Othello as a devil and hell as his or Desdemona's destination (129,131,133,137); and reference to the death as a murder (114,116,126,167,167). The last line bridges subsections two and three: "Help, help, ho, help!/ The Moor hath kill'd my mistress! Murther, murther."
Then there is even a three-fold use of "that" that helps focus attention on the unexpected and eerie cry of the supposedly strangled Desdemona:
"[Desdemona] O falsely, falsely murdered. [Emilia] O Lord, what cry is that? [Othello] That? What? [Emilia] Out and alas, that was my lady's voice (5.2.117-119)."
Finally, there is an exchange between Emilia and Othello when she tells him the news of the fight between Roderigo and Cassio when only Roderigo is killed.
"[Emiia] Cassio, my lord, hath kill'd a young Venetian/ Call'd Roderigo. [Othello] Roderiog kill'd?/ And Cassio kill'd? [Emilia] No, Cassio is not kill'd. [Othello] Not Cassio kill'd (5.2.112-115)?"
Amusing to note in this exchange are the variety of ways that "not" and "Cassio" are used without any precise repetition of the same sequence. Shakespeare is a master of using synonyms and a variety of words and turns of phrases that repeat the idea but in different ways.
One might look at this exercise as nothing more than a frivolous exposure of insignificant aspects of Shakespeare's literary style. But, I think the very essence of his genius is his close attention to variety and sameness; to the ways that repetition is used and slightly varied to give a sense that the same issue is being hammered on but that it is being done always in a slightly different manner. Shakespeare's attention to the most minute detail in one of his greatest plays surely teaches us about the value of careful drafting in even our most casual writing.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long