Steeling the Self for Action
Othello has now completely abandoned his need for "ocular proof" of Desdemona's infidelity. Iago so poisoned his mind with "trifles light as air" that "are to the jealious confirmations strong/ As proofs of holy writ (3.3.322-324)," that he is primed for action. He says to Iago:
"Look here, Iago,/ All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven./ 'Tis gone./ Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell!/ Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne/ To tyrannous hate! Swell, bosom, with thy fraught,/ For 'tis of aspics' tongues! (3.3.444-450)."
Three aspects of Othello's resolve that are emphasized in this passage are its steadiness, its sacredness and its solemnness.
The Steadiness of Othello's Resolve
There is no way that anyone can read 3.3 closely and conclude that Othello's mind is steady. He has been jerked around from one emotion to the next like a puppet on the end of a string. In a word, he has been "hot." Now, he wants to change the image to frozen resoluteness. He will stress his fixity of purpose, his unchanging focus, his relentless commmitment to his vengeance. After Iago tells him he might change his mind (3.3.452), Othello launches into one of his most visually-powerful speeches:
"Never, Iago. Like to the Pontic Sea,/ Whose icy current and compulsive course/ Nev'r feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on/ To the Propontic and the Hellespont,/ Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,/ Shall nev'r look back, nev'r ebb to humble love,/ Till that a capable and wide revenge/ Swallow them up (3.3.453-460)."
Commentators have pointed out that Shakepeare puts in poetic form the observation of Pliny in his Natural History (2.97), translated into English by Holland in 1601, that "the sea Pontus evermore floweth and runneth out into Propontis, but the sea never retireth backe again within Pontus." But even more to the point are the images of coldness, decisiveness and irreversibility of the resolve. It is the "icy" current of the northern sea, which "never, "nev'r, "nev'r, "nev'r" turns back or ebbs that is the model for his action. By 5.2 the heat of his emotions has changed to ice; between 3.3 and 5.2, however, heat and cold fight for precedence in his tormented mind.
The Sacredness of Othello's Resolve
We know that resolve is serious when it uses the language of religion. When Brutus planned the death of Caesar with the conspirators, he first had to interpret the act religiously before they could spring into action. "Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius," he says (JC 2.1.166). We must "carve him as a dish fit for the gods,/ Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds (2.1.173-174)." "We shall be call'd purgers, not murderers (2.1.180)." Once religious language transmutes a bloody act from a murder to a sacrifice, it can be justified. No further extenuation or defense is needed.
Thus it is that after the vivid words about the Pontic Sea, Othello does the action and says the words that raise his plans from the profane to the sacred. "[He kneels] Now by yond marble heaven,/ In the due reverence of a sacred vow/ I here engage my words (3.3.460-462)." The language of sacredness will increase in Act IV, as the handkerchief, the "trifle" of Act III, becomes the sacred woven article with magic in it (4.1.69). When a person makes an appeal to the sacred, he or she is not simply vesting the act with the garment of divine authority but is, as it were, ceding that act back to the divinity. Othello will do the act, but it is one which the gods themselves approve. The reason why some religious people in our world today are the most fanatic and can most easily defend all manner of bizarre killing is that they are doing so as instruments of the divine. Once resolve is sealed and steeled with religious fervor, anything can be justified.
The Solemness of Othello's Resolve
Religious justifications are always clothed in solemnity. Othello also accepts Iago's commitment to his cause with the solemnity befitting the deed.
"I greet thy love,/ Not with vain thanks, but with acceptance bounteous,/ And will upon the instant put thee to't:/ Within these three days let me hear thee say/ That Cassio's not alive (3.3.469-473)."
Acceptance rather than thanks is the tone of Othello's words. Acknowledgment rather than gratitude is the right emotion. The task is bigger than either of them and they both recognize that reality. If Othello were grateful ("vain thanks") it would be as if he is thankful that Iago has joined him on his mission. But this is not Othello's mission; it is a sacred one. He bears a charge, a commision from the gods for the sacrifice of Desdemona. Thus, he will "acknowledge" Iago's contribution rather than receive it with "thanks." Acknowledgment is a word capturing their dual commitment to something larger than themselves. 'We are in this together, this great task, this divine mission,' is his attitude. 'It is larger than both of us, and we have been chosen to fulfill it.' That is Othello's tone as he enters into this most solemn covenant.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long