From Pagan Sacrifice to Biblical Reference in 5.2
As did the conspirators in Julius Caesar, so Othello describes his act of killing Desdemona as a sacrifice (5.2.65). But because the environment of Othello is Christian Venice rather than pagan Rome, Shakespeare has the characters comment on Desdemona's death and Othello's action increasingly in the biblical categories of judgment and eternal punishment rather than simply through references to sacrifice. At least five instances in 5.2 show Shakespeare's interest in putting a Christian theological spin on the events that have transpired.
Second Thoughts on Authority
One of my earliest essays, on Othello and Christ, argued that Shakespeare skillfully used Gospel texts as a way of helping him stress Othello's authority. In 5.2, he uses a Gospel text to undermine that same authority. When Desdemona and Othello are speaking, she becomes fearful that he intends to do her harm. "Some bloody passion shakes your very frame./ These are portents; but yet I hope, I hope,/ They do not point on me (5.2.44-46)." Othello responds, "Peace, and be still." This is a direct quotation of Mark 4:39, when Jesus rebuked the winds when he and the disciples were caught in a storm. "He (Jesus) woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, 'Peace, be still!' Then the wind ceased and there was a dead calm."
What is significant about this text is that Jesus said "Peace, be still" and the sea was calm, but Othello now says "Peace, and be still" but Desdemona keeps on talking!! She says, "I will so. What's the matter (5.2.47)?" In other words, she acknowledges her duty to submit to Othello, but then she just asks what she wants to learn. By doing this she not only shows that Othello's authority is now being called into question, but that she is not simply the submissive, yielding woman that scholars have found in her. If the Gospel passages built up Othello, why can't they also bring him down? Thus the first indication that Othello will be undermined in 5.2 is that he loses his Christlike authority.
The General Duty to Love
The interaction between Othello and Desdemona continues. Othello warns her to beware of perjury and Desdemona asks for mercy. She says,
"And have you mercy too! I never did/ Offend you in my life; never lov'd Cassio/ But with such general warranty of heaven/ As I might love (5.2.58-61)."
She bases her innocence on the fact that whatever love she actually showed Cassio was only because of a "general warranty of heaven" (i.e., the Scriptural commands to love one another) that required her to love all equally and without discrimination. Many New Testament verses require the general duty of love, such as Rom. 12:9-10; 13:8-10; Jn. 13:34-35; 15:12. One example will suffice. "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments.....are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself (Rom 13.8-9)." Later on Emilia will refer to Desdemona as "heavenly true (5.2.135)." Here Desdemona is saying same thing but in much more sophisticated theological language: her conduct toward Cassio, rather than being an occasion for betrayal of Othello, was an example of Christian charity.
As the situation becomes more and more dire, the theological/Scriptural references take on a more somber cast. Othello admits he killed Desdemona. "She's like a liar gone to burning hell:/ 'Twas I that kill'd her (5.2.129-130)." In Scriptural terms, hell is not only the place where "their worm never dies and their fire is never quenched (Mk.9:48)," but the Revelation to John also talks about the "lake that burns with fire" into which "fornicators," among others, will be placed (Rev. 21:8). No evil eternal place is posited for the killers of Julius Caesar; it is enough that they get their comeuppance on the battlefied at Philippi at the end. Here, however, the imagery is fully Christian. Othello posits that Desdemona, being unfaithful, will go to the burning hell.
In an almost offhand remark by Gratiano about Desdemona's murder, he says he is glad that Brabantio has already died because: "This sight would make him do a desperate turn,/ Yeah, curse his better angel from his side,/ And fall to reprobance (5.2.207-209)." While there is a similarity here to Mark Antony's reference to Brutus as Caesar's angel (JC 3.2.181), the biblical background is from Matt. 18, where Jesus talked about the children gathered around him being protected by their angels (Mt.18:10). Brabantio would have been so overcome by seeing the horrendous sight before him that he would have cursed "his better angel," and therefore have become a reprobate, one condemned by God.
Othello's Contemplation of His Own Punishment
When the extent of what he has done becomes clear to Othello, he breaks out into a most abject cry of despair and self-loathing. His culminating words are:
"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 (5.2.277-280)."
There is, again, a reference to the lake which burns with fire and sulfur of Rev. 21:8, but the reference to being driven out from the heavently sight and cast into the liquid fire assume also a knowledge of the last judgment scene of Rev. 20. There the great and small will stand before the throne of God, the books of judgment will be opened and people will be judged according to their works (Rev. 20:11-12). Death and Hades and anyone whose name is not found in the book of life will be cast into the lake of fire (20:14-15). This passage is helpful for understanding the passage quoted from Othello because of the notions of removal from the sight of God and casting or throwing into the lake of fire. A more horrifying judgment could not be imagined, and Shakespeare draws upon both Rev. 20 and 21 to aid him in his ghoulish description.
Shakespeare has shown himself to be a careful reader of the Scriptures, and he uses that skill to create a frame of great urgency, somberness and ultimacy around the picture of 5.2.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long