The Shame of it All
Othello's Desperation (3.3.368-393)
Othello's desolation in his "farewell" speech is gradually transmuted into desperation. It is almost as if he behaves like a half-crazed, drunken gambler, hopelessly trying by one last throw of the dice to avoid a fate that is almost certainly determined. When he grabs Iago and commands him to provide "ocular proof (3.3.360)" of his wife's unfaithfulness, he is surely so fragile in mind that Iago knows that no such proof will be necessary to complete the Moor's downfall. As Iago observes, "I see, sir, you are eaten up with passion (3.3.391)."
A sign of Othello's growing mental instability is that he commands Iago, then threatens him and then finally sinks into a despair that both requires and fears "satisfaction." After repeating his need to "see" Desdemona's unfaithfulness (3.3.364), he threatens Iago:
"If thou dost slander her and torture me,/ Never pray more; abandon all remorse;/ On horror's head horrors accumulate;/ Do deeds to make heaven weep, all earth amaz'd;/ For nothing canst thou to damnation add/ Greater than that (3.3.368-373)."
Though it is apparently a vigorous threat, giving the impression of judgment against Iago if what he says is untrue, it is also a confused threat, sort of like a bank robber holding up a bank and giving the customers and bank tellers an array of conflicting options of how they might cooperate with him. It is almost as if Othello is calling down a curse on Iago if what he said is untrue but it envisions no action on Othello's part. In the final scene of the play, when Iago's perfidy becomes evident to Othello, he combines both an appeal to judgment and an action of vengeance. "Are there no stones in heaven/ But what serves for the thunder?--Precious villain! [The Moor runs at Iago] (5.2.234-235)."
Here Othello's threats are no doubt gut-wrenching but also are a bit like the plaintive cry he utters later in the play: "I am not valiant neither/ But every puny whipster gets my sword (5.2.243-244)." His desperation leads him to make threats that are more revelatory of the brittle state of his mind than of his desire to punish Iago. After all, Iago is the man with the knowledge and the answers; his words are like the sweet-tasting poision that Othello craves to ingest.
While continuing to hold out for proof (3.3.386), Othello confesses his shame. Here we meet a textual problem that must be briefly addressed. The Riverside Shakespeare adopts the reading of the Second Quarto from 1630 of 3.3.386 to read,
"Her name, that was as fresh/ As Dian's visage, is now begrim'd and black/ As mine own face (3.3.386-388)."
The 1623 Folio, which I generally follow, has "My name,....." The former reading would mean that Othello, in his moment of deepest despair and desperation regarding his own fate, would revert to thinking about Desdemona. There is support for this. Indeed, the two preceding lines talk about Othello's uncertainty regarding his wife's honesty.
But, there seems little reason here for departing from the Folio. The feeling most on Othello's mind now is shame or humiliation. His life is over; he is desperately seeking for one last shred of proof to maintain his shattered dignity; he then speaks of his own begrimed and black name. In other words, the scene seems more psychologically true if it is focused on his own further state of mental collapse.
In that regard, the flow of 3.3.383-390 becomes fascinating. It runs as follows:
"By the world,/ I think my wife be honest, and think she is not;/ I think that thou art just, and think thou art not./ I'll have some proof. My name, that was as fresh/ As Dian's visage, is now begrim'd and black/ As mine own face. If there be cords, or knives,/ Poison, or fire, or suffocating streams,/ I'll not endure it. Would I were satisfied! (3.3.383-390)."
First is his statement of bravado-like desire for proof. The desire for proof is because his own name is now tarnished, blackened with as sooty an aspect as his face. But then he pulls back from the boldness of desire. The hearer gets the impression that when he begins with the line, "If there be cords, or knives," Othello is utterly dedicated to discovery of the ocular signs of infidelity and betrayal. It is as if he seems to be saying, 'I don't care if I face strangulation or stabbing or poison or drowning, I'll find the truth about Desdemona! It is the truth above all that I want.' But then, at the end of the sentence, he retreats from this boldness by saying, "I'll not endure it." He loses confidence mid-stream. But then, it is as if he recovers once more and says, "Would I were satisfied!"
Shame or humiliation has a way of trapping the mind in endless contradictions. On the one hand, Othello has the need to feel the shame, the deep feelings of loss and remorse and ugliness that come with that emotion. On the other hand, he needs to escape its deathly grip by doing something, anything, to restore a shred of lost dignity. Othello, a man of striking dignity and propriety, feels these dual pulls profoundly. His psyche, though fragile, still has some fight in it. He would see evidence of betrayal, no matter how painful to him. But then, he catches himself as he realizes that traveling to another level of distress is not for him. His final word, however, is that he would be satisfied. When Iago seeks clarification, "You would be satisfied?" Othello responds tersely, "Would? nay, and I will (3.3.393)." In the psychological language of our day, he has not yet experienced complete "decomposition." And, before he gets to that stage, Iago will both torment and encourage him further.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long