The Slap (4.1.240)
Explaining the Inexplicable
Certainly one of the more memorable actions in the entire play is Othello's slapping of Desdemona in the presence of the Venetian embassy near the end of 4.1. No greater contrast could be drawn between the Othello of 1.3, where he addressed the Signiory with dignity and overblown rhetoric (maybe even some "bumbast circumstance"-1.1.13), and the Othello of 4.1, where he strikes his wife in uncontrolled fury in the presence of the Signiory's representative. The slap Othello administers is the external sign of his complete inner decompensation. In order to understand this gesture of rage and humiliation, however, we must put it into context of Othello's state of mind since 3.3.
Dealing With Loss
As I said in the introductory mini-essay, Othello is a tragedy exploring the range of human reactions to deep personal and professional loss. Othello feels because of Iago's plausible story of Desdemona infidelity in 3.3 that he has suffered a major, life-threatening loss. Most essential for him is to develop a strategy to cope with the the torrent of emotions that begins to flood his life. At first Othello resolved on the simple road of investigation. As he says to Iago, "No! to be once in doubt/ Is once to be resolv'd (3.3.179-180)." Thus he will "see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;/ And on the proof, there is no more but this--/ Away at once with love or jealousy (3.3.189-192)!" The strategy of investigation is thus a strategy of control. It is Othello's means to try to calm the storm of emotions that wells up within.
But there is something that works against Othello in his resolve to remove doubt. This is his need to have immediate results. He is fundamentally incapable of devoting the time and patience necessary to conduct a dispassionate analysis by calling in a witness or two, weighing the probability of various stories, deciding on the most plausible alternative. Instead, the accusation or implication of infidelity so strikes him in his soul, the place where he has allowed Desdemona unfettered access; so impinges upon his sense of personal vulnerability; so threatens him with a return to the chaos that he has escaped through her love (cf. 3.3.90-92), that he must have immediate resolution of his doubts.
In short, Othello is a man of divided mind. On the one hand, he would like to be the one who weighs evidence and comes to a reasoned conclusion; on the other hand his emotions will not let him do so. His overblown rhetoric at the end of 3.3, where he solemly and religiously takes on a vow for Cassio and Desdemona's destruction, continues in the inner turmoil of 4.1 where he vows death to Cassio but cannot help singing Desdemona's unique praises (4.1.180-190), but then vows her death too (4.1.200). In A.C. Bradley's memorable phrase, Othello's mind is now a "tortured mixture of longing and loathing for Desdemona."
This division in mind as a result of his feeling of great loss creates the most powerful concatenation of destructive emotions within Othello. He has to face, in Jane Adamson's words, his "raging despair." He he bewildered by the purported betrayal, threatened, fearful, plagued by self-doubt and self-pity. His attempts at resolve mask the fact that he is suffering monumental grief and even panic as the chaos he so fears begins to envelop him. He becomes constricted, imprisoned in the madness of his own mind, full of misery.
And, to make things worse, he feels he has to decide right now. He doesn't feel he has the luxury to search out this allegation carefully, even though he knows he ought to do so. The inner tension and mental oppression he feels is triggered not least by the sense that he must avoid a further hell, and must come to some kind of conclusion or resolution of the matter tearing at his mind. To use the psychobabble of the 21st century, he needs to establish some "closure" on this most important issue.
Now, The Slap
So, with these welling emotions, Othello greets the embassy from Venice (4.1.213ff). The news isn't good. He is being recalled to Venice. Actually, we are never told that this is "bad" news, but the characters later (4.2.45) take it as a demotion. Perhaps news of the "scene" with Cassio in 2.3 has reached the Senate's ears and they immediately move to replace the commander in chief. In any case, Othello silently reads the missive announcing his recall. Now his personal as well as professional life is at stake. 'How true it is,' he must think, 'that when I stop loving you, Desdemona, or suspect your fidelity, I return to chaos. Chaos is coming very quickly.'
While musing on the letter, Desdemona again makes her untimely appeal for Cassio, using words of double meaning, which a person in Othello's condition could easily interpret in an "Iagoan" fashion. "I would do much/ T' atone them [i.e., reconcile Cassio and Othello] for the love I bear to Cassio (4.1.233-234)." So inappropriately said! If she wanted to use language of love, why not say "for the love I bear to Othello?" Why is Desdemona so blind to the effect of the mention of Cassio's name when her servant woman Emilia has already repeatedly suggested that jealousy was behind the Moor's changed behavior (3.4.passim)? Then, her next line, after Othello interjects a brief question is, "What, is he angry (4.1.235)?"
Her use of "angry" in this context may be indebted to Iago's interpretation of Othello's "post 3.3 conduct," where he deftly suggested three times that what was behind Othello's conduct was anger (3.4.132,134,139). Rather than accepting Emilia's interpretation of Othello's conduct as "jealousy," Desdemona might be leaning now to Iago's construal of it as anger. Indeed, such an interpretation aids Iago, because it will keep Desdemona's mind away from the true issue--Othello's jealousy--which, if she had truly considered it, she might have addressed.
Then, there is one more thing. Just before he slaps her, Othello, uses the "Iagoan" word "indeed" (cf. 3.3.101) as a question and Desdemona responds with a confused "My lord?" To which, Othello responds cryptically, "I am glad to see you mad (4.1.239)." Though commentators are at a loss to suggest a meaning for this, it appears that it Othello is trying to "turn the tables" on Desdemona by attributing to her (madness) what everyone suspects is Othello's condition. It is like saying to a person who is obviously in the right, "Well, I think you are wrong," just simply because you are able to disagree with them. Othello's brief statement, "I am glad to see you mad" when Desdemona is, at most, confused, is one more indication of Othello's tenuous grip on reality.
And then, when she says, "Why, Othello?" both in protest and in confusion, he slaps her. The multiple tensions of her possible infidelity, his recall, the continued badgering of Iago, the "ocular proof" he received of Desdemona's "betrayal" from Cassio and Iago's conversation, and Desdemona's unwise choice of words in the current conversation all conspire to overload Othello's mental system once again. Instead of collapsing into a trance, he strikes Desdemona. The die has now been cast, and there will be no second thoughts now for Othello as he fixes his mind on Desdemona's destruction.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long