Worse than Job (4.2)
The first ten lines of Othello's speech (4.2.47-56) stress that he could have easily endured suffering of Joban proportions. The thing that Job could not bear, the shame and humiliation of rejection by people he formerly would have "disdained to set with the dogs of my flock (Job 30:1), Othello says he could have abided "well, very well." Even if the unerring finger of time had pointed at his ignominy and screamed "OTHELLO, OTHELLO" for the world to see, he would have been unfazed. But in the nature of things it often is the case that we suffer the thing we are most unable to endure; we experience the thing that most unsettles us. Grammatically speaking, after many contrary-to-fact clauses there is a "but now" or a "yet" clause, a clause that so fixes and focuses the current distress that it burrows us down into our private hell of unimaginable suffering. This is the idea behind Othello's words in 4.2.57-64 and in his bitter words to Desdemona a few lines later (66-69).
Othello's "But Now"
We finally arrive at the point where Othello's distress is most acute.
"But there, where I have garner'd up my heart,/ Where either I must live or bear no life;/ The fountain from the which my current runs/ Or else dries up: to be discarded thence! (4.2.57-60)."
He speaks the "there" with a glance at Desdemona. The "there" is Desdemona, the place where he has "garner'd up" his heart, the place where he has stored all the provisions of his life. In other words, Othello shifts from Job to himself and to his act of personal vulnerability as he shifts the contents of his personal "agricultural harvest," his riches, his sustenance, his means of staying alive to Desdemona's care. It is as if he is saying, 'I have placed all my wealth, all my riches, all my psychic treasures in her, my beloved's, care.'
But he continues. He is not ready yet to say "to be discarded thence! (line 60)." It would have been powerful, and we would have been shocked had he just said, "But there, where I have garner'd up my heart, to be discarded thence!" But this will not be enough for Othello (or Shakespeare). He has to ramp up the psychic pain meter further; he must tighten the screws on his own brain. He has to multiply the images so as to bring even the slowest and dullest hearer/reader into his distress. If the image of "garnering" doesn't resonate with us, maybe the image of "living or bearing no life" will or the "fountain" will. It is as if Othello is composing a symphony of pain, a Mahler's 9th of anguish, or is painting a picture of unmitigated angst, and has to capture every ridge, every rill, every mountain and every valley of his peculiar torment with unerring precision.
And so he gives us a second image. "Where either I must live or bear no life (4.2.58)." The "where" is, of course, the "there" of the previous image--Desdemona. He must live in her or be bereft of her and bear no life. Now we hear Othello speaking the language of the heart. I said in an earlier essay (on Othello's Love II ) that his language of devotion to Desdemona when he escaped the storm to land safely on Cyprus (2.1) seemed a bit stilted, a little over the top. The language here, however, seems utterly appropriate to his current feeling. He either lives in Desdemona or bears no life. Note how similar this idea is to the unguarded thought he drops to Iago just before Iago begins on his marathon of harassment in 3.3: "Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul/ But I do love thee! and when I love thee not,/ Chaos is come again (3.3.90-92)." Othello has so entrusted his inner life, his heart, the springs of his own identity, into Desdemona's care that if he no longer lives in that care he must die.
But he has yet one more image--"The fountain from the which my current runs/ or else dries up (4.2.59-60)." Now Desdemona is not simply a grain elevator where he garners his provisions or the locale where he rests his heart. She is a life-giving fountain, a waterfall of energy and sustenance that is the origin of his own flow. All three of the pictures create the sense of necessity, of absolute dependence that Othello has on Desdemona.
To be Discarded!
Then the hammer descends, the other shoe falls, the psychic stability of Othello comes crashing down. "To be discarded thence (4.2.60)!" This is his felt reality and his utter shame. Those four words are reminiscent of the Psalmist's lament when he says
"For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace. My heart is stricken and withered like grass; I am too wasted to eat my bread.....I like awake; I am like a lonely bird on the housetop....For I eat ashes like bread, and mingle tears with my drink, because of your indignation and anger; for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside (Ps. 102:3-10)."
Othello is experiencing the feeling of being "lifted up" and "thrown aside." Actually, the Hebrew word (thrown aside) is more vivid than that. It is the word for casting violently away, discarding, throwing away. Such is the Psalmist's feeling. Such is Othello's reality.
Now the image of a flowing fountain is replaced with one of a pool of foul standing water ("cestern") in which the lowest of animals copulate (4.2.61). Desdemona is no longer the sweet life-giving source but the source of all manner of foulness. Othello now will be overcome with images of most extreme lust and profligacy. That is the subject of our next essay.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long