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Othello Summary and Analysis

by William Shakespeare

Act V

Act V, scene i: Cyprus. A street.

Summary

Iago has Roderigo poised and ready to pounce on Cassio, and kill him; if either of them is killed, it is to Iago's benefit, although he would like to have both of them disposed of, so that his devices might not be discovered. Roderigo and Cassio fight, and both are injured; Othello hears the scuffle, is pleased, and then leaves to finish off Desdemona. Iago enters, pretending that he knows nothing of the scuffle; Gratiano and Lodovico also stumble upon the scene, having no idea what has happened. Roderigo is still alive, so Iago feigns a quarrel, and finishes him off. Bianca comes by, and sees Cassio wounded; Iago makes some remark to implicate her; Cassio is carried away, and Roderigo is already dead. Emilia also comes in, and pins more blame on Bianca; she has done nothing, but Iago has some quick work to do if he is to exonerate himself in this mess.

Analysis

Here, again, Iago addresses the audience directly about his intentions and actions; Iago is only truly honest with the audience, and hides something from each of the players. This creates an undercurrent of dramatic irony throughout the play, since the audience knows all of his plans, and individual characters know nothing, like Othello, or only a small portion of it, like Roderigo. Iago's tendency to disclose himself to the audience gives him a connection to the audience that Othello does not have; although Othello is the title character of the play, Iago has more lines and more interaction with the audience. It is Othello's tragedy that is the focus of the play, but Iago succeeds in stealing the show; he is one of those peculiar villains, like Richard III, who is more compelling, complex, and sometimes more interesting than any of the more noble characters he deceives.

Here, Iago again proves himself a consummate actor. This scene again brings up the theme of appearance vs. reality; for though Iago claims to know nothing of this battle, and be merely discovering it, he is the mastermind of the entire situation. Iago is many selves in this act; he is friend and advisor to Roderigo, then betrayer and murderer of Roderigo, consoler of Cassio, and the lead officer in this crisis. He uses misrepresentation to fill each of these roles as best he can, and not let the others know of his true plans and character. And he nearly succeeds.

Act V, scene ii: A bedchamber in the castle: DESDEMONA in bed asleep; a light burning.

Summary

Othello enters Desdemona's room while she is asleep; and though she is beautiful, and appears innocent, he is determined to kill her. He justifies this with images, metaphors, and ideas of her rebirth after death, and though his rage is softened, he is still much mistaken about her. Desdemona awakens, and he tells her to repent of any sins before she dies; she believes there is nothing she can do to stop him from killing her, but continues to assert her innocence. Othello tells her that he found her handkerchief with Cassio, though Desdemona insists it must not be true; she pleads with Othello not to kill her, but he begins to smother her. Emilia knocks, curious about what is going on; Othello lets her in, but tries to conceal Desdemona, who he thinks is already dead. Emilia brings the news of Roderigo's death, and Cassio's wounding.

Emilia soon finds out that Desdemona is nearly dead, by Othello's hand; Desdemona speaks her last words, and then Emilia pounces on Othello for committing this horrible crime. Othello is not convinced of his folly until Iago confesses his part, and Cassio speaks of the use of the handkerchief; then, Othello is overcome with grief.

Iago stabs Emilia for telling all about his plots, and then Emilia dies; the Venetian nobles reveal that Brabantio, Desdemona's father, is dead, and so cannot be grieved by this tragedy now. Othello stabs Iago when he is brought back in; Othello then tells all present to remember him how he is, and kills himself. Cassio becomes the temporary leader of the troops at Cyprus, and Lodovico and Gratiano are to carry the news of the tragedy back to Venice. Iago is taken into custody, and his crimes will be judged back in Venice.

Analysis

Othello's farewell to Desdemona is a return to his former eloquence, though it is also a farewell to his own peace and his life. Though he believes Desdemona's soul to be black, he can only focus on her whiteness; he pledges not to mar "that whiter skin of hers than snow," although he is determined to take her life (V.ii.4). Othello's allusion to Prometheus explains his wish to put out Desdemona's light in order to restore her former innocence; even when the act of murder is drawing near, Othello seems intent upon dwelling in beautiful images and poetic metaphors to hide the ugliness and wrongness of his deed. And where before Othello felt only hatred and anger, now he is forced to feel his love, along with his determination to see Desdemona die.

Here, Desdemona learns too late of the trap that was set for her with the handkerchief; this symbol of her love has come back to condemn her, just as all her protestations of her love and devotion for Othello do not soften his resolve to kill her. Othello refers to the belief of the time, that to die with all one's sins repented of meant that the soul was saved for heaven; that he asks Desdemona if she has prayed, and urges her to do so if she hasn't, shows a strange kind of mercy. But Othello takes Desdemona's cries for mercy, and her remorse at Cassio's misfortune, as proof of her indiscretion; although his rage is tempered, he is still set on having her dead.

Othello's reaction after smothering Desdemona shows an even greater rift between his resolve and his emotion. He does not want to admit that Desdemona is dead; he speaks to her, ponders her stillness, and seems hysterical. He is also grieved by this action; "methinks it should be now a huge eclipse of sun and moon," he says, referring back to the light/dark imagery of the play to communicate how unsettled and unhinged he feels (V.ii.97-98).

Desdemona's last words are especially cryptic; when asked who killed her, she remarks, "nobody, I myselfŠ...Commend me to my kind lord" (V.ii.123). Taking into account her resigned behavior before her death, she might be trying to absolve her husband of blame with her last breath, or trying to express her love for the one who has killed her. If this is so, it certainly does not sit well with her line, "falsely, falsely murdered," which seems to refer both to Desdemona's death, and to Emilia's mention of the death of Roderigo and wounding of Cassio (V.ii.116). However, Desdemona's goodness is a beacon in the play, and must remain unsullied - even beyond reason - if the full gravity of the play is to be achieved. Modern interpretations of Desdemona may find fault with her resignation, but here she is a tool of tragedy.

Othello's reaction upon Desdemona's death is a mixture of shock, hysterics, and anger. The greatest irony of the play is that it is only after killing Desdemona that Othello learns the truth about her; he finds out that she was blameless, and that Iago was manipulating him into believing otherwise. Still, even after the murder is exposed, Othello cannot let go of the idea that Desdemona really did cheat on him; but his fixation on the handkerchief is ended when Emilia reveals how the token was used to make him believe in the affair.

Emilia's fate is parallel to Desdemona's; although she was less naive than Desdemona, she too was betrayed by her husband. Desdemona might be a more central figure, but Emilia is the play's conscience; she makes Othello finally feel remorse for his act, and undoes some of the damage that Iago's allegations wrought, which not even Desdemona was able to allay. Emilia knows, almost as well as her husband, how human nature works; she knows of husbands' jealousies, of how men believe women are less human, and that people are naturally prone to folly. She is the sole voice of reason in the play, the only person besides Desdemona who is uncorrupted by Iago's manipulations.

At last, Othello's grief comes to its fruition, as his reason and speech are finally fully restored. "Roast me in sulfur! Wash me in steep-down gulfs of molten fire!" Othello laments, the images of pain and torment reflecting the feelings which are coming over him (V.ii.278-279). He juxtaposes heaven and hell to explain his despair, and the virtue he knows again that Desdemona did possess. But though Othello has some sense again, he still wounds Iago; this act seems to be done as a distraction of his pain, and makes Othello's character seem even more deeply flawed.

Othello insists that he is an "honorable murderer", but he is driven to kill out of his own shortcomings (V.ii.293). Although his beautiful language and his remorse make him seem noble again, Othello still denies the character flaws that have led him to this end. Iago was definitely the catalyst for Desdemona's death and Othello's jealous rages; but the seeds of jealousy and suspicion were already inherent in Othello, and only had to be coaxed forth. It certainly makes the resolution of the play more neat to believe that Othello is returned to his nobility; but, since he still denies the deep wrong he has committed, and his own part in this dirty act, he cannot be fully redeemed or forgiven.

Of course, all threads are wrapped up in this last scene of the play; letters are produced that expose Iago's part in these unfortunate events, even though these letters have not been mentioned or shown earlier in the play. Cassio seems to have been kept alive merely to testify about his part in this whole debacle; and Lodovico and Gratiano are conveniently there as witnesses of the Venetian state, with Montano representing the law and order of Cyprus. Although the plot is brought to its conclusion in this last scene, there are still questions and issues to consider, especially in Othello's last speech.

Othello has always been concerned with his reputation and public image; this was one of his justifications for killing Desdemona. His last speech reveals that he is still fixated on this cause; "speak of me as I am," he tells them, yet there is great irony in this statement, since he goes on to misrepresent himself and his motives. He says that he is "not easily jealous," although it is apparent from Iago's first insinuations that he is very jealous and possessive of his wife. He also says he is one who "drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees their med'cinable gum"; however, Othello found it difficult to be sorry for killing his wife, until he found out that his motives were wrong (V.ii.341-350).

This last speech is filled with heroic language; he reduces his foul, treacherous murder to "[throwing] a pearl away richer than all his tribe," a beautiful metaphor (though laden with racist overtones) that hardly does justice to the brutality and cruelty of Othello's behavior (V.ii.346). Othello tries to die with honor and some reputation intact; but his speech shows that his preoccupation with his image is still keeping him from the truth, as is his penchant for storytelling. Still, Othello is uniquely human, like Hamlet; his flaws and follies make him a compelling tragic figure, and his more noble aspects make him sympathetic. Although Iago steals most of the spotlight during the play, in the end, the tragedy is Othello's; it is his pain, folly, and misfortune which reverberate, and make this drama so compelling and so telling of human nature.

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