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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
ACT V, SCENE II
Think for a moment how well Shakespeare has done his job! All of the action of the play has led us to the moment that begins this scene, when Othello enters Desdemona's bedroom to kill her.
The contrasts in the scene are striking: darkness and light, black and white. In the darkness of the bedroom, Othello carries a single lighted candle. Desdemona is lying on the bed, made with her white wedding sheets; her pale complexion is contrasted to Othello's dark face. Compare as well the purity of Desdemona's spirit its "whiteness," and "blackness" of Othello's soul, darkened by suspicion and hatred.
Othello's first lines "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul. / Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!" suggest that it is her adultery that forces him to kill Desdemona.
He compares her life to the candle he is holding. You can snuff out a candle and then relight it, he says. But once you've snuffed out a life, nothing can put back its spark.
He must kill her, he implies, as an act of justice. Her death will prevent her from cheating on other men. But as he looks down at his sleeping wife, he's overcome by her beauty and nearly changes his mind. He kisses her, and then twice more, his final kiss awakening her.
Othello begins to resemble the man we met in the first act who spoke
so movingly and calmly to the Senate about his love for Desdemona. He
has regained some of the composure he lost in Act III. Othello isn't a
crazed animal when he enters her room, but a man aware of the duty he
feels he must do, however painful. As much as we hate his decision to
murder Desdemona, we know that he feels he is right, and we can sympathize
with the difficulty he has in actually carrying out the murder.
When Othello tells Desdemona to make her peace with God because he is about to kill her, she protests that she's innocent. Othello brings up the matter of the handkerchief he saw in Cassio's hand, and Desdemona begs that Cassio be sent for-he, too, will swear that they are not guilty. But Othello tells her that Cassio has already confessed-and is dead. What a shock for Desdemona, to hear that the one person who can prove her innocence has confessed to a false crime and is dead! She cries out for herself, but once again Othello misunderstands and thinks that she's crying for Cassio, her lover. In his rage, he smothers her.
Moments too late, Emilia knocks at the door. Before answering her, Othello sees Desdemona move slightly and smothers her again to put her out of her pain. He loses hold of reality for a moment-and speaks of his wife before he realizes he no longer has a wife!
He lets Emilia in, and she tells him of the fight-that Cassio is alive, but Roderigo is dead. Othello realizes that his revenge is incomplete.
Desdemona is still alive. She cries out from her bed, and Emilia rushes to her side. Who is responsible? Emilia wants to know. To the end, Desdemona is unable to accuse her husband:
Nobody-I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind lord. O farewell! Act V, Scene ii, lines 149-50 Thinking that she must have disappointed Othello in some way, she takes responsibility for her own death, and dies.
For a moment, Othello is willing to accept Desdemona's pure gesture and refuses to admit to the murder. But his conscience won't permit him this lie and he confesses, "'Twas I that killed her." He then tells Emilia of Desdemona's unfaithfulness.
Emilia's response shows her loyalty and friendship. She accuses Othello of lying; she knows Desdemona was pure.
Othello offers her proof-it was Iago who knew the whole story. Emilia is dumbfounded! She can only repeat, "My husband?" three times, as if she hasn't heard clearly. Could this woman ever have known that her husband was such a villain?
Suddenly, we see an Emilia we have never seen before, rising like a tigress whose cub has been killed. Saying Iago "lies to the heart," she shouts for the world to hear that Desdemona has been murdered. Never fearing for her own life (for how can she know Othello hasn't gone mad?) she wants to see Desdemona's death avenged.
Emilia here says just what we would want to say, doesn't she? She gives voice to our grief and fury that Desdemona has died so uselessly.
Emilia's shouts of "Murder!" bring Lodovico, Gratiano, Iago (who must be relieved that Othello has succeeded), and others rushing in. Imagine Lodovico and Gratiano's shock at seeing their beautiful relative lying dead.
Emilia immediately throws Othello's words in Iago's face. Did he ever tell Othello that Desdemona was unfaithful? Iago admits it, but orders Emilia to be quiet. It's no use. She is past taking orders from him and continues to cry out in her grief.
Lodovico and Gratiano can't believe what they see. Gratiano is glad that Brabantio is dead (apparently heartbroken over Desdemona's marriage) so that he doesn't have to see this pitiful sight.
It's not clear if Desdemona knew of Brabantio's death. Did Lodovico and Gratiano come with the news, and not have the time to tell her? If she does know, why doesn't she mention it earlier in the play? The best answer seems to be that it is one of Shakespeare's inconsistencies.
Othello tries to defend himself with the story of Cassio's confession and the evidence of the handkerchief. Suddenly, Emilia understands everything, including her own part in what happened to Desdemona. Pouring out her grief and rage, she begins to tell the truth, despite the fact that Iago threatens her with his sword. Admitting that she gave the handkerchief to Iago, she makes Othello aware of how cruelly and stupidly he was fooled. Othello moves to kill Iago, but is stopped by Montano, and Iago takes the chance to stab Emilia and run away. Could Iago have ever guessed that it would be his wife who would turn him in?
Emilia goes to Desdemona's side, with words of comfort for her. With her last words, Emilia tells Othello how much Desdemona loved him.
What a long way Emilia comes in a short time! When we first met her, she came across as a loud, talkative cynic. She now seems like a heroine. She sacrifices her life for the truth. Can we ask more from a person than that?
While the others are chasing Iago, Othello finds another sword in the room. Gratiano comes back, but Othello assures him that he doesn't plan to escape. The Moor can only stand ashamed and guilt-ridden. "Where should Othello go?" he wonders.
Lodovico and Montano return with the injured Cassio and the captured Iago. Looking at Iago's feet (to see if he has cloven or split feet, as devils were supposed to have) Othello decides to test his theory that Iago is a demon by trying to kill him. He only succeeds in wounding Iago before Montano takes his sword from him. Othello isn't even given the satisfaction of seeing Iago die.
Confessions and questions pour out one after the other. Othello admits to having conspired against Cassio, who can only wonder why. "Dear General, I never gave you cause," he says.
Othello asks that Iago be forced to tell him why he "ensnared" his "soul and body." Iago replies:
Demand me nothing. What you know you know. From this time forth I never will speak word. Act V, Scene iii, lines 352-53
Why won't Iago speak? Isn't this a chance to tell Othello what he thinks of him? Perhaps he truly does believe that Othello knows the reasons, or perhaps none of the reasons really explain his behavior. Can evil ever be explained? Iago's last words leave his motives as ambiguous as ever.
Letters found on Roderigo explain his part in the plot to kill Cassio. Roderigo himself (who was not yet dead, as Iago thought) confessed the rest before he died. Lodovico orders Iago to be tortured to death, a fitting punishment for someone who pitilessly tortured others.
Othello asks to speak before he is taken away. Once again we see the Othello we admired earlier in the play. He asks that when his story is written down or spoken of, the truth be told. Nothing should be exaggerated or set down in anger. He sees himself as 1) a man who "loved not wisely, but too well"; 2) one who, though not "easily jealous" was distracted by doubts of Desdemona's faithlessness; 3) one who carelessly threw away a pearl whose true value he never knew; and 4) one who, although not given to tears, is weeping.
Comparing himself to an enemy of the state, a Turk, who killed a Venetian (Desdemona), Othello tells them to end his story with the death of the Turkish "dog"- and he stabs himself with a dagger he has hidden. He lays himself next to Desdemona's body, kisses her, and dies.
Though he treated Desdemona cruelly, can we hate Othello in this scene? He killed her out of delusion, prompted by a villain who spent all his energy to see his plan succeed. And Othello trusted him because he trusted everyone. Othello never asks forgiveness, but catalogues the flaws that brought him to this terrible moment. He goes to his death with as much honor as he can.
It's to Shakespeare's credit that, as much as we come to care for Desdemona, we can forgive Othello for her murder. Othello's flaws are human-who can say he or she wouldn't act the same way in a similar situation? Because we identify with Othello's humanity, we experience the pity and terror that classic tragedy asks of us.
Some readers feel that the play represents Iago's tragedy as well. This doesn't mean that we see in Iago a good man brought down by a human flaw. Iago never has the nobility of Othello. But, to some, tragedy can represent a waste of human potential. In this respect, Iago has abundant skills-brains, energy, insight, wit, cleverness-but he chooses to use them for evil instead of good.
Iago is the one Shakespearean villain who never doubts himself, never has a momentary lapse of conscience. We fear him because he believes in nothing except himself-not in other people, not in virtue, not in love. His total egotism feeds his hatred, and this hatred lays a waste of his abilities, and to the lives of those around him.