Act 5 Scene 2

Synopsis of Act 5 Scene 2

Othello prepares to kill Desdemona, trying to convince himself that he is acting out of justice, not revenge. He cannot resist kissing his sleeping wife, and almost changes his mind about killing her. Desdemona awakes and protests her innocence and her love for him. He insists she must die, even after she explains that she never gave Cassio her handkerchief nor took him as a lover. She pleads for time to pray but he refuses and smothers her just as Emilia knocks at the door. When he lets her in she reports the murder of Roderigo but that Cassio is only wounded. She discovers Desdemona dying, who tells her that she had killed herself. Othello claims his innocence because of what Desdemona said but then claims she has gone to hell because she had lied and he confesses that he killed her. Othello explains that he knew of Desdemona’s adultery through Iago but Emilia is incredulous of this and contemptuously calls him a murderer and her husband a liar. 
When Iago arrives with Montano and Gratiano, he confirms Othello’s story and claims he only told Othello what he believed. Gratiano, Desdemona’s uncle, reports Brabantio’s death and is glad he was spared the sight of his daughter’s murder. Emilia reveals the truth about the handkerchief and Othello finally realises he has been deceived all along. In angry revenge Iago kills her and escapes. Othello is now beside himself with grief and shame and when officers return with Iago, he wounds him. Cassio arrives and protests he never did anything wrong against Othello or Desdemona; Othello believes it and asks his pardon. Lodovico reads out some letters they had found on Roderigo which prove that in everything he did he was set on by Iago. Othello states that he only did what he thought was right and that his biggest sin was in loving too much. Being too easily duped and manipulated, he threw away the greatest thing he owned. He then kills himself, leaving Cassio as the new governor of Cyprus.

Othello weeping over Desdemona's body by William SalterCommentary on Act 5 Scene 2

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul. – Othello here tries to convince himself that he has to kill Desdemona, not out of revenge or jealousy but because it is the right thing to do to an adulteress, ‘else she’ll betray more men.’
Put out the light and then put out the light. – The first light is the candle but the second is the light of Desdemona’s life, which he believes he must extinguish.
Promethean heat .. thy rose – In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from heaven in order to bring life to a piece of clay. Othello uses this analogy to show that Desdemona’s life cannot be so easily restored. He also uses the metaphor of the rose as another symbol of life.
this sorrow’s heavenly, / It strikes where it doth love. - Othello is trying to convince himself that he is doing the right thing and that his sorrow must not deflect him from executing justice by killing Desdemona.
Have you prayed tonight, Desdemona? – Othello tells her to pray and confess herself so that any sin can be forgiven by God before she faces judgement. However, when he eventually smothers her, he refuses her request to pray.
I would not kill thy soul. – According to Christian theology whilst a person’s physical body will die, their soul will go either to be with God in heaven or be excluded from God’s presence and therefore in hell. The Venetian state followed the teaching of the Catholic Church (which teaching was still within the living memory of Shakespeare’s audience, since Elizabeth I’s predecessor, Mary Tudor, had restored Catholicism in the 1550s). Catholic doctrine stated that, in preparation for entering heaven, sins must be confessed and forgiven, if necessary on one’s deathbed. Whilst Othello intends to kill his wife’s body, he still wants her soul to enter heaven.
eyes roll so .. gnaw .. your nether lip – As Othello descends to an ‘uncivilised’ act, so Shakespeare emphasises his African characteristics to make him seem more ‘other’. His contemporary audience associated African people with ‘savage’ ways.
For to deny .. I do groan – Othello’s distress increases as he sees Desdemona continue to (as he sees it) ‘pretend’ her innocence and lie on oath.
a murder .. great revenge – Desdemona has already alluded to Othello’s ‘bloody passion’ and now he acknowledges baser motives for killing his wife, heightening the passion which the audience witnesses as he smothers her, then repeats the action.
O my good Lord .. I do beseech you – Shakespeare contrasts the urgency of Emilia outside with the stillness of Othello contemplating his immobile wife on the curtained bed. 
Yes; ’tis Emilia: by and by. She’s dead. – Othello’s soliloquy here is like an early example of stream of consciousness. The ‘Yes’ and ‘by and by’ are probably called out for Emilia to hear. His musings about wondering why Emilia has come are mixed with his contemplation of how successful his killing has been and then the implications for his status and feelings.
EclipseMethinks it should be now a huge eclipse / Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe / Should yawn at alteration – In the New Testament accounts of Jesuscrucifixion, there is a solar eclipse and earthquake (see Matthew 27:45-52). Desdemona’s death is equally momentous to Othello, and of course also carries the same connotations of an innocent victim wrongly killed by human evil. 
error of the moon .. makes men mad. – There is a long-standing belief that the moon affects people’s mental stability and behaviour (hence the term ‘lunatic’). Othello is also exhibiting signs of disassociation from his crime.
O! falsely, falsely murder’d. – The apparent revival of a corpse was a typical feature of revenge tragedy.
She’s like a liar gone to burning hell. - Othello here appears at his worst, claiming that Desdemona is damned to hell for lying when he knows she only lied to protect him. 
Truth/liar, angel/devil, water/fire, false/heavenly true – Shakespeare uses a series of juxtapositions as he reverses Othello’s up-side-down mental image back to the upright truths proclaimed by Emilia.
one entire and perfect chrysolite, / I’d not have sold her for it. – Shakespeare’s audience would recognise that Othello is referencing a parable told by Jesus (Matthew 13:45-46) about a merchant who sells all he has in order to acquire the most precious thing (a pearl, representing heaven/salvation). 
My husband? – The reverberation of ‘husband’ (echoing Othello’s earlier repetition of ‘wife’) demonstrates Emilia’s incredulity, then anger, and serves to emphasise the destructiveness and fragility of the married state.
She was too fond of her most filthy bargain. – Emilia here speaks out of rage and sorrow at what Othello has done to her mistress, using a racist slur towards Othello.
thou’rt not such a villain – Emilia desperately seeks reassurance that she is not married to such a malevolent man, even as she realises that all the evidence of his villainy is in front of her.
O! O! O! – As realisation dawns for Othello, words are inadequate – he can only ‘roar’ like an animal. 
Shore his old thread in twain – A reference to the ‘thread of life’ which, according to Greek mythology, was woven by one of the Fates, the three blind goddesses supposed to determine the course of human life. One Fate spun, one wove and one cut the thread – which was the moment of death.
a desperate turn - suicide
curse his better angel from his side, / And fall to reprobation – Like taking another’s life, taking one’s own life is regarded as a sin by Christians since life belongs to God to give and take away. To do so would mean ignoring the counsel of the Holy Spirit (better angel) within believers and incurring eternal damnation (reprobation).
she with Cassio hath the act of shame / A thousand times committed. – Othello here shamelessly exaggerates. There was no time at all for them to commit adultery, as the plays ends after only two days on Cyprus. And it stretches credulity too far to believe that they had been having an affair in Venice while Cassio was acting as their go-between during their courtship. 
’Twill out .. speak as liberal as the north; - Despite Iago’s commands, there is a sudden sense of freedom as the floodgates of truth open and the web of deceit is broken.
every puny whipster gets my sword – Othello’s loss of physical valour symbolises how ‘unmanned’ he has become. Although subsequently arming himself again, he realises that all is lost (‘O vain boast!’).
‘Willow, willow, willow’ – Emilia here repeats the mournful song that Desdemona had been singing and uses it for her own death lament.
So come my soul to bliss as I speak true; - Emilia has a vision of her soul going to heaven as she confesses to the truth and renounces all duplicity.
Here is my journey’s end, here is my butt, - Othello points his weapon at his own heart. A ‘butt’ is the target used in archery.
ill-starr’d wench - Othello refers to Desdemona as one who was doomed by the stars (i.e. fate) to die young.
when we shall meet at compt / This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven, / And fiends will snatch - Compt refers to Judgement Day when everyone’s sins will need accounting for to God. Othello believes that Desdemona’s accusing look at her murderer will ensure he is expelled from heaven and cast into the clutches of hell.
Whip me .. Blow me .. roast me in sulphur, .. gulfs of liquid fire! – Othello refers to the torments of hell typically depicted in Doom paintings.
viper .. his feet – Iago is described as a snake, the shape taken by Satan in the Garden of Eden. Othello looks at his feet to see if he has cloven hooves, medieval depictions of the devil often showing him as rather like Pan, half human, half goat.
Here is a letter .. even but now he spake – Although Roderigo appeared to die on stage, Shakespeare has to change the plot and revive him in order to provide documentary evidence of the truth. 
From this time forth I never will speak word. – A supreme irony here is that Iago refuses to speak any more, when he has spent the whole play deceiving everyone through his garrulousness.
Of one that loved not wisely but too well, / Of one not easily jealous – Shakespeare needs to create a moral distance between Othello and Iago so that we feel the tragedy of his protagonist’s death. Othello expresses the common desire to be thought well of by others, especially near the end of our lives. However, the audience must balance this with the evidence they have seen - that he was ‘easily jealous’, for he was an easy prey to Iago’s lies. Someone who loved Desdemona ‘too well’ would not be prepared to think the worst of her after only a few days of marriage. 
a pearl .. /Richer – Desdemona is associated with a symbol of perfection, whiteness and purity. In throwing her away, Othello has reversed Jesusparable about gaining the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:45-46).
a turban’d Turk .. And smote him thus. – As he kills himself, Othello reverts to the brave soldier that he always was, a man of action rather than of words and feelings who fights on the side of Christendom. It is as if he is re-living his heyday of being a successful soldier and wants to die in the same way.
Seize upon the fortunes of the Moor, - As the only living relative of the dead couple, all Othello’s possessions will be inherited by Gratiano.
the censure of this hellish villain, / The time, the place, the torture; O! enforce it. – Lodovico restores order and the rule of law rather than personal vendetta.

Investigating Act 5 Scene 2

  • Study Othello’s speech starting from ‘Who can control his fate?’ until ‘Dead! O! O! O!’ Note all the examples of self-pity that Othello utters.
    • What is your reaction to his first question (above)?
    • How are his words influenced by his life as a soldier and sailor?
    • How should this speech be spoken to show Othello’s emotions here? Practise speaking it until you think you have captured his mood.
  • ‘For nought did I in hate, but all in honour.’ What evidence is there to prove/disprove Othello’s assertion?
  • What is your final judgement of Othello? 
    • Do you hate him, pity him, sympathise with him, condemn him or weep for him? Explain your response.
  • Why is this the tragedy of Othello and not of Desdemona or Iago?
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