by: William Shakespeare

Act V, scenes i–ii

Although it seems ludicrous to suggest that Othello has not yet taken Desdemona’s virginity, the play includes two scenes during which their marriage is supposed to be sexually consummated, and in both the couple is interrupted as Othello is called on to resolve a crisis. This is only, it seems, the couple’s third night together, and Desdemona has asked that her wedding sheets be put on the bed. The wedding sheets would prove one way or another whether the marriage was consummated, depending on whether they were stained with blood. Desdemona’s choice of the sheets for a shroud may suggest that they are unstained. If they have consummated their marriage, Othello’s words may suggest his unwillingness to accept the fact that he has already taken Desdemona’s virginity, and his jealous fantasies about Desdemona’s supposed debauchery may stem from his fear of her newly awakened sexuality, and from his own feeling of responsibility for having awakened it.

After Desdemona wakes, the scene progresses in a series of wavelike rushes that leave the audience as stunned and disoriented as the characters onstage. For starters, Desdemona seems to die twice—Othello smothers her once, then smothers her again after mistaking Emilia’s screams from outside for his wife’s. Astonishingly, Desdemona finds breath again to speak four final lines after Emilia enters the bedroom. Similarly, Emilia’s death appears certain after Iago stabs her and Graziano says, “[T]he woman falls. Sure he hath killed his wife,” and then, “He’s gone, but his wife’s killed” (V.ii.243, 245). Yet, eight lines later, Emilia speaks again, calling, “What did thy song bode, lady?” (V.ii.253). She speaks another five lines before dying for good.

Before he kills himself, Othello invokes his prior services to the state, asking Lodovico and the other Venetians to listen to him for a moment. At this point, he is resolved to die, and his concern is with how he will be remembered. When he appeals to his listeners to describe him as he actually is, neither better or worse, the audience may or may not agree with his characterization of himself as one not easily made jealous, or as one who loved “not wisely but too well” (V.ii.353). As he continues, though, he addresses an important problem: will his crime be remembered as the fall from grace of a Venetian Christian, or an assault on Venice by an ethnic and cultural outsider? He stresses his outsider status in a way that he does not do earlier in the play, comparing himself to a “base Indian” who cast away a pearl worth more than all of his tribe (V.ii.356357). Finally, he recalls a time in which he defended Venice by smiting an enemy Turk, and then stabs himself in a reenactment of his earlier act, thereby casting himself as both insider and outsider, enemy of the state and defender of the state.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare cultivates Othello’s ambivalent status as insider and outsider. Othello identifies himself firmly with Christian culture, yet his belief in fate and the charmed handkerchief suggest ties to a pagan heritage. Despite the fact that his Christianity seems slightly ambiguous, however, Shakespeare repeatedly casts Othello as Christ and Iago as Judas (or, ironically, as Peter). (See analysis of Act I, scene ii, and Act III, scene iii.) These echoes of the Gospel suggest that Othello and his tragedy are somehow central to the Christian world of Venice. Moreover, while most modern editions of the play include the words “base Indian” (V.ii.356), the First Folio edition actually says “base Iudean” (i.e., Judean), possibly implying that Othello compares himself to Judas. The play’s rich biblical references suggest that Othello is both Christ and Judas, a man who sacrifices himself to expiate the Venetians’ guilt as well as his own. What larger crime Othello’s suicide atones for, however, the audience can only conjecture.

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