by: William Shakespeare

What Does the Ending Mean?

The play ends in a spectacle of tragic violence: Emilia intercepts Othello after he’s murdered Desdemona and reveals Iago’s treachery. Her revelation is corroborated by information from Cassio and a letter found in Roderigo’s pocket. In a vain attempt to prevent his scheme from being revealed, Iago stabs and kills Emilia, and is then taken prisoner while Othello, lamenting the loss of his wife, kills himself next to her. Notably, Iago is left wounded but alive at the end of the play. Cassio is charged with determining Iago’s punishment, and urges “the time, the place, the torture, oh, enforce it” (5.2.). The ending symbolizes the culmination of the violent forces put in motion by Iago at the start of the play. He aimed at “practicing upon [Othello’s] peace and quiet / Even to madness” (2.1.). Iago has been so successful that Othello feels compelled to kill himself, explaining that “I kissed thee ere I killed thee—no way but this, Killing myself to die upon a kiss” (5.2.). Not only has Othello murdered his beloved wife, he also has to face the horrible truth that his suspicions of her adultery were completely unfounded.

Othello’s suicide serves as a kind of trial in which he decides on and enacts a punishment for his crime of killing Desdemona. In his final speech, he explains how he hopes to be remembered, saying “When you shall these unlucky deed relate / Speak of me as I am” (5.2.). Perhaps because he knows he has never been fully accepted by Venetian society, and that they will be quick to twist his reputation into that of a barbaric killer, Othello spends his final moments reminding his audience of the ways he has faithfully served Venice. Immediately before he stabs himself, Othello draws a comparison to how he killed “a malignant and turbaned Turk…the circumcised dog” (5.2.). The comparison might suggest that Othello, as a result of his crimes, now sees himself as an outcast who deserves to die in the same way, or it might imply that by voluntarily punishing himself for his crimes, he acts in a way that is consistent with his previous military valor. Either way, Othello asserts an autonomy and control over his destiny that contrasts sharply with the way he has been manipulated throughout most of the play.