Summary and Analysis
Desdemona lies asleep in bed, and Othello enters, dreadfully calm and sure in what he must do. Desdemona wakens and calls him to bed, but he tells her to pray at once, repenting anything she needs to repent, and he will wait while she prays because he does not want to kill her soul. Suddenly, Desdemona realizes that Othello intends to kill her. She is afraid, although she knows she is not guilty. Knowing that she cannot convince him of her fidelity, Desdemona weeps and begs him to banish her rather than kill her, or let her live just a little more, but he stifles her, presumably with a pillow.
When Emilia knocks on the door, Othello draws the bed-curtain across, hiding the bed, and opens the door to hear the news. What Emilia reports is not what Othello expected. She says that Cassio has killed Roderigo. Then Desdemona's voice is heard from the bed, saying "falsely murdered" and Emilia calls for help. Desdemona says that she is innocent, denies that anyone has killed her, and dies.
Emilia and Othello confront each other. Emilia sees herself as a witness and will tell what she has seen, and Othello declares that he has killed Desdemona because of her infidelity. Emilia insists that Desdemona was faithful; Othello replies that Cassio had been with her, and Iago knew all about it. Now Emilia has the key idea. She says "my husband" over and over, while Othello pours out his heart on justice and how he loved her and how Iago is honest. Emilia curses Iago, calls him a liar, and cries murder to waken everyone.
Montano, Gratiano, Iago, and others rush into the bedchamber where Emilia is shouting, and she challenges Iago to defend himself, giving him one last chance to retrieve himself in her estimation. Iago says that Desdemona was indeed unfaithful with Cassio, but Emilia knows this is untrue. She tells how she found the handkerchief, which her husband had asked her to steal, and gave it to him. Iago stabs Emilia and runs out. As she dies, Emilia tells Othello that Desdemona loved him. Othello realizes, too late, that he had been tricked and manipulated.
Iago is caught and brought back. Othello and Cassio demand to know why he did it, but Iago refuses to explain and says he will never speak again. Othello, watching his world unravel, asks the men to remember him clearly, his good points and his bad, as "one that lov'd not wisely, but too well." Then he stabs himself, falls onto the bed, and dies.
Lodovico takes charge, giving Othello's house and property to Gratiano, his next of kin by marriage. Cassio will be commander and have the power to sentence Iago, and Lodovico will return to Venice with the sad news.
Desdemona is asleep in her bed as Othello enters, carrying a candle. He is no longer the angry, vengeful husband. His soliloquy is quiet, and he seems to be more an agent of justice than the jealous cuckold. He speaks repeatedly of "the cause . . . the cause" (1) — that is, Desdemona's infidelity, and he even hesitates to speak aloud the name of Desdemona's crime before the "chaste stars" (2). At last, Othello assumes the posture of the tragic hero, grossly wrong in his determination, yet steeling himself to do what he must. Here is what has become of the Othello of earlier acts — a man admirably self-possessed, the master of the situation. In this soliloquy, there are no references to strumpets or whores, nor to coupling goats or monkeys, nor to any other images which once racked him with jealousy. No longer is he possessed with revenge for his grievously injured pride. There remains, however, a passionate conviction of righteousness in his words — despite his monumental error.
He is convinced that he is being merciful in performing a deed that must be done. Thus he will not shed Desdemona's blood (instead, he will smother her); nor will he scar her physical beauty; nor would he, as we learn later, kill her soul. Yet he will kill her; Desdemona must die, "else she'll betray more men" (6). And there is devastating irony as he says, "Put out the light, and then put out the light" (7); Desdemona was once the "light" of his life and, also, light is often equated in Elizabethan dramas with reason, especially right reason, the aim of all men. Here, however, Othello means to act righteously, but he fails to use his sense of logic or reason; he has condemned Desdemona without proof, without reason. He is torn between his love for her (evidenced by his kiss) and his resolve to accomplish justice. Desdemona is a "pattern of excelling nature" (11), yet she is also "cunning" (11). He compares her to a rose which, once plucked, can bloom no more and must wither. For a moment, his love for her almost persuades "justice" (meaning Othello) "to break [his] sword" (17). He weeps, but he regains his purpose; Desdemona's beauty is deceptive, he realizes, because it masks her corruption.
When Othello's words awaken Desdemona, she begins an agonizing attempt to reason with her husband. The Moor then urges her to pray for forgiveness of any sin within her soul, and she becomes increasingly terrified. This he mistakenly concludes to be additional evidence of her guilt. He is as convinced of this as she is convinced that Othello is absolutely serious about killing her. Logically, she knows that she should have no cause for fear — she has done no wrong — yet she fears her husband.
Othello is not moved in the least by her insistence that she did not give the handkerchief to Cassio. And it is notable throughout this harrowing episode that Othello's language is controlled and elevated. As Desdemona cries out, first for heaven to have mercy on her and later for God Himself to have mercy on her, Othello voices a solemn "amen" to her prayers and addresses her as a "sweet soul" (50). Even now he refuses to see her as anything but a "perjur'd woman" (63) (a lying woman), one who forces him "to do / A murder" (64-65). At this moment, the motive of personal revenge surfaces again within him and replaces controlled justice. His resolve of self-control breaks when Desdemona calls out for Cassio; he is convinced that he indeed heard Cassio laughing about a sexual liaison with Desdemona. When Desdemona hears that Iago has killed Cassio, her self-control likewise vanishes. She pleads for her life, asking for banishment, asking for at least a day's stay in her execution, at least half a day, but she is overpowered by the Moor. He smothers her as she begs to say one last prayer.
It is at this moment that Emilia arrives outside the door, crying loudly for Othello. The Moor does not answer immediately. From his words, we realize that he is convinced that he is being merciful, if cruel, and that he intends to be sure that his wife is dead. The monstrosity of what he has done overwhelms him. Significant are lines 100-102, in which he says that there should be now "a huge eclipse / Of sun and moon" — that is, some evidence in the heavens that should acknowledge that the natural order of things has been grossly upset, that Desdemona is dead.
Again, Emilia calls out to Othello and, on entering, she shrieks about "foul murders" (106). Othello fears she is right and blames the moon, which "makes men mad" (111). It is then that he learns that Cassio lives, and he hears Desdemona's weak voice. Once more the young wife proclaims her innocence and insists that no one but herself is to blame. Indeed, she jeopardizes her very soul by deliberately lying in order to protect Othello, her husband, to whom she asks to be commended.
At first, Othello denies having any part in his wife's death. But then he loudly denounces her as a "liar, gone to burning hell" (129), admitting that he killed her. "She turn'd to folly, and she was a whore" (132); "she was false as water . . . Cassio did top her" (134-136). His proof is "honest, honest Iago" (154). Without hesitation, Emilia denounces Iago as a liar and Othello as a deceived "dolt" (163). She defies Othello's sword to right the injustice of this murder, vowing to "make thee known / Though I lost twenty lives" (165-166) and crying out for help, proclaiming that Othello has murdered Desdemona.
When Montano, Gratiano, and the others enter, Emilia challenges her husband to disprove what Othello has told her. In response to her pointed questions, Iago concedes that he did report that Desdemona was unfaithful, but that Othello himself found the same to be true. Summoning new courage, Emilia ignores her husband's command to be quiet and go home. Imploring the others to hear her, she curses Iago and prophetically states that perhaps she will never go home (197). All this finally becomes unbearable for the Moor, and he falls upon his wife's bed, only to be mocked by Emilia for his anguish. Gratiano then speaks and tells us that he finds comfort in the fact that Desdemona's father is not alive to hear of this tragedy; already he is dead of grief because of Desdemona's marrying the Moor.
Othello insists here that "Iago knows" (210) and, as further proof, he speaks of the handkerchief. At the mention of this, Emilia cries out again, this time appealing to God: No one will stop her now. She pays no attention to Iago's drawn sword as she tells how she found the handkerchief and gave it to Iago; she repeats her claim, even though Iago denounces her as a "villainous whore" (229) and a "liar" (231).
Thus the full truth is unfolded for Othello. He dashes toward Iago, is disarmed by Montano, and in the confusion, Iago kills Emilia, then flees. All leave, except the dying Emilia and the Moor, who can only berate himself. Emilia, aware that she is near death, recalls Desdemona's prophetic "Willow Song," a bit of which she sings. She reaffirms the innocence of her mistress just before she dies and concludes: "She lov'd thee, cruel Moor" (249).
Othello finds one of his prized weapons, a Spanish sword, and he recalls that he used the sword boldly in the past. Now, however, he has come to his "journey's end" (267). He sees himself as a lost soul — "where should Othello go?" (271). He is a "cursed slave" (276) who deserves the worst of punishment.
Lodovico, Montano, Iago (a prisoner now), and several officers enter; Cassio, in a chair, is brought in. The final moment of revelation is at hand. Othello lunges at Iago, wounds him, and is disarmed. Death is too good for Iago, he says; "@'tis happiness to die" (290). Death is a relief he would not offer to his arch enemy. When Cassio states quietly that he never gave the Moor reason to distrust him, Othello readily accepts his word and asks for his pardon. Othello is freshly aware that he has been ensnared body and soul by "that demi-devil" (301) Iago, who refuses to confess his villainy. Lodovico then produces two letters found on Roderigo's body: one tells of the plan to slay Cassio, and the other is Roderigo's denunciation of Iago. The details of how Cassio obtained the handkerchief are revealed, and Othello bewails the fact that he has been a "fool! fool! fool!" (323).
Lodovico vows to punish Iago and tells Othello that he must return with him to Venice. Othello acknowledges the sentence, but before he is led away, he speaks his final lines. Unmistakably he has recovered his basic nobility and that gift of impressive language which he commanded so well prior to Iago's temptation.
Othello reminds his listeners of his past service to the Venetian state and pleads that his story shall be reported accurately so that all will know him not as a barbarous foreigner but as one who "lov'd not wisely but too well" (334), as one who was preyed upon and became "perplex'd in the extreme" (346) and "threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe" (347-348). We should not overlook this simile; Othello compares himself to the "base Judean" who threw away the most valuable pearl in the world. Relentless in his self-reproach, Othello tacitly compares himself to "a malignant and a turban'd Turk" (353); then, finished, he stabs himself in an attempt to atone for all that has happened. He chooses to execute the necessary justice upon himself. As he is dying, he says that he kissed Desdemona before he killed her. This suggests that perhaps his love for her flickered briefly within his dark soul before he murdered her. He reminds himself that perhaps he was not wholly corrupt, but he dies knowing that his soul is lost.
Lodovico's sad words end the tragedy. The sight of Othello, slumped against Desdemona's bed, "poisons sight" (364). He asks for the curtains to be drawn, for Gratiano to administer the Moor's estate, and for Iago to be punished. He must return to Venice and "with heavy heart" (371) relate "this heavy act" (371).
minister (8) a servant.
Promethean heat (12) divine fire.
relume (13) relight.
forfend (32) forbid.
chrysolite (146) topaz; a gemstone.
reprobation (210) rejection by God.
liberal as the north (221) freely as the north wind blows.
stones (221) thunderbolts.
whipster (245) a term of contempt.
seamark (269) a beacon, destination.
compt (274) accounting on Judgment Day.
Judean (348) a possible reference to Judas Iscariot.
Spartan dog (362) a bloodhound.