Act 5, Scene II: Close Reading of Othello’s Character Portrayal
In Act V Scene II, the final scene and crescendo of the play, we see Othello’s character truly unravel, falling into the depths of tragic heroism and despair. In this scene we see at last the resultant action from Iago’s “poison” words, as Othello murders Desdemona and then takes his own life. It is my opinion that this scene shows Othello to be the epitome of a tragic hero; his fall from grace unfolding with the very consequences that we knew, through dramatic irony, would occur. This scene is the most poignant of the play, made all the more bitter because we see Iago, a figure who we perpetually hate, to have wrought his plan of manipulation perfectly to its hideous conclusion, Desdemona dying “a guiltless death” at the hands of her own husband. I believe that Othello develops most as a character in this scene, as we see him shift clearly through three phases – anger, despair and finally, clear-headed realisation.
In this scene, and in the play as a whole, we see Othello developing into the quintessential tragic hero. In plays varying from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we see the emergence and denouement of a tragic hero – usually, as is the case with Othello, a respected man of high societal standing. The crucial feature of such a protagonist is hamartia; the intrinsic fatal flaws in the hero’s character. Othello’s hamartia is arguably his naïveté or excess of self-confidence and impulsiveness (hubris). Othello’s naïveté is innate, being a Moor and possibly unaware of the finer points of Venetian society – a fact that Iago, who professedly knows “our country disposition well”, takes full advantage of in convincing him of the unfaithfulness of his wife. This is catalysed by Othello’s excess of self-confidence and impulsiveness – we see him, and indeed he sees himself, to be a man of powerful action and honour, evidenced in his attitude as a general. Indeed, this attitude remains with him until the very end, where he dies recalling his military achievements. It is ironically the same character trait that led to his military prowess that leads to his downfall – his preference for direct action. This too shows Othello to be a quintessential tragic hero in Aristotelian terms, as Aristotle wrote “tragedy is the imitation of an action… …and on actions all success or failure depends.” One of the reasons that Othello is such a tragic hero is that his hamartia is arguably an excess of virtue – his trusting, self-assured nature resulting in him placing his trust in a man who is “Janus-faced” and, as Coleridge famously stated, motivelessly malignant.
Shakespeare takes the audience through an array of emotions towards Othello; and by the end of Act V Scene II we feel a sense of poignancy and inevitable downfall on Othello’s part. He is no longer the grief-stricken man who cried “O fool! Fool! Fool!”, nor the enraged man who proclaimed “I will chop her into messes”. He has accepted his situation, and being the man of action that he is, feels that he is duty-bound to do something in order to bring about some sort of resolution. By this point in the play, we no longer feel the disgust for Othello that we did when he struck Desdemona publicly in Act 4. Othello himself claims that he acts out of duty in smothering Desdemona – not out of the rage that afflicted him previously, but because otherwise she “will betray more men”. Othello’s character by the end of Act 5 Scene 2 is reminiscent of the man of “perfect soul” we saw earlier in the play, and thus we feel not disgust towards him, but a sense of quiet sadness and sympathy for the unavoidable path that he takes. This is shown by his eloquence in his final speech (reminiscent of his Act 1 Scene 3 speech); we see him to be a man of rational thought at the very end, as the last words he speaks are in verse, proclaiming “no way but this… to die upon a kiss.” In this instance, Shakespeare uses verse not to show social stature, but to illustrate sanity and clarity of thought.
There is a further element of poignancy in that Othello dies betrayed, and as an outsider. As he kills himself, he compares himself to a “malignant and turbaned Turk”, identifying with those who display a military threat to Venice. Therefore, in killing himself, he provides a twisted act of service to the State, dying in the same military mindset with which he lived.
Some critics argue that there is a lack of depth to Othello’s character – we do not see him develop into a complex character and break down, in the same way that Hamlet does. However; the essence of a tragic hero lies in action rather than characterization. We know Othello to be a man of action, and thus his lack of unnecessary speech only reinforces this point to the audience. Indeed, the lack of extensive background information and relative short time span in which the play occurs create a certain unity of time and place; making Othello’s tragic downfall all the more striking. The fact that the story takes place very quickly only furthers the extent to which Othello’s downfall can be seen as tragic.
“Othello” as a whole is filled with irony, as seen in the first half of Act 5 Scene 2. In my opinion, irony is an essential part of the genre of tragedy, as it makes tragic occurrences seem all the more bitter. In Othello’s exchange with Emilia, he renounces Desdemona as “as false as water”, meaning movable by any influence, when it is actually he who has been moved by the subtle influence of Iago, to murder and suicide. Another similar dramatic technique is oxymoron, frequently used by Shakespeare to show a character who has lost their sanity. We see this of Othello when he proclaims “precious villain!” Such irony illustrates Othello’s mental state in this part of the scene – he is still the enraged, delusional man that we saw in Act 4.
One of the reasons that “Othello” is such a tragic play is because catharsis is never truly reached by the audience. Although at the point of his anagnorisis Othello realises his own hamartia – that he is “not easily jealous, but being wrought” – his relationship with Desdemona is never resolved, and we never see Iago truly punished for his deeds. In this respect, although we see Othello almost purge himself of his flaws in his final speech, it is too late. We feel only pity, for he has reached the lowest circle of his hell, represented through hellish imagery, with Othello imploring the gods to “roast [him] in sulphur”. The theme of miscommunication is one prominent throughout the play, and it is in Roderigo’s note in this last scene that we see all the miscommunication explained, however, not resolved – truly, the audience are left with an incomplete catharsis. Furthermore, unlike most tragedies, I believe that “Othello” has very little didactic value. Iago, the villain, survives, and despite being a lowly soldier has managed to destroy both an army general, and his aristocratic wife, both of whom represent paragons of virtue. This lack of moral value is an additional reason that “Othello” lacks catharsis – although this lack of catharsis serves to make the story all the more tragic.
In conclusion, I believe that in Act 5 Scene 2, and indeed in the play as a whole, Othello becomes the quintessential tragic hero. Like a true tragic hero, his destiny is unavoidable, and unchangeable by him. The actions that he takes in this final scene of the play are simply the manifestation of his proclamation in Act 1 Scene 3 “my life upon her faith”.
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