Death as a Sacrifice: “Othello” by William Shakespeare
“I must weep, / But they are cruel tears,” says Othello near the end of his soliloquy in Act Five, Scene Two, right before killing Desdemona. Traditional Shakespearean murderers do not shed tears prior to killing their victim; in Shakespeare’s Othello, however, the Moor is an ambivalent man justifying his actions through a cathartic release of emotions. Shakespeare uses techniques including a clever use of soliloquy, the use of repetition in diction, and tangible symbolism that together support his important underlying theme of Othello: preserving the ideal of Justice.
The clever use of a soliloquy in Othello’s speech creates an intimacy between the reader and Othello; this contributes to understanding Othello’s preservation of the ideal of Justice. Because the speaker is not addressing anyone but his soul, we as readers play the role of a mirror reflecting his image, but concurrently taking on our own perspective. In doing so, we feel much closer to him than if he were addressing another speaker and the reader was simply looking in from an outsider’s perspective. Shakespeare reminds the readers that Othello is not happy with his decision, and so when he says, “Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars” (line 1) he doesn’t want the stars to hear from Othello himself why he wants to commit such a crime. He is uncomfortable recounting to not just any stars – but chaste stars – Desdemona’s alleged infidelity. Here, we literally get into his mind.
Very palpably the reader feels more of this insight into Othello’s mind through his determination. When Othello says, “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men (line 6),” he conveys that he is killing Desdemona for her own good, and that in committing this murder, he is giving Justice to all those men to whom she would have been unfaithful. When he says, “Put out the light (line 7),” Othello speaks to himself – obviously as it goes in soliloquies – but also to the ‘mirroring’ reader. As he instructs us to turn off the lights, while he himself will “then put out the light” (line 8) by killing Desdemona, the reader feels a sense of closeness and intimacy between himself and Othello.
Othello then goes to question himself, “Should I repent me, (line 10)” from which we readers feel empathy for him because he expresses remorse. Shakespeare wrote such an important line in order to convey ambivalence in Othello, whose mixed feelings of getting Justice and considering remorse create an image of Othello not as a ruthless beast, but a human just like the reader himself. This clever use of soliloquy is almost a heart-to-heart between Othello and his conscience, a role which the reader assumes by default. Since Othello is sharing his feelings with his conscience and ultimately with the reader, he conveys true emotions that make the reader sympathize with his actions.
The reader feels this sympathy for Othello even more potently immediately. When he asserts, “I will kill thee, / And love thee after (lines 18-19),” his love knows no bounds and even Desdemona’s death itself cannot extinguish his love for her. As he addresses a sleeping Desdemona, he offers recompense for her murder – loving her even after she is dead. The reader understands how much love Othello has for Desdemona and how much it hurts him to kill her. Yet, Justice must prevail and her death is certain as Shakespeare implements Othello to preserve Justice.
Shakespeare uses the repetition in diction in order to emphasize and stimulate Othello’s emotions. As aforementioned, the reader is intimate with Othello in his soliloquy, and as Othello’s emotions are stimulated, so are the reader’s. When Othello says, “Put out the light, and then put out the light (line 7)” and “but once put out thy light,” (line 10) Othello is emotionally-charged in his decision. Shakespeare spends several lines on emphasizing Othello’s adamancy on darkness in the chamber as a means to convey the blindness of Justice: the act of preserving it should be seen. Othello is all for Justice, and the emphasis on putting out the light to produce darkness gives ground to Othello’s determination in preserving it. This ties in to earlier when Othello mentioned that the chaste stars must not be told of the current predicament; now, it seems as though they should also not see what will ensue.
When Othello says, “One more! One more… One more, and that’s the last! (lines 17-19),” a sense of urgency builds in him, as he requests of himself permission for another kiss with Desdemona. His ambivalence appears once again, as part of him wants to sit there and kiss her, while another part wants to preserve Justice by killing her. Repeatedly craving for another kiss emphasizes the fact that Othello is not committing the murder out of ruthless intent, but even his final desire – a kiss – for her is auspicious. The importance of such an urgent plea is that Othello does not want to do the deed, but because he is preserving Justice, he must do it so that Desdemona will not “betray more men” (line 7). He is doing her a favor by ending her dishonor at one instance of ‘infidelity’.
It is Othello’s belief that Desdemona has committed infidelity that prompts the series of events that lead up to Desdemona’s murder. Shakespeare uses symbolism in Othello’s soliloquy to effectively imply that Othello is only committing the crime because he wants to preserve Justice, not because he is a ruthless murderer. Othello says, “Yet I’ll not shed her blood, / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow (lines 3-4),” depicting that he is going to make it quick and simple, without causing any physical damage to her. Evoking images of skin and snow convey the gentleness and the subtlety in which he would kill her. Instead of saying that he is going to gut her innards with a dagger, he supplants this cruel murderous strategy with a much less ruthless method. Othello says, “Put out the light… If I quench thee (line 7-8),” communicating that Desdemona’s death is akin to putting out a light – again, quick and simple.
Strangling Desdemona is not only quick and simple, but it evokes the feeling of intimacy because Othello is physically touching her. Granted this intimacy is achieved in order to commit a crime, his last desire of “one more” was to touch her – in a kiss. Shakespeare in a way makes this feasible to Othello through this contact. When Othello says, “When I have plucked / the rose,” (line 13) again this symbolism of touch is conspicuous: as Othello plucks the rose, symbolizing Desdemona, he is holding the rose in his hand, as if again making physical contact with her. These striking images of intimacy evoke in the reader’s mind Othello’s sheer love and affection for Desdemona, and because he loves her so much he is successful in his goal of preserving Justice and killing her. He says, “So sweet, ne’er so fatal (line 20),” as it is tragic that because he loves her so much he must kill her so that he can protect her from committing adultery by “betray[ing] more men (line 6).”
The tears that Othello sheds for Desdemona at the end of his soliloquy consummate his love for her; it is the last act of devotion to her before finally strangling her. As Shakespeare presents Othello not as a ruthless killer bent on exacting revenge but a benign lover committing a beneficial act of love, he shows just what the potency of love can lead a man to do. Othello’s goal of achieving Justice eventually occurs in an act of love itself through the various dramatic techniques Shakespeare uses.
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