Importance of the Act 5, Scene 1: Close Reading
The first scene of Othello’s fifth act, unlike those before it, is dominated by physical violence, with Iago at the centre playing the “puppet master”. This scene reminds the audience of the capabilities Iago possesses in controlling the more malleable characters, namely Roderigo. Shakespeare also builds on the theme of proof with regard to his protagonist, who, satisfied with his “ocular proof”, is confronted now with aural proof – Cassio’s screams, which ‘allow’ him to attempt to end Desdemona’s life. It is widely perceived that the beginning of this act shows Shakespeare departing from the intellectual schemes and techniques common to pre-Renaissance theatre; he turns here toward more medieval ‘action-scenes,’ intentional regression that draws the audience gradually toward the climax. This scene is one of rapid transition: no longer are Iago’s words just empty threats, they are now coming swiftly to fruition.
In the first dialogue between Iago and Roderigo, the audience sees a return to the early, perhaps more ‘innocent’, stages of the play. There, we now realize Shakespeare’s ‘villain’ planted the seeds for this moment in Roderigo’s “love-stricken” mind. The conversation now has a more sinister connotation; take, for example, these dramatic words: “And yet he hath given me satisfying reasons:/’Tis but a man gone. Forth, my sword: he dies.” This assertion, with its child-like resonance, shows Shakespeare suggesting the true extent of both Roderigo’s metaphorical blindness and Iago’s keen eye for manipulation. The former is an archetypal, Falstaff-esque, ‘honourable fool’, but, unlike Falstaff, also a vessel of emotion and, ultimately, an intentionally one-dimensional character, utilised to fulfill only one purpose – the murder of Cassio. However, instead of leaving the above technique to exist only in the perception of the audience, Shakespeare has Iago bluntly announce it throughout his ‘mini-soliloquy’: “I have rubbed this young quat almost to the sense/And he grows angry. Now, whether he kill Cassio/Or Cassio him, or each do kill each other,/Every way makes my gain.” A profound clarity of emotion now dominates Iago’s speech: gone are the accoutrements of erudition, a simplistic vocabulary, and an according train of thought, now comes to the fore.
The audience is not surprised by Iago’s distain for human life here, only by the newfound expression of his jealousy, even his self-contempt: “If Cassio do remain/ He hath a daily beauty in his life/That makes me ugly.” This may be a reference to Cassio’s comparatively polite manner, or indeed a sign of Iago’s jealousy concerning Bianca, but Shakespeare leaves this in doubt. What it does symbolise, however, is Iago’s rapid ‘humanisation’, a process, although prevalent in previous sections, which is barely noticeable until this point: an Iago very dissimilar to the original of Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio’s ‘Un Capitano Moro’, who remains sub-human throughout.
Following Othello’s assumption that the murder of Cassio has been carried out successfully, Shakespeare presents the audience with a sign that Iago’s plans are having the desired effect through a small, but highly reverent, outburst from his protagonist: “’Tis he. O brave Iago, honest and just,/That hast such noble sense of thy friend’s wrong!/Thou teachest me.” The irony of this statement, particularly the last line, is not lost upon the audience. A total reversal of position has taken place: Iago is now viewed as being the “sword of objective moral judgment” by a character that was once viewed as being the same. This is further supported by one of the motifs of ‘Othello’ – the description of Iago as “honest”, an opinion which he often voiced, forced upon the audience. Overall, we see that Othello has degenerated to such an extent that he can never return to his previous eminence, has also become a Falstaff-esque fool, but instead of eloquent wordplay of the aforementioned, Othello spouts macabre, almost sadistic, phrases: “Strumpet, I come./Forth of my heart those charms, thine eyes, are/blotted,/Thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust’s blood be/spotted.” Such imagery has unpleasant connotations of physical and metaphysical corruption, the former being shown by Othello’s oblique reference to the medieval custom of ‘sheet-hanging’ following consummation. Also, be it through indecision on the part of Shakespeare himself or his protagonist, there are many contradictions in the way in which Othello will murder Desdemona – stabbing, poison and strangulation respectively – perhaps a sign that the eponymous hero is able to think about ending Desdemona’s life, but unable to actually carry out the deed in a way in which will satisfy his vengeance. This technique is noticeable in other plays of Shakespeare, most noticeably ‘Macbeth’.
After Iago’s murder of Roderigo and his subsequent aiding of the injured Cassio, his anger is, strangely, directed toward Bianca. Perhaps Shakespeare, again alluding to his feelings toward her or, alternatively, needs to involve her in the abortive attempt to end Cassio’s life: “Gentlemen all, I do suspect this trash/ To be party in this injury.” This is misogyny and harsh language typical of Iago’s character, but could also be the playwright injecting a sense of insecurity within the villain, that he must involve everybody in his schemes to avoid being discovered as the author of them. This insecurity exists throughout the remainder of the scene but comes to a climax in its final two lines: “This is the night/That either makes me or fordoes me quite.” Indeed, this rhyming couplet proves to be the most important sign that Iago, and we as a consequence, considers himself as fallible. He is no longer the invincible, honest, Iago; he, like Macbeth, has ‘blood on his hands’ – undeniable proof that he has murdered and plotted against his master. Is this Shakespeare presenting what was called, by one Elizabethan commentator, “the fatal flaw of villainy”? Certainly, after this point, there is no doubt in the audience’s mind that Iago will fall.
In conclusion, this scene, although short in length, is an important turning point not just for Iago, but also for Othello: it signals the gradual descent of the two main characters into quasi-insanity and the full government of their emotions over themselves. Also, more obviously, it portrays the first death of the play, that of Roderigo – this shows that Iago is no longer willing to use only his “forked tongue” but also will also violence. Ultimately Roderigo’s death is an apt metaphor for the loss of love and its consequence replacement by hatred: two antithetical emotions which Shakespeare toys with in all of his major works.
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