The Literary Analysis of the Final Scene of the Tragedy
“Is this the promised end?” Analyse the final scene of Othello.
“Iago, you have done well that men must lay their murders on your neck” [5:2 line 166, p.157]. This ironic tone is akin to that of “Is this the promised end?” Can it be anything but ironic when the words are spoken in front of a tragic scene of corpses, as is the case at the end of both Othello and King Lear? His villainy is made the more by the fact that her fake congratulations are probably the mirror of his own self-congratulation for the tragedy he has caused. This is because Iago has reached his self-promised end. He has debased all and both directly and indirectly caused the murders of Roderigo, Desdemona, Emilia and Othello. Structurally this end is the natural climax to the web of deceit that has been weaved by Iago. The way in which partial knowledge has been skilfully apportioned to each character, they are never aware of the ‘truth’ as contrived by Iago. He is the only character who has a villainous omniscience. The final scene is the real “ocular proof” [3:3 line 337, p.106] of Iago’s “motiveless malignity” and the contrasting purity of the other characters.
Iago’s manipulations have “wrought” [5:2 line 341, p.163] changes in Othello so strong that he is provoked to murder his own wife. Iago does this by turning the harmony of their relationship to dischord:
Oh you are well tuned now!
But I’ll set down the pegs that make this music,
As honest as I am. [2:1 line 198, p. 74]
The implication here is that Iago will set down the pegs and loosen the strings to produce a dischordant note within the relationship. He loosens their bond by causing suspicion, first by making Othello wary, then by making Desdemona plead for Cassio and seem guilty. This musical imagery is a recurrent motif, it’s final use being in Othello’s disbelieving, “Then murders out of tune” [5:2 line 114, p.155]. This being “out of tune” conveys a sense that Othello has acted entirely out of character, that he has indeed been “wrought” by the words of Iago to the extent that he “threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe” [5:2 line 342 p.163] the pearl is Desdemona. Desdemona’s being compared to a precious stone shows her worth and could be an implicit reference to her virtue, i.e. the jewel of virtue, which Othello has thrown away by his slander. Iago has reached the crescendo of the “rough music” he made in the opening scene. Othello is not the only character “wrought” by Iago. The lesser character of the play, Roderigo, is cheated out of love, money and eventually, his life. “The triumph! Again “put money” after the effect has been achieved” , Iago pushes Roderigo further and further, even to a murder with no real motive, and is then murdered himself lest he should uncover Iago’s plans. All this and his land money and jewels have all been forfeited to Iago, as well has his love for Desdemona which has been used cruelly by Iago.
Othello’s sense of being thus “wrought” is especially notable in the ‘temptation’ scene, (3:3) where Iago, suggests and implies and prods Othello to a horrific conclusion that his wife is a “lewd minx” [3:3 line 473, p.110] and must be executed, “else she’ll betray more men” [5:2 line 6, p.150]. What is so painful in this scene is that Othello unwittingly hits upon the truth, in his ravings, “If thou dost slander her and torture me” [3:3 line 365, p.106], but immediately discounts it that seemingly indefatigable reference to Iago’s being ‘honest’. The agony of this false realisation is exemplified in a speech that is regressive in the sense of its barbarous tone:
O, that the slave had forty thousand lives!
One is too poor, too weak for my revenge. …
Arise black vengeance, from the hollow hell [3:3 lines 440-444, p.109]
The speech is resonant with witchcraft and dark images, which remind the audience of Othello’s origin, as he seems to conjure the spirit of evil to aid in his revenge. This is not the only change to his speech style, throughout the scene his sentences breakdown, become less sure. They are shorter with smaller words and there is none of the weighty, measured magnanimity of his earlier speeches. In fact the two men seems to switch and mirror each other’s way of speaking as if they are become one person. It demonstrates Othello’s loss of power and person and leads to his fit.
It is interesting to note at this juncture that, as is pointed out by Frank Kermode in his book entitled Shakespeare’s Language Cassio can not be penetrated in this way. “A dialogue in Act two is carefully inserted to make plain the capital difference between Iago and Cassio:”
… He hath not yet made wanton the night with her, and she is sport for Jove.
Cassio. She’s a most exquisite lady.
Iago. And I’ll warrant her, full of game.
Cassio. Indeed, she’s a most fresh and delicate creature.
Iago. What an eye she has! Methinks she’s parley to provocation.
Cassio. And inviting eyes; and yet methinks right modest.
[2:3 lines 15-23, p.78]
Cassio “withhold[s] assent to his slyly voyeuristic propositions and provide[s] more courtly alternatives”. Is it therefore because Othello is an outsider, and ignorant of the customs and courtesies of the Venetian people that causes his downfall? Cassio has an innate sense of rank which sets him above Iago’s heckling, but Othello, although of a high status militarily, is black, and his renown only holds whilst he is needed for protection. However confident and dignified his outward appearance, Othello is aware of his being different and feels it acutely, “Haply for I am black…[I] have not those soft parts of conversation” that Cassio has. Othello is therefore to a certain extent, jealous of Cassio, purely for the refinement that he possesses, making Cassio the prime target for Iago, who is also jealous of him2E Iago builds upon the existing weakness. Iago states that Cassio, “hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly” [5:1 line 19, p. 145]. There is a clear demonstration of Othello’s self loathing in his final soliloquy where he takes upon himself the racial slurs of the society he inhabits, he describes himself as a “base Indian”; “That turbaned Turk” and says that in killing himself he has “smote” the circumcised dog”.
Othello’s foreign beliefs also cause one of the main catalysts of tragedy in the plot, that of the handkerchief. The magical traits and significance he attributes to the handkerchief cause Desdemona to lie about its whereabouts, fearing his anger if she should lose it. The handkerchief provides the “ocular proof” that Iago uses as proof of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness. It is so significant that one critic said of Othello that it is, “a warning to all good wives that they should look well to their linen”. This handkerchief is the cause of Emilia’s tragic realisation of her own part in the misery that ensues. Her disbelief is found in her repeated question, “My husband?” [5:2 line 143, p.156] She cannot believe that he could be the author of it all. Repetition and linguistic motifs play a large part in the effectiveness of the final scene, and in Othello’s perfect construction as a play. Not only is there the musical imagery, the image of the handkerchief and the repetition of words such as “honest”; but also there is a mirroring of language, a careful reflection of similar phrasing to add emphasis throughout the scene and create greater pathos and a feeling of a “promised end”. This is most clearly exemplified in the sequence:
“Look to her Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father and may thee” [1:3 line 287, p.61]
“She did betray her father marrying you” [3:3 line 206, p.100]
“She must die, else she betray more men” [5:2 line 6, p.150]
The sense of deceit and betrayal moves from being a warning, to an accusatory incitement, and finally to the assertion that it is a fact. This alarming progression of words is what allows Iago to wreak havoc. He cultivates an idea in the mind till it flourishes and grows to ‘reality’. As A.C Bradley states, “Iago’s plot is Iago’s character in action; and it is built on his knowledge of Othello’s character and could not otherwise have succeeded.” Iago takes advantage of Othello’s mixed pride and insecurity, of Desdemona’s spaniel like obedience and naivety and of Roderigo’s plain stupidity to achieve his hideous end. He turns their qualities “to pitch”; this word Iago uses is significant in the racial context of the play as it is in the sense of ‘pitch black’. It is ambiguous what Shakespeare’s own oppinion of race was. However there is an undoubted contrast in the final scene between good/evil and white/black. This suggests that this is the outcome either of “he moor” being evil or of those around him causing evil to be invoked in him. Othello himself describes with wonder, “that whiter skin of hers than snow / And smoothed monumental alabaster” [5:2 line 4, p.150], whereas he is described by Emilia a “the blacker devil” [5:2 line 130, p.155]. He is decried as being all the darker a villain in relation to the beauty and innocence of Desdemona who “was too fond of her most filthy bargain” [5:2 line 154, p.156]. The line is even more poignant when it is contrasted to the happy praise given to Othello at the start of the play:
If virtue no more beauty lack
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black [1:3 line 285 p.60]
The entirely pathetic ending to Othello can do no less than inspire the utmost sympathy for its characters and causes us to question the darker sides of our own souls. It is the naturally horrific outcome of a play, which is twisted and turned upon the axis of evil: Iago.
Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy, Lectures on Hamlet Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. Macmillan and co. Ltd, London, 1957.
Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare’s Language. Penguin Books, London, 2000.
Shakespeare, William. Othello, The Signet Classic, William Shakespeare. Ed. Alvin Kernan. The New American Library of World Literature, New York, 1963.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Shakespearean Criticism, 2nd Edition. Ed. Thomas Middleton Raysor. Dutton and Co. Inc. London, 1960.
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