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Let’s Explore Othello’s soliloquy in A5S2

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When I wrote a “Let’s Explore” about Othello (Othello, the Moorish General), I used Act Five Scene Two, which starts with his murder of Desdemona, as one of the scenes that I thought worth exploring, but I carefully avoided looking in detail at the soliloquy with which the scene starts. I bottled out.  The soliloquy is extraordinary, and I felt it beyond my capacity to say anything enlightening about it.

 

Well now I’m going to try. I am not sure that I can say anything interesting, but maybe it will stimulate some of you to add your ideas to this. So here goes… Let’s start with the easy bit, and repeat the soliloquy. Othello has entered Desdemona’s bedroom with the intention of murdering her, and his first speech goes like this:

 

OTHELLO.

It is the Cause, it is the Cause, my Soul!
Let me not name it to you, you chaste Stars,
It is the Cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than Snow
And smooth as Monumental Alablaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the Light, and then put out the Light!
If I quench thee, thou flaming Minister,
I can again thy former light restore
Should I repent me. But once put out thy Light,
Thou cunning’st Pattern of excelling Nature,
I know not where is that Promethaean heat
That can thy Light relume. When I have plucked thy Rose
I cannot give it vital growth again,
It needs must wither. I’ll smell thee on the Tree.
Oh Balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her Sword! One more, one more:

He smells and then kisses her.

Be thus when thou art dead and I will kill thee
And love thee after. One more, and that’s the last.
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel Tears. This sorrow’s heavenly,
It strikes where it doth love.

 

The very start of the soliloquy gives me my first problem. In the first four words, what is “It”, and what is “Cause”? There’s something terrifyingly beautiful about the three-fold repetition of “It is the Cause” in the first two and a half lines. Maybe that beauty should be enough but my mind wants to know what it means.

 

Arden helps by pointing out that ‘cause’ can mean ‘ground for action’, in which case ‘It’ is the ground for Othello’s action – the murder of Desdemona. Which only leaves us to understand what ‘It’ is. Othello doesn’t bother to tell us, but maybe the second line helps us: “Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars”.

 

It seems strange to me to link chastity to stars, but apparently in classical mythology, women, pursued by Zeus with his hopes of their seduction, were frequently changed into stars.  And if Othello cannot name it to such women (now stars), it is very likely to do with Desdemona’s  supposed unfaithfulness.

 

So it seems Desdemona’s supposed unchaste behaviour is the cause of Othello’s intention to murder her. We have taken the beautiful first two and a half lines, and found a meaning in them!

 

 On to the next – and immediately we come up with another problem:

 

“Yet I’ll not shed her blood
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than Snow
And smooth as Monumental Alablaster.”

 

The meaning seems clear – Othello will not shed her blood. And the poetry points clearly at cold death: whiter skin; Snow; Monumental Alablaster. But this literalist wants to know why Othello will not shed her blood. There’s no other help in the text that I can find. My own imagination suggests that Othello does not want to defile Desdemona’s pure, physical body, by rupturing the skin and letting blood out to mar the white purity of her body. And perhaps Othello, like Pygmalion, prefers his idea of a monumental Desdemona, to the living, sexual, bleeding animal she is.

 

“Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.”

 

At last what seems a clear statement of Othello’s cause. But should men (or women) take a life because they think their loved one has been unfaithful? Of course it’s a crime to be unfaithful, but is murder a proportionate punishment? In Othello’s case it’s particularly ironic as the audience knows that Desdemona has been chaste!

 

This line reminds me of Browning’s “My last Duchess”, and particularly the lines:

 

“Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.”

 

 

People with power can seem to feel entitled to destroy a life if they feel their status / power is slighted.

 

 And now we come to another moving repetition:

 

“Put out the Light, and then put out the Light!
If I quench thee, thou flaming Minister,
I can again thy former light restore
Should I repent me. But once put out thy Light,
Thou cunning’st Pattern of excelling Nature,
I know not where is that Promethaean heat
That can thy Light relume.”

 

The meaning seems  clear: “I can put out this candle, and re-light it, but if I kill Desdemona, I can’t ‘re-light’ her life”. I guess “Promethaean” might be problematic for some, but once reminded that Prometheus was a Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, the meaning should be clear.

 

“When I have plucked thy Rose
I cannot give it vital growth again,
It needs must wither. I’ll smell thee on the Tree.”

 

The metaphor changes from “light” to “rose”. Before Othello will ‘pluck the Rose’, he’ll smell it on the tree.

 

“Oh Balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her Sword! One more, one more:”

 

Desdemona’s living breath almost persuades Othello to forget Justice, and at the very least he has to smell her breath again. Why is it that Othello’s Justice seems so cold compared with Desdemona’s Balmy breath?

 

“Be thus when thou art dead and I will kill thee
And love thee after.”

 

 

We’re coming to the climax of the soliloquy now, and  we come to the line and a half that I find hardest to sympathize with.

 

Othello prefers (and loves) the dead, pure, body, to the living, uncontrollable, being. Browning’s Duke, too, prefers the beautiful picture on the wall, to the living, flirtatious, Duchess.

 

There’s a story about ducks  which is relevant. In a lake in Canada, if I remember rightly, there was a species of brown ducks and a species of white ducks. The two species could inter-breed risking the continuation of one of the species. A culling program was introduced to kill all the half-breed dukes and preserve the two species. Even right-on environmentalists can kill living beings to save the idea of a species. Othello will murder the living Desdemona and continue to love the idea of Desdemona in her dead body.

 

 

There’s no need to take this analysis any further. The remaining lines are fairly clear and we’ve reached what I consider to be the end.

 

 

This analysis, which reflects my thoughts about the soliloquy, feels pretty clunky when I read it. But if we read the verse again, putting out of our heads all these ideas, and just reading it, does it feel a little richer?? If just a few get more from a second reading,  it’s been worthwhile.  I’d love to hear any comments you have. Here’s the soliloquy again for you to read:

 

 

OTHELLO.

It is the Cause, it is the Cause, my Soul!
Let me not name it to you, you chaste Stars,
It is the Cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than Snow
And smooth as Monumental Alablaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the Light, and then put out the Light!
If I quench thee, thou flaming Minister,
I can again thy former light restore
Should I repent me. But once put out thy Light,
Thou cunning’st Pattern of excelling Nature,
I know not where is that Promethaean heat
That can thy Light relume. When I have plucked thy Rose
I cannot give it vital growth again,
It needs must wither. I’ll smell thee on the Tree.
Oh Balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her Sword! One more, one more:

He smells and then kisses her.

Be thus when thou art dead and I will kill thee
And love thee after. One more, and that’s the last.
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel Tears. This sorrow’s heavenly,
It strikes where it doth love.

 

 

 

You can explore Othello further, by looking at our index to the play and exploring some of the “Let’s Explore” or “Let’s Play” entries, or even better, play-read the whole play.

 

Let’s play!

 

 

Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’
Players-Shakespeare.com

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