Final Resolve (4.2)
Beyond the Point of No Return
One way to look at Act IV is as the steeling of Othello's resolve to kill Desdemona. He has already decided near the end of 3.3 that Cassio must be killed, and he even says there that he will "tear her (i.e., Desdemona) all to pieces (3.3.431)," but we are not sure if he is settled on her death by the end of the scene. Iago, the clever psychologist, has urged him not to kill her (3.3.432-433), thinking no doubt that he needs to increase Othello's determination to this most radical act by providing more "evidence" of her infidelity. This he does in 4.1 through the cleverly-devised conversation between Iago and Cassio that was witnessed by Othello (see the mini-essay on Looking On for a description).
In any case, Othello treats Desdemona shabbily in 3.4 and, despite the inner tensions he expresses in 4.1.180-190 (see the essay on Insurrection), by the time he slaps her in 4.1.240 it is almost certain that Desdemona's fate is sealed. Othello's interrogation of Emilia in 4.2.1-19, ostensibly to discover whether Desdemona is faithful, is really not a "fact-finding mission." Othello has seemingly already made up his mind. After Emilia has departed to get Desdemona, Othello mutters:
"She(i.e., Emilia) says enough; yet she's a simple bawd/ That cannot say as much (i.e., is not really free to talk). This (i.e., Desdemona) is a subtile whore,/ A closet lock and key of villainous secrets;/ And yet she'll kneel and pray; I have seen her do't (4.2.20-23)."
In this passage Othello has adopted the approach of Iago (and Brabantio, for that matter) to Desdemona: she deceived her father, and she no doubt has been deceiving you (cf. 3.3.206ff.) One further exchange in 4.2.66-81 removes the last vestiges of Othello's inner conflict.
Unparalled Lust/Unique Sweetness (4.2.66-69)
Othello has just finished his long and moving speech where he has "out-Jobed Job," (see mini-essays on Othello and Job; Worse than Job), and then he launches into his next attack:
"O ay, as summer flies are in the shambles,/ That quicken even with the blowing (4.2.66-67)."
In other words, he is saying he believes Desdemona is as "honest" as the most lascivious creatures, the flies that swarm in the slaughterhouses, who become pregnant as soon as they are newly born. It is a picture of unparalled lust, complete abandon to the procreative and sexual impulses. Later, when Othello will try to justify his deed of killing Desdemona, he will say that "she with Cassio hath the act of shame/ A thousand times committed (5.2.211-212)." That such licentiousness would not have physically been possible is no object to Othello's raging brain; his mind has concluded she is unfaithful, and Othello extrapolates her violation to the most extreme levels.
But then he seems to have second thoughts. Though not as long as the second thoughts of 4.1.180-190, he still says,
"O thou weed!/ Who art so lovely fair and smell'st so sweet/ That the sense aches at thee (4.2.67-69)..."
before ending with the ominous "would thou hadst never been born (4.2.69)!"
The Sense of Smell
It is the sense of smell that is the last thing that connects Othello to Desdemona. His physical closeness to Desdemona in the scene has had an unintended effect on him: the odor of her presence, the odor that made his heart ache even in the telling of his stories to her, makes his heart ache anew. Indeed, it will be Desdemona's odor that will almost prevent Othello from killing her. In the last scene of the play, 5.2, when Desdemona is peacefully sleeping when Othello enters the bedroom, he approaches her, sits next to her, kisses her several times and says,
"I'll smell thee on the tree. [Kisses her.] O balmy breath, that dost almost persuade/ Justice [and Othello is now an agent of that justice] to break her sword (5.2.16-18)!"
Lovers remember each other's smell for years after the beloved has gone. They plunge themselves into the beloved's closet, bury themselves in the shirts and skirts worn by the beloved, weeping and clutching the fading remnant of what was once the most intimate of relationships. But once Othello draws back, he can deliver his last condemnatory words.
"O thou public commoner,/ I should make very forges of my cheeks,/ That would to cinders burn up modesty,/ Did I but speak thy deeds. What committed?/ Heaven stops the nose at it, and the moon winks;/ The bawdy wind, that kisses all it meets,/ Is hush'd within the hollow mine of earth/ And will not hear't. What committed?/ Impudent strumped (4.2.73-81)!"
Only in the brief words quoted above from 5.2 will Othello have any final and temporary misgivings. But now his face is irretrievably set like flint and he is like the icy currents of the compulsive flow of the Pontic Sea. Even his sense of smell will not override the seething rage of the mind rushing to judgment.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long