Othello and Emily Dickinson
Yawning at Alteration (5.2.101)
On the night before the murder of Julius Caesar, the Ides of March 44 B.C., the heavens were full of tumult and strange portents appeared on the earth (JC 1.3). Casca asks Cicero, "Are you not mov'd, when all the sway of earth/ Shakes like a thing unfirm (1.3.3-4)?" With various prodigies like lions walking in the streets of Rome, and birds of the night sitting at noon-day upon the market place "Howting and shrieking," Casca concludes that this must either indicate some civil strife in heaven or that the world has become "too saucy with the gods," and the gods are planning to send destruction (1.3.10-25). Cicero demurs, though everyone else seems to agree that tumultuous heavenly activity portends the same on earth.
So, after Othello has just smothered/strangled Desdemona and descended into his asyndetodic breathlessness, he speaks a longer sentence on his expectation of portents:
"Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse/ Of sun and moon, and that th' affrighted globe/ Did yawn at alteration (5.2.99-101)."
In other words, such a great and explosive event has now taken place that the heavens should confirm its hugeness by some kind of omen. Something as significant as Desdemona's death should not pass unnoticed by the heavens; indeed, it "rocked" Othello's world, and since his world is a huge one, why shouldn't it also rock the heavens?
Othello scholar Jane Adamson has tried to explain the word "affrighted" in line 100 as a word that not only gives insight into the heavenly shakings but also into Othello's soul: "It suggests to us very clearly his incipient sense of the fear, chaos, measureless depths of misery and horror lurking beneath the expressed by unrealized notions of 'eclipse'" (Othello as Tragedy, 278). As such the term has a double significance: on the one hand, personifying the "globe," the eclipse would "scare" the world and make it "react" with an earthquake; on the other hand, pointing to Othello, it betrays a (still unconscious?) fear that he now has about the turn of events. In any case, the expected tumult in heaven is lacking.
Emily Dickinson and Heavenly Tumult at Death
Emily Dickinson thinks about the same problem--the expectation of heavenly signs at death--with no express or implict reference to Othello in an almost whimsical poem, "I Heard a Fly." (Poem # 128). The first stanza runs:
"I heard a fly buzz when I died;/ The stillness round my form/ Was like the stillness in the air/ Between the heaves of storm."
She imagines the experience of dying. Stillness prevails between the emotional and physical "heaves" experienced by the one dying. then, the dying person notices the most mundane, prosaic thing. A fly buzzes by. Where do we go from here? The next stanza:
"The eyes beside had wrung them dry,/ And breaths were gathering sure/ For that last onset, when the king/ Be witnessed in his power."
This is the Dickinson's equivalent of Othello's expectation that the "affrighted globe," should have "yawn(ed) at alteration" when Desdemona died. People gathered around her bed, weeping until they could cry no more, waiting for the "last onset," when death would occur. But notice how Dickinson describes that "last onset." It is not the gentle susurration of a life fading away into nothingness. This "onset" will be a time when "the king/ Be witnessed in his power."
The background idea is that at her death somehow God would be so manifest in his glory that all would see it. The power of God would perform something of reconizable magnitude. Maybe there would be a premonition of the last days, where there will be "signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves (Luke 21:25)." In any case, Dickinson expected some great show of divine power at her death, an indication that her death was a world-shattering event recognized and acknowledged by heaven.
Then she returns from her musings on the "king":
"I willed my keepsakes, signed away/ What portion I/ Could make assignable,--and then/ There interposed a fly."
Ah, back to the fly. The king being witnessed in his power is forgotten momentarily as the insistent buzzing of the fly returns.
"With blue, uncertain, trembling buzz/ Between the light and me;/ And then the windows failed, and then/ I could not see to see."
Death comes in this final stanza. But death is associated with the buzzing of the fly. This, rather than Mahler's Ninth, or Barber's Adagio for Strings or Bach's Passion of St. Matthew, is the 'symphonic sound' that ushers her to her death. She hears the buzz, and then the light begins to fail, and then her vision fails and the poem ends. Death is not ushered in by the pomp of heavenly signs, of the king being manifest in his power, but by the buzz of the fly. To speak theologically, nature completely triumphs over grace in death.
Othello does not have much time to muse on the lack of heavenly signs and earthly portents. Emilia's insistent knocking and her urgent concerns must be attended to: "I do beseech you, That I may speak with you, O good my lord (5.2.101-102)." He is brought out of his breathless asyndeton and brought through his three-line musing and then must return to the horrible realities before him. Desdemona is dead. Emilia is there. She will want to speak with Desdemona. Othello is nearly as trapped as the smothered Desdemona. In contrast to Virginia, who was told in an 1897 New York Sun editorial that there was a Santa Claus, I would have to say, 'No, Othello, there are no heavenly signs.'
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long