Othello's End I
Continuing the Rehabilitation (5.2.338-356)
In the previous essay I argued that Othello began to modify his language of emotional collapse in the speech after Emilia's death (5.2.250) by referring, surprisingly, to the "honorable" nature of Desdemona's killing (5.2.294). In this and the next mini-essays I will explore his final speech (5.2.338-356) with the central question in mind: how does Othello want to be remembered?
Othello's Rhetorical Strategy
Ever since antiquity, rhetoricians have known that one of the most powerful tools for fixing an idea in an audience's mind is to pretend that you are ignoring it. The ancient name of the device of "pretended omission" is paral(e)ipsis (Greek) or praeteritio (Latin). The former literally means "leave along side" while praeteritio means the "passing over" of something. An example from the chapter "Breakfast" in Moby Dick illustrates the pheonomenon:
"We will not speak of all Queequeg's peculiarities here; how he eschewed coffee and hot rolls, and applied his undivided attention to beefsteak, done rare."
[*I am indebted to Professor Gideon Burton for his fine web page and his elucidation of the concept through this example. "Silva rhetoricae,"rhetoric.byu.edu.]
Othello uses this device in beginning his final speech. He says,
"Soft you; a word or two before you go./ I have done the state some service, and they know't--/ No more of that (5.2.338-340)."
He says he doesn't want to stress his service to the state, but his mere mention of it at the outset fixes it in his hearers' consciousness. It signals to the alert reader that a strategy of rehabilitation is at work here. He wants the hearers to "balance" his current conduct with his state service, even though he won't mention the state service--oops, I mentioned it again!
But he draws upon a second rhetorical strategy in which he tries to position his self-portrait "in the middle" between two (incorrect or unfair) extremes of how he might be characterized. He requests his hearers to "Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,/ Nor set down aught in malice (5.2.341-342)." Implicitly then, when he continues by telling them what they "must" report, he is giving them "moderate" material, material that neither extenuates nor maliciously attacks him.
Shakespeare has used this method previously when he has Brutus address the Roman crowd immediately after Caesar's murder. Brutus tries to present himself as the moderate or rational man, who killed Caesar not because loved him little but because he loved Rome more (JC 3.2.21-22). At the end of his speech he says, "The/ question of his death is enroll'd in the Capitol: his glory/ not extenuated, wherein he was worthy; nor his/ offenses enforc'd [i.e., unduly stressed], for which he suffer'd death (JC 3.2.37-40)." Though Brutus's strategy of moderation didn't ultimately work, because Antony enflamed the crowd against him, Shakespeare was aware of the use of this method to try to convince the hearers that a moderate exposition was to follow or had just been given.
A third thing that Othello does is to require the Venetian officials to write down his words in their report. He wants them "in your letters" to speak of him as he is. They "must" so speak. It isn't enough for them to try to remember Othello's words. Short of writing his own exculpatory narrative, Othello has done all that he can to make sure that his "case" is preserved and presented.
The Substance of Othello's "Case"
The substance of his case is follows:
"speak/ Of one that lov'd not wisely but too well;/ Of one not easily jealious, but being wrought,/ Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand/ Like the base [Indian] threw a pearl away/ Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdu'd eyes,/ Albeit unused to the melting mood,/ Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees/ Their medicinable gum (5.2.343-351)."
Othello mentions four "facts" that he wants the officials to report. First, he was a man whose basic fault was an excess of love. He loved not wisely but too well. Second, that he was not by nature a jealous man but, when driven to extremes, that noxious emotion surfaced. In Othello's words, he became "perplexed in the extreme." Third, he wants them to report that the essence of his fault was that he threw something very valuable away (Desdemona) and in doing so became either like Judas or the Indian (see my mini-essay on Life Lines II) in squandering something of great value. Fourth, he wants to protray himself now as a grief-stricken man. Calling upon his penchant and skill in exotic description, Othello likens his weepy self now to the Arabian trees shedding their gum. It seems that what Othello most wants the officers to report is a tale of sadness that should evoke pity in the hearers. As Othellos says to Iago when the anguish of his situation is mounting: "But yet the pity of it,/ Iago! O Iago, the pity of it, Iago (4.1.195-196)!" In sum, Othello wants to be remembered as a man who lived and loved too much without due attention to the value of something that was precious to him.
Responding to Othello's "Case"
It would be hard to imagine a more one-sided attempt at self-justification. He attributes his faults to an excess of good things in him or succumbing to something that was his nature to do when pressed to the wall. Each of his assertions is open to question, though space does not permit a full examination. First, one could argue that the problem with his love was not that it was extreme but that it was derivative. He never really understood nor tried to understand the palpitations of Desdemona's heart. Second, we can argue that his jealous emotion was rather easily stimulated by a clever man who knew that he could "tenderly be led by th' nose/ As asses are (1.3.401-402)." Third, he didn't throw a great pearl away; he murdered his wife. Throwing a pearl away brings up the spectre of unwitting action or foolishness; we could argue, in contrast, for venality and blind viciousness. Finally, what is the legal value of tears? Should tears melt us as they have melted him? Those who are skeptical of his first three "facts" certainly will not grant him the nobility of his tears.
Othello challenges and tantalizes even as he speaks his last.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long