Raw Emotions I
Reaching the Breaking Point (5.2.125-195)
If Desdemona's death failed to make the earth "yawn at alteration (5.2.101)," it ripped through the emotional life of the leading characters, leaving an void of abyssal proportions. Othello's agitated question, "Why, how should she be murd'red (5.2.126)?" bespeaks a man who has almost fully lost touch with the reality he has created. In the next seventy lines, Emilia will be the instrument directing the conversation toward its ultimately disastrous conclusion. Five aspects of the conversation that add to its intensity are Emilia's mention of truth, the extremity of the language, the terms she uses to describe Othello, Iago's attempt to slither out of responsiblity and Emilia's two dramatic outbursts (5.2.180-181,190-193). This essay will consider the first three; the second two are in the next.
Othello's inept and guilt-ridden attempt to deflect attention from himself for Desdemona's murder ("You heard her say herself, it was not I"--5.2.127) evokes from Emilia a response of steely resolve: "She said so; I must needs report the truth (5.2.128)." Her mention of the word "truth" provokes a reaction of such proportions that some scholars have characterized this as "unlike Othello." Yet, the word "truth" functions as a sort of rapier cutting directly to the heart of Othello, slicing apart the flimsy attempt to rest his defense on the intellectual concept of the "cause." We all have our emotional vulnerabilities lurking uneasily beneath the surface calm of our lives, weaknesses that could easily be exposed to the light if a person would even gently probe that subject or that experience which we have not yet fully digested psychologically. Her use of the word "truth" functions in this way. It immediately exposes to Othello the fragility of his extenuation (i.e., 'she said I didn't do it') and the potential for return to the chaos which he greatly feared (cf. 3.3.90-92). It is not just an affrighted globe and a yawning earth which stalks his mind.
Othello's specific words are: "She's like a liar gone to burning hell;/ 'Twas I that kill'd her (5.2.129-130)." Unable to live with the dissonance caused by his emotional barrenness and physical violence, he has to close the gap by admitting he killed her. Yet he prefaces his admission by his statement about Desdemona's being a liar. Emilia's mention of truth makes Othello fly to the other extreme: lying. But note how we are now in a different intellectual world. Previously Othello lived in the world of justice and law ("almost persuade/ Justice to break her sword"--5.2.17), and he even makes one more fleeting reference to it ("Oh I were damn'd beneath all depth in hell/ But that I did proceed upon just grounds/ To this extremity"--5.2.137-139)," but now the conversation turns to falsehood and truth. Once the appeal to justice disappears and all we are left with is truth and falsehood, Othello is left naked and bereft; all he can do is repeat the assertion that she was false to him. Emilia now can move in for the "kill," so to speak.
And so a bristling conversation ensues, with Emilia's scalded emotions overcoming Othello's Potemkin defenses until she cries "murder" at the top of her lungs (5.2.167). Making the conversation so bruising are the repeated references to falsehood, lying, truth, the devil, hell and heaven. Without fear of reprisal, Emilia accuses Othello of being a devil (5.2.131,133) and of being rash as fire to say that she was false. Othello responds with references to Desdemona's whoring and false behavior. Long gone is the cool and calm Othello, the Othello who could bear the onslaught of the distraught Brabantio both at the Sagittary and in the Senate with tranquillity.
Now, in its place, is an emotionally bankrupt Othello, clinging to Desdemona's falseness like a stranded boat passenger cleaving to a splintered timber or other piece of flotsam while vainly awaiting rescue. It is Emilia's reference to Desdemona's "filthy" bargain (her marriage), which provides a shocking contrast to Othello's reference to Emilia's "honest" husband who hatest the "slime/ That sticks on filthy deeds (5.2.149)," that causes Othello to draw his sword. The conversation has gotten beyond Othello's ken; he is a child in the sphere of the emotions, and his reliance on the testimony of others about Desdemona's infideily in reaching his conclusions will lead to his undoing.
Extreme Language About Othello
Emilia also uses terms of such vituperation, such rancor, to address Othello that the reader is left breathless. Recall that in 4.1 the men talked among themselves and used nearly a dozen terms of abuse to describe either the infidelity or the "trinket-character" of women (see the essay on Insults!). Now Emilia will have her half-dozen terms that serve almost as a response to the men's cruel banter. When Othello clings grimly to his reliance on Iago's words that Desdemona was false, Emilia cannot stand it anymore. "O gull, O dolt,/ As ignorant as dirt (5.2.163-164)!" Then, after the others have joined them, she continues her attack on Othello, calling him "thou dull Moor," when he persisted in his reliance on the handkerchief as evidence of infidelity (5.2.225). Then, in her brief lines which provoke Othello to run at Iago with his sword, she calls him a "murd'rous coxcomb" and a "fool (5.2.233)." Finally, as she is breathing out her last, she calls him a "cruel Moor (5.2.259)." Nothing in her history or the structure of the Venetian society would have prepared us for her outburst. Her vigorous language, combined with the extreme references cited above, give the passage an almost palpable vehemence.
The next essay concludes the discussion.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long