Shakespeare was a master of dramatic technique one aspect of which prominently stands out in plays like Hamlet and Othello. It is that he loves to surprise the readers and that he sometimes chooses to do so by withdrawing a principle character from the stage and bringing him back after some time in a mood which is quite unexpected by the audience.
Once such change of mood takes place in Othello himself between his exit in the third scene of the Third Act (Line 323) and his return forty-five lines later when he comes maddened with jealousy. A transformation which is still more unexpected is the one which confronts the readers at the beginning of the second scene of the Fifth Act of this play. Earlier, in the previous scene, Othello was persuaded that Iago had killed Cassio, he now rushes out to complete his ‘great revenge’ by himself killing Desdemona, and killing her at once, for he cries ‘Strumpet, I come 1’ ‘No critic denies, or can deny, that when we next see him uttering the solemn opening words of Act V, Scene II, a profound change has come over him, though if we ask them to explain the change or to tell us what kind of man he has now become, we hear in reply a chorus of discordant voices. And we are in much the same plight as regards the meaning of Othello’s last speech, which is in a way a more serious matter, since from what he then is and says, our minds receive the final impression both of his character and of the play as a whole.
According to Bradley, this change of mood takes place because ‘the supposed death of Cassio’ has satisfied Othello’s ‘thirst for vengeance’ during the time that he has been absent from the stage. Of course, there can be no direct evidence of such a thing in the text, but it harmonizes quite well with the general view that Bradley takes of Othello’s character. He observes :
The Othello who enters the bed-chamber with the words, ‘It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,’ is not the man of the Fourth Act. The deed he is bound to do is no murder, but a sacrifice. He is to save Desdemona from herself, not in hate but in honour, and also in love. His anger has passed, ; a boundless sorrow has taken its place ; and ‘this sorrow’s heavenly ;/It strikes where it doth love.’ Even when, at the sight of her apparent obduracy, and at the hearing of words which by a crowning fatality can only reconvince him of her guilt, these feelings give way to others, it is to righteous indignation they give way, not to rage ; and terribly painful as this scene is, there is almost nothing here to diminish the admiration and love which heighten pity. And pity itself vanishes, and love and, admiration alone remain, in the majestic dignity and sovereign ascendancy of the close.
It may be noted that every single assertion that Bradley makes about Othello’s present mood is supported by appropriate’ textual authority which he carefully cites. Bradley is elaborating the emotions which the last scene evokes in himself and he believes Shakespeare intended to evoke in every spectator ; they are emotions which, following Aristotle, he considers the normal and approved response of the sensitive human spirit, to the catastrophe of any great tragedy. As Bradley, states elsewhere, according to him, a Shakespearean tragedy is never depressing. It may bee noted that although Bradley’s view seems to be persuasive, some readers reach a conclusion which is diametrically opposed to his. For example, Granville-Barker differs with Bradley vigorously in his view of Othello when he enters Desdemona’s bedroom. According to him, Othello “is calm as water is when near to boiling, or the sea with a surge of storm underneath. Exalted in his persuasion that it is justice he deals and not vengeance, he regains a Satanic semblance of the nobility that was his.” This critic considers Othello’s assertion that “this sorrow’s heavenly :/It strikes where it doth love” as showing ‘ghoulish perversion’. According to him, Othello is a madman during most of this scene, and Shakespeare gives him a noble epitaph which Othello speaks himself, because the hero has to be restored to himself and to such a consciousness of himself as will give significance to his end. His conclusion is that this entire scene is
a terrible, shameful spectacle, of which Shakespeare spares us nothing, which, indeed, he elaborates and prolongs until the man’s death comes as a veritable relief, a happy restoring of him to dignity.
Although most critics are agreed that in his last speech, Shakespeare restores Othello to true nobility, T. S. Eliot strongly doubts even this. On the other hand, he is depressed by what he regards as ‘terrible exposure of human weakness’ in this scene which he regards as the worst in literature in this respect. He sees it as an extreme instance of that ‘attitude of self-dramatisation’, ultimately derived from Seneca, which some of Shakespeare’s other characters, as well as those of other Elizabethan dramatists, are apt to assume ‘at moments of tragic intensity’. According to him, Othello is here only cheering himself up and trying to escape reality. Eliot denier Othello humility and observes:
Othello succeeds in turning himself into a pathetic Gluts by adopting an aesthetic rather than a moral attitude, dramatizing himself against his environment. Tie takes in the spectator, but the human motive is primarily to take in himself.
Eliot’s criticism is strangely inapplicable to a dram and would be in place only in a novel. Moreover, Eliot betrays the falsity of his position by his observation that the scene ‘takes in’, the spectators for that is all which the dramatist is concerned to do Literary criticism, when a Shakespearean character is the subject; must base itself on the general impression which the character makes in the theatre, and it is only after satisfying this condition chat it may legitimately extend into subtlety or refinement. Eliot’s error is followed by F. R. Leavis, and, strangely enough even by such a man of theatre as Granville-Barker, whose experience of dramatic production ought to have acted as a safeguard.
Impression of Nobility
A true reading of this scene must accept the_ fact that it produces on us an impression of great tragic intensity in which the restored dignity and nobility of Othello is a central fact. Shakespeare wrote most of his tragedies, with the double purpose of first harrowing his audience with the terror and pity of the catastrophe and then sending them home with the feeling of redemption, reconciliation and even exultation which the great tragedians of all ages have aroused. The hero’s last speech reminds us that be is a hero, the most heroic of all Shakespeare’s characters. And that Shakespeare intended us to think of him as heroic throughout the scene is confirmed by the very strong evidence of style. As Wilson Knight truly says of the opening speech :
This is the noble Othello music : highly coloured, rich in sound and phrase, stately ... the most Miltonic thing in Shakespeare.
Wilson Knight’s parallel is appropriate, for the stoical tone and calm dignity of Othello’s concluding speech, further emphasised by the tumultuous violence of the last line in which he strikes at himself, do recall the conclusion of Samson Agonistes. The style itself assures us that Othello’s speech is not a self-dramatisation or a satanic semblance of nobility. There is no question of Othello cheering himself up or of his being forgetful of Desdemona. For one thing, Desdemona is the reason why he kills himself. Othello realises that he indicted an unpardonable cruelty on Desdemona under the delusion that be was perpetrating justice, and he now inflicts true Justice on himself for this crime.
Othello’s Last Thoughts
One of Othello’s concerns in the moment of impending death is for his reputation, which now means true honour rather than mere outward same. In this, Othello shows his kinship with other Shakespearean tragic heroes For example, Hamlet’s last thought also is for his ‘wounded name’. Like Hamlet, Othello also may be regarded as a prince and, more essentially, a soldier. Another critic aptly points attention to the fact that it is Shakespeare’s usual practice to give to his tragic heroes an apologia before their death and to follow this up with a tribute by one or more characters. In this lint, Othello’s last speech is remarkably modest, for be dismisses his life-long heroic service to
in a single line. All that he demands from his listeners is that after his death, they would narrate these sad events with a strict attention to truth. Instead of exalting himself, Othello compares himself to the ‘base Indian’––which may be-best interpreted as an allusion to the ingnorant and degraded ‘Indians’ of the New World, represented by Caliban in The Tempest. In any event, however ‘Indian’ be explained, ‘base’, which means ‘black’ as well as ‘debased’ or ‘vile’, is sufficient evidence of a profound self-abasement. It may also be interpreted that Othello’s last tears are tears of joy at the realisation that Iago’s devilish accusations have proved false and that Desdemona was both chaste and loving. Venice