Seeing and hearing the end in the beginning of Othello
The final tableau of Othello left to the audience is best hidden from sight, for it is deemed poisonous. In this essay, Dominic Nah traces the work of this poison through the sights and sounds of Iago and Othello from the end, retroactively back to the beginning of the play, to “uncover” how this “tragic loading” was set on. Through examining rumours, mutual idealisation and (unintended) prophecies, this essay uncovers how the language of tragedy in Othello can be read closely between the eyes and ears, between seeing and hearing, seeking the end in the beginning.
LUDOVICO: Look on the tragic loading of this bed.
(To IAGO) This is thy work. The object poisons sight.
Let it be hid. (The bed curtains are drawn)
Othello, Act V, sc. ii.
Where most tragedies tend to end in deathly spectacle (the laying out of dead bodies, the eulogy), Othello’s final tragic scene is deemed ‘poisonous’ and must be hidden from public view. Yet Ludovico’s pronouncement that this is Iago’s work hints at how the final coupling of Othello and Desdemona as a climactic scene has perhaps been imagined, anticipated and prepared for from the play’s very opening moments, much like how in reading Iago’s first and last lines of the play, an inextricable link is drawn between Iago’s “[speaking] word” with his ultimate sense of exclusion:
IAGO: S’blood, but you’ll not hear me!
If ever I did dream of such a matter, abhor me.
IAGO: Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.
But first, it is helpful to consider Iago as an individual that is both ‘seduced’ by poisonous words and also a ‘seducer’ that poisons with words. The scene that is arguably the basis for the “tragic loading”, one heard but never seen and later constantly replayed in Iago’s mind, is revealed in his first soliloquy at the end of I.iii:
IAGO: […] I hate the Moor.
And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office. I know not if’t be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.
Here Iago has been aurally seduced by word of an unseen, unverified scene of adultery. The rumours that Iago has recognized are depicted (only) through words: Othello has had sexual liaisons with his wife Emilia. Iago notes this uncertainty of evidence, but reinterprets it as fact, precipitating a sense of exclusion and jealousy toward Othello, the assumed perpetrator and enactor of this exclusion, this cuckolding of Iago. It is this insisting on his interpretation to the very end, “as if for surety”, which results in his ruthless murder of Emilia at the end, accompanied by Iago’s cry of slander that reveals Iago’s sense of sexual jealousy: “Villainous whore!” (V.ii.236)
Yet the fatal “tragic loading” cannot be solely ascribed to Iago’s unconscious sexual exclusion, for it is also dependent upon the fundamental nature of Othello’s and Desdemona’s relationship. Here, we find that the severance of the relationship and its tragic end can be anticipated from their initial defence of it, on the grounds it was constructed upon: an imaginative and narrative constitution of each other.
DESDEMONA: That I did love the Moor to live with him,
My downright violence and storm of fortunes
May trumpet to the world. My heart’s subdued
Even to the very quality of my lord.
I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,
And to his honours and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate
OTHELLO: She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
Just as they have built their relationship upon the imagining and admiring of each other’s “visage”, so its dissolution occurs in the rewriting of these narratives with the charges of infidelity and sexual exclusion.
What drives this end of the relationship into its darker, morbid territory of murder lies less in the grounds of the relationship than it does in Othello’s self-constitution of honour. Curiously, the stories of Othello that Desdemona loved and attached her attention to are ones of martial honour and bravery. This suffers as Othello conceives of his sexual exclusion from Desdemona by her turning attention to his subordinate Cassio, as a loss of martial honour:
OTHELLO: Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content,
Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue! O, farewell,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone.
(III.iii.353-55, 359, 362)
Once validated and loved by Desdemona, his martial honour is later inverted and perverted, made to become the “cause” (V.ii.1-3), the origin of his motive of her murder. Here, Othello compares the (perceived) infidelity of Desdemona together with the maintenance of a higher sense of honour through which he constructs his self-identity (and of which Desdemona’s validation was the basis of their relationship) and finds them fatally incompatible.
But the cause of Othello’s suicide is the eventual discovery (or uncovering) of the falseness of this interpretation, and this is where his suicide is inextricably bound with Iago’s work, arguably imagined for in the beginning along with Roderigo. Roderigo’s sense of exclusion from the romance between Othello and Desdemona, while undoubtedly spurred on by Iago, harbours an urge to take revenge on and overcome Othello such that he may fulfill his desire to be with Desdemona. Crucially, here one notes a seemingly offhand remark – that he “would rather have been [Othello’s] hangman” (I.i.33) – which will retroactively imagine and prepare for the satisfaction of Roderigo’s desire. What finally sets Othello towards his own suicide is the discovering of information that overwrites and nullifies the basis for his murder of Desdemona, an uncovering that is posthumous and spoken from Roderigo in a series of recovered messages:
LODOVICO: […] Here is a letter,
Found in the pocket of the slain Roderigo,
And here another.
CASSIO: […] and even but now he spake
After long seeming dead, Iago hurt him,
Iago set him on.
In this way, Othello’s suicide can be retroactively traced to Roderigo’s initial imagination of being Othello’s “hangman”, albeit enacted posthumously and perversely in proxy through Iago’s silent act of witness. Thus, just as Iago’s true identity is revealed, so Othello’s suicide becomes an act of identity erasure, concluding on the plain pronoun “I” the cancellation of his warring identities of Turk and Venetian (V.ii.362-64). Thus, this uncovering of the ending in the beginning both perversely and precisely reveals the potency of words to seduce, even without conclusive evidence, bemusing us just as Brabanzio unknowingly foretells in his comment on Othello’s seduction of Desdemona:
BRABANZIO: But words are words. I never yet did hear
That the bruised heart was pierced through the ear.
Works Cited / Further Reading:
Laplanche, J. (1999) Masochism and the General Theory of Seduction. Translated by Luke Thurston. In: J. Fletcher (ed.). Essays on Otherness. London: Routledge, 197-213.
Laplanche, J. (1999) Notes on Afterwardsness. In: J. Fletcher (ed.). Essays on Otherness. London: Routledge, 260-65.
Shakespeare, W. (2008) The Tragedy of Othello The Moor of Venice. In: S. Greenblatt et al. (ed.) The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2109-2192.
DOMINIC NAH is a final-year undergraduate reading English Literature at the University of Warwick. He studied Othello as part of a module on ‘Shakespeare, Freud and the Power of Scenes’ in his second year. This essay is reworked from an assignment on this module he submitted (which did well), and excludes critical psychoanalytic theories by Jean Laplanche.
Photo Credit: Leonard Yip