‘Soft you, a word or two before you go’: so begins Othello’s last major speech before he stabs himself. His last words, famously, are ‘I kiss’d thee ere I kill’d thee’. But between these two lines are a number of other noteworthy moments which call out for closer textual analysis. Let’s go through Othello’s speech, which can be found in Act 5 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Othello, and offer a summary and analysis of his language and meaning as we go.
Soft you, a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
Lodovico has just come to arrest Othello for the murder of Desdemona. But once Lodovico has commanded Othello to accompany him to prison, Othello tells him to wait a moment (‘Soft you’).
The speech that follows is marked by understatement: Othello only wants ‘a word or two’, and he has done Venice ‘some service’, downplaying his important military role.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Othello continues his modest understatement of his achievements (‘No more of that’), instead requesting of Lodovico that, when he records this sad business in his letters, he ‘tells it like it is’. That is, he wants Lodovico not to ‘extenuate’ or tone down anything or let Othello off the hook where he deserves criticism, but at the same time, he doesn’t want Lodovico to exaggerate anything Othello has done out of malice or dislike of him. In short, be fair and true to the events.
If Lodovico does this, he will show that Othello was someone who didn’t love wisely, but loved too much, too intensely. As E. A. J. Honigmann observes in his notes to the excellent Arden edition, Othello: Revised Edition (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series), Othello is attempting a subtle form of displacement with that ‘one’ here: he is not speaking of his crimes using the more personal ‘I’ and ‘me’.
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe;
Othello maintains that he was not someone who was easily made jealous, but when he was worked (‘wrought’, i.e., by Iago) into a state of jealousy, he became bewildered and distracted to an extreme degree (‘perplex’d’ here means not just ‘puzzled’, the modern sense, but also ‘distracted’: Othello became fixated on Desdemona’s possible infidelity).
Othello says he was like a lowly Indian who, not realising that pearls are precious, threw it away as worthless. This is how Othello treated Desdemona.
However – and this isn’t as well-known as it should be – there is some debate among Shakespeare scholars as to whether Othello talks of Indians or Judeans. The First Folio printing of Othello in 1623 has ‘Iudean’, i.e., Judean, which may be a misprint for ‘Indean’, i.e., Indian. Alternatively, Shakespeare may really have written ‘Judean’, to refer to Judas, the traitor who threw away Jesus’ life by betraying him to the Romans. Indeed, ‘Judean’ would make sense in light of ‘base’, which suggests craven, cowardly, or immoral: all words which are applicable to Judas.
We would favour Judean over Indian, for these reasons, but also because of ‘Richer than all his tribe’: ‘the tribe of Judea’ is a well-known Biblical phrase, whereas Indian tribe here is far less precise or persuasive.
of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum.
Othello describes his eyes as ‘subdued’: not prone to crying or ‘melting’ in tears. But after he had thrown away Desdemona, his ‘pearl’ (and note the colour connotations of whiteness here), he cried as quickly as the trees of Arabia drip their gum. (Honigmann suggests that Shakespeare, or Othello, has myrrh trees in mind here, given the use of ‘Arabian’ and ‘medicinal’.)
Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.
Othello tells Lodovico to write down everything Othello has just told him. And then to add that, in Aleppo once, Othello once grabbed a Turk by the throat (a Turk who had beaten a Venetian) and hit him, much like this – and then Othello stabs himself. Note how, in this scenario, he is both himself (the man doing the smiting, as he was back in Aleppo) and the Turk (the man who was smitten or struck). The intention is to contrast Othello’s former noble behaviour (when he vanquished the enemies of Christian Europe) with his descent into self-destruction.
O bloody period!
All that’s spoke is marr’d.
Lodovico and Gratiano react in shock to what they have seen and heard: Othello’s death (‘period’ means ‘end’ here, i.e., the conclusion or end of a journey) and everything Othello has said to them (‘marr’d’ is ‘bad’ or ‘awful’).
I kiss’d thee ere I kill’d thee: no way but this;
Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.
Falls on the bed, and dies
In his dying words, Othello addresses the dead Desdemona. In other words: ‘I kissed you before I killed you, just like this. And now I kill myself, dying as I kiss you again.’ (Although it isn’t included in the stage directions, the implication is that Othello kisses Desdemona right before he dies.)
‘I kiss’d thee ere I kill’d thee’: the line is memorable for a number of reasons. First, it contrasts what Freud would call Eros with Thanatos, love with murder, life with death, sex and the creative urge with killing and the destructive urge. Second, of course, although kissing and killing are so markedly different as to be almost opposites, their sounds sync up here, thanks to the alliteration of kiss’d and kill’d.
But finally, if indeed Shakespeare meant ‘Judean’ rather than ‘Indian’ in that earlier speech (‘of one whose hand, / Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe’), the idea of kissing Desdemona before killing her mirrors Judas’ kiss, whereby Judas betrayed Jesus to the Romans by identifying him in public by kissing him, leading to Jesus’ arrest and execution.
Othello’s ‘I kiss’d thee ere I kill’d thee’ speech is one of his most famous, and one of the most celebrated dying speeches in all of Shakespeare. In his 1927 essay ‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’, T. S. Eliot identified Othello’s flair for self-dramatisation in this speech: he is trying to ‘escape reality’, as Eliot puts it, by taking refuge in his glorious past and tearing his mind from his horrendous crime (the killing of his innocent wife). One of the most tragic things about Othello’s last speech is his desperate desire to shore up something of his military reputation, even though he knows, in truth, that it is now in tatters.