By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul’: so begins Act 5 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Othello, with Othello’s speech leading up to his killing of Desdemona. This is the final scene of the play; by the end of it, Othello and Desdemona will both be dead, the tragedy brought to its grisly conclusion.
Let’s take a closer look at the language of Othello’s speech here by going through it, line by line, offering a summary and analysis of its meaning.
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,—
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!—
‘It is the cause’: in other words, this (the killing of Desdemona) is the cause to which he now devotes himself, the course he must take. Othello is raising himself to almost biblical heights by addressing his soul: something that figures in the Bible often do, but rare among Shakespeare’s other heroes.
Othello refuses to state explicitly what his purpose is, now addressing the stars (and, through doing so, setting the scene as night-time). The word ‘chaste’ is designed to contrast with Desdemona’s (perceived) unchastity, or unfaithfulness to Othello.
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
‘It is the cause’: this is the third time Othello has uttered this phrase in as many lines. Is he possessed by righteous fervour for his ‘cause’, or is he trying to summon the conviction to carry out his heinous act? Desdemona is, after all, innocent, but even if she weren’t, it is not Othello’s place to take her life.
Othello vows not to shed any of Desdemona’s blood or scar her skin – prefiguring the strangling of her with his bare hands, which won’t leave a scar or draw any blood. The reference to Desdemona’s skin as being ‘whiter … than snow’ summons the old proverb about being ‘pure as the driven snow’, which is ironic in light of Othello’s belief in his wife’s lack of purity or chastity.
But there is obviously also a contrast between Desdemona’s snow-white skin – smooth and white as the alabaster or marble from which monuments are made – and Othello’s dark skin. And Iago has weaponised the race-difference between Othello and Desdemona in order to turn Othello against his wife.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
Othello tries to rationalise his act as more than the insanely jealous behaviour of a ‘wronged’ or cuckolded husband: he is trying to save other men from Desdemona’s supposed infidelity. Then we get another famous line: ‘Put out the light, and then put out the light’. Othello plans to put the candle out so he and Desdemona are in darkness, and then put out her light, the light of life within her, by killing her.
As a side-note, observe the importance of repetition in Othello’s speech: ‘It is the cause, it is the cause’; ‘Put out the light, and then put out the light’. In a few lines’ time, he will do this again: ‘One more, one more.’ It’s almost like a grotesque parody of a lullaby, as if he is soothing his soul before he commits his colossal act of murder.
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree.
Now, Othello goes from addressing his soul and the chaste stars to addressing the candle (‘thou flaming minister’). The difference between the candle and Desdemona’s ‘light’ is that, if he regrets putting it out, he can light it again; but (turning to address Desdemona now) if he kills Desdemona, he knows of no fire or heat strong enough to restore her ‘light’. It’s like plucking a rose: once plucked, it will never grow again.
The reference to Prometheus recalls the story (which we have discussed here) of the Titan from Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man.
Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after. One more, and this the last:
When Othello kisses Desdemona, he almost resolves to spare her: how can he kill someone whose breath smells so sweet, like balm from a tree? He allows himself one more kiss (‘One more, one more’), and then another (‘One more, and this the last’). There’s a sinister connotation to the idea of killing Desdemona and swearing, if she looks this good as a corpse, that he will ‘love’ her after he’s killed her.
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears: this sorrow’s heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love. She wakes.
Such a sweet kiss was never so destructive and fateful before. Although Othello wants to weep because he’s putting to death such a sweet and beautiful woman, he knows they are also cruel tears, because he will not swerve from the task ahead of him: killing Desdemona.
For ‘this sorrow’s heavenly’, E. A. J. Honigmann, in his notes to the Arden edition of the play, Othello: Revised Edition (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series), directs us to the Bible, and to Hebrews 12:6: ‘For whom the Lord loveth, him he chasteneth’. Othello is dressing up his deed as an act of love, which may seem hard to accept. But in one sense, it is: he truly believes his wife has been unfaithful to him, so his love for her has turned to anger because she has (he thinks) made a mockery of his devotion to her.
But note, of course, how Othello once again adopts biblical language here. At this point, Desdemona wakes up, and the deadly final conversation takes place between them.