Othello is one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies. Based on the short story, Un Capitano Moro, Othello is the story of a great war general who, believing his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful, tragically murders her.
The villain of the play, Iago, convinces Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with a young soldier Cassio. While at first Othello doesn’t believe it, slowly, through Iago’s deceit, he is convinced that it’s true. Othello, driven mad but his suspicion, judges that he must kill Desdemona. There are different schools of thought, whether he does this out of jealousy or his belief in honour. But either way, we know as an audience that it is wrong.
Desdemona is of course innocent of all accusations against her. From the beginning of the play, she is portrayed as innocent and virtuous in every way. Desdemona loves Othello right to the very end and tries throughout the play to win his favour back. This monologue, from Act 4, Scene 2 is one of those moments.
What has just happened?
This monologue springs from a tense scene between Othello and Desdemona. The scene opens with Othello asking Emilia if she has seen Desdemona and Cassio alone together, whispering or sharing secrets. Although Emilia is adamant that no such thing has happened, Othello unconvinced, tells her to fetch his wife. Othello confronts Desdemona, hurling a tirade of verbal abuse at her “Was this fair paper, this most goodly book, Made to write “whore” upon?… Impudent strumpet!…I took you for that cunning whore of Venice That married with Othello. You, mistress, That have the office opposite to Saint Peter. And keep the gate of hell!”
The fight is interrupted by Emilia and Othello leaves Desdemona deeply shaken. She is a very religious woman and these accusations would have been horrifying to her. Iago arrives and he and Emilia try to comfort the distressed and confused Desdemona. Despite all of his horrible words, Desdemona still loves Othello.
Thought & Beat Breakdown
New Paragraph = New beat/idea
, or ; = build on a thought
What shall I do to win my lord again?
Good friend, go to him. For by this light of heaven,
I know not how I lost him.
Here I kneel.
If e’er my will did trespass ‘gainst his love,
Either in discourse of thought or actual deed,
Or that mine eyes, mine ears, or any sense
Delighted them in any other form,
Or that I do not yet, and ever did,
And ever will—though he do shake me off
To beggarly divorcement—love him dearly,
Comfort forswear me!
Unkindness may do much,
And his unkindness may defeat my life,
But never taint my love.
I cannot say “whore”—
It does abhor me now I speak the word.
To do the act that might the addition earn,
Not the world’s mass of vanity could make me.
What can I do to win my husband back?
Good friend, go to him. For I have no idea,
how I lost him.
Here I kneel.
If I ever violated his love,
Either by something I said or by an actual action,
Or that my eyes, ears, or any sense
Delighted themselves in any other person,
If I do not, never did,
And never will—though he does throw me off
Towards impoverished divorcement—love him dearly,
Happiness leave me!
Unkindness is strong,
And his unkindness may kill me,
But it will never ruin my love for him.
I cannot say “whore”—
It horrifies me to say the word.
To do the action that would earn me that name,
Not even all the frivolous desires of the world could make me do it.
Unfamiliar Words & Phrases
Alas: It is an expression of sorrow, like ‘Oh God’.
By this light of heaven: To sentiment of this line is a promise. Think of adding in front ‘I swear’ I swear by this light of heaven.
Trespass: Commit a crime/sin
Discourse of thought: Saying the thought
Any other form: Any other person
Foreswear: Swear to renounce someone.
Abhor: Hate, loath
Vanity: Empty and vain pursuit
To play this role an actor must accept some given circumstances about Desdemona. She is deeply pure, virtuous and faithful. And, she loves Othello more than anything. To our modern sensibilities, Desdemona’s shock at even saying the word ‘whore’ might feel strange and perhaps a little unbelievable. However, it’s important to remember the context of when the play was written. The presence of the church and God was very prominent in daily life. Adultery for a woman was the ultimate sin and being accused of such brought deep shame. As Desdemona’s says, even if she thought of adultery, she would want happiness to leave her.
Desdemona’s response to drop to her knees and pray fervently is also a very clever dramatic choice by Shakespeare. The more pious and innocent she comes across to the audience the more they will feel for her and the more tragic the unfolding events will be. The more Desdemona loves Othello, despite how he treats her, the more tragic her death will be. Even as she dies, she protests his innocence. Desdemona’s blinding love for Othello is her tragic flaw.