In Venice, Othello and Desdemona have married in secret, much to the agitation of Desdemona’s father. Othello, a general employed by the Venetian state, is then sent to Cyprus to defend it against the threat of invading Turks. Unwilling to stay behind, Desdemona travels to Cyprus with her new husband.
Iago, Othello’s ensign who harbours a terrible resentment for Othello plots to send him into jealous madness through making Othello believe that his wife is having an affair with Michael Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant.
Iago achieves this by acquiring a treasured possession of Desdemona’s; a handkerchief gifted to her by Othello. Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio’s lodgings, and ensures that Othello sees him with it. Iago uses this as ‘proof’ of Desdemona’s infidelity.
This scene occurs as Othello enters Desdemona’s bedchamber with a candle where she is sleeping. His intention is to kill her.
Language and Thought Breakdown
When looking at the text break down, consider the thought and beat changes to see if they reveal anything.
Othello is speaking of murdering his wife and yet the imagery and language is supremely poetic. To me, that is an indication of the emotional state, the stakes and the intensity of the love that Othello has for Desdemona.
Another thing that stood out for me was the use of ‘feminine endings’ or lines with an extra unstressed syllable at the end. As Shakespeare could write a sentence in perfect iambic pentameter if he wanted to, there is an assumption that he had reason to break that rhythm. Perhaps it is to indicate to an actor, to invest in that word or idea; to lean into the subject matter and linger on the thought. Or simply to indicate that the subject matter is distressful to the character. It is up to you to decide how you play it.
Finally, the line that sums up the entire speech for me:
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after. One more, and this the last.
You’ll notice that because there is a full spot in the middle of the line, it creates an entire extra stressed syllable on the word last. This is a masterful piece of writing. The internal full stop in this line forces the actor to slow down, change thoughts and consider the finality of the action Othello is about to take. The last time he’ll kiss the woman he loves before ending her life.
Now I’ll go through the text, and mark out the beat changes and thought changes for you:
Beat Change: Space
Thought Change: /
(F): Feminine ending
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul! /
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars; / (F)
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: / (F)
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men. /
Put out the light, and then put out the light. /
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, /
I can again thy former light restore, /
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light, / (F)
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature, / (F)
I know not where is that Promethean heat /
That can thy light relume. /
When I have pluck’d the rose, / (F)
I cannot give it vital growth again: /
It needs must wither: I’ll smell thee on the tree. / (F)
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, / (F)
And love thee after. / One more, and this the last.
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. / I must weep, /
But they are cruel tears: this sorrow’s heavenly; (F)
It strikes where it doth love. She wakes.
It is the reason, it is the reason, my soul!
I won’t name it out loud you virgin stars
It is the reason.
But I won’t spill her blood,
Or scar that skin of hers, whiter than snow
And smooth as marble made statues:
But she must die, or else she’ll betray more men.
Extinguish the candle and then extinguish her light.
If I put you out, candle, my servant of light,
I can restore your light again,
If I regret it. But once I have killed you,
You most skilfully made beauty of nature,
I don’t know of any divine fire,
That can bring you back to life.
Once I have picked the rose of your life,
I cannot give it living growth again,
It must wilt and perish: I’ll smell you while you live.
(Othello kisses Desdemona)
Ah, warm breath, that almost persuades,
Lady Justice to put away her sword! One more kiss, one more kiss.
Be like this when you are dead and I will kill you,
And love you forever. One more kiss, and this the final one.
(Othello kisses Desdemona)
One so beautiful was never so destructive. I can’t help crying,
But my tears are cruel. This sadness is heavenly, like god
I must strike where I love. She’s waking up.
Unfamiliar Words and Phrases
Chaste: Virginal, in other words; what Othello believes Desdemona is not.
Monumental Alabaster: A white mineral that was smoothed and used in making statues. Sometimes used for the making of funeral monuments.
Flaming minister: In other words, the candle. Minister in this sense means ‘servant’.
Cunning’st pattern: Most skilfully made. Double meaning of ‘cunning’ as in one who is deceiving.
Promethean: Prometheus, from ancient Greek mythology was the Titan who stole fire from heaven and gave it to humankind, whom he also created.
Justice: Traditionally depicted as a woman holding a set of scales in one hand and a sword in the other, blind folded – hence the phrase ‘Justice is blind”.
When I read the monologue, I’m struck by the sense of grief that Othello is feeling. Utterly torn by the prospect of doing what he believes to be right and honourable yet requiring of him, the most heinous act against the woman he deeply loves.
In performance, how do you play this? How do you stay on task and not fall into washing the speech with one emotion? My advice is to remember that Othello wants to kill Desdemona. It is what he believes, at that moment, is the right thing to do. Othello is willing himself to kill her and so he must talk himself into it. “It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul”! Yet while he is attempting to convince himself, he becomes engrossed in her, speaks too long and Desdemona wakes, robbing Othello of the opportunity to kill her peacefully. Remember that there is a strong cause why she must die. This gives a sense of urgency and will help to keep the pace of the speech moving forward.
There is a lot to be said about the tragic relationship between Othello and Desdemona.
Othello is a brave soldier, famed war hero and general of the Venetian army. Killing would seem to be in his nature. Desdemona sees through this exterior and she shows herself to be very courageous. She marries a Moor in a racist world, against her father’s wishes and follows him to Cyprus, very near the frontline of an invasion.
Keep in mind also that Othello and Desdemona were only very recently married. By the time this scene takes place, most couples would be on their honeymoon. However bound by duty, Othello must defend the Venetian colony and his ever loyal wife Desdemona refuses to stay behind. Their love is strong right until this end, even as she is dying, in her final heroic moment, Desdemona refuses to accuse her husband of any wrongdoing.
This small monologue packs a punch. Filled with poetic imagery and beautiful language, this is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most heartbreaking pieces of writing.