English Literature: A2 Othello (2)

Explore the significance of this extract in relation to the play as a whole. Remember to include in your answer relevant analysis of Shakespeare’s dramatic methods.

The tragedy of Act 5 Scene 2 lies in Othello’s lack of anagnorisis. The protagonist’s speech reveals Shakespeare’s circular narrative that has prevented his growth, whilst his language has been poisoned by Iago’s hellish imagery. His blurred identity prevents his understanding of his crimes, and the play consequently ends with no true justice and catharsis served. This final scene thus encapsulates and concludes Othello’s tragedy.

The extract’s tragic significance lies in the loss of Othello’s identity. He diminishes his heroic status by detailing his journey throughout the play, for the first time using his own voice to illustrate his faults. This luxury is disrupted as his initially grand, prosperous language descends into an unstructured, helpless state. He recognises his own hubris by interrupting his story of military achievements with the declaration, “Oh vain boast!”, and identifies the familiar tale his story connotes when he refers to his “journey’s end”, like those of the classical Greek heroes, Odysseus and Oedipus. However, he descends into a third person narrative with use of rhetoric, asking “Where should Othello go?”. Despite his love of Desdemona, he refers to the Greek meaning of her name and call her an “ill-starr’d wench!” and uses cacophonous alliteration to emphasise the harsh sound of his words: “Cold, cold my girl! Even like thy chastity. O cursed slave!” His use of vocables (“Oh! Oh! Oh!”) alludes to Shakespeare’s tragic hero Hamlet, who’s “antic disposition” is used as a veil of his intelligent revenge. This perhaps connotes Othello’s protection of his own sanity, mirrored through imperative verbs (“roast”, “blow” and “wash”) that imply the actions of greater forces in contrast to his own helpless passivity. Unlike his previous military might, he has descended into a character dismissive of his heroism, not completing the “journey” he hoped to fulfil like his ancient Greek relations. The extract’s tragedy is then enforced, as it diminishes the protagonist’s heroic status and prevents anagnorisis from occurring.

Catharsis is not evoked because the villain’s punishment is never achieved. Iago maintains his linguistic ambiguity, evidenced from the very first scene of the play. His poison-influenced imagery ironically connotes the witchcraft accusations that were projected onto Othello in Act 1, using imperative verbs such as “Incense” and “Plague” in juxtaposition to his declaration “For I love thee”, to Othello. In contrast, Othello’s very first line in Act 1 Scene 2 (“’Tis better as it is”) shows him to be a rational character and, most significantly, unmoved by Iago’s linguistic persuasion. This heightens the extract’s tragedy, as Othello is now victim to Iago’s manipulation. This is evidenced through oxymoronic language that emphasises the play’s theme of violence and Othello’s role as a soldier: “good sword”, “honourable murderer”. This mirrors Iago’s own oxymoron’s, such as in Act 2 Scene 1, “fantastical lies.” However, disparity is found in Iago’s extreme lack of speech in Act 5 Scene 2, in contrast to his previous linguistic dominance: he speaks 1097 lines in the entire play, more than the protagonist himself. This binary opposition might allude to his punishment of silence, of never being able to manipulate a victim again. However, Iago’s voice is always his choice. His declaration that “I never will speak word” reminds the audience that they will never know the true motive behind his crimes. His authority now lies in his passivity, and his dominance over the play reigns, preventing a true catharsis from occurring.

Act 5 Scene 2 conjures tragedy through the semantic field of entrapment. As reflective of Shakespeare’s plot that constrains the play to the remote island of Cyprus, the extract shows the binary opposition between imprisonment and the freedom the characters can never achieve. Othello refers to his life as a “cursed slave”, and alludes to Iago in his imprisonment as his nemesis had “ensnared my soul and body.” From the very moment that Othello took step on Cyprus, his fate has been constricted by Shakespeare’s setting. While Venice was a city ripe with wealth, opportunity and sexual freedom, Cyprus was a warzone on the edge of the western, Christian world. Without the controlling order of Venice, Iago can fulfil his manipulation in a setting on the edge of Christian territory from where Othello takes his name – an allusion to ‘Othman’, the founder of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. This lends irony to Othello’s final self-identification with the “malignant and… turbaned Turk” whose killing is re-enacted in his own suicide. This is additionally symbolic, as it reflects Othello killing his own cultural and ethnic heritage, finally being consumed by Iago’s whiteness and fulfilling the tragedy of the play. Othello is condemning himself to hell, where he unites with Desdemona through the etymological roots of their names, the former containing ‘hell’ and the latter containing ‘demon’. He is condemning an innocent woman, his wife, to hell because of her association with him, and removes himself from his cultural and ethnic identity that is demonised by a homogenous, white society. Shakespeare’s audience perceived whiteness as goodness in an age of racial fear – the monarch herself declared discontent at the quantity of “blackamoores” in England. Tragedy is consequently evoked through Othello’s confinement in setting, but excused by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, who correlated the protagonist’s language with fear of racial otherness. To a modern audience, however, tragedy would be heightened through the semantic field that ensnares and imprisons Othello’s heroism.

In conclusion, the extract prevents Othello’s true anagnorisis as his nemesis is never fully punished. Tragedy is found in Othello’s blurring identity that has been forever manipulated by Iago’s linguistic exploitation. His acceptance of racial expectation inhibits justice from occurring, and the audience consequently never completely experience the catharsis as foretold in classical Greek tragedy. Shakespeare’s use of dramatic setting, foreshadowing and semantic fields in Act 5 Scene 2 conclusively fulfils the tragedy of Othello through a subversive vision, positioning Othello as a hero who never fully comprehends the extent of his own tragedy.


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