About those soliloquies, part two

Yesterday, as an adjunct to the earlier post on the concept of protagonist and tragic hero in Othello, I took a look at how Iago has more soliloquies than Othello (seven plus three extended asides [with an entire scene (Act Two, Scene One) that’s chock-a-block with asides]; compared to three for Othello), despite having fewer (by 2) overall speeches. I then took a look at what was going on in each of his solo speeches and extended asides. What we found was a movement away from emotion and motivation to pure explication of his plots and plans.

Today, let’s take a look at Othello’s soliloquies. You’d think that because there are fewer this would be a quick one… I’m not so sure.

Like I said yesterday, soliloquies usually expose the thoughts or emotional states of the characters.

And that’s certainly the case for our Moor.

His first soliloquy comes in the midst of the mid-point scene, Act Three, Scene Three. Iago has begun to work his magical evil/evil magic on the Moor and has excused himself, leaving Othello to ruminate on his situation. He begins by praising Iago for his “exceeding honesty” (III.iii.258). After that irony has been voiced, he moves on to questioning Desdemona’s love, denigrating his own “black”-ness (III.iii.263), to ultimately deciding “she’s gone…and [his] relief // Must be to loathe her” (III.iii.267-8). His own cuckoldry is “destiny unshunnable, like death” (III.iii.275). In only 20 lines, Othello takes us on the rollercoaster tour of his emotional state. And it’s not a good place.

When we next hear Othello soliloquize, it’s over the assumed sleeping Desdemona at the beginning of the play’s final scene. Awake or asleep, Othello assumes the latter so he reveals his innermost thoughts. And what thoughts they are. The way I read it, he refers to the sleeping Desdemona as “the cause” (V.ii.1) of the actions he’s about to take; and to distance himself from the act, he refers to her as “it” (V.ii.1). But when he begins to speak of the act, he cannot help but at least refer to Desdemona’s gender: “her blood” (V.ii.3), “that whiter skin of hers” (V.ii.4). Then in a rationalization as beautiful as a pre-assassination Brutus, he posits her death as something to forestall future disaster: “she’ll betray more men” (V.ii.6). He talks of “put[ting] out the light” (V.ii.7) of the candle, then the light of her life. He can relight a candle, but he admits that he doesn’t know how to “relume” (V.ii.13) Desdemona’s light. He then changes his metaphor from light to rose. This revision of his allows him to speak of a living thing he will kill, and also propels the speech toward his kissing of Desdemona (“I’ll smell thee on the tree” [V.ii.15]). He knows that even after he kills her, he will “love [her] after” (V.ii.19). He will weep, he says, “cruel tears” (V.ii.21), but his act is righteous: “This sorrow’s heavenly // It strikes where it doth love” (V.ii.21-22). This ending of the soliloquy parallels a Bible verse, Hebrews 12:6, “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.” Does Othello see himself as God here?

His last soliloquy is a mere eleven lines long, uttered after his killing (almost) of Desdemona and before the entrance of Emilia. And those lines are confused at best, filled with half-line asides and questions. I think of this speech as a device by Shakespeare to allow for two things: to foreshadow Desdemona’s revival (“I think she stirs again. [V.ii.96]) and to begin to show Othello’s regret over the act (“My wife! My wife! what wife? I have no wife” [V.ii.98]).

And that’s it. There you have the extent of Othello’s soliloquies. The range of his inner life.

Not much there, especially compared with Iago’s.

So why the disparity?

A couple of options:

  • Shakespeare felt he couldn’t get into the Moorish mind (remember that the central and longest of the soliloquies ends with a Christian Bible reference), so he didn’t really try. It’s not like Shakespeare avoided delving into a tortured mind and soul (cough, Hamlet, cough).
  • Iago’s verbosity was just more fun to write. It was a chance to get back to Richard III levels of audience complicity (and a look forward to Edmund in Lear). Which, of course, makes Iago’s (literal) final statement, “From this time forth I never will speak word” (V.ii.304) all the more perverse and twisted.

Or maybe there’s something else at work here.

Could Othello’s relative lack of soliloquies speak to a thematic statement: We (as an audience, particularly an Elizabethan one) could never know what is in the heart of the Moor (or any Moor really), and even if we could hear it, we couldn’t fathom it. This would further cement Othello’s position as the ultimate outsider: in race, in religion, in identity/empathy.

That was be disturbing enough. But if this is true, then what can we make of Desdemona’s complete lack of soliloquies? I mean, hell, even Emilia gets a soliloquy (when she finds the handkerchief, something that makes her “glad” [III.iii.290], since she knows “nothing but to please [Iago’s] fantasy” [III.iii.299]). Can we never know what is in Desdemona’s head or heart because she loves such a man as Othello?

If so, that’s kind of a horrifying thought.

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