Othello: midpoint microcosm

Using Professor Rodes’ midpoint theory, let’s take a look at Othello.

There are 3237 lines in in the play, which means the midpoint is at line 1619, or at Act Three, Scene Three, line 188. According to Dr. Rodes’ theory, you could find at this midpoint (or within twenty lines either way) a speech that perfectly sums up a major theme of the play. The 20-line leeway was to help remove the differences in prose line lengths between individual editions. Of course, with only 19% of this play in prose, wiggle room may not be needed.

The midpoint is in the key scene in the play, and the longest. This is the scene where Othello goes from doting husband to plotting his wife’s death. That’s a heck of a turn. And that turn can be seen in Othello’s speech that contains our midpoint:

Think’st thou I’d make a life of jealousy,
To follow still the changes of the moon
With fresh suspicions? No! To be once in doubt
Is once to be resolved. Exchange me for a goat
When I shall turn the business of my soul
To such exsufflicate and blown surmises,
Matching thy inference. ’Tis not to make me jealous
To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company,
Is free of speech, sings, plays, and dances;
Where virtue is, these are more virtuous.
Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw
The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt,
For she had eyes, and chose me. No, Iago;
I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;
And on the proof, there is no more but this–
Away at once with love or jealousy.
  • III.iii.177-192

That speech is a microcosm of the play’s themes and motifs:

  • Think’st thou I’d make a life of jealousy?
    You wouldn’t think so, but after this point, and to his death, his life will be one of jealousy.
  • To be once in doubt // Is once to be resolved
    If Othello can even talk of turning on the proverbial dime like this, going from doubt to resolution, his fast change at the hands of Iago is both foreshadowed and made less ridiculous.
  • Where virtue is, these are more virtuous
    Othello speaks of the actions he has seen his wife perform; the implication is, however, that once virtue is doubted, then all these actions can be used as evidence against her.
  • For she had eyes, and chose me
    This brings in the major aspect of Othello’s visible “otherness”: his blackness. This is not a statement of pride but rather of subliminal insecurity, the kind of insecurity that could lead to quick belief of Desdemona’s infidelity.
  • I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;
    And on the proof there is no more but this –
    Away at once with love or jealousy!
    The key here for me is the use of prepositions in that first line. Sight will come before doubt, but proving the accusations will happen simultaneously (“when”) as the doubt. And in that instant, he is willing to throw everything “away.” This is precisely what happens in the rest of this scene and the play.

I don’t think we need to go into the speeches that precede and follow this speech, but if while we’re at, let’s. We find the pestilence of Iago that he pours into Othello’s ear.

  • “my tribe” (III.iii.175)
    This concept of tribe excludes the outsider Othello, making it all the more important that he have Iago to explain…
  • “our country[’s] disposition” (III.iii.201)
    It’s not just his tribe anymore, it’s the collective’s country, a country that Othello is neither a part of nor fully comprehends.
  • She did deceive her father, marrying you;
    And when she seemed to shake and fear your looks,
    She loved them most.

    • III.iii.206-08

    This is the worst of all (at least up to this point in the play). Iago uses “looks” to recall Othello’s statement regarding Desdemona’s “eyes” (III.iii.189), and again preys on the Moor’s insecurity. You’ve got to give Iago bonus points for bringing up Desdemona’s deception of her father, and the inclusion of the word “seemed”–both feeding Othello’s budding jealousy.

A while back when I was discussing the use of the word “jealous” (and its variants), I noted that save for The Merry Wives of Windsor, Othello has the most instances of the word in the Canon. I find it interesting that this midpoint speech is bookended by the word. It dominates the speech and it dominates the play (Othello’s jealousy, Iago’s jealousy [over Cassio’s promotion], Bianca’s jealousy [over Cassio’s “hobbyhorse” (IV.i.152)], Roderigo’s jealousy [over what/who Othello has]).

Othello is about jealousy.

Rodes does it again.