Othello plot synopsis — Act Five: Death

Act Four of Othello ended with Emilia leaving Desdemona to her doom, I mean, bed. The play has been leading up to these final bursts of violence. Up until now, Othello has been death-free. Yes, Roderigo ambushed Cassio way back in Act Two, but Cassio’s reputation and pride were hurt more than his body. In the tragedies we’ve read thus far, there’s always been a death somewhere in the middle of the play acting as a catalyst (Hamlet, Polonius; Julius Caesar, Caesar and Cinna the Poet; Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio and Tybalt; and Titus Andronicus, well, a whole bunch).

But not Othello. (Why? totally rhetorical… at this point, I don’t have an answer).

Act Five begins with Iago and Roderigo setting up another ambush of Cassio. Roderigo, however, doesn’t have the mettle for this; he begs Iago, “Be near at hand; I may miscarry in’t” (V.i.6). Iago knows this, and in an aside lets us know that it doesn’t matter, either: “Now whether he kill Cassio, // Or Cassio him, or each do kill the other, // Every way makes my gain” (V.i.12-4).

In a burst of semi-comic violence worthy of Elmore Leonard, Roderigo rushes Cassio, Cassio wounds Roderigo, Roderigo screams, “O, I am slain!” (V.i.26), Iago wounds Cassio in the leg then leaves, and Cassio screams, “I am maimed forever” (V.i.27). Othello arrives to hear Cassio call for a surgeon, and concludes that Cassio is not long for the world, and heads off to dispatch Desdemona.

Iago returns to find Lodovico and Gratiano attending to the injured in the street, both Roderigo and Cassio. When Cassio recognizes Roderigo as one of his attackers, Iago, in a fit of (fake) anger, stabs and kills Roderigo. Bianca arrives to fret over her lover, and as they bear Cassio to the surgeon, Emilia arrives. Iago then tells his wife to return to the citadel and inform Othello and Desdemona what has happened here.

The second (and final) scene of the last act begins with Othello creeping upon the sleeping Desdemona, vowing to “put out the light (of the candle), and then put out the light” (V.ii.7) of his love. He kisses her and she wakes. When she asks if he has come to bed, he asks if she has prayed tonight. In a reversal of Hamlet, Othello demands that she pray as he “would not kill (her) unprepared spirit… would not kill (her) soul” (V.ii.31-2). Othello’s “eyes roll” (V.ii.38), he chews his “nether lip” (V.i.43), and his body shakes. He confronts her with what he thinks he knows. She denies, but he has moved beyond even her pleas to let her “say one prayer” (V.ii.83).

As he smothers her, Emilia calls from the door. He stops and pulls closed the bed curtain. Emilia enters with news of “foul murders done” (V.ii.107). When Othello learns that Roderigo is dead but that Cassio lives, he can say nothing but “Then murder’s out of tune, // And sweet revenge grows harsh” (V.ii.116-7). Then a cry is heard: “O, falsely, falsely murdered!” (V.ii.118).

It’s Desdemona. As she (really, finally) dies, she claims that she herself is responsible for her death.

Emilia says that she must report the truth, and Othello denounces Desdemona as “a liar gone to burning hell! // ‘Twas I that killed her” (V.ii.130-1). He goes on to delineate why he has done this, finally stating that it was Iago who said Desdemona had been false.

Iago enters with the governor of Cyprus and the Venetian (and Desdemona’s uncle) Gratiano. Emilia accuses Iago of setting the murder on; he tells her to go home. Othello admits his crime to Gratiano, who is glad Desdemona’s father had died of “pure grief” (V.ii.206), or else this would driven him to desperation. Othello charges Iago, who stabs Emilia, who dies speaking to Desdemona’s dead body, asking her about the “Willow” song she sang in Act Four. Iago runs away with Montano and Gratiano in pursuit, leaving Othello with the dying Emilia and dead Desdemona.

Othello produces a sword and holds off everyone who re-enters the scene (including Cassio, carried in). Othello wounds but doesn’t kill Iago, whom he asks why he did all this. Iago’s answer, far from admission or repentance, is short and chilling: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. // From this time forth I will never speak word” (V.ii.303-04). And true to his word, this is his final speech.

Letters from the pocket of the dead Roderigo are produced, outlining Roderigo’s part in a larger plot lead by Iago. Cassio explains how he came to have the handkerchief. Lodovico calls for Othello to return to Venice, Cassio to take over for Othello in Cyprus, and Iago to be tortured for information and torture.

But Othello will not go; he puts his weapon to use, killing himself. As he dies, he kisses Desdemona, saying, “I kissed thee ere I killed thee. No way but this, // Killing myself, to die upon a kiss” (V.ii.358-9).

Lodovico closes the play with a reiteration of the torture of Iago (which, come to think about it, is similar to Aaron’s end in Titus Andronicus). And thus the end of Othello.

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