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).
OK, so we’re talking Othello. And I’ve titled this entry “The Killer!” So who am I talking about? Othello, who kills Desdemona and then himself? Nope. Iago, who kills Roderigo and then his wife Emilia? Nope. Well, kinda, but not really.
What? you say. Bill, you say, you’re making no sense. Is the grief fog so thick you can’t see the content for this post from the too-smart-by-half title?
When we last left Cyprus in Act Three, Othello was out for Cassio’s blood, demanding that Iago report back to him within three days with news of the former lieutenant’s death, while the Moor was trying to devise “some swift means of death // For the fair devil” (III.iii.478-9), Desdemona. Meanwhile, Cassio has given the handkerchief he found in his lodging, you know Othello’s gift to Desdemona (planted there by Iago) to his courtesan for copying, and had decided to talk to Othello himself. What could go wrong?
A quick blast (as I try to lift the fog to get some real writing done) about our main married (and harried) couple in Othello:
Othello as a name contains the word “hell;” Desdemona, the word “demon.”
Obvious. But maybe just happenstance. I don’t see in the OED a use of “demon” with that spelling (usually it’s “daemon”) contemporary to Shakespeare (long before, sure; long after [like today] of course).
Or maybe there’s something there.
Or maybe this grief-fog of mine needs to lift and leave me.
When we left the play at the end of the second act of Othello, Iago’s plan for revenge against our titular Moor was in full swing, with Roderigo helping to bring about the firing of Cassio, the general’s lieutenant, and Iago advising the disconsolate Cassio to ask Desdemona to plead his case to Othello (knowing this will add to the appearance of infidelity). Act Three begins with Cassio bringing in some musicians and a clown; the musicians to greet the general, and the clown to provide us with some rim-shot-worthy yuks with his new straight-man, Cassio.
Critical consensus is that Othello is based on “Un Capitano Moro” (“A Moorish Captain”), by the Italian writer Giovanni Battista Giraldi, better known as Cinthio, which appeared as one of the stories in his collection called The Hecatommithi, in 1565. If that name sound familiar, your memory is pretty good: Cinthio’s Hecatommithi was also one of the sources behind our last play, Measure for Measure.
When we last left Othello the play, Iago had revealed to us through the first soliloquy of the play that he intended to make it look as if Othello’s new lieutenant Cassio has cuckolded Othello by having an affair with his new bride Desdemona. Act One takes place in the town from the subtitle of the play (“the Moor of Venice”), but when the act ends, we leave Italy altogether and head to Cyprus, where the remainder of the play will occur. And as Act Two opens, we meet three new characters, Montano, the Governor of Cyprus, and two unnamed gentlemen.
Act One of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice begins mid-conversation. On a Venetian street in the night, two men enter: one, we learn almost immediately is named Iago (his name is mentioned in the play’s second line), the other–at this point, unidentified–is not happy. Something has happened and Iago has known about it.
What has happened? We don’t know. Who is the second man? We don’t know.