Othello, 5.1.23-109

(I did my best to make the Folger online text of this passage consistent with our Oxford version, but please forgive any discrepancies in formatting, punctuation, etc.)

Enter Cassio
I know his gait, ’tis he! (Attacking Cassio) Villain, thou diest!
That thrust had been mine enemy indeed
But that my coat is better than thou know’st—
I will make proof of thine.
He wounds Roderigo
RODERIGO O, I am slain!
Iago wounds Cassio in the leg from behind, and exit
I am maimed forever! Help, ho! Murder, murder!
Enter Othello
The voice of Cassio! Iago keeps his word.
RODERIGO O, villain that I am!
OTHELLO, (aside) It is even so.
CASSIO O, help ho! Light! A surgeon!
OTHELLO, (aside)
’Tis he! O brave Iago, honest and just,
That hast such noble sense of thy friend’s wrong!
Thou teachest me.—Minion, your dear lies dead,
And your unblest fate hies. Strumpet, I come.
Forth of my heart those charms, thine eyes, are blotted.
Thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust’s blood be spotted.
Enter Lodovico and Gratiano
What ho! No watch? No passage? Murder, murder!
’Tis some mischance; the voice is very direful.
CASSIO O, help!
RODERIGO O wretched villain!
Two or three groan. It is a heavy night;
These may be counterfeits: let’s think’t unsafe
To come in to the cry without more help.
Nobody come? Then shall I bleed to death.
Enter Iago with a light and his sword drawn
Here’s one comes in his shirt, with light and weapons.
Who’s there? Whose noise is this that cries on murder?
We do not know.
IAGO Do not you hear a cry?
Here, here! For heaven’s sake, help me!
IAGO What’s the matter?
This is Othello’s ensign, as I take it.
The same indeed, a very valiant fellow.
What are you here that cry so grievously?
Iago? O, I am spoiled, undone by villains—
Give me some help!
O me, lieutenant! What villains have done this?
I think that one of them is hereabout
And cannot make away.
IAGO O treacherous villains!
[To Lodovico and Gratiano]
What are you there? Come in, and give some help.
O, help me there!
That’s one of them.
IAGO O murd’rous slave!
O villain!
He stabs Roderigo
O damned Iago! O inhuman dog!
[Roderigo groans]
Kill men i’ th’ dark?—Where be these bloody thieves?
How silent is this town! Ho, murder, murder!
(To Lodovico and Gratiano)
What may you be? Are you of good or evil?
As you shall prove us, praise us.
IAGO Signor Lodovico?
I cry you mercy—here’s Cassio hurt by villains.
How is ’t, brother?
CASSIO My leg is cut in two.
IAGO Marry, heaven forbid!
Light, gentlemen: I’ll bind it with my shirt.
Enter Bianca
What is the matter, ho? Who is ’t that cried?
Who is ’t that cried?
BIANCA O, my dear Cassio,
My sweet Cassio, O Cassio, Cassio, Cassio!
O notable strumpet! Cassio, may you suspect
Who they should be, that have thus mangled you?
I am sorry to find you thus; I have been to seek you.
Lend me a garter. So.
He binds Cassio’s leg
O for a chair to bear him easily hence!
Alas, he faints! O, Cassio, Cassio, Cassio!
Gentlemen all, I do suspect this trash
To be a party in this injury.
Patience awhile, good Cassio. (To Lodovico and Gratiano) Come, come;
Lend me a light: (Going to Roderigo) know we this face, or no?
Alas, my friend and my dear countryman,
Roderigo! No? —Yes, sure!—O heaven, Roderigo!
GRATIANO What, of Venice?
IAGO Even he, sir—did you know him?
GRATIANO Know him? Ay.
Signior Gratiano? I cry your gentle pardon:
These bloody accidents must excuse my manners
That so neglected you.
GRATIANO I am glad to see you.
How do you, Cassio? [Calling] O, a chair, a chair!
GRATIANO Roderigo?
He, he, ’tis he.
Enter attendants with a chair
O, that’s well said—the chair!
Some good man bear him carefully from hence,
I’ll fetch the General’s surgeon. (To Bianca) For you, mistress,
Save you your labor.—He that lies slain here, Cassio,
Was my dear friend. What malice was between you?
None in the world; nor do I know the man.
IAGO (to Bianca)
What, look you pale? (To attendants) O, bear him out o’ th’ air!
(To Gratiano and Lodovico)
Stay you, good gentlemen.
Exeunt attendants with Cassio in the chair and the body of Roderigo
(To Bianca) Look you pale, mistress?
(To Lodovico and Gratiano) Do you perceive the gastness of her eye?
(To Bianca) Nay, if you stare, we shall hear more anon.
(To Lodovico and Gratiano) Behold her well. I pray you, look upon her:
Do you see, gentlemen? Nay, guiltiness
Will speak though tongues were out of use.
Enter Emilia

This was actually my first time reading Othello, and I’m afraid I might have missed something because I found it kind of…funny. There were moments when I could have laughed at the turn language? – speech, certainly, was taking, moments when characters’ verbal faculties seemed to melt down in ways it was difficult for me to imagine. There was Othello’s swoon, for one, though I could conceive of that in terms of pure emotional overdrive – but what about all the parroting, the lapses into mimicry on Iago’s, Emilia’s, Desdemona’s, Roderigo’s respective parts, often in conversation among themselves and/or with (especially) Othello? There’s Iago goading Roderigo on to “put money in thy purse” in 1.3; there’s Othello obsessing over Desdemona’s handkerchief in 3.4; there’s Emilia repeating after Othello like another broken record player in 5.2. And what about the as-yet-inconceivable (to me at least, and I haven’t yet seen any productions of the play) beelines performed in act as well as in speech by a cluster of characters at the start of Act 5?

It’s this episode that I’d like to highlight for emphasis this week, if mainly to get a clearer grasp of just exactly what is happening – and why – among the disoriented company on stage. I was struck by the number recycled words and phrases, for one, but even more so by their apparent extraneousness, hollowness, and accordingly by an impression of inertia paradoxical for such a kinetic scene. The more closely I followed these sequences of verbal echoes, the longer my passage became; I could reasonably have excerpted all of 5.1 – but that would have been more unreasonable than the helping I’ve provided above.

As you (re)read, note how many expressions bleed into multiple lines that, sometimes, fall at decent intervals from one another and/or carry into different characters’ speech. Does the repetition evacuate words of meaning here, or serve to escalate the tension of the drama? On the former count, note too the frequency of what Dolar would call ““prelinguistic’ phenomena” – all the “O”s, for instance, but also the groaning in the stage directions. One question I asked myself upon finishing Othello was: How does the play register doubt, insecurity, or confusion? Is this a scene that might exemplify the answer?

To be honest, I couldn’t hear this scene very well (unless it were as poorly-scripted melodrama!), but I could visualize it being pitch dark on the stage: Roderigo explicitly identifies Cassio by his gait, Iago enters bearing a torch, and the action depends on the lack of facial recognition, which the dialogue underscores by means of consistently questioned identities. Even so, I found the scene a little implausibly long, such that all the commotion lent itself to a kind of inertia, as I mentioned above. It wasn’t by accident that I also ventured to call the language here surprisingly hollow. If we imagine the characters acting upon strictly or predominately acoustic cues – engaging in a form of echolocation, as it were, especially with Cassio and Roderigo fixed in position on stage – could it follow that words are just sounds here? Or do the stakes of the action enhance the significance of the language?

A comment in closing on a pattern I noticed throughout the play and will refer to as split or layered speech. Othello’s “letter-reading” in 4.1, like Desdemona’s song in 5.2, provides a great example of speech that takes multiple addressees or demonstrates divided attention, and Iago’s lines at the end of the segment I’ve quoted work the same way. This effect might be extended to occasions of suspended syntax or interrupted utterance (also asides), which suggest parallel trains of thought and/or expression and which occur rather often in Othello. Did you find this trend meaningfully pronounced in this of the plays we’ve read so far? And if yes, perhaps thinking along the lines I’ve sketched above, how so?


Passage for Emphasis: “From this time forth I never will speak word” (Othello)

Passage for Emphasis – Othello


Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word.


What, not to pray?


Torments will ope your lips.


Well, thou dost best.


Sir, you shall understand what hath befall’n,
Which, as I think, you know not. Here is a letter
Found in the pocket of the slain Roderigo;
And here another: the one of them imports
The death of Cassio to be undertook
By Roderigo.


O villain!


Most heathenish and most gross!


Now here’s another discontented paper,
Found in his pocket too; and this, it seems,
Roderigo meant to have sent this damned villain;
But that belike Iago in the interim
Came in and satisfied him.


O the pernicious caitiff!
How came you, Cassio, by that handkerchief
That was my wife’s?


I found it in my chamber:
And he himself confess’d but even now
That there he dropp’d it for a special purpose
Which wrought to his desire.


O fool! fool! fool!


There is besides in Roderigo’s letter,
How he upbraids Iago, that he made him
Brave me upon the watch; whereon it came
That I was cast: and even but now he spake,
After long seeming dead, Iago hurt him,
Iago set him on.


You must forsake this room, and go with us:
Your power and your command is taken off,
And Cassio rules in Cyprus. For this slave,
If there be any cunning cruelty
That can torment him much and hold him long,
It shall be his. You shall close prisoner rest,
Till that the nature of your fault be known
To the Venetian state. Come, bring him away.


Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.


This passage interests me for its interplay between spoken and written word, between hearing and reading as ways of receiving information. I also want to consider the association between sound and character.

I want to begin by thinking about Iago’s self-sworn silence: Iago is the second-most vocal character in Shakespeare’s plays, with 1088, almost 25% more than Othello’s still-considerable 880 lines.[1] I am not sure if this effect is noticeable while reading the play, and I would like to pose to the class whether this effect is noticeable while hearing the play. We think of Othello as an especially eloquent character – and his rhetorical flourishes of elaborate imagery and diction bear this out – but it seems plausible that the predominance of Iago’s voice might relate to the predominance of his influence in the play, perhaps operating at a much more fundamental register than merely his ability to influence the outcomes of the plot. Iago is, in many respects, a narrator, describing what we, or the other characters of the play, see: most prominently in his orchestration of what Othello sees and hears in 4.1 – but also earlier in that scene of what Cassio (and the audience) sees, his lie that “this is his second fit; he had one yesterday” (4.1.51) easily escapes notice.

What is left, then, when that narration is silenced? This passage at first seems to place ultimate explicative power in the written form by accounting for the “discontented paper” of “Roderigo’s letter,” but Othello’s direction to the Venetians pairs the spoken and written forms of communication. He says to “speak of me” in “letters,” to “set down” and “must you speak” and to “set you down this; and say besides” blurs the boundaries between written and spoken text. For Othello, the written account has itself power to speak, and this raises the question of sound a text itself might have. In films often when a character reads a letter one hears the voice of the writer; this is very different that how the recipient of the letter reads a letter aloud in a play (e.g. Othello’s letter-reading in 4.1). What happens, however, when we read to ourselves in private? Do we read in our own voice, and if so, do we do so exclusively, without “doing the voices” as a child might say in response to a bedtime story read aloud? And if we read only in our own voice, what is the effect of replacing all the different characters’ voices with only our own “fingerprint,” to use Dolar’s metaphor for the uniqueness of individual voices (545)? Although Dolar asserts that the uniqueness of voices “does not contribute to meaning,” I find this claim difficult to reconcile with the clear association in a play with voice and character; one potential counterexample would be that of a back-row, or very short, ground-floor audience member in the Globe who might not be able to see the action and thus would rely solely on hearing. I think this latter situation is analogous in to the silent experience of private reading – if it were not for indentations and character labels (i.e., features of the play that do not contribute to the meaning of the play), our silent reading experience would be as though hearing the play without the distinguishing characteristics of different voices.

[1] Hamlet, is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most vocal with 1506 lines. http://www.shakespeareswords.com/Special-Features-All-Characters

Afterthoughts: Week 7

These afterthoughts come unusually long after, the break having gotten the better of me; but we’ll see what a longer interval has left in recollection. Before I do that, however, a nod to the exchange between Jessica and Will, which I think gets at some very basic questions for the project of criticism. We have indeed mixed some of the traditional questions of philological historicism with a few excursions, particularly into the polychronic and the multitemporal. Thinking about sound, especially if we take up some of Dolar’s suggestions, may also lead us away from our grounding in the moment of the text’s composition/play’s production/origination. Sound can be historicized, and that is what Bruce Smith is trying to do; but it is resistant to many of the descriptive technologies by which philology proceeds, if only because it hath a dying fall.

I hope we’ll keep these questions alive, at least insofar as we take them to be Shakespearean questions; questions that the plays themselves propose and respond to. Here’s a proposition for our consideration: that literature has long been defined by, or let us say, been recognized by, its resistance to history, its independence from time; an impulse to speak beyond its time (if also, of course, and crucially, to and about its time). That ahistoricism itself is an impulse that takes different forms at different moments. You can historicize the ahistorical. What do you get for doing the reverse—supposing there is an alternative besides presentizing?

The what-do-you-get-for-that question is an important one. To view Hamlet as a truly polychronic object, with no canonical, centering time; what would that be like? Is it an experience anyone could really have or learn to have? Want to have? Could it ever be as rich as what the historical imagination offers? (Imagine approaching an object from a truly foreign culture, a sort of notional first encounter: perhaps you could recognize that it is polychronic in construction and allusion, without being sure of the time of its making; and though you might be curious about when that making was—that could well organize your response—what are the other modes of available curiosity?)

I should say once again, I do not have fixed ideas here, but a general curiosity, and a sense that these questions are gathering rather than ebbing in the intellectual culture of our own moment, so worth conversing with. At moments of doubt, I worry that they are like merely conceptual art, where the idea is interesting to entertain but the encounter with the work leaves you a little stymied about what to do now. At other moments, it feels like such ideas and these works might be in real conversation.

Anyhow, one place where I thought these questions got really interesting last week was in our discussion of the relationship between the historicity of language and the various kinds of time-feeling and time-idea inside the play. We made headway, I thought, with the contest betweeen periodic and running sentences in Hamlet’s soliloquys. The funny historical temporality of the classical period (as in periodic sentence), old/new in the humanist manner, felt always under pressure from the modernity of the running sentence—modern in the sense that Mueller describes, and in the way that form-breaking will often feel modern, when it happens. (Not a rule, of course; iconoclasm can be a primitivizing gesture. Anyway…) Simultaneously in play is their periodic sentence’s project of syntactic foresight, against a more interruptive syntax as a) a mimesis of distracted thinking or b) present-tense dramatic reaction. Maddy’s suggestions about the subjunctive folded the counterfactual into these questions, too, and of course the temporalities of the plot—delay, impatience, and so on. Each sentence seems to be pulled into past and future in ways coded in lexis, syntax, and figuration.

(What about Eliot, by the way? What kind of time does The Four Quartets ask us to consider—is an unanchored polychronism really a fantasy of divine time? What is the present toward which what might have been and what has been [not what was!] point? It’s such a beautiful poem.)

And how much of this—this phenomenological complexity of time, if you like—is part of how the plays sound? This coming week is our week to think about what we have meant by that word, sound, which tends to stand in for reactions that are not explicitly interpretive in character. Nothing in our travels so far lacks a sound, not prosody, not rhetoric, not grammar, not figuration, not history…)

With Jessica’s trick or treat in mind, a send-off from Kurt Schwitters, as himself and as performed by Christian Bok. Till Wednesday!