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The speech Othello delivers to characterize how he wishes to be

remembered after his death is essentially his way of making sense of


events. In terms of character, he draws on his role as outsider to
explain away his easily manipulated nature, but turns his suicide into a
transcendence of self for justice (as opposed to an act of cowardice),
as well as a sort of victory over his own flaws and over Iago, dismissing
the deep internal misogamism that has been hinted at throughout the
play. The main theme he touches on is the moral power of the
humanism that he represents, but he seems to overlook the lack of
positive practical change that the movement has ended up bringing for
the primary character’s lives. The speech also embodies, quite fully,
the tension between medieval morality plays and more psychological,
character driven pieces that defines much of Shakespeare’s oeuvre.
Thus it is only a fair summary of the play if it’s taken not at face value
but as Othello’s biased, and in some ways even more revealing, self-
justification..

Othello’s primary aim with this speech is to control how his story will
be remembered, self-professedly simply begging that the audience
“nothing extenuate,/Nor set down aught in malice”. He weaves a tale
of a man whose flaw has simply been having Desdemona being too
much of a focal point in his life, who “loved not wisely, but too well”,
and who, being “wrought” by Iago, was “perplexed in the extreme”.
Much of the imagery he uses here paints himself as the outsider, as
the “base Indian”, who “Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees”, even
setting up his final act in the Turkish city of Aleppo: all this implicitly
excuses his behaviour, his jealousy, on account of his lack of
experience with society and with women, something which is already
somewhat of a running theme, Othello having spent his life in the
“tented field” – and he even acknowledges that the only way he has
achieved any level of acceptance in the society has been through
military value (“I have done the state some service.../No more of
that”). This leads up to, naturally, heavy remorse at his action, leading
up to an oddly characterized act of suicide: Othello splits himself into
two personalities in an increasingly complex, frenzied conclusion, the
“turbaned Turk” and the “Venetian”, and in stabbing himself takes a
kind of brutal justice on the former: “I took by th’throat the
circumcised dog/And smote him thus” (with “smote” and “tranduced
the state” carrying heavy legal implications). Iago’s importance is
diminished to essentially nothing at this point (his name is not even
mentioned, and Othello truly dominates the stage in a way that Iago so
often did earlier), and Othello’s triumph, his self-transcendence for
justice, is purely over himself. The speech quite persuasively lays out
this character arc for us: an outsider wanted only for his military skills,
and whose entire private, social life is dominated by one person, is
made to doubt that person, and so his entire world collapses, but who
manages a moral victory through ending his life: it’s a story that woos
the audience as it wooed Desdemona, and the court in Act 1 Scene 3,
through expressive, exotic language and cool confidence (most evident
in the first line: “Soft you, a word or two before you go”). However, just
as one can harbor doubts on the truths of all Othello’s escapades
(“men whose heads/Grow beneath their shoulders”, after all!), his
broad, sweeping, allegorical statements (not least of which, the
borderline ludicrous “loved not wisely, but too well”) definitely smooth
over the rough edges of the tale: not least of which is the disturbing
ease with which Othello slips into the misogynism and language of
Iago: he certainly isn’t “not easily jealous”, in fact, his suspicions are
aroused so quickly and so much from within himself, that all Iago
needs to do at times is utter vague words of encouragement,
interjections such as “Is’t come to this?”, to fuel his increasing
irrationality. Thus, in Othello, lack of experience with women seems to
be only one of the factors driving his jealousy, and he ends up being
revealed as intrinsically bound to misogynistic views as Brabantio is,
wishing to conserve Desdemona’s “stillness” when he murders her,
and this deeper, darker character flaw is not at all apparent in his
concluding speech.

The theme which seems to be the driving force behind the play is the
idea of social change: Desdemona, Iago and Othello all in some fashion
have risen above or wish to rise above their hierarchical social
standing: Desdemona wants to escape a suffocating domestic life, Iago
to exercise power over those of higher social standing through
manipulation, and Othello, to escape his roots in slavery and then in
the military, and become an accepted part of Venetian society. Othello
and Desdemona differ to Iago mainly in that their form of humanism is
based on lofty ideals of freedom and love, while Iago’s is based on a
moral vacuum, and both of the former characters die upholding an
idea more important than themselves, Desdemona forgiving Othello
with her final breath, and Othello enacting justice and then dying
“upon a kiss”: for love. While Othello’s speech spans this idea, it does
overlook the fact that his ideals have, in a practical sense, failed: his
marriage of Desdemona, his attempt to become truly accepted in
society as she is, and her attempt to share the exotic depth of
experience he has acquired, ends in tragedy for both of them, a fact
that Othello’s speech, in the end, does not emphasize at all (though
perhaps this reading stems from a lack of a contemporary perspective:
in Shakespeare’s day, the saving of one’s soul from eternal hell would
definitely have been a solid practical benefit.)

What the speech sums up perfectly, however, is Shakespeare’s own


interests and writing methods. The highest drama of this play results
from an application of universal significance to individual characters
and events: tension between the medieval morality plays in which
characters were devils and angels, and the more modern,
psychological dramas in which no firm answers present themselves.
Othello’s final speech is in many ways an application of this kind of
cosmic significance to his own experience, as expressed in the epic
imagery and setting (Aleppo, after all, being a kind of frontier between
the Christian and Islamic world), and it doesn’t quite work – in order to
get a single, solid morality message from his tragedy (the dangers of
loving or living in an unbalanced fashion, but ultimately the moral
triumph of love and justice), he must overlook his own, deeper,
character flaws, and the lack of practical validation for the ideals that
he trumpets. It’s a complex effect that’s somewhat undermined by
Othello’s sheer persuasiveness: the audience wants to believe that
things really are this simple and this elegant, but most of the evidence
in the play suggests otherwise.

Therefore, Othello’s speech doesn’t sum up the play fairly – and that is
entirely the point. Shakespeare is simply pointing out the
impossibilities involved in clearly understanding the world in a simple
and universally applicable way.

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