Week 8 (Spring ’21): Acts 4-5

Hi! Your homework this week is to read Acts IV and V of Othello, watch my videotaped lectures below, and then post a comment about the assigned reading at the bottom of this page. The speeches that I refer to in my lectures are printed below each video. At the bottom of this page, below all of the videos, I give you some simple study questions to help you formulate a post. The study questions follow up on things I say in my lectures, so you may want to watch the videos first. Leave your post in the comments section at the bottom of this page.

Noteworthy speeches from Othello, Act 4:

Desdemona is a Shakespearean "patient Griselda," 4.2.148:

                           Alas, Iago,
What shall I do to win my lord again?
Good friend, go to him; for, by this light of heaven,
I know not how I lost him.  Here I kneel:
If e'er my will did trespass 'gainst his love
Either in discourse of thought or actual deed,
Or that mine eyes, mine ears, or any sense
Delighted them in any other form,
Or that I do not yet, and ever did,
And ever will (though he do shake me off
To beggarly divorcement) love him dearly,
Comfort forswear me!  Unkindness may do much,
And his unkindness may defeat my life,
But never taint my love.  I cannot say "whore."
It does abhor me now I speak the word;
To do the act that might the addition earn
Not the world's mass of vanity could make me.

Desdemona remembers her mother's maid, Barbary, 4.3.26:

My mother had a maid called Barbary.
She was in love; and he she loved proved mad
And did forsake her.  She had a song of "Willow";
An old thing 'twas; but it expressed her fortune,
And she died singing it.  That song tonight 
Will not go from my mind; I have much to do
But to go hang my head all at one side
And sing it like poor Barbary.  Prithee dispatch.
...
"The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
     Sing all a green willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
     Sing willow, willow, willow.
The fresh streams ran by her and murmured her moans;
     Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and softened the stones,
     Sing willow, willow, willow.
Say by these.  --Willow, willow.
Prithee hie thee; he'll come anon.
     Sing all a green willow must be my garland
     Let nobody blame him; his scorn I approve" --
...
"I called my love false love, but what said he then?
     Sing willow, willow, willow:
If I court more women, you'll couch with more men."
Noteworthy speeches from Othello, Act 5:

Othello's famous soliloquy before he kills Desdemona, 5.1.1:

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!
It is the cause.  Yet I'll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light.
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume.  When I have plucked thy rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again;
It needs must wither.  I'll smell thee on the tree.
O balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword!  One more, one more!
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after.  One more, and that's the last!
So sweet was ne'er so fatal.  I must weep,
But they are cruel tears.  This sorrow's heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love.  She wakes.

Othello's final speech, 5.2.338:

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,
Perplexed 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,
Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinable gum.  Set you down this.
And say besides that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th'throat the circumcised dog
And smote him -- thus.

Discussion Board

Write a comment on Othello Acts 4-5 and post it in the comments section below.  Be sure to quote the text of the play at least once in your post.  Consider answering any of the following study questions:

1.) As I say in my videos, Iago comes to resemble a devil more and more as the play comes to a close — specifically, he resembles the devil or “Vice” figure of medieval morality drama, whose function is to do everything possible to comdemn the souls of the other characters.  Do you notice any moments where Iago especially settles into this characterization, apart from those I mention?

2.) Emilia becomes an important character in the later acts of Othello.  How would you describe her character?  I think it’s helpful to know that in Elizabethan literary theory, character was said to be most on display in confrontations and contrasts with other characters.  Sometimes, a playwright (I’m not saying that Shakespeare ever did this, since we don’t know about him specifically, but it’s plausible) would map out a play as a series of confrontations between contrasting characters as a prewriting exercise.  I feel like Emilia’s character develops in roughly this way…she represents one thing when she’s with Iago, and another thing when she’s with Desdemona, another thing when she’s with Othello, etc.

3.) Act 5, sc. 2 is very difficult to perform:  it features shocking onstage violence, it’s melodramatic, it’s pathetic, it engages with racism and misogyny, it includes Desdemona’s  inexplicable talking after she’s dead, it’s chaotic…in sum, it’s “over the top.”  If you were directing a production of Othello, is there anything that you would want to do (or not do) in order to make this final scene a success?  For example, would you cut Desdemona’s postumous lines, or can you think of an appropriate way to perform them?  Would you do anything to mitigate or limit the effects of racism in this scene, or would you showcase it to make a point?  What about the violence against women?

26 thoughts on “Week 8 (Spring ’21): Acts 4-5”

  1. If I were a director to this production, when it comes to Act 5, Scene 2 I would not cut anything out of this scene. I would chose to keep everything the way it is because I’d want to prove a point to the audience. I think this scene is super important to keep and visualize on a different level. I believe that it would be hard to perform it and even watch due to the racist elements involved, but I think it is possible to deliver. I would chose to keep Desdemona’s lines as well.

  2. During the play Othello, Iago starts to resemble the devil more and more. You can start to see Iago having the characteristics of the 7 deadly sins. You can see lust, envy, greed, and more all throughout the play. One of the most prominent in the play is envy. Iago has envied Othello this entire play, wanting what Othello has. In the beginning of the play Iago says he was passed over for lieutenant which is one of the reasons he hates Othello. We see this envy Iago has for Othello all throughout the play all the way to when Iago convinces him Desdemona has cheated. He gets Othello to believe that he should kill his beloved wife even though Iago knows she didn’t cheat. Iago was willing to go as far as letting people die to destroy other peoples lives

  3. Shakespeare’s tragic play, Othello, becomes quite dark and morbid in Act 5. Performing an onstage performance would be very graphic and include racial elements. The presentation of Act five scene two would have to be altered to be shown in a performance. First, Desdemona’s lines after death would have to be changed in their placement in the performance. Desdemona responds to Emilia when Desdemona was already strangled. Desdemona responds with, “Nobody. I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell” (5.2.152-153). The purpose of Desdemona’s lines are to show the audience that she is truly pure. In a play I would suggest incorporating these lines as she is dying as they are important. The violence and racial elements should also stay as they are important to the play and that it is how Shakespeare portrayed it. A possible method of making these scenes less offensive to some is giving background of the time period in the beginning of the play similar to how antisemitism was dealt with in The Merchant of Venice movie.

  4. #1 Throughout this play, Iago has constantly told the audience and other characters everything that he is not. He talks about himself all the time but we do not know anything deep about him, as he doesn’t know anything about himself. He judges others quickly but doesn’t seem to have a good sense as to who he really is as a character. In my opinion, Iago starts to realize what he is in Act 2, scene 3. Iago finally has come to terms with himself that he is purely evil and doing evil things brings him great joy. In lines 339 – 341, Iago says, “When devils will the blackest sins put on, / They do suggest at first with heavenly shows, / As I do now”. Iago is literally comparing himself to the devil and taking pride in it (“As I do now”). It is somewhat ironic because in the beginning of the play we got a strong notion that Iago needed to do some soul-searching. Now that he finally has, his antics and manipulative tendencies worsen as his character development gets stronger. As the play progresses, Iago really begins to accept that being evil is what brings him joy and he becomes more and more of a villain in each scene because of this.

  5. I view Emilia as older and wiser than Desdemona. This life experience contributes to Emilia being more cynical about her marriage than Desdemona at first. Emilia talks about their husbands by saying, “They eat us hungerly, and when they are full they belch us.” (III.iii.122-123) Due to this, I view Emilia as complicit in Iago’s handkerchief scheme and Desdemona’s death. Emilia was smart enough to know that her husband was up to no good. Emilia herself also knows that she messed up and so she tries to redeem herself at the end of the play.

  6. I think it is imperative that all themes and blunt accounts of racism and sexism are kept in the live performance of the play. Shakespeare included these offensive themes to prove a point and unveil the egotistic evils of society at the time. To take it out would undermine Shakespeare’s intentions for the play and as a result, the play would have much less impact and meaning. This final scene is incredibly dramatic and as I said, it’s important to perform the play exactly as it’s written. To include Desdemona’s lines after death I think it would be cool to have a voiceover of her voice whisper these lines and slowly fade out as the lines end. This would showcase the emotion of such a dramatic scene as well as give these last lines a bit of an eerie and somber feel which is appropriate considering her wrongful death.

  7. I view Emilia as a guilty bystander. She may not have malicious intentions of any kind like her husband, Iago, but she does play a role in Desdemona’s tragic ending. Emilia may be wise compared to Desdemona when it comes to marriage. Still, she’s naive (not ignorant, but slow-minded) when it comes to Iago and his evil revenge plots—like how she doesn’t take a closer look to why he asks her to steal Desdemona’s handkerchief constantly. I think Emilia is one of those characters that the audience is not supposed to like because she could have prevented the whole turmoil from exploding if she had just given Desdemona her handkerchief back when she dropped it and not hand it over to Iago.

  8. In Act 5, Scene 2, I feel that the violence is necessary to communicate to the audience how crazed Othello has become. If I were to direct this play, I would block the smothering of Desdemona to last over a minute and a half, the amount of time it would realistically take for someone to be smothered to death. Othello says “Being done, there is no pause” so the crime should not pause until it would realistically be done. Making the audience sit through this grueling minute and a half would truly show the horrifying truth of how violent and evil a crime like this truly is. I would like to emulate this moment similarly to how the film Promising Young Woman emulated its smothering scene; no holding back from showing the audience how truly vile and scary the act of smothering somebody is while making the audience listen to the innocent Desdemona’s last breaths. Othello’s downfall from a lovable, misunderstood protagonist to becoming the monster Iago wanted so badly for him to turn into should be coming to its head at this moment.

  9. 1. By the end of the play, Iago resembles a devil more and more and he does everything possible to attack and act against the other characters. Iago’s villainous behavior begins when he creates a plan to convince Othello that his wife, Desdemona is cheating on him. In act 4, Sc. 1, lines 159-160, Iago states, “Do it not with poison. Strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated”. In these lines he is describing to Othello how to kill Desdemona. Iago has visions and ideas of violence in his mind and by the end of the play he carries out his plan, resulting in the death of many of the characters. Iago even calls his wife Emelia a “villainous whore”, which shows his true personality and how he treats those who are close to him. Emelia speaks on how she is ashamed of what Iago has done, and the lies he has spread to create all of this chaos, as she knows that Desdemona is faithful to Othello. Iago eventually draws his sword on Emilia, stabbing and killing her after she sticks up for Desdemonda, further adding to his evil personality

  10. I would describe Emilia’s character as being wise and honest. There is a lot of deceit and lying that occurs in this play, but for the most part, Emilia is very honest, especially at the end of the play when Othello tells her that Iago told him that Desdemona cheated on him with Cassio and she comes to the realization that Iago has been deceiving everyone this whole time. Just before Emilia dies she explains to Othello that Desdemona never cheated on him, “Moor, she was chaste. She loved thee, cruel Moor, So come my soul to bliss as I speak true. So speaking as I think, alas, I die” (Act V, Scene 2, Lines 246-248). Although Emilia is wiser than some of the other characters in this play, she is also a little bit naive when it comes to Iago. At the end of the play, when she pieces everything together she is quick to call Iago a villain, but earlier in the play she did not find it odd that Iago asked for the handkerchief that Othello gave to Desdemona. If she knows her husband so well she should have known that Iago was up to no good when he asked her for this and in the past when he kept asking her to steal it from Desdemona.

  11. I agree that Act 5, scene 2 is very “over the top” because of all the action that is involved. If I were to make the perfect production for this play, specifically for this scene I would use lighting to help focus on the drama that happens. I would have the stage kind of split in three parts. The first part would be the bedroom where Othello kills Desdemona. The bed frame would be very fancy and have lots of drapery that can just fall as soon as Desdemona gives her last line. When she says, “Nobody – I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind lord. O, Farewell!” (lines 125-126) the drapery would fall dramatically. The second would be in a hall like space where you have Emilia die. I would use not much furniture, just make the focus on Emilia and what she says that says the truth about Iago. Lastly, you’ll have a different space that Othello kills himself. I would make the arena very dark and have the light focus in on each scene with a light to make it stand out. The use of lighting and the background would be my main focus versus taking lines or any parts of speeches out because I would leave every single one of them.

  12. 3.) Act 5, sc. 2 is very difficult to perform: it features shocking onstage violence, it’s melodramatic, it’s pathetic, it engages with racism and misogyny, it includes Desdemona’s inexplicable talking after she’s dead, it’s chaotic…in sum, it’s “over the top.” If you were directing a production of Othello, is there anything that you would want to do (or not do) in order to make this final scene a success? For example, would you cut Desdemona’s posthumous lines, or can you think of an appropriate way to perform them? Would you do anything to mitigate or limit the effects of racism in this scene, or would you showcase it to make a point? What about the violence against women?

    Act 5, sc 2 to me personality feels overdramatic since there is way too much action involved. If I were the director or stage manager, I would lessen the action, but there still is a little way the audience doesn’t look away or lose focus. Also, for lighting production, I would add a spotlight for when the dramatic scenes occur since it would be 1-3 characters. For set production, I would have 2 set designs; the 1st one would include the bedroom scene and behind the bedroom scene, there would another set design, which is the hall where Othello’s wife is killed, and the final set design would be a blank set but with projection is on the backdrop of the set. That scene would represent Othello’s death, which would end in a blackout scene.

  13. Emilia’s character is that she is someone who views marriage in a negative way because she thinks that men are always not trusting in the relationship since they are the ones to cheat first. In Act 5 scene 1,” Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.” Othello says these words before killing Desdemona and after she is dead, Emilia is not afraid to call out Othello even when she might be in a dangerous situation which also shows she is courageous. Emilia is also someone who is more self-aware than the other women in the play, and the type of abuse that women have faced when they are with their husbands Emilia was able to see how these women become so vulnerable. I think she was also telling Desdemona how is the husband’s fault and not hers but Desdemona didn’t want to leave Othello’s side.

  14. During the play Othello, you start to realize how Iago starts to resemble the devil. In act 5 it becomes very dark and morbid I feel like. You are able to see how Iago envy’s Othello in act 5. Othello got lieutenant over Iago and that is part of the reason why Iago hates Othello. Iago constantly talked about himself throughout act 5. Iago will do anything, and what makes him happiest is destroying others. He even takes it as far as letting people die.

  15. If I was directing a production of Othello, I think it would be smart to cut Desdemona’s posthumous lines simply because they are confusing to the audience. Instead, I think it would be interesting to give her lines that aren’t actually spoken by her, but instead only hallucinated in Othello’s head due to his disturbed state.
    I don’t think that it is a good decision for her to say that she was the one guilty for her own murder in order to take the blame off of Othello. Originally, in Act 5, Scene 2 Emilia asks who killed her. Desdemona replies, “Nobody; I myself. Farewell/Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell!” (lines 3452-3). I don’t think that this does the correct justice to her death and does not fully convey Othello’s guilt for killing his wife. Instead, I think that she should have dialogue that only Othello can hear in his own mind, and say lines that intensify his guilt. I think that in this instance she should alternatively ask him why he had to murder her in cold blood.

  16. #3: If I were directing Act 5, Scene 2 in Othello, I think I would keep all of the details. I think keeping these will show the audience the true message. Even though these details may be hard to act out and maybe even watch, I think it is important to keep them all in this Act/Scene. I think this scene would be very unsettling to watch but I think it will show the point on what happened and how racism, violence against women, and other horrible things happened and how they went about it. Lastly, I think I would keep Desdemona’s lines. I would keep them because even though it’s chaotic and crazy, I think it would really pull through the success of the scene and help tie together with the other details that happened in this scene.

  17. I think it is important that all situations of racism and sexism are kept in the performance of the play. Shakespeare included these situations to show what the evils of society were at that time. If a director were to remove these situations, it would alter the play and give it much less meaning. It was Shakespeare’s intention to include these things, so they should be kept. The final scene is very dramatic and vulgar, but it should be performed as close to the written play as possible. I would include all lines of the characters and probably play dramatic music in the background. Before this scene, though, I would probably have a narrator come out and explain that there is going to be some offensive things in the next scene, but that it was the way the times were.

  18. I originally viewed Emilia’s character as being very weak and easily manipulated. I thought this because Iago was able to convince her to steal Desdemona’s handkerchief without knowing what Iago planed to do with it. Emilia also excused Iago’s lack of respect towards her. My view of her changed after the discussion her and Desdemona have. Emilia talks with Desdemona about women who cheat on their husbands and Emilia says, “But I do think it is their husbands’ fault If wives do fall.” (act IV, scene III, line 97). This shows that Emilia is more self aware than Iago thinks, she knows that women are vulnerable at the hands of men. Not only is she self aware, but after realizing Othello has murdered Desdemona she attempts to bring him to justice, making her brave for going against a powerful man.

  19. As hard as it would be to keep that scene in Act V, I think it would be important to the story to keep it the way it was. It helps to really tie the story together and show characters in their true light. So even though I would want to cut everything and make it more modern, I wouldn’t because it wouldn’t really fit the tone of the story and would feel out of place

  20. For Act 5 Scene 2 of Othello, I personally would keep everything and not change anything if I was the director. Shakespeare wrote very dramatic to show a visual of the evil world by involving racism and sexism into this play. By changing or removing it from the play it would simply not have the same meaning. I would definitely add dramatic music into this scene. Since it includes hard topics that some people might not want to see, I would let the audience know in advance what they were going to view.

  21. As gruesome and terrifying as that scene is, Act 5 Scene 2 is incredibly important to the entirety of the play. If I were directing a production of Othello, I would keep this scene, and if anything, play up the terror and horror. However, when I first read Othello, I found it so interesting that Desdemona seems to go to her death gracefully. I would want to play that up as well, because there is genuine love between them, and even though Othello kills her, he seems pained to do it like it is as agonizing for him as it is for Desdemona. The production of Othello at the globe theatre in England does this scene beautifully and I would take a lot of inspiration from that.

  22. I believe it is important to keep Act 5, scene 2 the way it is. Even though the deaths are gruesome, I believe that in order to truly keep the story tied together the scene should not have any cuts. I view Desdemona’s posthumous lines as lines where Othello had not fully smothered her and that’s why she was able to speak. In my version of the play when Othello smothers her, it just says he smothers her. It does not say she dies until after her final line “Nobody. I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell. [She dies]” (lines 152-153). Therefore, I would stage the scene as Othello backing away from Desdemona’s dying body when Emilia starts to speak before she comes in. I feel that Othello would leave the pillow over Desdemona’s face and when Emilia starts talking there’s about a minute left until Desdemona would die from the smothering.

  23. 1. Throughout the play Iago continued to develop into a resemblance of the devil more and more that is shown by his persistent goal of trying to ruin Othello. In Act 5, Iago has finally become comfortable with being open with Othello in his objective of separating Othello and Desdemona, so Rodrigo can more easily attempt to be with her. Iago does so by attacking Desdemona’s name and being straight forward and putting ideas into Othello’s head that Desdemona is not a good person, she is not worth his time and that he needs to get rid of her.

    Iago says to Othello (Act 5, Scene I, Lines 210-211)
    Do it not with poison. Strangle her in her
    bed, even the bed she hath contaminated.

  24. Taking a look at Act 5 scene 2 particularly when Othello is shown killing Desdomana I would have changed one thing to show the audience how crazy Othello really is. We see that Othello smothers Dedemona evidently killing her, I think to show the audience that Othello has a feeling of joy killing his wife by laughing out loud and constantly yelling at her while he smothers her. Yelling all the times she was “nagging” him as we saw in the beginning of the book. Reason for this is because if the book was to reference something that Desdemona did in the beginning of the book that contributed to Othello’s breaking point where he eventually snapped it would give the audience a sense of how much Othello has been bottling up. Also Othello smothers Desdemona I think it would add to the suspense of the scene if Othello starts talking to himself about how he had to kill her and how he thinks he was only doing what he saw as being right morally.

  25. Similarly with what I would have done directing Shylock’s punishment scene in the Merchant of Venice I would not have changed anything in this scene. I personally think that any major change or any cuts from that scene would be respectful to the original work. Movies often portray disturbing scenes which are key to the original story behind the film. I think that, while Desdemona’s lines after her death are very disturbing, they are still important to the originality of Shakespeare’s vision. Perhaps you could take those lines as internal thoughts that are occurring after her death. In terms of the racism in this scene I think it would be best to leave it. There have been far more repulsive characters and hateful conversations in very successful films that did not receive any backlash because it is simply story telling. Like I stated with the Merchant of Venice scene I think there should be an explicit advisory when purchasing tickets to the play.

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