The Motif of Waters in Shakespeare's Othello

An annotated list of relevant passages.

Explaining to Iago why he deserves Desdemona, Othello says that he loves her so much that he has given up some precious freedom. He says, "But that I love the gentle Desdemona, / I would not my unhoused free condition / Put into circumscription and confine / For the sea's worth" (1.2.25-28). The idea is that both the value of his freedom and the strength of his love are as vast as the sea. [Scene Summary]

In the Senate chamber, when he is charging Othello with using magic and drugs on Desdemona, Brabantio says that he can't think of Venice's problems because "my particular [personal] grief / Is of so flood-gate and o'erbearing nature / That it engluts and swallows other sorrows" (1.3.55-57). There were sea-walls with flood-gates in Venice; during a storm the flood-gates would be closed to keep the sea from drowning Venice in water. Brabantio is saying that he feels his grief as though a flood-gate had been suddenly opened during high water.

At the end of the same scene, after Desdemona has gotten permission to accompany Othello to Cyprus, Roderigo is broken-hearted and says to Iago, "I will incontinently drown myself" (1.3.305). Roderigo imagines himself to be a heroic lover, one who would dramatically drown himself, rather than live without love. [Scene Summary]

The first scene in Cyprus opens with a discussion of the terrible storm that is raging at sea. Montano and other gentlemen of Cyprus hope that the storm will blow away the threat from the Turkish fleet. It does, but it also provides a romantic background for the reunion of Othello and Desdemona. When Cassio hears of the arrival of the ship carrying Desdemona, he declares that "Tempests themselves, high seas, and howling winds" (2.1.68), having a sense of beauty, have allowed Desdemona safe passage. Moments later, he launches into a kind of melodramatic prayer, in which he calls upon Jove to fill the sails of Othello's ship, "That he may bless this bay with his tall ship, / Make love's quick pants in Desdemona's arms, / Give renew'd fire to our extincted spirits / And bring all Cyprus comfort!" (2.1.79-82).

Later in the scene, when Othello's ship comes and he is reunited with Desdemona, he expresses his joy by saying,

If after every tempest come such calms,
May the winds blow till they have waken'd death!
And let the labouring bark climb hills of seas
Olympus-high and duck again as low
As hell's from heaven!     (2.1.185-189)
His joy in the calm of love is as great as the violence of the greatest storm that can be imagined. [Scene Summary]

When Othello, in the rage of jealousy, forswears his love for Desdemona and embraces vengeance and hatred, Iago teasingly suggests that he may change his mind. Othello answers,
Never, Iago: Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up   (3.3.453-460)
We now call the "Pontic sea," the "Black Sea," and the "Propontic," the "Sea of Marmora," and the "Hellespont," the "Dardanelles." The Black Sea is the very large sea, almost a lake, north of the Aegean Sea, which is the northeastern arm of the Mediterranean. The Black Sea flows into the much smaller Sea of Marmora, which passes through the straits of the Dardanelles into the Aegean. Thus Othello compares the force of his hatred to the force of a huge body of water as it descends through a constantly narrowing passage. [Scene Summary]

In Act Four, Scene Two, the storms of passion become visible. Both Othello and Desdemona weep.

Othello calls Desdemona a whore and tells her that she is false. She asks, "To whom, my lord? with whom? how am I false?" (4.2.40). He doesn't answer, but weeps and says, "Ah Desdemon! Away! away! away!" (4.2.41). He seems lost in his own emotional turmoil, and expresses the depth of his pain in a speech which is essentially a soliloquy. He says that if heaven had tested him with disease, poverty, captivity, and public shame, "But there, where I have garner'd up my heart, / Where either I must live, or bear no life; / The fountain from the which my current runs, / Or else dries up; to be discarded thence!" (4.2.57-60). Desdemona is that life-giving fountain; feeling that he has been discarded from her love makes Othello feel dead, but he can't keep her with him. If he keeps her, she would no longer be a fountain, but a tank where ugly toads have ugly sex, "a cistern for foul toads / To knot and gender in!" (4.2.61-62).

Othello leaves after again calling Desdemona a whore, and Emilia sympathizes with her. Desdemona is in a strange emotional state which she describes by saying, "I cannot weep; nor answer have I none, / But what should go by water" (4.2.103-105). She means that she can't cry, yet the only way she could answer Emilia's questions is by crying. However, a little later when Iago asks her why Othello has called her a whore, Desdemona says "I do not know; I am sure I am none such" (4.2.123) and begins to weep. [Scene Summary]

Preparing for bed, there to wait for Othello, Desdemona sings the "willow" song. The song pictures a woman in a state of deep melancholy because her lover has forsaken her: "The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur'd her moans; / Sing willow, willow, willow; / Her salt tears fell from her, and soften'd the stones" (4.3.44-46). After she finishes the song, Desdemona feels herself on the verge of tears. [Scene Summary]

In the last scene of the play Othello looks upon the sleeping Desdemona and tries to prepare himself to kill her. He tells himself that he will kill her because it is the just thing to do, but then he kisses her and says,
Ah 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 this the last:
So sweet was ne'er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears . . . .   (5.2.16-21)
One kiss leads to another, and then another, and then tears. "I must weep" means "I can't stop myself from weeping"; because he can't stop crying he reminds himself that he is an agent of justice, and that she must die. Therefore -- he tells himself -- his tears are "cruel tears."

Soon after, Desdemona also sheds tears. She awakes and Othello accuses her of having an affair with Cassio. She asks Othello to send for Cassio, so that he can testify to the truth, but Othello tells her that Cassio is already dead. Desdemona is terrified; her one possible witness is dead, and his death makes her understand that Othello is dead serious about killing her too. She weeps. Desdemona's weeping only further enrages Othello. Once again he misinterprets what he sees before his eyes. He says, "Out, strumpet! weep'st thou for him to my face?" (5.2.77). She's not weeping for Cassio, but out of pure fear, and it's too late for explanations.

At the end of the same scene Othello again weeps. Just before he commits suicide he makes a statement about how he should be remembered and asks to be spoken of as "one whose subdued eyes, / Albeit unused to the melting mood, / Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees / Their medicinal gum."(5.2.348-351). This passage paints a picture of Othello. His eyes are lowered in grief ("subdued") and the tears flow as fast as all the drops of sap ("gum") in a grove of trees that have been tapped to harvest the fluid. [Scene Summary]