Philip Weller caricature
Philip and Weller hugging

Welcome to my web site, now under development for more than twenty years.   
-- Philip Weller, November 13, 1941 - February 1, 2021
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.

Othello's Self Esteem

When Iago tells Othello that Brabantio will try to annul his marriage to Desdemona, Othello replies that what he has done (as general of the Venetian army) for Venice will outweigh anything that Brabantio can say: "Let him do his spite: / My services which I have done the signiory / Shall out-tongue his complaints" (1.2.17-19). Othello is not only confident in his worth as a military man, he is also sure that he deserves Desdemona in every way. He says that though he hasn't bragged about it, "I fetch my life and being / From men of royal siege" (1.2.21-22). "Siege" means "seat," and Othello means that members of his family have sat on thrones. His family is just as good as Brabantio's, and his own merits can speak on equal terms "to as proud a fortune / As this that I have reach'd" (1.2.23-24). And he loves Desdemona. For her 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). [Scene Summary]

When the Duke tells Othello that he must leave for Cyprus immediately, even though he is newly married, Othello replies that he is so used to the hardships of war that "the flinty and steel couch of war" is his "thrice-driven bed of down" (1.3.230-231). Flint is the hardest stone, and steel the hardest metal; a "thrice-driven bed of down" is the softest feather bed. He goes on, saying, "I do agnize [recognize] / A natural and prompt alacrity [readiness] / I find in hardness [hardship] " (1.3.231-233). In other words, not only is he used to hardship, but the prospect of hardship makes him eager to go.  [Scene Summary]

When he can't get a straight answer about who is responsible for the fight between Cassio and Montano, Othello begins to lose patience and says, "'Zounds, if I stir, / Or do but lift this arm, the best of you / Shall sink in my rebuke" (2.3.207-209). Part of Othello's threat is a reminder that he is a better soldier than any of them. [Scene Summary]

Shortly after Iago starts to make Othello jealous, he cunningly warns him against jealousy. Othello answers by denying that he can be jealous, saying, Think'st thou I'ld make a life of jealousy, / To follow still the changes of the moon / With fresh suspicions? No! to be once in doubt / Is once to be resolved" (3.3.177-180). Othello here uses the word "once" in both the sense of "as soon of" and in the sense of "finally." He means that as soon as he is in doubt he will resolve that doubt once and for all.

A little later, Othello has become so troubled that he feels the need to be alone, and sends Iago away. In his soliloquy, Othello says, "Haply [perhaps], for I am black / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have, or for I am declined / Into the vale of years,--yet that's not much-- / She's gone" (3.3.263-267). "Soft parts of conversation" are the abilities of men who are used to being in chambers (e.g. parlors, ballrooms and such); such men would know how to make small talk and how to flatter a lady. Othello is used to the field of battle, not chambers. Besides that, he's black and approaching the age of thirty-five. Earlier in the play, when he spoke before the Senate, Othello knew that Desdemona loved him because he was not a chamberer, because he was different, because he had had adventures. But now, under Iago's influence, Othello thinks that those very qualities that made her love him have made her leave him.

Then, a few minutes later, Othello has a speech which is so famous that it's often referred to simply as "Othello's farewell to his occupation." He says that even if Desdemona went to bed with the dirtiest, sweatiest soldiers in camp (the "pioners"), he would have been happy so long as he hadn't known, but now he can't be a soldier anymore:
I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O, now, for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars,
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!
And, O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove's dead clamours counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone!   (3.3.345-357)
This isn't a rational statement. There's no rule of war that says that a man can't lead an army if his wife is unfaithful . And Othello isn't about to resign his position. He means what he feels, which is that if Desdemona doesn't love him, he's nothing. [Scene Summary]

After Iago has made Othello's jealousy so hot that he falls into a swoon, Iago urges him to be a man" (4.1.65). He then illustrates what this manliness is by saying how he would react if he were in Othello's situation: "let me know [that I am a cuckold]; / And knowing what I am, I know what she shall be" (4.1.72-73). What shall she be? A whore? Dead? Iago leaves that up to Othello's imagination, but Othello is so impressed with Iago's manliness that he says, "O, thou art wise; 'tis certain" (4.1.74). Then, a little later, when Othello is struggling with the idea of killing his wife, he seems to adopt Iago's notion of manliness, saying, "my heart is turned to stone; I strike it, and it hurts my hand" (4.1.182-183). [Scene Summary]

As the last scene of the play opens, Desdemona is asleep, and Othello is saying, "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,-- / Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!-- / It is the cause (5.2.1-3). He means that he is going to kill Desdemona because of "the cause," the crime that she has committed, a crime so horrible that he can't say its name even to the stars. Thus he denies to himself that he is killing her for himself, because he is jealous, because his sense of honor has been wounded. However, later in the scene, when Othello demands that she confess, Desdemona denies everything. To him, her denial is an attack on his honor. He says, "O perjured woman! thou dost stone my heart, / And makest me call what I intend to do / A murder, which I thought a sacrifice: / I saw the handkerchief!" (5.2.63-66). He wants to believe that he is about to kill his love as a sacrifice to the cause of justice, but she won't confess that she deserves to be sacrificed. If she's innocent, he's a murderer, and that thought makes him angry.

Desdemona uses her last words to clear her husband of guilt. Emilia asks her who has done this to her, and Desdemona answers, "Nobody; I myself. Farewell / Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell!" (5.2.125). Othello pretends surprise that she has been murdered, then says to Emilia, "You heard her say herself, it was not I" (5.2.127). Emilia confirms it, saying, "She said so; I must needs report the truth" (5.2.128). Othello now has a witness to his innocence; with Emilia's testimony, he could get away with murder. But he doesn't want to get away with it; he wants to justify it. He says, "She's, like a liar, gone to burning hell: / 'Twas I that kill'd her" (5.2.129-130).

After Othello learns the truth about Iago, attacks Iago, and has his sword taken from him, he says, "I am not valiant neither, / But every puny whipster gets my sword: / But why should honour outlive honesty? / Let it go all" (5.2.243-246). A "whipster" is a contemptible person, one who can make a show of whipping out his sword, but is no good in a real battle. Othello's phrase "puny whipster" expresses contempt for those who took his sword, but much more for himself. He has just let the sword go, and with good reason. His reputation as a valiant man, his "honour," is hollow without true integrity, "honesty." He not only lost the sword, he deserved to lose it.

A little later Lodovico asks Othello to explain himself, to say what he should be called. Othello responds, "Why, any thing: / An honourable murderer, if you will; / For nought I did in hate, but all in honour" (5.2.294-295). This short speech is extremely important to the interpretation of Othello's character. If he's justifying himself, we're going to think less of him. We are unlikely to think that there's any such thing as an honorable murderer, and earlier in the scene he didn't seem to think so, either. Now, however, it sounds as if he's justifying himself by saying that he is an "honourable murderer" and that he did nothing "in hate." This is hard to swallow because we have heard him express fierce hatred of Desdemona, and we have seen his rage when he murdered her. On the other hand, the phrase "honourable murderer" may be ironic. His first response to Lodovico is "Why, any thing," as if there was nothing that could be said about him that could express the truth. Then, after he uses the phrase "honourable murderer," he adds, "if you will," as though it doesn't really matter what others think of him. He may still be grappling with himself about what he is, and in using the phrase "honourable murderer" he may be making a bitterly ironic comment on his own mistake about what it means to be honorable.

As he is about to led away as prisoner of Venice, Othello says, "Soft you, a word or two before you go" (5.2.338). "Soft" means "wait a minute," and the rest of the men do wait to listen to what Othello has to say. He starts, "I have done the state some service, and they know't," as though he thinks that his service should be weighed against his crime, but then he changes his mind, saying, "No more of that" (5.2.339-340). He now wants to speak not of what is to become of him, but of what he is:
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 Indian, 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.    (5.2.341-356)
Having evaluated himself, Othello punishes himself as he punished the "malignant . . . Turk." He pulls out his dagger and gives himself a deadly wound. [Scene Summary]