Study Help: Othello's Soliloquy 5.2.1-21 "It is the cause, it is the cause..."
The Text 5.2.1-21
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.
[He kisses her]
Oh, 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.
Interpretation, Analysis, and Meaning
When people do something awful, they often attempt to distance themselves from the act by placing blame on anyone or anything but themselves. In doing so they twist their own desires and motives to such an extent that they are able to convince themselves of their innocence. Othello’s soliloquy in the first twenty-one lines of Act V exposes to the reader the way in which Othello’s doubts about Desdemona’s guilt force him to reconceive his motives and agency in order to distance himself from the terrible murder he is about to commit. But, rather than allow each of these doubts to change his resolve, he rethinks and then recommits to the act. This moment represents the tipping point of the play, as it is the last possible moment that he could decide not to murder his wife. Instead of relenting, he instead transforms his motive from personal revenge to a twisted sense of duty or martyrdom to Justice to whom he reimagines himself as only the executioner and not the judge.
From the very beginning of Othello’s soliloquy the audience is made to feel the deep sense of uneasiness and doubt that Othello is attempting to smother. Upon entering the room where the innocent Desdemona sleeps, Othello repeats “It is the cause” three times in the space of three lines (5.2.1-3). In these lines Othello emphasizes that the “cause” or thing to blame for Desdemona’s imminent killing is her imagined adultery rather than Othello’s own hands. In his mind, this “cause” is so vile that he cannot “name is to you, you chaste stars” (5.2.2). By equating the imagined adultery with something too evil for the heavens to even hear, he is justifying to himself the extremity of his response to it. Furthermore, the repetition of the “it is the cause” suggests that Othello is attempting to convince himself that it is the right course of action. This phrase acts as a kind of mantra repeated in such a way that his doubts are prevented from entering and swaying his mind.
In the following lines, Othello rethinks the promises of violence he made against Desdemona in Act IV by vowing, “yet I’ll not shed her blood” (5.2.3). He most certainly still promises to kill her, but he wishes to do it in a way that will not disfigure her beauty. His unwillingness to mark her could suggest that he is in some way doubting her supposed impurity. If she really were as vile and deceptive as he states in earlier scenes, then marking her would not matter since the ugliness of the wound would match the ugliness of her inner soul. Othello cannot reconcile the vile and deceptive creature Iago has constructed with the beauty and innocence he sees in her.
His conception of her beauty further exposes to the viewer Othello’s psychology. He emphasizes that he does not want to “scar that whiter skin of hers than snow” (5.2.4). Here he is using the image of clean white snow to describe her beauty and purity. This turn of phrase plays upon the running symbolism of black and white in the play. In this line, Othello firmly places Desdemona as his physical opposite. He further describes her skin as “smooth as monumental Alabaster,” suggesting that her beauty is as refined as the white alabaster statues made in classical Greece (5.2.5). By comparing Desdemona to a statue, he is admiring her as an ideal rather than as a person. He admires the purity and classical beauty which symbolizes Westernized thoughts of love and femininity. He craves the love of Desdemona because she symbolizes his absolute acceptance into Western culture. By killing her he believes he is participating in a kind of iconoclasm of a culture he desires to be a part of.
In line six, Othello makes a large shift in his conception of the crime in order to more easily justify it to himself. He states, “yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men” (5.2.6). In other words, Othello has twisted his motive from an act of personal revenge to an act which will protect humanity. By reframing the act of killing her in this way, he is adhering to the thinking he learned as a soldier. Soldiers justify killing another human by reframing that death and their own mortality into a larger scheme of Justice. This removes blame from themselves and even glorifies the act of murder as an act of martyrdom in which they taint their own soul in order to save those of others.
Despite having just gone through the process of completely reframing and justifying the murder, Othello’s doubts begin to resurface again as he muses upon the finality of death and the finality of the act he is stealing himself to commit. As he goes to “put out the light” of his lantern so that he can kill Desdemona under the cover of darkness, he is reminded that he is about to “put out the light” of Desdemona as well (5.2.7). Yet, there is a great distinction between these two lights. The lantern can be relit, but the “Promethean heat” which animates human beings cannot be rekindled (5.2.12). The “Promethean heat” which Shakespeare mentions to in these lines is a reference to a story from ancient Greek mythology about how humans came to be. The story states that Prometheus, a great titan, stole the life-giving-fire from Zeus and gave it to men on earth made of clay in order to animate them. This reference is deeply rooted in the cultural stories of Western society, so not only does it show Shakespeare’s literary knowledge, it also shows the degree to which Othello as “the Moor” has been steeped in Western culture and literary references. while the concept of fire or light is often used to describe life, it is also a symbol of knowledge and reason. In Western conceptions, darkness is almost always associated with ignorance, while light is associated with knowledge and reason. Shakespeare may be suggesting to the audience that Othello’s ability to reason has been wholly compromised by his jealousy.
In the following lines Othello further muses upon the finality of death by using another metaphor comparing Desdemona to a rose which he must pluck. The language involving “pluck[ing]” or deflowering Desdemona’s “rose” is not only a reference to death, but is also a reference to the loss of virginity (5.2.13). While it is not entirely clear by the end of the play whether their marriage has been consummated, Othello seems to equate her innocence with language commonly used to speak of virginity. In Jacobian society, a woman’s purity was thought to be the most important thing about her. If her virginity was in any way tainted, she would be discarded. Perhaps Othello feels some deep-rooted guilt for his role in taking her virginity, or perhaps he even believes that he in some way deeply corrupted and awakened a more carnal side of Desdemona which led her to commit adultery. Like the previous reference in which Othello muses upon the finality of murder, Othello reminds himself and the audience that he “cannot give it vital growth again” (5.2.14). Othello seems to be profoundly troubled by the irreversibility of the act he is about to commit, perhaps because on some level he recognizes the unfounded nature of Iago’s proof against her.
Despite the doubt that he subtly expresses throughout his soliloquy he has already decided to kill her, therefore no amount of persuasion by her or her beauty can change his course. When he kisses her, he claims that her “balmy breath” almost persuades “Justice to break her sword” (5.2.16-17). In this metaphor Othello reimagines himself as the “sword” or warrior of Justice herself. By implying that he is only the executioner for Justice, he further removes himself from the responsibility for the act as he has done in previous lines. He is almost claiming that her death is out of his hands. Yet, even so, he seeks to be persuaded away from the act whether he takes responsibility for it or not. If he were truly seeking resolve then he should turn away from her, but instead he seeks “one more” kiss, perhaps subconsciously hoping that it will be enough to sway him from his course (5.2.17).
In lines eighteen and nineteen Othello takes another surprising turn. He states “Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,/ And love thee after” (5.2.18-19). In these line Othello exposes that it is the idea of Desdemona and her innocence that he loves rather than the woman herself. He is willing to kill her, but not to kill the idea of her because of what she represents to Othello’s sense of self and acceptance into Venetian society. This thematically harkens back to Othello’s unwillingness to mark her skin. In fact, when Othello first decides to kill Desdemona he wants to use poison, but Iago convinces him that killing her in the bed she supposedly defiled would be more appropriate. His desire to leave her body unmarked could suggest that Othello believes that if she does not look like she has been violently murdered, then he is somehow more innocent.
In the last few lines of Othello’s speech he fully discharges responsibility for crime he is about to commit by portraying himself as a sort of martyr, thus making himself the victim rather than Desdemona. He feels that he “must weep” for himself because he must kill the thing he supposedly loves (5.2.20). In his twisted perception, his tears are “cruel” and his “sorrow’s heavenly;/ It strikes where is doth love” (5.2.21-22). We can see that Othello has mentally distanced his perceived desires from his actions. He claims love, yet promises violence not in the name of personal revenge as he did before, but in the name of the abstract idea of Justice to whom he feels he has become a martyr.
Othello’s inability to accept the responsibility for the action he is about to commit reflects a deep-rooted doubt in the motives and “proof” which brought him to this point. Despite all doubts he decides to kill Desdemona. In doing so he ignores his gut reaction to maintain his self-image as a decisive man and a good general.