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That's She That Was Myself: Not-So-Famous Last Words and Some Ends of Othello

(Shakespearean Criticism)

'That's She That Was Myself': Not-So-Famous Last Words and Some Ends of Othello

Thomas Clayton, University of Minnesota

I

To those for whom Shakespeare's plays still have value as works of dramatic and poetic art that move and enlighten the receptive, the last words of his tragic protagonists and other major characters should be of special interest and importance as momentous and definitive, because they evidently were for Shakespeare, whether composing or revising, and beginning quite early on, in Richard III and Richard II, for example; but they seem to take on special resonance and significance in the later tragedies, notably A. C. Bradley's Big Four, and also Antony and Cleopatra and Timon of Athens.1

II

Shakespeare constructed the ending of Othello in such a way that Desdemona and Othello both expire on the terminal note of a single heroic couplet, each concerned primarily and affectionately with the other. Othello's last lines have been noticed often enough, and Desdemona's, too, especially in recent years; but they have seldom been attended to in any detail and their significant complementarity has apparently gone unnoticed, no doubt partly because 'Soft you, a word or two … And smote him thus'—Othello's 'last great speech', in T. S. Eliot's phrase—has come so to dominate almost every kind of commentary on the endplay.2 But the complementarity was evidently deliberate, not fortuitous, and this seems to be Shakespeare's first dramatic and dialogical expression in extremis of special endplay effects of the kind inchoate in Hamlet and extended further in Othello and further still in King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, the latter three of which match a dying protagonist with a dead loved one. It is of interest also because in Othello the lines speak for themselves in a way almost independent of variations in performance. In the later plays the same intense yearning is expressed in ways that must be conveyed substantially in action as well as, perhaps as much as, in words: the actor's Lear himself must somehow, somewhere, 'look there, look there'; and Cleopatra must make her way between the world of worms whose kingdoms are clay, and the real or fancied Elysium 'where souls do couch on flowers' and Antony had anticipated that their 'sprightly port [would] make the ghosts gaze' (4.15.51, 52).3

At least since Thomas Rymer, two conflicting Othellos have persisted, the sympathetic Noble Moor that I take to be Shakespeare's, and the other one, 'loving his own pride and purposes' and given to evasions 'with a bombast circumstance', an Othello malformed and perpetuated by racial bigotry beginning in the play itself with these phrases of lago's. In the nineteenth century, when travesties were in high fashion, there was at least one mocking minstrelshow Othello and a lame and lengthy travesty of this popular target. Subsequently liberated from overt racial bias, Othello has more recently been condemned as a militarist and patriarch, occasionally with necrophiliac tendencies.4 Such negative judgements seem gratuitous, sometimes downright ethnocentric; but my purpose here is not to argue the case of character yet once more, as such, but to concentrate on details of the endplay, notably Desdemona's and Othello's last lines, their context, content, and reference. Evidently these were—are—important components of Shakespeare's design, whatever the qualities of Othello the (critic's) man. But if these terminal couplets taken together mean as they appear to mean, then a rereading of Shakespeare's tragedy in modified perspective necessarily follows: of a play in which the tragedy of a sympathetic Moor must be the action intended, and as such is subtly, potently, and movingly concluded. Recognizing intentional design does not compel concurrence, of course, but it reasonably invites reflection and might give pause.

III

In September 1610, when the King's Men performed Othello in Oxford, Henry Jackson of Corpus Christi College was affected as deeply by a motionless player as by the...

(The entire section is 5,241 words.)