Othello’s emotional final scene contains the deaths of three major characters in the play: Othello, Desdemona and Emilia. There have been many disagreements over the meanings of these deaths and how they relate to other events in the play, but Othello’s appears to be the most controversial of the three. This scene, most importantly Othello’s final speech, has been interpreted in many different ways, including articles, paintings, and film and stage productions.
Two main ideas which have arisen from these different interpretations are the portrayal of Othello as either Bradley’s “romantic figure” or Leavis’s “egotistic” character. Five different illustrations of Othello’s final speech have been done by Welles, Olivier, Hopkins, White and Fishbourne, all playing Othello in feature films or stage productions of the play. Welles’s black and white feature film cuts the speech dramatically, but produces and powerful and emotional scene. Othello is portrayed as desperate and emotional in this scene, but camera angles and the use of lighting is used to show his feelings and emotions.
Throughout Othello’s final speech, the camera is looking down on Othello, showing how he feels condemned to Hell for his actions, but the lighting has been constructed to light up only his face, so it shows his head surrounded by darkness. This again illustrates his feelings, and emphasises the idea of him being cast down into Hell, the darkness signifying the evil he has done. Othello is also shown behind a door with bars, giving the impression of a prison cell, which further exaggerates the idea of Hell, evil ad a crime he has committed.
Burge’s film of a stage production, featuring Lawrence Olivier as Othello, portrays him at first as the “romantic figure” Bradley spoke of, but progresses to portray him more as Leavis’s “egotistic” character. Olivier commences the scene as a distraught, emotional, passionate character, but becomes slightly melodramatic at times. Olivier continues to show emotion, but when coming to lines 339-347, when he talks of how he wants to be described to others, he quickly becomes proud and of high status. Although he is in his final speech, Olivier presents Othello as pompous and not convincingly suicidal.
However, the idea of Othello as romantic arises again in the final moments of the play, as Othello dies “upon a kiss”. Whereas Welles chose to cut this part of Othello’s speech, Burge included it, leaving the viewer with the view of Othello as Bradley’s “romantic” Moor. There are also clear similarities between “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet”, where Romeo’s dying words are “Thus with a kiss I die” (V. iii. 120) showing his romantic personality, which links to Burge’s portrayal of Othello, which gives the same impression.
However, these very words are contradictory, as a kiss was considered to be life-giving, and both Othello and Romeo are doing the exact opposite, taking life. Miller’s BBC version of Othello’s final speech in V. ii shows him as Leavis’s “self-centred” individual, but Hopkins as Othello still shows a range of emotions in his portrayal of the character. Othello appears to have a great deal of self-assurance and a sense of superiority, as he begins his speech relatively calmly, until becoming momentarily threatening, then composing himself and remaining calm until his death.
From line 338, “Speak of me as I am”, Othello is shown as proud and very much Leavis’s “egotistic” Moor, but is briefly shown as romantic in his dying moments, when Miller, like Burge, includes Othello’s “I kissed thee ere I killed thee; no way but this, killing myself, to die upon a kiss” speech, relating to Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet”. The use of lighting is very significant in Miller’s BBC production, as shadows are created to highlight the different moods, motives and themes brought up. Although he is clothed in white, signifying purity, he is cast into shadow as he kills himself.
This has been done to emphasise the evil and extent of the crime he has committed, and to show, like Welles did, how he is condemned to Hell. Hopkins’s movements are also significant, as he frequently turns his back on the others in the room, most of whom are authority figures, and walks away from them. This is symbolic of how he is turning his back against society and doing two of the things which were greatly condemned: homicide and suicide. White’s portrayal of Othello’s final speech is, like Olivier’s, a combination of Bradley’s “romantic figure” and Leavis’s “noble” Moor.
Similarly, Othello dies lying with his wife, after kissing her. “Killing myself, to die upon a kiss. ” V. ii. 355. Othello is portrayed as more emotional than the previous three, as he is shown as truly distraught and crying. He also shows signs of feeling bitter for the loss of Desdemona, and for being betrayed by Iago. However, he is still shown as having authority over Desdemona, as he is shown in the end of the final scene, lying on top of her, which also suggests how she was always submissive to him, even at the end of her life.
However, she is still portrayed as innocent, as she is clothed in white and surrounded by white sheets. It seems almost contradictory, then, that Othello is clothed in white as well, but this simply demonstrates his love for Desdemona, and implies the portrayal of a “romantic figure”. Due to the colour of his clothing, then, he is shown to walk into the shadows or away from the light to commit suicide, so that the idea that he is condemned to Hell is still enforced.
Similarly to the White and Olivier illustrations of Othello in V. ii. Fishbourne plays a romantic, noble character, who is emotional but relatively calm, although still noble and hedonistic. However, his emotions are still clear, as he, too, cries during his final speech, and speaks at almost a whisper. Like White’s portrayal, Fishbourne appears bitter, making threatening moves before climbing on top of Desdemona “to die upon a kiss”. Again, here, the lighting is focused upon Desdemona’s body, making her seem quite angelic. But Othello is shown to block Desdemona and the bed from view, illustrating the way he saw himself as superior over her.
Similarly, Iago is shown as lower down in the group of people he stands with, as he is smaller than them, but also he is crouching down. This shows how, even though his goal has been to replace Othello, he cannot come close to the status he achieved. This version of Othello differs from the previous four, as Othello is shown clothed in black, symbolising the evil he has done and the crime he has committed. It is also a contrast to Desdemona’s pure, white clothing, and his covering her and blocking her from view at points in the scene demonstrates how his crimes and evil works have ended her life.
Othello is also shown to have accepted his fate, and condemn himself to Hell, as he holds his crucifix above his head to kill himself, as he feels he is below Christianity and belongs in Hell for what he has done. There are alternative interpretations of V. ii. , done in the form of paintings that have caused controversy. Both the Delacroix and Colin paintings of V. ii. show Desdemona dressed and surrounded my white, symbolising purity, and the bed curtains and background are in red, portraying the intense love shared between them.
The red of the bed curtains also signifies their deaths, both in the present and futures of the two characters shown. Interestingly, though, Othello’s attire has been interpreted differently by the two artists, as the two paintings are from different points in the scene. Alexandre Colin’s illustration shows Othello at the point of believing he has committed a just act in taking his wife’s life, and is therefore clothed in white, whereas Delacroix shows him as a guilty, sinful character in black.
This shows the point in the scene where he realises what he has done is wrong and begins to feel intense guilt and is distraught at the loss of his wife, also becoming suicidal, V. ii. 127. Evidently, the artist seem top have adopted contrasting views on the portrayal of Othello as Shakespeare saw him, once again taking his as either Bradley’s “romantic figure” or Leavis’s “noble” Moor. However, the fact that Othello’s face is left blurred in Delacroix’s painting, leaves it to the imagination of the viewer to decide the feelings, moods and emotions in Othello.
T. S. Eliot seems to have adopted the view that Othello was arrogant, egotistic and self-centred, as Leavis did, justifying his final speech as merely a means for “cheering himself up”. Eliot agrees with Leavis, in saying that “Othello succeeds in turning himself into a pathetic figure, by adopting an aesthetic rather than moral attitude”. Othello is seen to have done this throughout the play, as he turns on his wife and accuses her of disloyalty, based upon a few lies from Iago.
Othello openly calls Desdemona a “whore” and “imprudent strumpet”, merely upon the words of Iago, with only the evidence of a handkerchief, showing how he is distrustful and frankly quite shallow for immediately accepting Iago’s accusations. Germaine Greer also appears to agree with Eliot’s interpretation of V. ii. , as she says of how “Othello begs for a reason why Iago has ‘ensnared’ his ‘soul and body'”. This seems to concur with Eliot’s description of Othello as “a pathetic figure” and how he has “adopted an aesthetic rather than moral attitude”.
Kiernan Ryan believes that Othello is between the interpretations Bradley and Leavis gave, saying that “insofar as Othello is a black outsider, he is the tragic victim of the poisonous racist mentality embodied in Iago”. However, he then progresses to comment that “inasmuch as he is a man, acting in unconscious obedience to the norms of patriarchy, he is also the complicit agent of his own derangement and demise”. Paul Robeson’s revolutionary portrayal as Othello also illustrated the character as “noble”, and “magnificence personified”.
Words such as “power”, “majesty”, “grandeur”, “sweet simplicity” and “innocence” are frequently used in contemporary reviews, once even being described as showing “radiant bliss” when reunited with Desdemona in II. i. This implies that Robeson played the “romantic figure” Bradley spoke of in 1904. I agree with T. S. Eliot’s interpretation of Othello in his final speech, and across the play, as a “pathetic character”, as he has shown signs of being untrusting towards Desdemona, having very little faith in her, and decided his opinion and feelings were more important than any others, including the justice system.
Othello felt, throughout V. ii. , that he was just in his actions, stating that Desdemona could “almost persuade Justice to break her sword”, implying that he believes that what he is about to do is just and fair, but her sweet breath and face could “almost persuade” him to not kill her. This is clearly ignorance and arrogance, in my opinion, and fortifies the interpretation of Othello as “a pathetic figure”.