Literary Shelf

Psychomachia: The War Within The Mind

Masculinity and control go hand in hand. One like Shakespeare's warlike general, Othello, has difficulties not being able to maintain complete dominance over all aspects of his life. His military dominance transposes itself into the social sphere as well, and Othello's complete distrust of his own wife causes irreparable damage to his psyche. This jealousy and lack of mental control forces Othello to take physical action against Desdemona, and in turn he reconciles the dual nature of his mind through a murderous act against his true love. The passage in which he addresses Gratiano, after being quartered in a room after Desdemona's murder, reveals much about Othello's tender psyche. His jumps between his prolific military past and the volatile situation facing him in the present are accentuated through the use of reflective anapests and powerful spondees throughout the passage. It is only when Othello comes to terms with his actions and their consequences that he understands the severity of his situation and loses his will to live. 

The first time that Othello speaks, after Gratiano has entered the room, gives one a view of a calm and meditative Othello. His iambic speech delivers a level flow to his words that leads the audience to believe that he is mentally reflective. He begins by stating "Behold, I have a weapon;/ A better never did itself sustain/ Upon a soldier's thigh"(V, ii, 259-61). This even, iambic pentameter speech addressing his sword as he stares at it, creates an eerie silence, or the feeling of a calm before a storm. He is simply too quiet after having just realized that he falsely accused and subsequently murdered the love of his life. Othello is off in his own world, a world in which he is on the battlefield and life is surprisingly more simple than it is now. The fact that he refers to the sword as being able to "itself sustain/ Upon a soldier's thigh"( V, ii, 260-1), personifies his sword and gives him a sympathetic companion in this moment of reflection. His sword understands the battles and intricacies of war; it also understands the necessity of violence at times. The alliteration on the "s" sound of "itself sustain/ Upon a soldier's thigh" creates a visual image of slicing the air with a sword, a "whoosh" sound which cuts through the silence in the room. 

It is this sword which subsequently prompts the meditative flashback by Othello in lines 261-4. He begins his next sentence with an anapest, as he reflects "I have seen the day" (V, ii, 261). His meditative iambic speech is broken, to an extent, by this drawn out anapest, which rises at the end with "seen". His focus on the touch and visual senses of the body, the touch of the "soldier's thigh" and having "seen the day/ That with this little arm" (V, ii, 261-2) conveys a bodily interpretation of Othello's emotions. He has yet to internalize his actions, he is stuck on the purely physical aspect of things as he stares at his sword and the memories it evokes. He reflects on past glories, of the glorious warrior he once was, as he meditates in thought. Othello then addresses both Gratiano and his steel companion as he says " [t]hat with this little arm, and this good sword/ I have made my way through" (V, ii, 262-3). The two anapests followed by the spondee "good sword" emphasize the words "this" "arm" and "this good sword". It is the basest, most simple interpretation of Othello's past. Mindless, violent, and uncivilized murder is what Othello has based his reputation on, in reality. It is then appropriate that it is the murderous act of killing Desdemona, which violates the laws of civilized society, which forces him to dwell on his murderous past and what it and its glory really meant. 

While reflecting, Othello manages to use past tense throughout his speech in lines 261-64. His emphasis on "have seen"(V, ii, 261) and "have made" (V, ii, 263) conveys a feeling of denial or rejection of the present by discussing the benefits of the past. Othello is attempting to validate his life through his past deeds, and whether it is for the sympathy of the audience or for his own peace of mind before his impending suicide is open to interpretation. If the line is read addressing Gratiano, then Othello is attempting to provide for his legacy. He does not wish to be remembered as a jealous murderer, but as a brave and powerful general whose past should mitigate the present. If he is speaking blindly, not focusing on one particular thing, then his speech is a self-eulogy which he hopes God will consider before his judgment. When he does definitely address Gratiano, he boasts that "I have made my way through more impediments/ Than twenty times your stop" (V, ii, 263-4). It is an attempt to make Othello somehow feel better than Gratiano by speaking of his past deeds. Also, the rhyme of the words "day" (V, ii, 261) and "way" (V, ii, 263) draw yet another connection to how his actions from the "days" in battle of his past had paved the "way" for his glory and his deserved respect. This is yet another way in which Othello attempts to categorize his life in two distinctly different categories: past actions and present actions. He wants desperately to return to the time before the murder when things were less complicated. 

The significance in the word "stop" can be traced back to earlier in the scene when Othello cries out to the ghost of Desdemona's uncle. He exclaims "there lies your niece,/ Whose breath, indeed, these hands have newly stopp'd" (V, ii, 201-2). He refers to "your stop" (V, ii, 264) when speaking to Gratiano to refer to Gratiano's inability to fight as well and be as unstoppable as Othello in battle. However, it was Othello who stopped Desdemona from breathing and, consequently, he could not stop himself in the end. It may have been the case that not a man alive could stop Othello on the battlefield, but neither was it the case that Othello could harness his jealousy and stop himself from killing Desdemona. 

The last two lines of this selected passage finally throw Othello back into the consequences and realizations of his volatile present situation. It comes violently at once in his spondaic exclamation "But, O vain boast!" (V, ii, 264), and at this moment he breaks out of his meditative state and realizes that his prolific past has nothing to do with facing his present. He finally shows the audience that he understands the severity and repercussions of his actions through these spondees. The past is not important. Othello realizes that it is simply an excuse for his mind to mitigate the murder of Desdemona with pompous acts of bravery using a prior and unrelated sphere of his life. The first trochee of the passage comes in the last line discussed, when Othello helplessly cries "Who can control his fate?" (V, ii, 265). The answer is no one but God. This powerful stress on "who" further emphasizes the powerlessness of Othello. He may have been a powerful and demanding warrior, but the will of a God who controls Othello's fate is one who Othello can not best. His belief in the spiritual aspects of life, the first case being his reference to his handkerchief in which "there's magic in the web of it" (III, iv, 69), shows his reverence and respect for that which is beyond comprehension. This hopeless cry of "'tis not so now" (V, ii, 265) further contrasts his state of mind "now", with his state of mind earlier, in which he seemed focused and defiantly rooted in his powerful past. "Now" he is little more than a helpless child; although, more importantly, he understands the severity of what he has done. 

Othello speaks in this passage in terms both visual and physical in nature, yet he doesn't reflect on the damage that his mind has done until he realizes that the "vain boast" is nothing more than a distraction from the present. He had trochaically wondered aloud "who can control his fate?", referring once again to himself, and yet he does not recollect how Iago controlled his fate from the moment he planted doubt and jealousy in Othello's mind. 

The duality of Othello in the passage, his mind at odds with its conception of past and present, relates to the duality of Othello as a character himself. The strengths and weaknesses of his character are revealed in the passage as Othello admits to being physically and intellectually renowned in wars abroad, but cannot balance his pride and jealousy when in the domestic sphere of society. His warlike personality causes him to react violently to a problem, as he explains through his war imagery in lines 261-4, and then reflect and lash out emotionally, as in lines 265-6. Had Othello not carried over so much of his military personality into the sphere of public life and society, he would not have reacted as a warrior, but would have let Desdemona's actions speak louder than the forked tongue of Iago. It is no coincidence that Iago knew exactly how to arouse suspicion and action out of Othello, his fellow warrior.   


More by :  Jeffrey E. Ryan

Top | Literary Shelf

Views: 3530      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.