Othello's Reversal and Peripeteia

Othello’s Peripeteia

Introduction

Aristotle argued a tragic hero’s reversal was one of the most important elements of a good tragedy. Marking the major turning point in the narrative, this peripeteia was a sudden and unexpected change in the character’s circumstances. However, the philosopher was analysing classical plays, but Shakespeare’s scripts are longer, more psychologically complex and not usually limited to a single peripeteia. Instead of a quick shift in fortune that evoked pity and fear in the audience, the protagonist’s fall is gradual and increasingly disturbing.

For example, Othello is presented in the first act as the “valiant” General whose adventurous history won Desdemona’s heart. By the end of the fourth act, he is the jealous lover consumed by “savage madness” and murderous rage, but it would be very difficult to pick a precise moment of peripeteia in his character arc.

Spectacle

Most copies of “Othello” start (IV.i) with the stage direction “Enter Othello and Iago” because higher ranking characters would be followed by their subordinates. Interestingly, the First Quarto edition, probably a transcript of the playwright’s foul papers and published in 1622, begins with “Enter Iago and Othello”. In this version, the scribe ignores dramatic convention and reduces the eponymous hero’s status by indicating he should come on stage after Iago.

Othello Quarto Act 4

This entrance seems to be more appropriate at this point in the story because Iago is now in the ascendancy and Othello spends the scene under his control.

This lack of power is clear when Othello is provoked by his ancient and “falls in a trance”. According to “honest” Iago, this is Othello’s “second fit” and his “lethargy must have his quiet course” or else he “foams at mouth” and “breaks out to savage madness”. The spectacle of Othello suffering uncontrollable muscular convulsions on the stage floor is an obvious visual contrast to his imposing presence at the start of the play when he stood tall and refused to be subdued by Brabantio’s threats.

Another peripeteia occurs immediately after the seizure when the tragic hero eavesdrops on Iago’s contrived conversation with Cassio. Prompted by Iago to “stand… awhile apart”, Othello hides behind one of the Globe Theatre’s pillars and tries to “mark the fleers, the gibes, and notable scorns” on Cassio’s face. This is a socially unacceptable and morally repugnant action. It is also ignominious because he mistakenly believes they are ridiculing an affair between Cassio and Desdemona when Bianca is actually the focus of their sneers. The hero, whose story of “feats of broil and battle” commanded the audience’s attention in (I.iii), is now reduced to the margins of the stage.

Dialogue

Othello’s transformation is reinforced by the structure of his dialogue. When he spoke eloquently to the Venetian council in (I.iii), his enthralling monologues were written in loose iambic pentameter and included some very effective rhetoric. It is clear from the Duke’s reaction to Othello’s backstory that Shakespeare wants the audience to admire the romantic hero: “I think this tale would win my daughter too”.

By contrast, (IV.i) begins with an urgent exchange between Othello and Iago written in stichomythia full of half-lines and short speeches. The opening line, which modern editions divide the pentameter into three parts, is an excellent example of this broken rhythm:

Othello Folio Act 4 Opening

In the original copies of the script published in the 1600s, dialogue was always left-aligned and there was no indication that the line was split between the characters, but the staccato rhythm would still be evident to the audience.

Also note how Othello echoes Iago’s words in the first line and responds with his own questions. The eponymous hero is no longer determining his own course and relies on Iago’s direction because does not know what to “think”.

Provoked by Iago’s awful claims, Othello’s lines are reduced to chaotic and barely comprehensible prose:

Othello Folio Act 4

In order to show the reader that the dialogue is written in prose, the typesetters justify the lines so the left and right sides of the text are flush with the margins.

Othello begins the speech by debating which is the more appropriate preposition: “with” or “on”. If Cassio is lying “with” Desdemona, then there is physical intimacy. At first glance, lying “on her” suggests sexual intimacy, but Othello recognises the alternative meaning of the phrase which is to slander someone by telling lies “on” them. The uncertainty drives Othello into a frenzy.

The minor sentences “lie with her” and “lie on her” are followed by other fragments, most notably the repetition of “handkerchief” three times. The meaningless interjection “pish” and the final apostrophe “O Devil” are other excellent examples of how the eloquent precision of blank verse has been replaced by disfluency and nonsense.

Blasphemy

The change in the rhythm of Othello’s dialogue is very revealing, but his reversal is also evident in one particular aspect of his language which was deleted from the 1623 Folio edition. During the outburst, he curses Desdemona’s “fulsome” affair with the blasphemous “zounds”. This exclamation is an abbreviation of “God’s wounds”.

Othello - Anger Extract

Evoking God’s name in such a rage could be considered the worst kind of sin because it violates the third commandment. Consider the King James Version of Exodus 20:

“Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”

Some theologians suggest the third commandment is the only one God will not forgive. Therefore, the profanity places Othello beyond absolution and he will never be “guiltless” of the sin no matter how hard he repents. Although the interpretation of the original Hebrew text may not be entirely accurate, this version could be the reason why scribes omitted the word from the Folio edition of “Othello”.

The Act to Restrain Abuses of Players (1606) is another reason why the blasphemous “zouns” may have been left out. Passed by the English Parliament, the new law banned “Stage Plays” from “jestingly or profanely speak or use the holy Name of God”. References to God had to be “spoken but with Fear and Reverence”.

Put simply, Othello’s expletive “zouns” could result in both eternal damnation and a fine of “Ten Pounds”. The language is certainly not heroic.

Reputation

After Cassio was punished for his drunken fight with Roderigo, he exclaims to Iago he has “lost” his “reputation” and his “immortal part”. Aristotle suggested a tragic hero should be of notable repute and Shakespeare uses this beat in the story to emphasise the importance of “reputation”.

During the opening act, the playwright firmly establishes “valiant” Othello’s reputation. He is “hotly called for” by the Venetian council who have sent “three several quests” because they need him “post-haste haste” to defend their interests in Cyprus against the Turkish invaders.

However, that esteem is challenged by Lodovico when he sees Othello strike Desdemona in (IV.i). Lodovico says this new “fault” would “not be believed in Venice”. Of course, Iago adds his own observation and says “he has much changed” – an obvious reference to Othello’s reversal.

In (II.iii), the Cassio believes his loss of reputation makes him “bestial”. At the end of (IV.i), Othello exits the stage crying “goats and monkeys”. The once “valiant and noble” General is now no better than the beasts.

Desdemona

Othello’s despicable mistreatment of Desdemona is probably the most significant peripeteia in the play. The way he strikes her in (IV.i) is shocking. Since Othello has received a letter from Venice, some actors may choose to hit Desdemona with the paper; others might use their open hand and make sure the slap echoes throughout the theatre. While Desdemona remains dutiful and controlled, Othello cries out “O devil, devil!” Regardless of how the director and actors decide to deliver this scene, the contrast in body language and tone of voice will undoubtedly provoke fear from the audience.

Now that he has supposedly seen the “ocular proof” of her affair, Othello brutally declares he will “chop her into messes”. This violent desire for revenge is in complete contrast to his simple statement in (I.ii): “I love the gentle Desdemona”.

When the two lovers were reunited in Cyprus in (II.ii), the moment was depicted as romantic and joyful. They kiss and he calls her “honey” and “my sweet”. In (IV.ii), he calls her a “weed”. She is no longer desirable and sweet, but a wild and common girl that needs to be controlled.

In (I.iii), he vowed “as truly as to heaven” how he “did thrive in this fair lady’s love”. Dismissing her pleas of innocence in (IV.ii), he declares “Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell”. This simile compares her lies and duplicity to “hell”. Shakespeare draws our attention to the huge contrast between “heaven” and “hell” by placing the words at opposite ends of the line and changing the stress from trochees to iambs, but still connecting the two ideas through the use of alliteration. The protagonist mistakenly believes his wife is now evil and he is acting on that misinformation. This is the reversal.

Presumably, Desdemona tries to comfort or embrace her husband, but he pushes her aside. This movement is suggested by the line “Away! Away! Away!” The simple triple conveys his deep hatred towards her. He cannot bring himself to be near her.

The dramatic irony in this scene is simple. The audience knows Desdemona is innocent and will interpret Othello’s attitude towards her as disgraceful.

His final slander is heartless: “I took you for that cunning whore of Venice / That married Othello”.

His interrogation of Desdemona is framed by the exit and entrance of Emilia, and Othello treats the encounter like it is a visit to a brothel. He asks Emilia to leave “procreants alone” and allow them some privacy. He also wants her to “cough or cry ‘hem’” if their intimacy is about to be disturbed. When Othello calls her back, he gives her “money” for her “pains” and asks her to keep the liaison secret. By reducing his devoted wife to a prostitute, Othello’s transformation into the tragic hero is almost complete.

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