Article Title

Mactacio Desdemonae: Medieval Scenic Form in the Last Scene of Othello


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

When he finished editing the last scene of Othello, Johnson wrote: "I am glad I have ended my revisal of this dreadful scene. It is not to be endured."1 In contrast to Shakespeare's next use of murder in bed, the off-stage killing of Duncan in Macbeth, the murder scene in Othello may seem brutal, clumsy in staging, and overloaded with a swift succession of plot developments- the confrontation of Othello and Desdemona, the murder of Desdemona, the unmasking of Iago, the murder of Emilia, the suicide of Othello. This density of action is matched by the density of the imagery, much of which is parallel in scenic form to the mystery plays. Shakespeare is not concerned with doctrine, but he uses religious imagery to strengthen his theme of innocence and its murderers, and the scenic forms in the last scene of Othello relate to the sacrifice of the innocent, a theme recurrent in the mystery cycles. The use of arcane imagery would not appeal to Johnson's eighteenth-century mind, nor indeed to Dryden, who had earlier accused Shakespeare of affectation and obscurity in his style "pestered with figurative expressions." Some of the violent and proliferating action which Johnson found unendurable is linked to the development of the imagery, and that in tum illuminates the action. Dover Wilson noted "the Christian background which adds so much to the terror and sublimity of the final scene"; for Charlton, "the culminating scene . . . is wrapped about with a holy atmosphere of solemn sacrifice."2 The present study is a consideration of religious imagery in this scene as one of the means whereby Shakespeare transmuted what Helen Gardner described as "Cinthio's powerful but sordid story of a garrison intrigue"3 into high tragedy.

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