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William Shakespeare


Act 5, Scene 2
lines 1 - 22
Othello kills Desdemona!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 22 January 2014
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Spurred on by the apparent knowledge that Iago has killed Cassio, Othello goes into Desdemona's bed chamber and smothers her with a pillow. He is convinced that he is doing the right thing: sacrificing her so as to protect other men from her evil ways.

Emilia finds him just after he has done the deed. She calls for help and Othello is arrested. Then, of course, the truth comes out: Othello had been duped by Iago. He stabs himself, taking his own life in remorse.


Othello himself provides THREE reasons why Desdemona might have proved to be unfaithful to him, and these reasons point to psychological weaknesses within his own character:

  • He is black;
  • He is unsophisticated;
  • He is old.


Othello was a Moor and therefore dark of skin although by no means black. Indeed, Shakespeare obviously confused the appearances of Moors and Black Africans, indicating that his audience too was ignorant of the difference.

Moors would have had a difficult time in the Elizabethan mind-set and were treated with suspicion. They were always regarded as "the other".

They were, in fact, culturally different from the other Europeans because they came from a Moslem background and therefore had Moslem traditions, even though they had converted to Christianity.

Indeed, Moors tended to keep to themselves, maintaining their own identity and customs. There was even suspicion that their conversion from Islam many centuries earlier had been one of convenience (to prevent being killed) but that they remained at heart Moslem.

Second, blackness in itself was suspicious. Western society right up until the 18th century was imbued with the idea that white was pure while black was the colour of evil.

Brides wore white. The devil was black. The black sheep of the family was the outcast. Black people were the biblical "sons of Ham" and therefore outcasts and slaves.

A Black person was therefore not equal to a White person in Western society.


The entire basis for the plot of this play was that Othello lacked sophistication. He was not naturally imbued with the traditions and manners of Venice but relied on others to guide him into how to act.

Once he had been removed to Cyprus, therefore, he was out of his depth. He could handle warfare and command soldiers. Once the war with the Turks was over, however, he was expected to act as Governor to the island but he knew not how.

He had promoted Michael Cassio to the rank of lieutenant because he could rely on the man in battle. On the other hand, he naturally trusted Iago in matters of etiquette. The moment he landed on Cyprus, therefore, he turned to Iago for support, and accepted his advice without question.


It is clear that Othello is advanced in years. He said so himself but, in any case, young people did not get to command armies.

His wife, however, is young and he is afraid that her eye will be captured by the advances of any handsome and refined young man.

In this, of course, he does not understand women but judges them as if they were men. This is comprehensible given that Othello exists in a world of soldiers.

Men mostly look to women who are younger than themselves. It is not often that one will find men marrying a woman who is significantly older than they.

Othello somehow believes this of Desdemona. He expects her head to be turned by men of youth, especially by a man who enacts all the customs of Venetian society, a man such as Michael Cassio.

Cassio is not only young but he reveals all the Venetian manners and etiquette, such as his repeatedly kissing his fingers.

In conclusion, Othello feels insecure in his marriage and will readily believe any suggestion that Desdemona could be unfaithful. He therefore does not need much proof -- just enough to cement the suspicions which he already harbours.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul, --
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars! --
It is the cause. Yet I'll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men."
  • What does Othello mean when he says, "It is the cause", a statement he repeats three times? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Comment on Othello's reference to "you chaste stars!" (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does Othello not want to kill Desdemona with his dagger but would rather smother her to death with a pillow? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Why does he refer to Desdemona's skin as being whiter than snow and as smooth as "monumental alabaster"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • According to Othello, Desdemona had to die. He could have banished her to a convent, a common punishment for a wife who was bringing shame to her husband. Why then was it necessary for her to die? (2)

[Need help?]

"Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume."
  • What does Othello mean when he says, "Put out the light, and then put out the light"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is the "flaming minister"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Othello's intention is to kill Desdemona in darkness. Why? And why does he eventually not kill her in darkness? (4)

[Need help?]

"Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after. One more, and this the last:
So sweet was ne'er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears."
  • If you were to produce this play, how would you have Othello act out these words? (6)

[Need help?]

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