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As Othello, Laurence Olivier entreats the Venetian nobles to relate the true account of his actions and motivations. Olivier’s words seem almost imploring, suggesting that he is an outsider seeking approval from those with foreign sympathies. At the beginning of his address, little in his demeanor resembles that of Laurence Fishburne’s Othello, whose quiet yet confident dignity courteously yet firmly dictates the judgment to be passed upon himself. Speaking with emphatic tones, Fishburne’s delivery establishes Othello as one who views himself as an equal, if not a peer. The juxtaposition of these two portrayals yields contrasting possibilities for the interpretation of Shakespeare’s final scene in Othello; along with the text, it suggests an ultimate duality in the protagonist’s perception of his relationship to different others.
Othello’s murder of Desdemona can, in one sense, be traced to his insecurities about being different in a society of courtly Venetian whites. Tragically, it is only too late that Othello realizes his difference had no diminishing effect on Desdemona’s love for him and should have had no bearing on his love for her. Upon coming to this realization, Othello appeals to the Venetian nobles, “Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate, / Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak / Of one that loved not wisely but too well” (5.2. 351-353). Othello’s capacity to love, albeit too late realized, suggests a certain nobility. At the same time, Othello makes such an appeal because he realizes that others may associate his lack of wiseness with blackness and further associations of baseness and ignoble difference.
While realizing that others may continue to judge, Othello seems to come to terms with his difference. Conscious but no longer self-conscious of his outsider status, Othello compares himself to foreigners; he calls himself “the base Indian, [who] threw a pearl away” (5.2. 356) and one “Albeit unused to the melting mood, / Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees” (5.2. 358-359). Othello further compares his pending suicide to his earlier slaying of “a malignant and a turbaned Turk / [who had] Beat a Venetian and traduced the state” (5.2. 362-362). Paradoxically, Othello is at once an assaulter and defender of the Venetian state. As Desdemona’s murderer, he is like the Turk who transgresses moral and state laws; by taking his own life, however, Othello executes the letter of the law. The latter qualifies him as part of the Venetian circle, even though he is a stranger. Simultaneously victim and victimizer, transgressor and avenger, Othello bears a dual relationship to the world of nobles and courtiers.
An exaggerated portrayal of this duality can be seen though a comparison of Olivier and Fishburne’s renditions of Othello’s suicide. Olivier’s Othello kills himself with a violent defiance – a perhaps desperate attempt to prove that he can match the supposedly higher morality of white men by avenging Desdemona’s death. Implicit is Othello’s conviction that others deem him different and base. In contrast, Fishburne’s Othello takes his own life with a gracious stoicism – as though he were a dignified agent enforcing a law that he stands behind with white others. Implicit is his assumption that he bears a level of moral and other equality matching that of those witnessing his death.
To the very end, Othello is conscious of the criticism and judgement of others. On the one hand, he realizes that some may only see him as a black man who murdered a white woman. By avenging Desdemona’s death upon himself, however, Othello preemptively attempts to counteract such judgments while asserting the purity of his love for Desdemona. Indeed, Othello states that he is the equal of anyone who may dismiss him as a base black man; his suicide contains an implicit acknowledgement and acceptance of the same moral standards that even those supposedly superior to him use to judge acts of violent death – that those who murder should be punished by death.
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