Desdemona's Death

Act 5 Scene 2 – Key Scene

In this scene, Othello goes to Desdemona, convinced she must die. He tells her to pray to God and confess her sins before he kills her. She insists she has done nothing wrong. She denies giving Cassio the handkerchief but Othello assumes she is lying. She pleads for her life but Othello is so convinced by the stories Iago has told him that he won’t listen to her and kills her.

Take a look at an extract from this scene and watch it in performance here. Using the following steps, remember to look at it line by line and, if you’re looking at the scene for the first time, don’t worry if you don’t understand everything at once.

  • Look
    Take a look at the scene. Who has the most lines? Are they using prose or verse? Actors at the RSC often put the language into their own words to help them understand what they are saying. We’ve added some definitions (in green), questions (in red) and paraphrased some sections (in blue) to help with this. You can click on the text that is highlighted for extra guidance.
    Have you prayed tonight, Desdemon?
    Ay, my lord.
    If you bethink yourself of any crime
    Unreconciled as yet to heaven and grace,
    Solicit for it straight.

    If you’ve committed any crime you haven’t asked God to forgive yet, own up to it now.

    Well, do it, and be brief; I will walk by:
    I would not kill thy unpreparèd spirit;
    No - heavens forfend! I would not kill thy soul.

    Why is Othello hesitating to kill her? What does he want to her to do first and why do you think it’s important to him?

    A spirit which has not confessed and been forgiven by God. To kill someone with an unprepared spirit would mean they would go to hell.

    Talk you of killing?
    Ay, I do
    Then heaven
    Have mercy on me!
    Amen, with all my heart!
    If you say so, I hope you will not kill me.
    And yet I fear you: for you’re fatal then
    When your eyes roll so. Why I should fear I know not,
    Since guiltiness I know not; but yet I feel I fear.

    I’m afraid of you right now because you’re dangerous when you get that jealous look in your eyes: I don’t know why I’m afraid because I haven’t done anything wrong: but I am scared.

    Think on thy sins.
    They are loves I bear to you.
    Ay, and for that thou diest.
    That death’s unnatural that kills for loving.
    Alas, why gnaw you so your nether lip?
    Some bloody passion shakes your very frame:
    These are portents, but yet I hope, I hope
    They do not point on me.

    Oh no, why are you chewing on your lip like that? You’re shaking with violent anger: these are all signs of something bad but I really hope it isn’t aimed at me.

    Peace, and be still!
    I will - so. What’s the matter?
    That handkerchief which I so loved and gave thee,
    Thou gav’st to Cassio.

    This is the first time Othello actually tells her what’s wrong. How do you think Desdemona feels in this moment?

    No, by my life and soul!
    Send for the man and ask him.
    Sweet soul, take heed,
    Take heed of perjury: thou art on thy deathbed.

    Perjury is when someone lies in court in front of a judge. Here, Othello is warning Desdemona that she should not tell lies because she’s about to die but it also implies he thinks of himself as her judge.

    (Text edited for rehearsals by Iqbal Khan)
  • Listen
    Read the scene aloud, then watch the actors trying it in different ways and discussing their ideas. Which way feels right? What in the language makes you think that? Are there any words or lines that really stand out?
  • Watch
    Take a look at the actors performing this scene. How do the characters come across in this version?
  • Imagine
    Explore some images from past portrayals of Desdemona and Othello at the RSC. Which sets and staging choices for this last scene feel right to you?