The troubling scene of Desdemona’s death in Act 5 Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s Othello puzzles many actors, directors, and editors. Examining eighteen critical editions of William Shakespeare’s Othello published between 1723 and 2017, I have come across the debate between the footnotes: How did Desdemona die and what does that choice do to Othello and Desdemona’s characters?[1] Depending on the edition of the play, Othello smothers, strangles, and/or stabs Desdemona in a variety of combinations. Scholars using a theater history approach identify a shift in productions also seen in reviews of Othello from the late 1700s to the late 1800s, confirming that there was an ongoing debate on and off stage about how Act 5 Scene 2 should portray Desdemona’s death scene. While I cannot determine if the footnoting tradition impacts the theatrical productions, or if the theatrical productions impacts the footnotes, they begin to appear together late 1700s. Both scholars and my record of footnotes shows that this trend appears to follow the rise of Victorian melodrama in theaters. I argue the vagueness of Desdemona’s death scene allows both textual copies and theatrical productions of Othello to use the scene to define Desdemona as resistant or passive in line with period-specific expectations.

Paradoxically, in Desdemona’s death scene, Shakespeare gives little logistical information about her death. A close reading of the text edited by Edward Pecter in the second Norton Critical Edition of William Shakespeare’s Othello demonstrates the room for interpretation in Act 5 Scene 2.[2] Othello comes across a sleeping Desdemona, confronts her about her alleged adultery and an argument ensues.

OTHELLO. Down, strumpet!

DESDEMONA. Kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight!

OTHELLO. Nay, if you strive-

DESDEMONA. But half an hour!

OTHELLO. Being done, there is no pause.

DESDEMONA. But while I say one prayer!

OTHELLO. It is too late.

Smothers her.

DESDEMONA. O Lord, Lord, Lord!

OTHELLO. What noise is this? Not dead? Not yet quite dead?

I that am cruel am yet merciful; I would not have thee linger in thy pain.

So, so.

(Othello 5.2.80-90)

Othello commands Desdemona to go “down” (Othello 5.2.80). However, following the tradition of most editions, Pecter includes no stage direction to accompany the command. The resulting bargain ensues as Desdemona pleas for more time and Othello denies her request (Othello 5.2.81-90). Desdemona verbally resists Othello, but does not physically resist in the stage directions. Because the scene lacks stage directions, readers have the option to either imagine a physical scene that the text does not support or imagine a scene where Desdemona and Othello do not touch until he smothers her. For such a pivotal moment of the play, Desdemona’s death scene contains few cues for the audience and reader to imagine her death. However, because both options are available in Othello, the play allows for period-specific performances of femininity.

Desdemona’s slow death also leaves the reader with the problem of how to imagine Desdemona’s slowly dying body on stage. Before Emilia enters the room to see Desdemona, Othello debates if Desdemona is “no more moving?/ Still as the grave./…I think she stirs again. No” (Othello 5.2.95-7). As she dies, Othello sees Desdemona’s body in a liminal space of movement and stillness. Even Othello, the person who smothers her, cannot interpret her body. The lines imply Desdemona is lifeless at this point, however she does wake again when Emilia is in the room to respond to Roderigo’s murder with the cry “O falsely, falsely murdered!” (Othello 5.2.120). She then has an exchange with Emilia where she asserts,

DESDEMONA. A guiltless death I die.

EMILIA. O, who hath done this deed?

DESDEMONA. Nobody. I myself. Farewell.

Commend me to my kind lord. O farewell! [She dies.]

OTHELLO. Why, how should she be murdered?

EMILIA. Alas, who knows?

(Othello 5.2.125-9)

Emilia looking on Desdemona’s dead body does not describe how she was murdered. Desdemona can even lie about the manner of her death. Unlike other Shakespearian murders where he details characters’ deaths using the characters’ onstage dialogue, he does not do the same with Desdemona. Further, from the time Othello smothers Desdemona to her death, over forty lines go by in this edition of Othello (Othello 5.2.84-128). As readers and audience members, we know Othello kills Desdemona, we know Othello believes she is dead when Emilia enters the room, and we know Emilia arrives and speaks with Desdemona before she finally dies (Othello 5.2.80-129). In Act 5 Scene 2, Desdemona dies so slowly and subtly, no one on stage can describe what exactly happens. Othello, Emilia, and Desdemona’s vagueness demonstrate that the confusion surrounding the manner of Desdemona’s death originates in the text. Unsurprisingly, editors and directors as well as literary and theater critics all have different interpretations of the scene that comes from the influence of changing conventions in the theater.

Early modern scholarship examines Act 5 Scene 2 to understand the relationship between actor portrayals of the scene and audience reactions to Desdemona’s death. In the chapter “Othello, Theatre Boundaries, and Audience Cognition” Laurie Maguire examines the way characters in Othello cross dramatic boundaries to engage with the audience in liminal spaces (18-19). Maguire argues Othello is a play about the confusion of boundaries between Desdemona as an audience and Othello as an actor, where Desdemona misjudges the distance between her and Othello, resulting in her death (25-7). Expanding on Maguire’s conception of distance, Robert B. Heilman argues Othello acts as a judge who, counter to his desires, kills Desdemona to achieve justice in “Othello Action and Language” (Heilman 153-6). Additionally, James R. Siemon’s article “’Nay, that’s not next’: Othello, V.ii in Performance, 1760-1900” argues that the theater history of stabbing Desdemona seen in the eighteenth and nineteenth century productions of Othello comes from changing notions of “tragedy and femininity” (38). Desdemona’s role as a victim here, changes the stage directions in theaters to both preserve her passivity and Othello’s nobility (Siemon 46, 50). Building on the scholarship examining Desdemona’s death scene from a production history lens, I will turn to the paratextual history seen in range of editions of Othello to expand on the ways these changes can also be seen in the texts of the period. 

By selecting eighteen editions of Othello, published between 1723 and 2017, I can turn to the record of the stage directions and footnotes where the variation in Desdemona’s death scene overtime shows a range of critical explanations. Although most texts list the stage direction as “He smothers her”,[3] some texts use “Smothers her”[4] with variations in punctuation. However, three editions make notable changes to the stage directions. The 1723 edition writes that Othello “[Attempts to smother her.” in order to reference the length of time it takes Desdemona to die after he smothers her (Othello, The Moor of Venice 5.6 page 581).[5] The editor makes no note to explain this change or choice; however, under “Othello” in the “Index of fictitious persons, with the Characters ascrib’d to them” the editor notes Othello “kills Desdemona” confirming that Othello’s smothering leads to her death. A later edition published in 1935 notes “He stifles her” (The New Temple Shakespeare Othello 5.2.87). While stifle can be a synonym for smother, as both terms refer to killing by suffocation the term is less exact and absolute.[6] Once more, this change receives no editorial note or explanation. The word “stifles” also appears in a footnote of the 1757 edition discussing the lighting of the scene where, “Upon this, Desdemona wakes; and they continue in Discourse together till he stifles her” (Othello The Moor of Venice 328). In the 1843 edition, the footnote also mentions Othello “stifled or smothered Desdemona” in Act 5 Scene 2 (Othello. The Moor of Venice 618). Notably, half of the 1700s editions, both before 1760, change the stage directions rather than footnote the theater history. Following the ambiguity of the initial texts, stage directions move from making no changes at all to making small changes to the scene to improve the legibility of Desdemona’s death and her performance of femininity for audiences.

 One text, however, dramatically diverges from the tradition of making small changes to Desdemona’s death, by electing to give Desdemona agency in the stage directions. The 2016 edition has the largest variation from my sample. The text describes an explicit murder where Desdemona resists in the stage direction.

OTHELLO. Down, strumpet!

[He attacks her.]

DESDEMONA. [struggling] Kill me tomorrow…

[He] smothers her.

(Othello 5.2.79-80, 83.5)

Desdemona’s struggle to survive is clear to readers. Remarkably, although Clare McManus’ textual introduction notes “Othello’suncertain textual history shows the fluid process by which a play moved between stage and printed page”, she offers no explicit explanation about the choices they make with Desdemona’s death scene (2081-2). The editors of the 2016 edition show the way feminist ideals in the 2000s give Desdemona more agency in her death scene through resistance.[7] The variation in the scene reflects the way a modern edition can change the altercation between Othello and Desdemona in Act 5 Scene 2 to give Desdemona room to fight back.

Early modern scholars address the way an edition or production portrays Desdemona’s death scene in Othello can impact audience reception. Maguire specifically argues Desdemona crosses theatrical boundaries and is unable to separate the audience and actor in the play (23-24). She notes “spectators need to be sufficiently distanced to know they are at a play—they must not ‘run on stage to stop Othello from strangling Desdemona’—but not so distanced that they lose empathy” (Maguire 25). When discussing the dangers of misjudging the distance between audience and actors, she specifically cites an 1822 performance where the actor portraying Othello was killed during Desdemona’s death scene (Maguire 27). I will use Maguire’s conception of the confusion of boundaries in Othello to examine the footnotes, theater history, and reviews on the choice to stab, strangle, and/or suffocate Desdemona in Act 5 Scene 2. Given the variability of the scene and the range of audience and reader reactions to Desdemona’s death, the actors blocking in the scene either correctly or incorrectly judges the amount of distance the play needs to create between the actors and the audience in the period when they decide how Desdemona should die in the production or edition of Othello.

The distance between audience and actors is visible in the footnotes that explain the performance history of Othello’s Act 5 Scene 2. Using an Excel Pivotable of the data collected from the eighteen editions of Othello, I recorded the mentions of stabbing versus additional strangling or suffocating in the footnotes of the text. In my sample, eight of the eighteen texts also contain mentions of additional strangling or suffocating after the initial suffocation in the footnotes. Although these are different from the eight in the stabbing sample, overall, the proportion is the same. The data has the same proportions for the 1700s sample and the 1900s sample. The data differs, however, in the 1800s sample, where three of the eight texts contain mentions of additional strangling or suffocating, and the 2000s sample where all three texts mention Othello strangling or suffocating Desdemona another time. In my sample, eight of the eighteen texts also contain mentions of stabbing. Between 1723 and 1798, only one of the four texts contain mentions of stabbing Desdemona, with the one exception being the 1790 edition. Between 1803 to 1874, five of the eight texts contain mentions of stabbing. While this is my largest sample size, there is also the most evidence of a tradition of including stabbing in the footnotes of the death scene. The data indicates a shift in the late 1790s that makes Desdemona’s death more visible to the audience through implied stage directions seen in the footnotes of critical editions of Othello.  

In the texts I examined, the tradition of stabbing, strangling, and/or suffocating Desdemona in the footnotes of Othello begins in 1790 with a footnote from George Steevens.[8] Markedly, the 1857 edition cites Steevens, but there is no mention of additional stabbing, strangling or smothering, so either the popularity of Steevens’ argument in Act 5 Scene 2 falls out of favor by 1857 or this edition decided not to include his insight on the scene. The last text to explicitly quote Steevens is the 1830 edition. In my sample, six of the eighteen texts contain mentions of a combination of stabbing, strangling, and suffocating Desdemona. Interestingly, three of the six texts cite Steevens in the footnote. For example, the 1803 notes:

It cannot be supposed that a person who had been effectually strangled or smothered, could speak again; for if the power of breathing returned after the instrument of suffocation was removed, no act of violence had in reality taken place by which the conclusion of life could be brought on. But such is the peculiar fate of Desdemona, that she is supposed to be smothered, revives to acquaint us that she smothered herself, and then dies without any ostensible cause of death. I am of opinion that some theatrical direction has been omitted; and that when Othello says–…’So,so.’ He then stabs her, repeating the two last words as he repeats the blow…After the repetition of wounds, Desdemona might speak again, with propriety, and yet very soon expire… Steevens. (Steevens 500-501)

Steevens argues Desdemona’s death scene in Othello is so absurd, it must omit stage directions. Instead, he introduces the idea that Othello stabs Desdemona twice after he “strangles” or “smothers” her (Steevens 500). Notably, the tradition in stage direction is to simply “smother” Desdemona, so Steevens also introduces the option of strangulation in his footnote. Future editions even address Steevens’s interpretation in their notes. The 1843 text objects to Steevens’s interpretation and the 2017 text cites “’So, so: ‘In the eighteenth century it became the custom to finish Desdemona off’ here with a dagger. ‘Modern Othellos have tended to respect Othello’s intention of not scarring her, and have strangled her at ‘So, so’” (Othello 113). Due to a limited sample size, I can only say that Steevens was popularly cited in the 1800s and he explains the stage tradition of Desdemona’s death in the footnotes of Othello from 1790 to 1843. Additionally, Steevens’s intervention in Othello appears to inform scholars in the 1900s and 2000s. The option to have Othello stab Desdemona changes the dynamics of the death scene as it becomes obvious for audiences.

Steevens’ intervention in the stage direction of the texts provides the evidence that leads some scholars to argue Othello is a merciful figure. Heilman argues Othello kills Desdemona “in a fury of revenge—but only after a late failure to maintain the form of judicial procedure” (158). The balance between the judicious Othello who explains his actions and the passionate killer who swiftly murders his wife changes the portrayal of the character in the play (Heilman 155-8).  Although Heilman does not note the variation in the stage direction of Desdemona’s death scene, he articulates the ways Othello’s speech and actions in the scene reveal either judicial or violent parts of his character. The argument reflects the pattern in the performances and critical editions that, according to the measures of justice in the period of the play’s release, both Othello and Desdemona’s actions change.The variations in stage direction Steevens’ advocates for in the footnotes and Heilman notes in his article supports the idea that stage direction Act 5 Scene 2 reveal Desdemona as a figure that reflects audience expectations.

Theater historian James R. Siemon’s work confirms the evidence I find in the footnotes of critical editions of Othello. He argues the changes made to Othello in the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century performances of Act 5 Scene 2 deal with the objections to the details of violence in the final scene based on the feminine ideal at the time (Siemon 38-9).[9] Siemon’s research also shows earlier depictions in 1725 began to substitute an actor’s bare hands for the use of a pillow with notable exceptions (46). To further obscure Desdemona’s death, productions also close bed curtains before the scene (Siemon 46). He argues “the agreement among performers concerning Desdemona’s passivity is striking” (Siemon 43). Although in 1861 a production staged Desdemona escaping, Simons explains the trend did not catch on in many theaters due to a lack of feminine “tragic decorum” (Siemon 43). He argues Desdemona’s distress in the 1700s and 1800s is appealing to audiences and her passivity is popular (Siemon 43-4). Siemon links Desdemona’s portrayal to Nina Auerbach’s explanation of “prone womanhood” in the Victorian period (44-5). Using Siemon’s conception of Victorian feminine passivity contextualizes the trends I find in my research into both the footnotes and critical reviews written in the period. 

Indeed, in the 1861 edition of Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, the section “Shakspeare, and His Latest Stage Interpreters,” heavily critiques Mr. Fechter’s edition of Othello for its overuse of stage directions in his Acting Edition (777-8). The reviewer notes,

According to his book, for example, Desdemona springs out of bed, and makes repeated attempts to escape. Othello ‘whirls his sword over her head, and she falls to the ground as if struck by lightning of his blade.’ Again she makes for the door, ‘but he stops her passage, carries her to the bed, on which he throws her; then stifles her cries with the pillow,’ &c. (“Shakspeare, and His Latest Stage Interpreters” 783)

 The reviewer objects to the violence of the scene and questions “Why should Desdemona spring out of bed, to be brutally thrust back into it? Why drag into prominence the physical parts of the tragedy? Why divest it of its vague horror which always attends a deed of death, suggested rather than seen? This is not tragedy. It is melodrama, and melodrama of the coarsest kind” (“Shakspeare, and His Latest Stage Interpreters” 783). The reviewer admits that Mr. Fechter’s edition was both popular and praised and so they were providing a public service by pointing out the flaws in the edition (“Shakspeare, and His Latest Stage Interpreters” 786). While the critique is particularly harsh, it does support Siemon’s argument that productions in the 1800s did not favor a Desdemona who actively fights back.

Interestingly, both the reviewer in “Shakspeare, and His Latest Stage Interpreters” and Simon calls upon the theatrical tradition of Victorian melodrama. Michael Gilmour’s survey of criticism, “Victorian Melodrama” contextualizes the work done in the field of melodrama studies to understand the theatrical and literary tradition that emerges after the French revolution in the 1790s (344-5). He explains where tragedies focus on depictions of internal struggles, melodramas focus on the external struggles (Gilmour 345). Othello stabbing Desdemona makes her death visibly external, as any ambiguity around the manner of her death disappears with the addition of a dagger and blood on stage. In my data, the first footnote that mentions stabbing occurs in the 1790s, during the rise of the melodrama. Additionally, Gilmour notes from 1843 to 1968 British “plays had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s office for pre-production approval” (351). Markedly, the last time an editor notes the option to stab Desdemona is in an 1843 edition of the text. Although the 1874 edition does mention “When Othello says, ‘So, so,’ he then stabs her” (Othello, The Moor of Venice 1059), the 1854, 1857, 1864, 1935, and 1939 editions of Othello do not contain any additional stage directions. Although this could be a coincidence in my sample, it is an interesting pattern to note due to the way the data maps on the tightening of regulations in England. However, if the rise of the Victorian melodrama impacted what audiences expected from the theater, then the addition of melodramatic stage directions in Othello could portray Desdemona as appropriately passive and deliver a dramatic conclusion to her life with a stabbing.

Siemon specifically explores the way the use of stabbing in stage productions of Act 5 Scene 2 rose in popularity from the late 1700s to the late 1800s during the period of the Victorian melodrama. From the 1770s until the 1880s, Siemon notes, “the dagger is chosen as the appropriate way to finish off Desdemona” (46). He also argues the use of a dagger is “a less physical, more decorous” way of resolving the death scene and fixes “the audience attention on Othello and his agonized sensibilities” (Siemon 47).  Ultimately, Siemon argues, the use of the dagger obscures Desdemona’s murder and centers the audience attention and sympathy on Othello as a character (47-8). He even notes “after smothering her with a pillow, or using bed curtains to block view of his victim during the act, Othello’s noble concern for her and the press of necessity force him to use a dagger to finish the deed” (Siemon 50). In this way, Othello’s pain becomes noble, sacrificial, and central to the play. Desdemona, then, becomes a tragic, sacrificial figure who passively advances Othello’s character development.

The trend to stab Desdemona in the period of the Victorian melodrama is also apparent in articles discussing the scene published during the period. On December 7, 1861, in“Country Theatricals” from Provencial Correspondents a Bradford reviewer notes, “Among other improvements, the business of the last scene will be entirely remodelled, Othello stabbing Desdemona, and eventually smothering himself with her pillow” (120). Although it is hard to say if this is a satirical comment, the article does mention Othello stabbing Desdemona as a part of the play. It is important to note, there are other reviews of Othello that note Desdemona’s death where she is just strangled in an 1822 staging of the play in Paris by English players. In the turbulent performance the reviewer E. notes “Desdemona was put into bed, and smothered amidst roars of laughter… and the curtain finally fell down upon a scene of national disgrace, unparalleled, I hope in the history of the stage” (264). So, although the choice for stabbing Desdemona is available to the actors in the 1800s, some productions still choose to strangle or smother Desdemona. The reviews provide additional evidence staging Othello stabbing Desdemona to maintain his nobility and her passivity is a choice individual productions of the play can make.

Further, by the late 1880s periodicals indicate the debate surrounding Desdemona’s death even sparks medical interest. In an 1886 copy of Medical News from American Periodicals, the article “The Death of Desdemona” explains the medical investigation and debate regarding Desdemona’s death scene. The article proclaims, “Of all of the medical situations conceived by Shakespeare, that of the death of Desdemona seems to us the least happy on its scientific aspects” (“The Death of Desdemona” 489). “The Death of Desdemona” quotes doctors who are wrestling with the scene’s inconsistencies and cannot agree on how Desdemona dies in the play. The article also notes “Dr. Mitchell holds that with ‘So! So!’ Othello should ‘throttle Desdemona fiercely, again and again.’ It appears to be the stage tradition that Othello, to make sure, uses the dagger, but if so, he must seem to be governed by a sudden impulse…” (“The Death of Desdemona” 490). The article presents the dual theories of suffocation versus stabbing to “the symposium of experts” who believe either is possible (“The Death of Desdemona” 490). In the conclusion, the article notes, “Shakespeare was more concerned to obtain a dramatic effect than to be true to the scientific aspects of death by suffocation” (“The Death of Desdemona” 490).[10] Nonetheless, the article demonstrates that stabbing Desdemona on stage was seen as one of three options to solve Shakespeare’s medical issues in “The Death of Desdemona”—a phrase that both centers Desdemona as a tragic figure and erases Othello as the perpetrator of the murder.

Another instance of Desdemona’s staged stabbing in the Drama section of an 1881 The Anthenaeum. The Lyceum Theatre’s production of Othello was deemed “not a success” (“The Week”141).

The first folio is so sparing of stage directions, that there need be no surprise none accompanies these words. That Othello makes as he utters them a fresh attempt upon the life of Desdemona, which, as the result proves, is not immediately successful, is obvious. Mr. Booth [playing Othello] while uttering the words, ‘so, so,’ stabs Desdemona with his dagger. No satisfactory reason can be given for this. ‘So’ was a common accompaniment of a stab. It was, however, no less common as the accompaniment of a blow or any vehement action. A fresh pressure upon the pillows is all that is required. That Othello in his rage may forget his determination not to shed the blood of his wife is conceivable. If he had done this, however, and had stabbed her, some reference to the would and its consequences would surely have been made by Othello, Emilia or some other. (“The Week”141)

The reviewer recognizes the stabbing in the play and is unsatisfied with the dramatic choice in 1881. Instead of explaining the tradition of stabbing in the theater the reviewer looks back to Othello and reads the inconsistencies between the actions and the text. The reviewer is arguing against the editorial or theatrical edition of the text where Othello also stabs Desdemona to ensure her death.

Additionally, in an 1880 staging of the play in Paris, Desdemona is stabbed and then smothered. The reviewer, Dutton Cook, notes in the folios the stage directions instruct Othello to smother his wife and in the theatrical tradition on “So, so,” Othello “has usually plied his dagger in completion of the murder. Mr Charles Knight wrote as to this: ‘It is most probable that the poet intended Othello to stab Desdemona according to the practice of the modern stage…’” (Cook 213). However, “one curious novelty” of this production flips the action and the reviewer does not know if the innovation comes from the players, the French translator, or the manager (Cook 213). The description notes the theatrical tradition and the ingenious use of stabbing in a French staging of the play.

Modern productions, however, appear to show the need to stab Desdemona diminishes. Robert C. Evans’ article “Killing Desdemona: Possible Feminist Responses to the Death Scene in Shakespeare’s Othello” catalogues film versions of Desdemona’s death scene in the 1900s. Evans examines six films from 1922 to 1995 from a feminist perspective. By looking at Desdemona’s response to Othello’s violence, Evans explains the transition from Desdemona as a passive victim to active fighter across the selected films. He also notes in all six versions, Desdemona was either smothered with a pillow, strangled with Othello’s hands, or murdered with a combination of the two. Although footnoted versions of Othello recognize the option to play the scene with the addition of a blade that stabs Desdemona, none of Evans’ select films depict a stabbing. Instead, the films favor a more romantic or tragic death where Desdemona loses her breath and life. Likely, the trend Evans describes aligns with Siemon’s argument that theatrical performances moved away from interpretive stagings and back to a “close study of relatively reliable Shakespearian texts” and so they revert back to strangling Desdemona (Siemon 51). From 1935 to 1973, of the three texts I examined, only one copy, the 1973 edition, contained mention of stabbing. After this examination, one can see the instinct then, to stab Desdemona, becomes a debate by the 1900s that carries into the 2000s.

Modern depictions of Desdemona’s death scene deal with the debate surrounding how to portray the murder on stage. In my sample, between 2005 to 2017, only one of the three texts, the 2017 edition, contained mention of stabbing Desdemona. In Page Martin Reynolds’ 2014 article “Performing Death and Desire in Othello,” she explores the way this trend can also be seen in the performance methodologies she brings to her depiction of Desdemona. She specifically examines the actress’s role as a dead object form in Othello. Reynolds also explores the tradition of Desdemona’s death in the play where “the script suggests the repeated mishandling of her corpse. After the initial smothering, for instance, Othello immediately assaults Desdemona’s body again when he thinks she is still alive and suffering” (Reynolds 4). Further, she notes “though many choices are possible to punctuate the ‘so, so’—stabbing, suffocating, strangling—currently the line read as a cue for some kind of physical action” (Reynolds 4). As the actress on stage, Reynolds processes the emotional realities both receiving Othello’s violence and then enacting an agentless dead body onstage for the elongated scene (Reynolds 5). Currently, Desdemona’s death scene must negotiate past interpretations with modern sensibilities to properly judge the distance between audience and actors. 

Over time, the way editors footnote Desdemona’s death scene has developed alongside the theater history of the show to appeal to reader and audience sensibilities. Each period must negotiate the vague boundaries in Act 5 Scene 2 to portray the right kind of conflict that results in Desdemona’s death. Her resistance in stage directions appears in many eras, however audience reception changes based on the period’s perception of staged femininity. It appears that once a trend of using additional stage directions in the scene enters the discourse, the option remains open to future editions of Othello. However, the interpreter must rationalize the troubling death of Desdemona with the intended audience who will watch or read it.

[1] My editions of Othello come from three sources: Georgetown University’s Booth Family Center for Special Collections (the 1723, 1757, 1790, 1798, 1826, 1830, 1843, 1857, 1864, 1935, and 1939 editions), Georgetown University’s Langer Library (the 1854, 1973, and 2005 editions), my personal library (the 2016 and 2017 editions), (the 1874 edition), and (the 1803 edition).

[2] The 2017 text serves as a baseline because it is both the most recent edition of Othello I work with and makes no major changes to the structure of the scene.

[3] The 1757, 1790, 1798, 1803, 1826, 1830, 1843, 1854, 1857, 1874, 1973, and 2005 editions of Othello.

[4] The 1864, 1935, 1939, and 2017 editions of Othello.

[5] For versions of Othello that do not have line numbers, I have included the page numbers as well.

[6] The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines stifle as “To kill by stopping respiration; to kill or deprive of consciousness (a person or animal) by covering the mouth and nose, by depriving of pure air or by introducing an irrespirable vapour into the throat and lungs; to suffocate” (“stifle, v.1.”). Comparatively, definition of smothers is “To suffocate by the prevention of breathing; to deprive of life by suffocation” (“smother, v.I.1.b.”). Another definition of smother is “To be suffocated or stifled; to be prevented from breathing freely by smoke or other means” (“smother, II.8.”). The definitions for stifle and smother are in use from the 1500s through to today.

[7] The stage directions in the 2016 edition appear to match the performance of Othello by the National Theatre of Britain in 2019. The actress playing Desdemona walks toward Othello who throws her back down on the bed twice before Othello attacks her and she resists and fights back (2:31:18-24, 2:31:55-2:32:45).

[8] Although some of the texts do not contain the scholars full name or a complete citation, the 1803 edition available on HathiTrust list his name as George Steevens and The Online Books Page indicates he lived from 1736-1800.

[9] He also explains that Act 5 Scene 2 presents several challenges for stage direction, from deciding the position of the bed, to the lighting in the scene, to the visibility of Desdemona’s death scene (Siemon 40-2).

[10] Although they largely agree Shakespeare lacks the proper medical knowledge to accurately stage a death scene, the article confidently notes “Desdemona is represented as one of a type by no means uncommon in our day. She is one of the nervous—the hysterical group—impressionable, and having physical attributes in harmony with her mental and moral organization” (490). Ultimately, they believe Shakespeare captures Desdemona’s hysteria properly even if he fails to understand the medical signs of strangulation.