At some points of his life a man has to answer for all his deeds – good or bad. Literature , being an imitation of life, is no exception. I have examined here two literary texts, to analyzed and interpreted such climactic moments. The two texts, the epic Gilgamesh by Shin-eqi-unninni and Shakespeare’s Othello, belong to different cultures and different nations.
Forced by circumstances, the heroes have to face the day of reckoning or judgment.Oxford English Dictionary (online) defines it as, “the day on which the dead shall be raised to be ‘judged of the deeds done in the body’. According to the holy book of the Muslim, every human soul has to render before the Allah or Supreme God an account of his good or bad deeds after death. (The Qur'an 74. 38).
The word “reckoning”, according OED means: “rendering an account of one's life or conduct to God at death or judgement”. It is indeed a moment of self-examination, self-awareness, and self-analysis. It is the business of the poet to show the consequences of past actions; if virtue is rewarded (which is not always the case) we call it poetic justice.When their day of reckoning comes, both Gilgamesh and Othello realize their blunders and collapse. Gilgamesh takes an arduous journey for the vain pursuit of immortality and breaks down after the plant of immortality is eaten up by the serpent: “For whom have I suffered? /I have gained absolutely nothing for myself,” (Tab.
11) Othello, though a man of many heroic virtues, is misled and destroyed because of his gullibility which is best expressed by Desdemona’s maid: “O gull, O dolt,/ as ignorant as dirt! thou hast done a deed -- ” ( 5. 2. 161-62 ) The day of judgment follows Desdemona’s murder.Awakened by Emilia’s confession about the handkerchief, Othello revenges on Iago, asks forgiveness of Cassio and sends the right message to Venetian state.
In the epic the first glimpse of truth comes to Gilgamesh when his lieutenant dies marring the synergy of their joint enterprise. In tablet 9 after Enkidu’s demise Gilgamesh is too upset to live his life normally; he neglects his daily duties and responsibilities, not so much out of grief for his friend, but because of his sudden realization that he too must die – a fact which stares him in the face. He becomes obsessed with the desire for eternal life.And he embarks on a very perilous journey to Utnapishtim and his wife, the only mortals on whom the gods had granted eternal life. The search for immortality also occurs in other religions as well. Lord Buddha had a pragmatic way of dealing with this problem.
When a disciple wished for immortality and avoid death, he asked him calmly to bring a handful of mustard from a house where death never had taken place. The disciple who begins with great enthusiasm was soon forced to realize that death is natural and a universal phenomenon; any search for immortality is nothing but will-o’-the-wisp.In Tablet 11, Gilgamesh talks to Utnapishtim, the Far-Away; about the secret of eternal life; the old man (like Lord Buddha) advises Gilgamesh that death is a necessary fact which everyone should learn to accept and all human efforts can bring only transitory result.With some sympathy from Utnapishtim's wife the old man offers Gilgamesh in lieu of immortality a secret plant that would rejuvenate him in old age. When Gilgamesh sleeps, a snake stealthily eats the magic plant. Gilgamesh wakes up to find that the fruits of his austerity is gone; he falls to his knees and weeps: “For whom have I labored? For whom have I journeyed?For whom have I suffered? ” (Tablet 11) His frustration followed by an awakening can be compared to Othello’s.
The valiant Moor’s mind was poisoned about his most beloved wife’s infidelity. He finally is determined to kill her for the sake of honor. For Othello the day of reckoning comes with his encounter with Emilia who is the only witness to Desdemona’s innocence and how her husband’s “villainy hath made mocks with love. ” (5. 2.
149) and also her “guiltless death” is caused by “honest, honest Iago” (5. 2. 152). Though possessing abundant physical strength, he proves to be mentally weak and confused when the hour of his trial comes.A handkerchief becomes so a convincing proof of Desdemona’s extra-marital affair with Cassio that he does not mind using the most abusive epithets like, “impudent strumpet”(4. 2.
79), “a liar gone to burning hell”(5. 2. 127)and “whore” about his dearest love. Indignant at her master’s crime, Emilia dares to challenge and expose his crime without fear of death.
On the Day of Judgment, Othello emerges as a man whose mental prowess does not match with his physical skill which is even perceived by Emilia who screams, “O thou dull Moor! ”(5. 2. 223)Neither he nor his admirers can defend his manifold impetuous actions. He proves himself to be a poor judge of character – mistaking Iago, the “notorious villain” for “honest, honest Iago” . He also fails to preempt Emilia’s stabbing by Iago.
He is forced to admit: “…every puny whipster gets my sword. / But why should honor outlive honesty? / Let it go all. ” (5. 2.
242-43) Deeply plagued by his own rash judgment and impulsive action, he evinces a mood of resignation to destiny. This is followed by self-pity as he anticipates to go to hell for his sin: “O ill-starred wench!This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,/ and fiends will snatch at it. ” (5. 2. 270-73 ) His mental confusion finds expression in the nature imagery: “Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse/ Of sun and moon, and the affrighted globe should yawn at alteration. ”(5.
2. 98-99) Unable to rectify his gross blunders, he now yields to fatalism: “O vain boast! / Who can control his fate? ” (5. 2. 263-64) All his achievements now have no meaning as he has destroyed his dearest and chaste wife on the basis of imaginary suspicion.The readers and audience are not convinced that his tragedy is brought about by hostile Providence or any other external agency; he himself is responsible for his violent and irrational deeds.
When Desdemona prays for deferring his action of killing to next day, the Moor remains unrelenting. On second thoughts he even cancels the idea of letting her pray before strangling her. Both Gilgamesh and Othello have lived by sword and finally reap the fruit of their needless violence. Gilgamesh, too has his share of dark deeds.He not only oppressed people with his superior power but also is responsible for ecological disaster. He destroys vast cedar forest for making a raft for himself and kills the forest demon.
But he shows neither any awareness of the damage, nor does he repent this thoughtless action. He uses Enkidu to win the battle against his former friend and demon Humbaba the Terrible, the lord of Cedar Forest. After his victory he chops off his head to achieve widespread fame. Though these two literary texts were composed 3600 years apart, their central theme of accountability for one’s action runs like a common thread.
The eternal problem of crime and retribution is also highlighted. About Othello we feel with Emilia: “O murderous coxcomb! What should such a fool/ Do with so good a wife? ” But Othello’s crime is extenuated by his heart-rending repentance, “roast me in sulphur! / Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire! ” Misguided and confused he may be, but he makes the final confession of his motive: “For nought did I in hate, but all in honor. ”(5. 2. 294) In the end the two warriors face their tragedy with due fortitude.