In Othello Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists used language to establish and build dramatic atmosphere, to define time, place and character. But in Othello, language is not simply the medium by which the drama is conveyed: in this play language is action. Othello ‘falls’ because he believes a man whose every utterance Is deceptive. When the hero is taken in by false words, tragedy is the result. The play shows us the power of words; we watch as characters construct their own and others’ identities through language, and exert power either by speaking, remaining silent or silencing others.
Verse and prose Othello is written in blank verse and prose. Blank verse consists of unrushed iambic pentameters, with five stressed syllables and five unstressed syllables to each line. Shakespeare uses this traditional form flexibly, however, varying the pace of his writing to achieve specific effects. He also creates specific Idioms for each of his characters. If we look at the language of Othello and Ago we can see how the dramatist creates not only character, but also the theme of opposition which is central to the play. From his opening speeches In Act I, Scenes 2 and 3 It is clear that
Othello characteristic Idiom Is dignified, measured blank verse. This Is appropriate, given his status in the play. His use of blank verse also helps establish his heroism. In Shakespeare plays, verse is usually used to indicate strong feeling or emotion. Characters of high rank and position speak in verse which sounds dignified. A servant or low-class character who usually speaks in prose Is often made to speak In verse as a mark of respect, when speaking to his master or superior. Such a character also speaks in verse when he or she is moved by strong passion.
On the other hand, person belonging to a high rank or position speaks in prose when he speaks to his servant or too subordinate person. When Othello is in a state of mental chaos, he speaks In prose. For, In Shakespeare prose Is used for Incoherent language of madness frenzy and mental paralysis. Desman turns to prose when she talks in a playful mood with Ago, but she uses verse in her pleading colloquy (conversation) with Ago. Ago speaks naturally and normally In prose. But, we should remember that he Is playing an Important role throughout the inure play.
So, there Is a distinct purpose in every change in his speeches. Prose and verse coincide with and expose the subtle changes in his mood. When Ago is Jocular, simple and “honest Ago,” he speaks in quick prose. But when he Is feigning honest indignation or expressing real hatred, he Is an emotional being and hence, all his soliloquy are In verse. In his soliloquies he hatches the successive steps or exalts in their success. At his first entry in the beginning of the play, he is seething with anger because Othello has ejected him and chosen Cassia as his lieutenant. This seems to be the real Ago speaking from the heart.
His hatred of Cassia Jets out In spasms of Indignant rhetoric. Verse can only be the medium of such an expression. It Is not until Barbarian also loses his temper that Ago regains his self-control. Then outwardly once again he is the mocker indignation, and verse is the proper medium for his speech now. At the end of the Council Chamber scene he is left alone with Ordering. Again, the mark is on and he speaks a flippant supple prose, until Ordering leaves him. Then once more he is left alone, and his real emotion breaks out in powerful passionate verse, as the idea of his plot begins to grow.
It is the language of conscious superiority to his credulous cities. But, when in the Fourth Act Othello uses the prose of frenzy, Ago also adopts with him prose. With superior persons he uses verse. When he addresses Montana in the brawl scene he uses verse. In the same scene he talks prose in familiar talk with Cassia. Cassia is a lyrical character and hence he speaks verse habitually. But, in familiar talk with Ago in the drinking bout in the third scene of the Second Act, and in the contemptuous talk about Bianca in the first scene of the Fourth Act, he drops to prose.
The prose-character of Ago inspires Cassia’s anguished prose loquat with Ago in the third scene of the Second Act, where he laments about his lost reputation. Emilie is seen in company with her mistress, Desman, her master, Othello, and her husband, Ago. She is on deferential terms with them all. Hence she uses verse. She falls into prose only once, in the cynical confession of her last confidential talk with Desman. The Clown is a comic character and so he speaks in prose. The herald announcing the proclamation in the second scene of the Second Act uses prose.
The sailor in the presence of the Venetian senate uses the ceremonial language of verse in deference. Bianca is a low-class woman and uses prose normally. But in her wishful pleading with Cassia she passes to verse. The Duke and the senators are noble men and they use verse regularly. Of course, there is one exception. When the Duke turns from the affair of Othello marriage to the urgent business of the state, he slips into prose. Thus, the matter-of-fact dry realistic situation induces the adoption of prose. Shakespeare, thus, has followed a definite method in using prose and verse for the speeches of different characters in his play.
The use of prose or verse depends sometimes on the rank and position of the harassers, sometimes on the emotions expressed by them and sometimes on the situations in which the utterances are made. Thinking about your interpretation of the play, find significant instances where prose is being used. Othello Othello speaks clearly and purposefully. His authority comes across in these lines, and there is a sense of both danger and beauty – entirely appropriate to the speaker – in his references to ‘bright swords’ and ‘dew. ‘ We are immediately aware that the hero is an impressive character and a powerful speaker.
This power is reinforced in he next scene when Othello uses words not Just to defend his elopement with Desman, but also to enable him to keep her; if he does not speak convincingly the ‘bloody book of law’ (1. 3. 68) may deprive him of his wife. Desman acknowledges her husband’s rhetorical power when she enters. We already know that she was seduced by his storytelling; now we discover that she uses the same dignified and purposeful idiom that he employs. Through their shared speech patterns Shakespeare conveys the harmony and mutual affection of Othello and Adhesion’s match; the lovers are as Ago expresses it Well tuned’ (11. . 98) at this point. Each of Othello long speeches in this scene could be compared to a poem, expressing the nobility and romance we come to associate with the tragic protagonist. Many critics we focus on the protagonist’s experiences of love in this play. But Othello does not just speak of his love poetically; he also speaks of his glorious career as a soldier in the same vein, thus establishing himself as a great military man. The orderliness of his verse suggests not Just his confidence, but also the fact that we, and the senate are wise to trust his composure and reason.
Linked to this, Othello reference to and ride in his ‘estimation’ (1. 3. 275), also help to convey a sense of the hero’s worth; while also suggesting that the way in which you are perceived by others – your reputation – is going to be an important theme in this play. When Othello begins to see himself and his wife through Lagos eyes and is corrupted by Lagos idiom, his stately style begins to break down. At his lowest point, Just before he falls to the ground in an epileptic fit, Othello words convey his agitation: Lie with her! Lie on her!
We say lie on her, when they belie her. Lie with her! That’s fulsome. –Handkerchief–confessions–handkerchief! –To infers, and be hanged for his labor;–first, to be hanged, and then to confess. –l tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shake me thus. Fish! Noses, ears, and lips. –last devil! -? (IV. I . 35-41) There are a number of points to be made about this breakdown. Firstly, Othello fractured sense of self is conveyed through the lexis and syntax.
Previously the hero spoke of himself in the first and third person (their usage conveyed his nobility and status as hero); now his use of pronouns We’, they, ‘his’, ‘l’, ‘me’ suggests insecurity. His use of questions suggests this too. Othello identity is threatened because he no longer feels he ‘knows’ his wife; he cannot trust her looks and words. There is a terrible irony in the fact that Othello declares ‘It is not words that shake me thus’; the events of the play and the violence of his outburst here suggest that words are the cause of Othello destruction.
Note the use of disjointed prose rather than measured verse: reason has given way to passion. Othello has also begun to use oaths (zounds! ‘) which are associated with Ago, suggesting not only the ensign’s power as a speaker, but also is ability to influence and control the powers of speech of others. Right at the end of this speech we struggle to make any sense of Othello words (Fish! Noses, ears and lips. 1st possible? / Confess? Handkerchief? O devil! ‘). These lines suggest the hero’s degradation and degeneration. From this point on Othello and Desman struggle to understand one another’s use of language.
The break-up of their marital harmony is conveyed through the disruption in the lines and Othello measured calm gives way to verbal bullying (see 111. 4. 80-98). This pattern mirrors the disrupted lines of Act Ill Scene 3 when Ago first started to poison Othello mind. Desman later says, ‘l understand a fury in your words / But not the words’ (IV. 2. 32-3). By this point he misconstrues everything she says: DESMAN: Alas, what ignorant sin have I committed? OTHELLO: Was this fair paper, this most goodly book, Committed! O thou public commoner! (IV. 2. 1-4) Eventually, unable to comprehend his wife’s honesty, failing to see that her words should be taken at face value, Othello smothers and silences Desman. When confronted with the truth he then recovers, returning to the majestic idiom of his earlier speeches at the end of Act V. His final speech echoes his first speech to the senate, but Othello no longer speaks of himself as a worthy hero only. Now he compares himself to the base Indian’ and the circumcised dog’ (V. 2. 345 and 353), his words and syntax recall former glories, but also point towards the ‘bloody period’ of the hero’s death (V. . 354). Ago Language is the source of Lagos power too, but his characteristic idiom is very different. It is full of compounds, colloquialisms and oaths, befitting a bluff soldier. But Lagos use of language is more complicated than this. We quickly notice that the Lillian slips between prose and verse, adapting his style to suit his different audiences and purposes. The blunt, persuasive and lucid prose of his exchanges with Ordering conveys Lagos base nature, but the ensign also makes use of a loftier style too, as in his parody of Othello idiom in Act Ill Scene 3 (lines 465-72).
This speech is an example of Lagos power: he can manipulate his style effortlessly. Most worryingly for the audience, Othello begins to use the villain’s base idiom when he decides to revenge himself on Desman, showing his lack of Judgment and Sagas increasing authority over him. Gags heavy use of asides also reveals his cunning, destructive power; he is able to not only direct but also to comment on the action of the play. His use of soliloquy reinforces his power. Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists used this artificial theatrical convention to evoke the inwardness of their characters, to show what they think and feel.
Soliloquies are also used to convey information and for particular dramatic effect. In Othello the evil ensign speaks his soliloquies first (Toeholds soliloquies occur towards the end of the play), drawing the audience in as he outlines his intentions and ideas. Because we know exactly what his plans are, we might feel that Shakespeare forces us to collude with the villain in some way: Ago is so clever and such an impressive actor. Lagos soliloquies and asides are also a source of a great deal of the dramatic irony of Othello, which increases dramatic tension for the audience.
Finally, Ago is also able to manipulate his silences, as in Act Ill Scene 3 when he deliberately introduces ‘stops’ (111. 3. 123) to infuriate and intrigue Othello. By faking a reluctance to talk he gains the opportunity to speak at length. At the end of the play Lagos defiant and deliberate silence can me suggestive of continued power (the villain refuses to reveal his motives and admit remorse) or power thwarted; he no longer has the ability to sway others with his words and has perhaps been silenced, like his victim Desman.
It is both ironic and appropriate that Ago is unmasked by his wife, whose silence he has taken for granted and whose powers of speech he has not taken into account. This discussion of the hero’s and villain’s contrasting idioms might be extended; each of the characters in Othello has his or her own style. For example, Cassia’s speech is gallant and courtly, Amelia’s salty and down-to-earth. The different Voices’ and styles in Othello are an important part of the plays power to hold and move the audience.
Another very important part of the linguistic power of the play is Shakespearean use Imagery The purpose of Shakespearean use of imagery in Othello is to establish the dramatic atmosphere of the play. It also informs our understanding of characters and events. Figurative language and linguistic patterns can help to reinforce the themes and ideas that the dramatist wishes to explore. Some key images are discussed below. Poisoning There are a number of images of poisoning, which we come to associate with Ago ND his methods of manipulation. In Act I Scene 1 the ensign says that he wants to ‘poison his [Birdbrains] delight’ (1. . 68) so that he can make trouble for Othello. In the following act we learn that Lagos Jealousy of the Moor is so strong that it ‘Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw in my inwards’ (11. 1. 295); so the ensign resolves to ‘pour this pestilence into his ear’ (11. 3. 351) and destroy Othello ‘sweet sleep’ (11. 3. 335). These references to poison are appropriate to Ago, whose actions are swift, insidious and deadly. Ago relishes the pain he causes, as we can see from his description of his ethos in Act Ill Scene 3: Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons.
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste, But with a little act upon the blood. Burn like the mines of Sulfur. (111. 3. 329032). In the same scene Othello describes how he feels tortured by Jealousy, using images that recall Lagos words, ‘If there be cords or knives, / Poison, or fire, or suffocating streams, / I’ll not endure it. Would I were satisfied! ‘ (111. 3. 391-3). The most chilling reference to poison comes in Act IV Scene 1 when Othello decides to murder Desman: OTHELLO: Get me some poison, Ago; this night: I’ll not expostulate with her, lest her body and beauty unproved my mind again: this night, Ago.
AGO: Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated. (IV. I . 201-5). His mind poisoned with foul thoughts, he hero now seeks to kill his wife in the bed that he thinks she has contaminated, poisoned with her lust. It is particularly ghastly that the real poisoned (Ago) suggests the method of killing Desman. Hell and the Devil Ago is also associated with images of hell and the devil. He forges the link himself at the end of soliloquy in Act I Scene 3. Outlining his evil intentions he says, ‘Hell and eight / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light’ (1. . 402-3). Later there is the oxymoron, ‘Divinity of hell! ‘ followed by these lines: When devils will the blackest sins put on, They do suggest at first with heavenly shows, AS I do now (11. 3. 345-8). There is delight in these lines, a revealing in evil and deception. Ago also describes Othello as ‘a devil’ (1. 1. 90), but in this context this seems to be a racial slur rather than a comment on Othello character; elsewhere the ensign comments on the Moor’s natural goodness, which makes his work easier. Sagas hellish designs succeed in reek vengeance on her ‘by yond marble heaven’ (111. . 463), convincing himself that she is damned and must be stopped in her life of sign. In Act IV Scene 2 Othello attempts to wring an admission of guilt from Desman: Come, swear it, damn thyself Lest, being like one of heaven, the devils themselves Should fear to seize thee (IV. 2. 36-8) In this image we see the enormity of Adhesion’s crime from Othello point of view. As he leaves in disgust, having failed to secure the confession he sought, Othello turns to Emilie and accuses her too; she ‘keeps the gates of hell’ for his wife (IV. 2. 94).
Emilie turns these words on Othello in the final scene when she discovers Adhesion’s murder; thou art a devil’ she rages, the blacker devil’ (V. 2. 131 and 129). But it is of course Ago who is revealed as the true devil in this scene, where he is rightfully described as a ‘deem-devil’ and ‘hellish villain’ (V. 2. 298 and 366). Animals and insects There are numerous references to animals and insects which chart Othello downfall. In Lagos mouth this imagery is reductive and negative. Several images suggest how much the villain despises his victims. In Act I Scene 1 he sets out with Ordering to ‘Plague him [Abrogation] with flies’ (1. . 0). When he describes Othello match with Desman he uses crude animal imagery, ‘an old black ram / Is tipping with your white ewe’ to inform the senator (1. 1. 87-8); his daughter has been ‘covered’ with ‘a Barbara horse’ (1. 1. 110); the couple are ‘making the beast with two backs’ (l. 1. 115). Othello is an object of scorn too. Ago is confident that the general will tenderly be led by tone’s / As asses are’ (1. 3. 400-1), and made ‘egregiously an ass’ (II. 1. 307). He is sure that Cassia can be humiliated too; With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassia’ (11. 1 . 168-9) he gloats.
Othello is infected by this imagery and begins to speak in the same terms. But the animal imagery in Othello speeches reveals the hero’s misery, rather than sneering triumph. In Act Ill Scene 3 he says: I had rather be a toad And live upon this vapor of a dungeon Than keep a corner in a thing I love For others’ uses (111. 3. 274-7) This image is repeated in Act IV Scene 2 when Othello describes his sorrow at ‘losing the innocent Desman he loved so much: But there where I have garnered up my heart, Where either I must live or bear no life, The fountain from which my current runs Or else dries up – to be discarded thence!
Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads To knot and gender in! (IV. 2. 58-63) The hero is mortified by corruption. Ago keeps Othello on the rack with images of bestial lust; when the Moor demands proof of his suspicions he replies sharply: What shall I say? Where’s satisfaction? It is impossible you should see this, As salt as wolves in pride, and fools as gross (111. 3. 404-7) We know Othello has lost all power of reason and can no longer fight off the terrible images of lust his imagination has been polluted with when he himself yelps ‘Goats and monkeys! In Act IV Scene 1 (IV. I . 263). He has become the ‘horned man’, the ‘monster, and a beast’ he described earlier in the same scene (IV. I . 62). It is horribly ironic that Desman, who, we are informed could ‘sing the savageness out of a bear’ (IV. I . 186) cannot convince her husband that his suspicions are false. The sea and military heroism In stark contrast to the imagery associated with Ago, the imagery commonly associated with the noble Othello of the first half of the play is suggestive of power and bravery.
Images of the sea and military heroism abound. Othello describes his illustrious career with dignity in Act Scene 3 (see lines 82-90 and 129-46). Desman echoes him when she says: My downright violence and storm of fortunes May trumpet to the world: my heart’s subdued Even to the very quality of my lord: (1. 3. 250-2). By using the terminology of war to describe her love we see that the heroine is Well tuned’ (11. 1 . 198) with her husband; it is fitting then that he describes her as his fair warrior’ (11. 1 . 179).
Later, when Othello feels his marital harmony has been destroyed we sense how deeply he feels Adhesion’s supposed betrayal as he eggs himself on to revenge: Never, Ago: Like to the Pontiac sea, Whose icy current and compulsive course Inner feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on To the Proportion and the Hellespont, Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace, Shall inner look back, inner ebb to humble love, (111. 3. 456-61) The imagery here suggests the violence to come, violence that has always been implicit in the sea and military imagery associated with Othello.
As he prepares to take his own life Othello again refers to his military career, but also recognizes that he has reached ‘my journeys end, here is my butt / And very sea-mark of my utmost sail’ (V. 2. 265-6). This final image of the sea is appropriately poignant. By reverting to the noble imagery associated with him earlier in the play the hero is able to raise himself again in our stem. Black and white References to black and white are important. There are also images of light and darkness, heaven and hell. Clearly these images are all related to the central paradox in the play; Othello who is far more fair than black (1. . 291) is the virtuous, noble man, while his white ensign proves to be a devilish creature with a truly black soul. When Ago blackens Adhesion’s character, Othello feels his honor is threatened; he expresses his dismay by referring to his own blackness in a negative way. Up to this point Othello has been proud of his race and secure in his love (she had eyes, ND chose me’ he says at 111. 3. 192, suggesting that his color was irrelevant. ) Now we sense that the ‘black (in the sense of angry, violent) Othello will supersede the fair’ Othello: I’ll have some proof.
Her name, that was as fresh As Din’s visage, is now begrimed and black As mine own face (111. 3. 389-91) We might feel that these lines describe Othello regret at the corruption of his name – is ‘begrimed’, Just as Adhesion’s name has been besmirched. Later in the same scene Othello calls for assistance with his revenge, ‘Arise, black vengeance, from thy hollow cell’ (111. 3. 450). Here he seems to link himself to hell and darkness, even though he also feels that he is serving heaven by making ‘a sacrifice’ (V. 2. 65) of Desman.
The confusion suggested by these images is appropriate; the hero is pulled in two directions for much of the play, wanting to believe that his fair warrior’ (11. 1 . 179) is honest, while also believing that she is damned. Desman is associated with images of light, divinity and perfection throughout the play. The final metaphor Othello uses to speak of her suggests her purity and preciousness; she is ‘a pearl’ (V. 2. 345) he threw away like a ‘base Indian’ (V. . 345). When he stood over her preparing to kill her Othello still could not quite believe that she was false; the metaphor ‘Put out the light, and then put out the light’ (V. . 7) expresses this idea eloquently. As discussed above, Ago is most often linked to darkness and devils. The drama of the play occurs as Othello moves away from the light of Adhesion’s love towards the darkness of Ago and his world view, becoming a black villain in the process. Note how many of the key scenes or events occur at night. It might also be argued that we associate Othello the Moor with darkness from the very beginning of he play; his first entrance occurs at night, and his final act, the murder of Desman, also occurs at night.
Has the Moor in some sense fulfilled his tragic destiny when he snuffs out the light on Desman (whose name suggests doom) and himself? Think about your interpretation of the play again. Look over your annotations and think about the imagery in the play.