In Shakespeare’s Othello, the use of imagery, and especially symbolism, is most important in expressing meanings and builds the major themes of the play in order to create dramatic atmosphere. The function of imagery was predominately to generate characterisation and to define the themes in the play. Shakespeare’s application of imagery is vital in affecting the reaction of the audience and allows the audience to understand the play in more depth.
There are many ways in which imagery is used in Othello and it is conveyed in many different areas.
Poison is a key area in which Shakespeare more than dips into with the play. The idea of poison is most strongly associated with Iago, the heinous villain of the play that controls everyone around him, as a sort of puppeteer, manipulating both their thoughts and their actions. Iago’s main agenda is to ruin the life of Othello, his master and general, and he achieves this by blackening and poisoning people’s minds with his power of persuasion.
Poison is a recurring image in the play and it first appears near the beginning of the play, where Iago and Roderigo go to inform Senator Brabantio that Othello has married his daughter, the fair Desdemona, and Iago most certainly goes in order to blacken Brabantio’s idea of Othello. ‘Call up her father…
Plague him with flies,’ (I, i, 68-71). He gently persuades Roderigo to follow his idea to set Brabantio against Othello, but he does it so gently that Roderigo does not actually know that he was trying to create a clash between the two.Iago pretends to be Othello’s faithful friend but actually twists rumours and stories to gradually poison Othello’s mind against his lieutenant, Michael Cassio, and his beloved wife, Desdemona. ‘The Moor already changes with my poison,’ (III, iii, 330).
Othello is a prey to suggestions and his overactive imagination is pushed by Iago’s artistry of words. Iago gradually forms ideas and images in Othello’s head and these images build up and crescendo in his mind to then form the drastic and savage actions of Othello.Lying is an ambiguous area of imagery, and conveys both lying as in on a bed, and lying as in being untruthful. Iago is the cunning character that lies to every character in the play.
His puppet, Othello, is simply gullible and believes everything Iago tells him. ‘Lie with her, lie on her? -We say lie on her, when they belie her,-lie with her, zounds, that’s fulsome! ‘ (IV, i, 35-36). Here Iago has lied to him that Desdemona and Cassio have made love. Othello becomes overloaded with images and stories of Desdemona and Cassio that his language becomes fractured.
You told a lie… a wicked lie! ‘ (V, ii, 181-182).
Here Emilia, Iago’s wife, shouts at him about his lies and his wickedness. Both the uses of the word lie are affected by the other in some manner. ‘Lie,’ as in untruthful, makes ‘lie’ as in on a bed more disgraceful, and the latter brings the element of sex into the former. Iago spins a web of lies around Othello, which compel Othello to act irrationally and wildly.
Plants are important images, and are also very strongly linked with a particular character, which is once more the wretch, Iago.On many occasions he speaks of plants, and he uses the images of plants to symbolise his diabolical plans growing through the characters and their minds. ‘Our bodies are gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners..
. and corrigible authority of this, lies in our wills. ‘ (I, iii, 320-326). These vegetable metaphors show very well how plants and botanical references are symbolised through the play.
The characters of the play are controlled by natural forces, which are part of their personality, and are capable of growing wild.Iago is the character that comprehends these natural forces and is literally the gardener of the play, who can do what he wants with the plants. Iago sees other characters’ minds as fertile soil, in which he can sow his seeds of evil and grow them using his lies and rumours into wild and untamed plants, and Othello seems to be most vulnerable to Iago’s gardening skills. The organic manner in which Iago’s schemes devour the other characters and control their behaviour makes his wickedness seem more like forces of nature, as if unstoppable to anything and anyone.
Animals are yet another group of strong images in the play and are used to draw out the personalities of various characters. Indeed it is the libertine, Iago, who speaks of animals and creatures more than any other character in the play. He uses animal references to describe and symbolise the other characters in the play. ‘Barbary horse;’ (I, i, 111), ‘old black ram,’ (I, i, 88).
Iago calls Othello these racist remarks to convey to Brabantio that Othello is the wrongdoer in this scene, and that Othello has literally snatched his daughter away.The image of Othello as a ram or a horse makes him seem wild and barbaric, and these features eventually are the only features that Othello has in the end scenes of the play. ‘White ewe;’ (I, i, 89). Iago labels Desdemona as a white ewe to symbolise her purity and innocence, as if there is nothing she could do wrong.
The recurrence of these animal images brings again a feeling of natural power, and that the characters are somehow controlled by their own animal natures.The various images of the play display the true themes and motifs of the play, and the real personalities of the characters in the play. Iago’s deceitfulness and use of words show how great his power of persuasion is. His ways of using natural images to present plans and label characters vividly expresses his passion for destruction and his hatred and jealousy of Cassio and Othello.
Overall, the images are a very powerful way in which Shakespeare tells the play to the audience.
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