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Othello Imagery as a defining element in the play.

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1 Othello Imagery as a defining element in the play.

2 The two uses of imagery… To communicate a vivid and immediate effect. To weave a ‘pattern’, drawing together the strands of the dramatic action into a coherent design.

3 Language and Imagery Each Shakespearean play exhibits a characteristic patterning of images, recurring words and phrases, which reinforce the overall design and subtly comment on it. While it is difficult to assess the impact of all verbal elements it is possible to identify dominant threads of imagery and some of the ways they relate to the play as a whole.

4 Responding to the imagery… On a linguistic level we respond to the play in two distinguishable ways: As a complete dramatic action, As a dramatic play. In the first case the words are the dramatic medium, in the second they are everything. Much of the interest and the difficulty of Shakespeare’s work is that the two cannot be separated.

5 Metaphorical Imagery The dominant feature of the language in Othello is its metaphoric quality. Metaphor is not merely the comparison of two different things with each other but their close identification. When Iago says “Thus do I ever make my fool my purse” (I, iii, 381), he is not only saying that he profits financially from the other’s foolishness; he is making an equation between human qualities and material ones that says something about both. Metaphor has this highly suggestive and ambiguous quality, which is especially important to Othello, a play in which familiar words and ideas are constantly presented in unlikely new guises.

6 Honest imagery… The surface level of the irony with which this word is used is obvious: Othello constantly refers to Iago as an honest man when we know that he is in fact the opposite. But the word’s role in the play is far more complex than at first appears. Iago frequently uses the word to describe himself. When he says to Cassio, ‘As I am an honest man…’ (II, iii, 258), he is sharing a joke with the audience; and the joke is on Cassio, who agrees with him. Iago enjoys these word games.

7 When Iago sneers at ‘honest knaves’, (II, iii, 258) he is using the word in its proper sense to condemn those who foolishly put virtue and truth before self-interest, using the word as a term of contempt. The word takes on a complex significance through constant repetition. The irony with which Iago employs the word spreads throughout the play. Desdemona refers to Cassio’s ‘honest face’ even though he deceives her and Othello about Bianca, and even contributes unknowingly to her destruction.

8 Desdemona hopes that ‘my noble lord esteems me honest’ (IV, ii, 65) even as Othello is preparing her doom; and when Emilia insists her mistress is indeed honest Othello refuses to believe it. The two poles of vice and virtue in the play are Iago and Desdemona: Iago is consistently praised for his honesty; Desdemona is consistently suspected for her dishonesty. Othello’s confusion about the word reaches a climax in Act III when he concludes: “I think my wife be honest, and think she is not” (line 384). The word ‘honest’ at this point also has complexity by definition: it can mean not only truthful, but also sexually chaste. Besides these meanings it also has a patronising sense, referring to social inferiors as a term of praise.

9 Iago uses it in all three senses, and plays on them. We only have a sense of the word honest because we have the concept of dishonesty. The various uses of the word encourage us to think about the different notions of honesty explored in the play and their relevance for the different characters. Emilia’s notion of honesty, for example, is very different to that of Desdemona; Emilia has lower standards and a more relaxed attitude to morality.

10 Appearance versus Reality… The word ‘honest’ is also linked to words and images associated with the theme of Appearance versus Reality. The images associated with this theme have recurring ideas: seeming, looking, concealing, disguise, frankness, misunderstanding and deception. The distinction between being and seeming is a major theme. Othello several times proclaims himself as one who is what he appears. Iago, on the other hand, exults in concealing his true nature: “I am not what I am” (I, i, 65).

11 Truth & Deception… There are two poles of truth and deception, between which the play moves, though neither is what it seems. Othello is wrong to think that everything in our natures can be simply manifested. Iago is wrong to believe that we can completely conceal our true intentions. Both reveal aspects of their nature that they themselves do not understand: Othello is seduced by his jealous frenzy, Iago is carried away by the exhiliration of his plotting and scheming. All ways of seeming are shown up for what they are by the light of truth at the end of the play.

12 Developing the theme… At the end of the play, the revelation of Iago’s deception drives the villain himself into silence; his tongue, the main instrument of deception, is no longer of any use. Yet until this moment, the theme of appearance and reality is developed even at the height of the hero’s crisis, through the language he uses. Deceived by appearances, Othello is finally stricken with the sight of his dead wife. This final appearance is irreversible reality: she is dead, despite the appearance of life when Emilia enters.

13 Emotive imagery… The text is filled with images of darkness, confusion, uncertainty and perplexity. It is also full of violent oppositions: love and hate; heaven and hell; light and dark; life and death; black and white; blood and stars; cruelty and kindness; guilt and innocence. The conflicts of the play reflect the larger oppositions of life itself.

14 Othello in opposition… In Othello’s soliloquy at the beginning of Act V, Scene ii, he is in a state of painful excitement – a man used to killing, but only in war. He is still passionately in love with his wife and acutely conscious of her physically, yet consumed with jealous doubts. Through the act of murder, Othello ‘makes sure’ of his wife. Once dead she cannot betray him any more. Yet to kill her is to lose the very thing he values most. To satisfy his doubts he must part with his most valued object.

15 This is the play’s most emotionally charged moment. The involved syntax of Othello’s speech reflects the tormented twisting and turning of his mind as he moves between pity and determination, love and hate, desire and jealousy, all too aware of the finality of the deed he proposes to commit. The speech is full of those violent oppositions noted previously. Othello represents the human condition, when on the brink of an inevitable and disastrous act which he knows to be irreversible. He is drawn irresistably to destroy his own happiness, driven to the final act of murder by unbearable conflict.

16 Imagery through Oxymoron… Fatal sweetness, cruel tears, heavenly sorrow, murderous love: these are all examples of oxymoron, a figure of speech popular in 16 th -century poetry, combining contradictory terms. Shakespeare explicitly uses this type of figure of speech to attempt to reconcile or synthesise opposites. This is especially noticeable in the speech of Iago. It is in this spirit of contradiction that Iago infects Othello and turns the general’s reality on its head. Thus, in the middle of the play Othello begins to employ the animal and vermin imagery previously reserved for Iago. Oxymoron is appropriate to a play full of contradictions, but it is one of the most subtle linguistic patterns in Othello.

17 Verbal echoes & repetitions in imagery… Verbal echoes and repetitions are used to enforce the play’s many interlocked themes. Images of poisoning, the marriage bed, wealth, buying and selling, the devil, eyes and looks, the army, sexuality and the fickleness of women, and of animals abound. Sometimes they are associated with one character: the devil with Iago; purity and its opposite with Desdemona; the monster of jealousy with Othello. In this sense the imagery enforces the dramatic outline. The imagery in Othello depends upon the ambivalent nature of language as a medium on the one hand common to all speakers, and on the other used by individuals for their own purposes.


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