Imagery In Othello

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The function of imagery in the mid-sixteenth century play Othello by William Shakespeare is to aid characterisation and define meaning in the play. The antagonist Iago is defined through many different images, Some being the use of poison and soporifics, sleeping agents, to show his true evil and sadistic nature. Othello’s character is also shaped by much imagery such as the animalistic, black and white, and horse images which indicates his lustful, sexual nature. Characterisation of women is heavily dictated by imagery used to show the patriarchal gender system of the time. Some of this imagery is that of hobbyhorses and the like showing that they, Desdemona and Emelia, were nothing better than common whores. Othello’s view at the start of the play is contradicting of these patriarchal views with Desdemona and Othellos’ true love overcoming these stereotypes and we are told this through imagery of fair warriors and the like. The power of deceit is shown also through imagery of spiders and webs, uniforms and other such images. Also the power of jealousy is well defined by imagery. The handkerchief, green-eyed monster and cuckolding imagery are prominent in defining this theme.

The satanic character of Iago is depicted well though different types or imagery. His sadist intend is depicted through suffocating imagery “I’ll pour pestilence into his(Othello’s) ear” (II iii 356) says Iago in a soliloquy in as he is outlining his malicious intent and nature. This continues throughout the play with lines such as “The Moor already changes with my poison” (III iii 322) and “Not poppy nor mandragora, | Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world shall medicine thee to that sweet sleep | Which thou did owdest yesterday” (III iii 327-30). His malicious character is likened to a snake through this imagery of poisons like a snake has and then Lodovico calls him a “Viper” (V ii 281) which indicates how Iago’s character is that of a snake, and in those times a snake was considered a creature of pure evil. The Machiavellian persona of Iago can also be seen through his use of reputation imagery to Cassio and Othello. To Cassio he says “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition” (II iii 267-8) and as a paradox, to Othello, he says reputation is everything to a man and he is nothing with out it. Iago is also likened very much, though imagery, to the Devil.

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“I look down towards his feet-but that’s a fable. | If thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee.” (V ii 282-3) and he also is called a ‘demi-devil’ and other terms.

Othello is also strongly characterised by imagery too. Imagery depicts to us his animalistic nature that his cultural background suggests to the audience he has. “You’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, you’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans.” (I i 8-12) This is suggesting that Othello is a an animal, namely a horse, which depersonalises him to the level of more an animal than a man. Another quote suggesting this is when Iago says “An old black ram | Is tupping your(Brabantio’s) white ewe.” This also is lowering Othello to the level of an animal. Othello’s black skin too is defined by imagery like that of the quote above and others such as “Run ... to the sooty bosom | of such a thing as thou” (I iii 69-70). Othello’s black skin is reinforced so much that it becomes in integral part of his character it cannot be ignored at any stage of the play. Othello is also depicted as being evil and violent and a devil , because of his cultural background. “You ... blacker devil” (V ii 130) is a line which reflects how his skin colour and supposed evilness go hand in hand.

Irony plays a major part in the meaning of deception in Othello. Throughout the play Othello is constantly referred to as a devil; “Thou art a devil” (V ii 132) says Emelia of Othello. This is based around his black skin and being of non-Venetian descent which makes him an alien to his peers. Yet in the end it is proved that Iago is the actual “Demi-devil” (V ii 297) whereas through the whole play Othello is made out to be a devil because of his skin colour and from this we can se how racial prejudices existed strongly in the mid sixteenth century.

Female characters in the play Othello are also determined to a degree by images. Women are not treated with any great deal of respect throughout the play because of the phallocentric society of the time and this shows through the imagery portrayed of women throughout the play. Prostitute imagery plays a heavy part in depicting women through the play with women being called many terms such as “Hobby-horse(s)”, “Minx(s)” and “Minion(s)”. Desdemona, Emelia and Bianca are all termed some of these names throughout the length of the play. Through the disregard for the emotions and feelings of women by men in the play we can see how it agreed with the patriarchal views on women of its contemporary audience. Women throughout the play are treated as objects by there male counterparts. This is evident through the death of all but one woman, Bianca. They die because of men’s need to have them as a possession that they can control and if they can’t control them what use to them are they. Iago takes his revenge out on Emelia, his wife and property by killing her even as she speaks. This imagery of the silence and what it represents is that women should be silent no matter what, because if the silence is not kept it may be the end as was the case for Emelia. The image that leads to the demise of Desdemona is that of the strawberry embroidered handkerchief given, by Othello, to Desdemona. The handkerchief is a very important symbol of “Love, lust, Desdemona’s virginity and sexuality” *. As Iago stages for Cassio to be seen with it, it demonstrated to Othello that he has lost Desdemona, therefore for his honour she must not live.

The unique love and feelings shared between Othello and Desdemona is illustrated through such images as ‘fairness’, the act of kissing, and ocean and water imagery. At the start of act two Othello greets Desdemona as “My fair warrior” (II i 180), but then his views start to change, as when Iago’s ‘poison’ has started to take effect, Othello then refers to Desdemona as “The fair devil” (III iv 475) which reflects his respect and honour he has for Desdemona .Another symbol for Othello’s affection for Desdemona is that of freezing cold water. Othello likens his heart towards Desdemona was “Like ... the Pontic Sea | Whose icy current and compulsive course | Nev’r keeps retiring ebb”. This quote show how Desdemona does not have Othello’s favour because of the lies of Iago which have convinced Othello he has been cuckolded. But Othello’s love for Desdemona is unchanging. This conclusion can be drawn from the kissing that occurs throughout the play. Even when Othello has taken the last breaths from Desdemona’s lungs he “kissed thee (Desdemona) ere and killed thee” (V ii 354) and to signify he will always love her he “Die(s) upon a kiss” (V ii 355). This is ultimate irony that he would be kissing his love whose life he just extinguished. He did it though, not out of hate but so she would not “Betray more men” ( V ii 6).

The notions of deceit and honesty are tested throughout the play through images of spiders and webs, uniforms and crests. Othello, Desdemona and Cassio all consider Iago a “Fellow of exceeding honesty, | And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit” (III iii 357) and has unparalleled “Honesty and love” (II iii 246). But really his real aim is to, “When my outward action doth demonstrate | The native act and figure of my heart | In complement exturn, ‘tis not long after | But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve | For the daws to peck at; I am not what I am.” (I i 58). Because of Iago’s supposedly honest nature and Othello’s credulity he is able to put his “Monstrous birth to the world’s light.”

The jealousy in all beings souls is evident throughout the play through various symbols and images of monsters, toads and the horns of the cuckold. Jealousy is “The green-eyed monster which doth mock | The meat it feeds on.” says Iago which stops Othello from ever having “Sweet sleep” (III iii 329) again. This jealousy which, even though Othello says he does not believe, eats up Othello inside, and is present through lines such as that Othello would “Rather be a toad | And live upon the vapour of a dungeon | Than keep a corner in the thing ..(he).. love(s)” (III iii 269). And the imagery of the horns of the cuckold is also an ever-present image with Othello “Have(ing) a pain upon ..(his).. forehead, here” (III iii 284). These are imaginary horns Othello thinks he is growing because of his blossoming concerns about Desdemona’s integrity and honesty. Othello is very afraid of cuckoldry as “A horned man’s a monster and a beast.” (IV i 62). So we can see how important honour and faithfulness of his wife was to the contemporary man.

Imagery, as we can see, is essential in the play Othello to definition of characters and to illustrate the main meanings of the play. Imagery functions as a main source of characters nature such as Iago, the sadistic, malicious antagonist whose destructive powers controls the fates of other characters. Othello, the poor misguided Moor and our tragic protagonist who succumbs to the evil torments of a malevolent friend. Desdemona, who was loved by a misguided, noble Moor who ended up dead because of the hatred of one man. And Emelia, the poor wife of the demonic Iago who bears the brunt of his vicious nature. Imagery is also fundamental in understanding the issues of the play such as the jealousy in all men through the images of the green-eyed monster and the horns of the cuckold. Also the power of deceit in an evil man’s hand is also portrayed well as the end scene is “The tragic loading of this bed” ( V ii 359) because of powerful imagery such as spiders and webs used by the manipulative Iago.


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