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The playwright William Shakespeare included plentiful imagery in the tragedy Othello. In this essay we shall analyze and comment on what is offered in the play.
H. S. Wilson in his book of literary criticism, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, discusses the influence of the imagery of the play:
It has indeed been suggested that the logic of events in the play and of Othello’s relation to them implies Othello’s damnation, and that the implication is pressed home with particular power in the imagery. This last amounts to interpreting the suggestions of the imagery as a means of comment by the author – the analogy would be the choruses of Greek tragedy. It is true that the play contains many references to “heaven and hell and devils.” as Wilson Knight has pointed out. But Mr. Knight has wisely refrained from drawing the conclusion that Shakespeare means thus to comment upon Othello’s ultimate fate. (66)
The vulgar imagery of the ancient dominate the opening of the play. Francis Ferguson in “Two Worldviews Echo Each Other” describes the types of imagery used by the antagonist when he “slips his mask aside” while awakening Brabantio:
Iago is letting loose the wicked passion inside him, as he does from time to time throughout the play, when he slips his mask aside. At such moments he always resorts to this imagery of money-bags, treachery, and animal lust and violence. So he expresses his own faithless, envious spirit, and, by the same token, his vision of the populous city of Venice – Iago’s “world,” as it has been called. . . .(132)
Standing outside the senator’s home late at night, Iago uses imagery within a lie to arouse the occupant: “ Awake! what, ho, Brabantio! thieves! thieves! thieves! / Look to your house, your daughter and your bags!” When the senator appears at the window, the ancient continues with coarse imagery of animal lust: “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is topping your white ewe,” and “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.” Brabantio, judging from Iago’s language, rightfully concludes that the latter is a “profane wretch” and a “villain.”
When Iago returns to the Moor, he resorts to violence in his description of the senator, saying that “nine or ten times / I had thought to have yerk'd him here under the ribs.
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I fetch my life and being
From men of royal siege, and my demerits
May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune
As this that I have reach'd: for know, Iago,
But that I love the gentle Desdemona,
I would not my unhoused free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the sea's worth. (1.2)
Meanwhile, Iago, in his answer to Cassio’s question about the general, refers again to money as the motivating force in Othello’s marriage to Desdemona: “Faith, he to-night hath boarded a land carack: / If it prove lawful prize, he's made for ever.” After Brabantio and his search party have reached the Moor, he quiets their passions with imagery from nature: “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.” The senator, thinking that his daughter has been “enchanted” by the Moor, employs related imagery in his confrontation with the general: “If she in chains of magic were not bound,” “foul charms,” “drugs or minerals / That weaken motion,” “practiser of arts inhibited,” “prison,” “bond-slaves and pagans.” Standing before the Duke of Venice and the City Council, Othello defends his marriage against the vehement accusations of the senator with
reference to his narration in the senator’s home of “the battles, sieges, fortunes” which he had experienced. Christian imagery is seen in his mention of Desdemona, who “wish'd / That heaven had made her such a man,” and his wife immediately supports his statement with her own testimony.
With the matter of Brabantio’s accusations settled, the council and the general turn to the Ottoman advance upon Cyprus. As Othello begins discussion of this matter, his imagery becomes hard and unfeeling with expressions such as “the flinty and steel couch of war,”
“hardness,” “wars.” Contrasting with this imagery is the soft, love-centered imagery of Desdemona, who attests that “to his honour and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate,” and who refers to herself as a “moth of peace.” She seems to draw the general into her soft ways, as he responds that “when light-wing'd toys / Of feather'd Cupid seal with wanton dullness [. . .] Let housewives make a skillet of my helm” – mythological and domestic imagery. For a military leader to be peppering his language with allusions to Cupid and to housewives is a rarity indeed!
Another rarity of the play is the audience’s seeing Iago acting toward good and not toward evil. In the instance when he talks Roderigo out of committing suicide over the loss of Desdemona, the ancient employs decent, wholesome imagery:
Our bodies are our gardens, to the which
our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant
nettles, or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up
thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs, or
distract it with many, either to have it sterile
with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the
power and corrigible authority of this lies in our
The ancient’s motive in this seemingly generous gesture is found in his words shortly thereafter: “Put money in thy purse; follow thou the wars; defeat thy favour with an usurped beard; I say, put money in thy purse.” He cannot bear the thought of terminating the stipend from his wealthy friend.
With the action now relocated to the island of Cyprus, it is Michael Cassio who, in answering Montano regarding the Moor’s marital status, says that Othello’s wife “excels the quirks of blazoning pens,” “our great captain's captain,” “Give renew'd fire to our extincted spirits,” “The riches of the ship,” and other highly flattering imagery for her. Waiting at the harbor in Cyprus, Iago employs imagery critical of his Emilia: “Sir, would she give you so much of her lips / As of her tongue she oft bestows on me,” to the extent that Desdemona labels him a “slanderer.” The cunning ancient beguiles the unsuspecting Cassio into a drunken state, thus costing him his lieutenancy. Generous-hearted Desdemona agrees to intercede with the general. Shallow Emilia turns over the decorated handkerchief to Iago out of selfishness, asking what he will give her in return. Iago’s sinister machinations enmesh Cassio and Desdemona in a web of adultery that exists only in the mind of the ancient and his victim, the Moor, whom he ensnares in Act 3. The general is naïve and gullible to the suggestions of “honest Iago,” for to Othello the world is “empty of human life as we know it, but filled with the sense of far-off, heroic adventure.” His love for Desdemona is “utterly defenseless in a world that contains Iago. . . .” (Ferguson 132-33). In her book, Everybody’s Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies, Maynard Mack comments on the imagery of darkness and how it supports the evil schemes of the ancient:
Just now, however, as we listen to his plans evolve, the darkness seems chiefly to be Iago’s element. In the darkness of this Venetian street, he moves to disrupt Othello’s marriage if he can. Later, in the darkness of a street in Cyprus, he will close his trap on Cassio, involving him in a scuffle that will cost him his lieutenancy. Still later, in the dark island outpost, he will set Roderigo to ambush Cassio, and so (he hopes) be rid of both. Simultaneously, in a darkness that he has insinuated into Othello’s mind, Desdemona will be strangled. (134)
After Othello interrogates Emilia as to his wife’s closeness to Cassio, he talks with Desdemona. The conversation between these two is replete with spiritual imagery: “heaven” (repeatedly), “devils,” “honest,” “hell,” “soul,” “cherubim,” “fountain from which my current runs,” and “Christian.” The senses of touch and smell are appealed to with the Moor’s words here:
O, ay; as summer flies are in the shambles,
That quicken even with blowing. O thou weed,
Who art so lovely fair and smell'st so sweet
That the sense aches at thee, would thou hadst
ne'er been born! (4.3)
Desdemona, in her final verbal exchange with her maid Emilia, shares a presentiment with bedroom imagery: “If I do die before thee prithee, shroud me / In one of those same sheets.” In Act 5, when the general hears Cassio’s cries during and after Roderigo’s ambush, the Moor hastens to his bedroom where Desdemona is asleep. His deliberation on the mode of death for her – suffocation – involves considerable imagery: “Yet I'll not shed her blood; / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, / And smooth as monumental alabaster.” He reflects, with both mythical and nature imagery, that when he
once put out thy light,
Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck'd the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither: I'll smell it on the tree. (5.2)
His words to the waking wife contain spiritual imagery: “Have you pray'd to-night, Desdemona?” and “If you bethink yourself of any crime / Unreconciled as yet to heaven and grace, / Solicit for it straight,” and “I would not kill thy unprepared spirit; / No; heaven forfend! I would not kill thy soul.” Then Desdemona’s replies gravitate toward the spiritual: “Then heaven / Have mercy on me!” and “Then Lord have mercy on me!” and “never loved Cassio / But with such general warranty of heaven,” and “But while I say one prayer!” Othello is deaf to her pleas, and he suffocates her.
Shortly thereafter Emilia appears and informs the protagonist that Cassio is alive; this news prompts the use of some musical imagery by the Moor: “Not Cassio kill'd! then murder's out of tune, / And sweet revenge grows harsh.” Othello confesses his guilt for Desdemona’s murder, which occasions a brief imagery-laden exchange between himself and Emilia:
EMILIA: O, the more angel she,
And you the blacker devil!
OTHELLO: She turn'd to folly, and she was a whore.
EMILIA: Thou dost belie her, and thou art a devil.
OTHELLO: She was false as water.
EMILIA: Thou art rash as fire, to say
That she was false: O, she was heavenly true! ((5.2)
When Othello confesses that he acted because Desdemona gave Cassio the kerchief-gift from the general, Emilia blurts out her protest through imagery:
'Twill out, 'twill out: I peace!
No, I will speak as liberal as the north:
Let heaven and men and devils, let them all,
All, all, cry shame against me, yet I'll speak. (5.2)
Emilia pays for her honesty with her life; and Othello makes an imagery-laden farewell to his Desdemona before stabbing himself to death:
Cold, cold, my girl!
Even like thy chastity. O cursed slave!
Whip me, ye devils,
From the possession of this heavenly sight!
Blow me about in winds! roast me in sulphur!
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!
O Desdemona! Desdemona! dead! (5.2)
Imagery within this play is not to be taken lightly; it is very significant to the audience. In the essay “Wit and Witchcraft: an Approach to Othello” Robert B. Heilman discusses the significance of imagery within this play:
Reiterative language is particularly prone to acquire a continuity of its own and to become “an independent part of the plot” whose effect we can attempt to gauge. It may create “mood” or “atmosphere”: the pervasiveness of images of injury, pain, and torture in Othello has a very strong impact that is not wholly determined by who uses the images. But most of all the “system of imagery” introduces thoughts, ideas, themes – elements of the meaning that is the author’s final organization of all his materials. (333)
David Bevington in William Shakespeare: Four Tragedies comments that the imagery in the play is quite mundane, and he tells why:
The battle of good and evil is of course cosmic, but in Othello that battle is realized through a taut narrative of jealousy and murder. Its poetic images are accordingly focused to a large extent on the natural world. One cluster of images is domestic and animal, having to do with goats, monkeys, wolves, baboons, guinea hens, wildcats, spiders, flies, asses, dogs, copulating horses and sheep, serpents, and toads; other images, more wide-ranging in scope, include green-eyed monsters, devils, blackness, poisons, money purses, tarnished jewels, music untuned, and light extinguished. (217)
Bevington, David, ed. William Shakespeare: Four Tragedies. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
Ferguson, Francis. “Two Worldviews Echo Each Other.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Reprint from Shakespeare: The Pattern in His Carpet. N.p.: n.p., 1970.
Heilman, Robert B. “Wit and Witchcraft: an Approach to Othello.” Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism. Ed. Leonard F. Dean. Rev. Ed. Rpt. from The Sewanee Review, LXIV, 1 (Winter 1956), 1-4, 8-10; and Arizona Quarterly (Spring 1956), pp.5-16.
Mack, Maynard. Everybody’s Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. In The Electric Shakespeare. Princeton University. 1996. http://www.eiu.edu/~multilit/studyabroad/othello/othello_all.html No line nos.
Wilson, H. S. On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1957.