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In the Shakespeare’s tragic drama Othello there resides imagery of all types, sizes and shapes. Let us look at the playwright’s offering in this area.
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)
The vulgar imagery of Othello’s ancient dominates 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.”
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.
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With the matter of Brabantio’s accusations settled, Othello discusses the Ottoman advance upon Cyprus with hard, unfeeling images: “the flinty and steel couch of war,” “hardness,” “wars.” This contrasts sharply with 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.
Returning to the ancient, in the instance when he talks Roderigo out of committing suicide over the loss of Desdemona, he incredibly 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
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. 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.” David Bevington in William Shakespeare: Four Tragedies comments that the imagery in the play is generally quite mundane:
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)
Later, after the cunning ancient has deceived Othello regarding Casio and Desdemona, Othello interrogates Emilia as to his wife’s closeness to Cassio. Then he talks with his wife, including copious spiritual imagery: “heaven” (repeatedly), “devils,” “honest,” “hell,” “soul,” “cherubim,” “fountain from which my current runs,” and “Christian.” Also the senses of touch and smell are appealed to with the Moor’s words:
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 [. . .] . (4.3)
In Act 5, Othello’s deliberation on the mode of death for his wife – 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 puts out her light
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)
Shortly before the murder, Othello’s 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.” 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!”
After the Moor commits the murder, Emilia appears and informs that Cassio is alive; this news prompts musical imagery from the Moor: “Not Cassio kill'd! then murder's out of tune, / And sweet revenge grows harsh.” Learning the truth from subsequent testimonies, Othello makes an image-heavy farewell to his Desdemona before stabbing himself to death:
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! (5.2)
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:
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)
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.