Shakespeare’s Othello, as a tragedy, offers a plot and theme which are so closely connected that one can only be interpreted in regard to the other. For example, Othello’s pride is explored through the use of irony while, during the course of the play, Iago manipulates Othello (along with the other characters) into progressively more damaging and violent acts of self-destruction. Iago realizes, as the audience realizes, that Othello’s prideful nature along with his professional and temperamental propensity for violence will probably end in blood-shed.
This realization which the audience enjoys is not known to Othello himself and that is where Shakespeare’s use of irony is both brilliantly executed and highly expressive of the play’s deepest theme: that of self-knowledge. Although it may be somewhat of an oversimplification to suggest that the entirety of Othello is based around the idea of self-knowledge, such a suggestion is, in fact, born out by the play itself due to the aforementioned tight link between the play’s plot and theme, which can be taken together as the expression of Othello’s character development.
In other words, Othello’s internal state is mirrored thorough the action of the play and both the plot nd dialogue give the alert audience member or reader many clues as to exactly how Othello’s character development has contributed to the outward manifestation of action in the play. For example, Othello’s famous monologue in Act 5, Scene 2, where he addresses Gratiano, after murdering Desdemona demonstrates his (and by extension, a universally human) self-reflective capacity. The passage is both introspective and ironic.
The impact of Othello’s predominantly militaristic orientation to the world; hence, a primarily masculine perception of the world, has collided tragically with the more delicate, ambiguous and feminine domestic sphere of love and sexual monogamy. For Othello, force is the most applicable tool for confronting crisis, or had always been; but through the rising tension of his monologue in Act 5, Scene 2, the once-great general realizes his current enemy is himself: and that enemy must be dispatched by force. So, the monologue is, in effect, a self-eulogy.
By looking deeply into the construction of this pivotal scene, including the prosody, imagery, and diction of the lines, a sort of microcosm of the play’s them can be extracted. Othello’s monologue opens: “Behold, I have a weapon;” (256). in a smooth iambic pentameter and later “broken” by anapests, spondees, and dactyls, is a powerful blank verse, with admirable modulation in both meter and imagery. Behold, I have a weapon; A better never did itself sustain Upon a soldier’s thigh (256-58)
A basic iambic meter is established with a markedly powerful use of alliteration: the “s” sound of “itself sustain/ Upon a soldier’s thigh” creates a sense of onomatopoeia with the sword be drawn from its scabbard. Or slicing to the “heart. ” The next phrase “I have seen the day” (V, ii, 258) begins Othello’s descent into self-realization, lines 258-260 follows through with several technical elements, notably a rhyme between “day” (258) and “way” (260) which implies a particular fatalism and also the continuation of the anthropomorphization of the sword, begun in the use of the word “sustain” (257).
This is an extension of irony, suggesting that Othello’s former glory as a soldier has passed to his sword alone, or that his noble characteristics have devolved there. I have made my way through more impediments Than twenty times your stop: but, O vain boast! (260-261). These lines are anchored powerfully by the “O vain boast! ” spondee, a tremendous precursor to the dominant “O” vowel-assonance that carries the breadth of the thematic and aesthetic weight of the monologue in its latter half. The sense of fatalism is extended in the following lines: “Who can control his fate? / ‘Tis not so now.
Be not afraid, though you do see me weapon’d;/ Here is my journey’s end, here is my butt,/ And the very sea-mark of my utmost sail” (262-265). Interestingly, the rhyme on “here is my butt” and “of my utmost” lend a sense of grim finality, although the monologue here reaches its midpoint. The extension “beyond doom” now creates dynamism in the use of extensive alliteration, built on the “O” vowel. “Where should Othello go? / Now, how dost thou look now? O ill-starred wench! / Pale as thy smock! When we shall meet at compt,” (268-270). The continuation of this motif is hypnotic and rings as though the speaker and
audience are being simultaneously initiated into the deepest, most dire expression of human despair, essentially that of self-confrontation, or self-realization. One might readily observe the letter “O” itself as not only a sight-rhyme, but an almost concrete expression of this self-confrontation ro realization, as a symbol of wholeness, unity and perfection. This unity is applied in ironically – in tragic consequence – reflecting not only Desdemona’s essential purity, but now longed for wholeness of Othello’s former self: “Cold, cold, my girl! / Even like thy chastity. O cursed slave! ” (272-273).
The invocation to “ye devils” to “blow me about in winds! / roast me in sulphur! / Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire! ” (275-277) crescendos into the despairing refrain of “O Desdemona! Desdemona! dead! / O! O! O! ” (278-279). Othello’s monologue, based thematically on the two central tensions of irony and self-realization, is carried forward technically by an iambic meter which is out through torturous variations featuring the use of pyrotechnical spondees, dactyls, as well as the use of the refrain, the use of onomatopoeia, internal rhyme, sight rhyme, and controlled imagery.
This is basically an illustration in poetic form of the inner-chaos which has taken over Othello’s mind and — for all intents and purposes — his body. The utter irony and self-destruction which has been building throughout the play is at last released through Othello’s murder of the innocent Desdemona. The mood of the monologue is despairing, building from a level iambic rhythm to the broken spondees of the closing lines. The jarring, indelible alliteration of “O Desdemona! Desdemona! dead! ” demonstrates the essentially nihilistic or tragic essence of Othello’s monologue.
The central irony of the passage is that Othello discovers his tenderness in his despair of Desdemona’s death, but he realizes this too late. This ironic realization, along with the rising crescendo of the poem’s meter and diction creates a powerful aesthetic tension, framing a bridge to Othello’s death later in the play. The idea that Othello could have recognized what was actually going on earlier in the play and in doing so prevented both his own and Desdemona’s death is an interesting idea, but it is specious because the whole point of the play Othello is to demonstrate that “character is destiny.
” In other words, Othello was destined to self-destruction so long as he retained the magnificent fault of pride, coupled with violence, which was, in fact, the center of his personality. Asking whether or not the tragedy could have been prevented involves not merely the capacity for Othello to enact self-realization earlier in the play, but for his entire personhood to be reconfigured in order that he not possess the destructive pride and violence which brought about the tragedy depicted in the play.
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