The Features of Language Used in Othello
Shakespeare’s Othello (Shakespeare, 1604) is a tragedy that unfolds based on the actions and language of one character: Iago. As a result, the plot is linear, yet the play manages to maintain a multidimensional effect. Shakespeare uses the language of the characters to achieve this multifaceted quality. Through the use of language (specifically Iago, Othello, and Desdemona), Shakespeare propels the plot, engages the audience, creates dramatic irony, and reveals the characters’ psyches.
The eponymous character enters the play as an image rather than a physical presence. Preconceived notions of the play being about a black man notwithstanding, the first impression of Othello is associated with the unnamed man that Iago and Roderigo are in the middle of slandering when the play begins. Shakespeare builds the anticipation of seeing this man through the vivid images which Iago and Roderigo use to describe him. The audience learns he is a man of high military rank who is an independent thinker. Iago describes that there were “Three great ones in the city/ In personal suit to make me his Lieutenant” (I:i:8-9) but the thus far unnamed Othello “Evades them with a bombast circumstance” (I:i:13) by instead appointing Cassio. The race of the unnamed man is disclosed when Iago yells to Brabantio, “An old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe” (I:I:88-89). While a Jacobean audience would already know Othello is black by the use of the word ‘Moor’, a modern audience less familiar with the term would be clued in by Iago’s vivid descriptions.
Another function of the vivid language that is used to describe Othello is to aid the audience’s perception of his physical attributes. In performance, the character of Othello could be played by a white man who lacks the physical characteristics of a Moor. This would be especially plausible in the Jacobean era when all players tended to be white males. Although skin color can be changed easily enough by makeup, other physical characteristics attributed to a black man would be left up to the imagination. When Roderigo asks, “What a full fortune does the thicklips owe”, his insult hones in on a physical attribute that a white actor would probably be lacking (I:I:68). Iago and Roderigo’s venomous insults would have assisted the Jacobean audience’s imagination of Othello’s physical appearance.
In addition to informing the audience about Othello, the language used in the opening scene gives an important portrayal of the character of Iago. His bigotry and spite make an immediate appearance. He dehumanizes Othello with animal imagery, “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs”, and panders to Brabantio’s preexisting prejudice to instigate a ruckus (I:I:115-116). Iago more subtly reveals his other prejudices when he categorizes people by their heritage; his distaste for “Michael Cassio, a Florentine” (I:i:19), and holding in high regard his fellow Venetians, the “Three great ones in the city” (I:i:8-9).
When the audience first meets Othello in Act I scene ii they are immediately subject to an instance of dramatic irony with Iago. Iago tells Othello of Brabantio “speaking such scurvy and provoking terms against your honor, that with the little godliness I have, I did full hard forbear him” (I:ii:7-10). Iago’s feigned servitude is impeccable, and his words assure Othello of Iago’s loyalty while demonstrating his brilliance in deception to the audience.
Othello’s first few speeches solidify him as a man who is calm, noble, dignified, and judicious. Although marrying Desdemona without Brabantio’s acquiescence in the context of the Jacobean time period is indeed a critical offense, Othello is able to use his words and reputation to exonerate himself in the eyes of the Senate. His poetic words were even what won him Desdemona’s love. Othello describes how his story-telling wooed her; This to hear would Desdemona seriously incline; But still the house-affairs would draw her thence, And ever as she would come with haste dispatch, She’ld come again and with a greedy ear Devour up my discourse. (I:iii:145-150)
Othello’s speech pattern is gallant and grandiose. G. Wilson Knight described it in the phrase coined “the Othello music” (Knight, 72). If you separate much of Othello’s language from the text, it maintains its integrity and reads as verse. For example, the lines: O heavy hour! Methinks it should now be a huge eclipse Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe Should yawn at alteration. (V:ii:97-100) And, Nay, had she been true, If Heaven would make me such another world Of one entire and perfect chrysolite, I’d not have sold her for it. (V:ii:141). Taken out of the context of Othello still read poetically.
Othello does not maintain this dignified disposition throughout the duration of the play. His speech manages to deteriorate from grandiose orations to monosyllabic utterances. Shakespeare uses Othello’s language to directly reflect his psyche. As Iago’s accusations of Desdemona’s infidelity start to eat away at Othello’s trust, there is a change in his speech pattern. As his jealousy intensifies his speech increasingly imitates Iago’s, whose words are lewd and short, with the emphasis being more on the unsaid than the said. Iago’s speech is often very suggestive and evasive, leaving the actual facts up to the imagination of the listener (who often imagines the worst case scenario). For example, Othello responds to Iago’s elusive questioning, “Think, my lord?”, with, Think, my lord? By heaven, he echoes me, As if there were some monster in his thought, Too hideous to be shown (III:iii:109-112)
As Othello’s jealousy builds, he takes upon this facet of the unsaid. In the following exchange with Desdemonda, it is apparent that he has adopted some of Iago’s disjointed speech pattern, Othello Pray, chuck, come hither Desdemona What is your pleasure? Othello Let me see your eyes,… Look in my face Desdemona What horrible fancy’s this? Othello Some of your function, mistress, Leave procreants alone and shut the door, Cough, cry, or hem, if anybody come; Your mystery, your mystery; nay, dispatch. Desdemona Upon my knees, what does your speech import? I understand a fury in your words, But not the words. (IV:ii:23-34)
He also adopts Iago’s foul, lewd vocabulary. ‘Zounds’ begins making a regular appearance in Othello’s speech, as well as sexual slurs that he directs at Desdemona. He calls her “that cunning whore” (IV:ii:91), “devil” (IV:i:235), “impudent strumpet” (IV:ii:80), “lewd minx” (III:iii:482), and “perjur’d woman” (V:ii:64).
After Othello discovers that he murdered Desdemona under false pretenses, his original speech pattern returns, indicating that Iago no longer holds a veil over Othello’s eyes, figuratively speaking. Othello’s last speech, before killing himself, has echoes of his former spoken music. In one particularly tender part, he implores the other men, Then you must speak Of one who lov’d wisely, but too well: Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought, Perplex’d in the extreme; of whose hand, Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away, Richer than all his tribe. (V:ii:344-349)
Thus there is a final return to his stately use of language before he commits suicide.
It is important to note, however, that these speech patterns only take affect when the characters are engaged in dialogue. Both Othello and short-spoken Iago articulate in fluid iambic pentameter when addressing the audience in their monologues. In both instances this allows the audience a full glimpse of the private thoughts of each character. This is especially important with the character of Iago, because he propels the plot of the play. Iago’s speech morphs to fit his present objective. While most characters stay consistent with their use of verse or prose, Iago constantly switches between the two and uses whichever suits his purpose. The other characters’ use prose or verse depending on their situation, whereas Iago controls the situation based on his choice of language. When Shakespeare allows the audience to know Iago’s full agenda, they experience dramatic irony and have no false pretense about the absolute selfishness and evil of Iago’s character. Additionally, the experience of Othello is so much more tragic and frustrating when the audience is aware of the truth. Iago’s language is Shakespeare’s tool in conveying all of these facets to the audience.
Twice in Othello Shakespeare uses song as a literary tool. The first such instance is when Iago sings to Cassio in his attempt to get Cassio drunk. In addition to rousing the drinking spirit within Cassio, Iago’s song would incite and provoke Shakespeare’s Jacobean audience. Iago speaks about his song, “I learn’d it in England, where indeed they are most potent in potting: your Dane, your German, and your swag-bellied Hollander, –drink, ho!—are nothing to your English!” (II:iii:71-74) . Clearly such favoritism towards a non-Venetian culture is out of character for the bigoted Iago, but Shakespeare uses this opportunity to get a rise out of his English audience. In Iago’s second song, he describes King Stephen, He was a wight of high renown, And thou art but of low degree ‘Tis pride that pulls the country down, Then take thine owd cloak about thee. (II:iii:87-90)
This song alludes to Iago’s character; in seeking redemption for his wounded pride he pulls down the infrastructure of Othello’s domestic life, and focuses solely on looking out for himself regardless of its affect on others.
The other instance in Othello where Shakespeare uses song as a literary technique is Desdemona’s singing of the “Willow Song”. The song is a harbinger of what is to happen in the immediate future; it indicates that Desdemona is about to die at the hands of her husband. The song is rich with symbolism relating to the present situation in the play. Green is the color representing envy, and the song goes, “Sing all a green willow must be my garland” (IV:iii:50). Envy is the emotion that dictates Othello’s action; Desdemona dies because of her husband’s jealousy. She continues, Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve Nay that’s not the text… … I call’d my love false love, but what said he then? (IV:iii:51-54)
This lyric confusion is deliberate and further foreshadows the events of Desdemona’s death. Before Desdemona dies Emilia asks her, “O who has done this deed?” and Desdemonda answers, “Nobody, I myself farewell:/ Commend me to my kind lord, O, farewell!” (V:ii:124-126). Rather than place the blame on Othello, Desdemona falsely claims that she has killed herself.
Another technique that Shakespeare uses is repetition. Often in the play there are words or phrases repeated two, three, even four times. This technique has several different purposes. On one hand, use of repetition fuses one idea between two characters, as shown in the following example: Iago Lie. Othello With her? Iago With her, on her, what you will. Othello Lie with her, lie on her? – We say lie on her, when they belie her, – lie with her, zounds, that’s fulsome! (IV:I:31-36)
Shakespeare indicates Iago and Othello’s agreement and like-mindedness through the use of the repeating words; like a musical duet the two characters bounce ideas off one another and arrive in harmony. In this instance they agree upon Desdemona’s infidelity. The word lie has several different meanings; laying down, untruth, and graphic sexual conduct. Iago uses such an ambiguous phrase to hint at the worst while using a relatively harmless word.
Shakespeare also uses repetition as a way to mock; akin to a child annoyingly repeating his parent’s question. Iago uses this technique to fuel other characters’ rages, as in the following exchange: Othello Dost thou mock me? Iago I mock you? (IV:i:59-60)
A third use of repetition is simply to drive home a point. This is seen with Cassio’s “Reputation, reputation, I ha’ lost my reputation!” (II:iii:254) and Othello’s “O fool, fool, fool!” (V:ii:324). Their anguish is made undeniably evident with the repetition of their lamentations.
Finally, it is important to note that although Iago is very much a bigot, he is extremely careful about what he says to whom. His bigotry never shows its face unless it is in his favor to reveal it; for example to fuel Roderigo or Brabantio’s actions. However, the one instance in which he has no problem revealing his prejudice to its recipient is in Act II scene i when he showcases his blatant misogyny in front of Emilia and Desdemona. He taunts them, Come on, come on, you are pictures out of doors; Bells in your parlours; wildcats in your kitchens; Saints in your injuries; devils being offended; Players in your housewivery, and housewives in your beds. (II:i:109-112)
and continues, “You rise to play, and go to bed to work” (II:i:115). He has no regard for women other than as sexual objects. This is his critical mistake, because it is Emilia who reveals him as the criminal mastermind at the end of the play. Iago, who in all other aspects is so careful about his language, falls victim to his one time of unedited speech. At the end of the play, Iago, the character whose language perpetuates the play’s entire plot, falls silent.
Thus Shakespeare ends the play that is propelled by Iago’s language by having him speak no more once he is revealed. Iago’s final words are, “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:/ From this time forth I will never speak a word” (V:ii:348-349). Such is a fitting end to a tragedy whose tale is woven by a twisted use of words.
Knight, G. Wilson. “The Othello Music”. Othello: A Selection of Critical Essays. Ed. John Wain. London: Macmillan, 1978.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. Ed. M.R. Ridley. London: Arden, 1958.
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