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Imagery as a
defining element in
the play.

The two uses of


To communicate a vivid and

immediate effect.

To weave a pattern, drawing

together the strands of the
dramatic action into a coherent

Language and

Each Shakespearean play exhibits a

characteristic patterning of images,
recurring words and phrases, which
reinforce the overall design and subtly
comment on it.
While it is difficult to assess the impact
of all verbal elements it is possible to
identify dominant threads of imagery
and some of the ways they relate to the
play as a whole.

Responding to the
On a linguistic level we respond to the
play in two distinguishable ways:

As a complete dramatic action,

As a dramatic play.

In the first case the words are the

dramatic medium, in the second they are
Much of the interest and the difficulty of
Shakespeares work is that the two
cannot be separated.

Metaphorical Imagery

The dominant feature of the language in Othello is its

metaphoric quality.
Metaphor is not merely the comparison of two different things
with each other but their close identification.

When Iago says Thus do I ever make my fool my

purse (I, iii, 381), he is not only saying that he
profits financially from the others foolishness; he is
making an equation between human qualities and
material ones that says something about both.
Metaphor has this highly suggestive and ambiguous
quality, which is especially important to Othello, a
play in which familiar words and ideas are
constantly presented in unlikely new guises.

Honest imagery

The surface level of the irony with which this

word is used is obvious: Othello constantly
refers to Iago as an honest man when we know
that he is in fact the opposite.
But the words role in the play is far more
complex than at first appears. Iago frequently
uses the word to describe himself. When he
says to Cassio, As I am an honest man (II,
iii, 258), he is sharing a joke with the audience;
and the joke is on Cassio, who agrees with him.

Iago enjoys these word games.

When Iago sneers at honest knaves, (II,

iii, 258) he is using the word in its proper
sense to condemn those who foolishly put
virtue and truth before self-interest, using
the word as a term of contempt.
The word takes on a complex significance
through constant repetition.
The irony with which Iago employs the
word spreads throughout the play.
Desdemona refers to Cassios honest face
even though he deceives her and Othello
about Bianca, and even contributes
unknowingly to her destruction.

Desdemona hopes that my noble lord esteems me

honest (IV, ii, 65) even as Othello is preparing her
doom; and when Emilia insists her mistress is
indeed honest Othello refuses to believe it.
The two poles of vice and virtue in the play are Iago
and Desdemona: Iago is consistently praised for his
honesty; Desdemona is consistently suspected for
her dishonesty.
Othellos confusion about the word reaches a climax
in Act III when he concludes: I think my wife be
honest, and think she is not (line 384).
The word honest at this point also has complexity
by definition: it can mean not only truthful, but also
sexually chaste.

Besides these meanings it also has a patronising sense,

referring to social inferiors as a term of praise.

Iago uses it in all three senses, and

plays on them.
We only have a sense of the word
honest because we have the concept of
The various uses of the word encourage
us to think about the different notions of
honesty explored in the play and their
relevance for the different characters.
Emilias notion of honesty, for example,
is very different to that of Desdemona;
Emilia has lower standards and a more
relaxed attitude to morality.

Appearance versus
The word honest is also linked to words and

images associated with the theme of Appearance

versus Reality.
The images associated with this theme have
recurring ideas: seeming, looking, concealing,
disguise, frankness, misunderstanding and
The distinction between being and seeming is a
major theme. Othello several times proclaims
himself as one who is what he appears. Iago, on the
other hand, exults in concealing his true nature:

I am not what I am (I, i, 65).

Truth & Deception

There are two poles of truth and deception, between which the play moves,
though neither is what it seems.
Othello is wrong to think that everything in our natures can be simply
Iago is wrong to believe that we can completely conceal our true intentions.
Both reveal aspects of their nature that they themselves do not understand:
Othello is seduced by his jealous frenzy,
Iago is carried away by the exhiliration of his plotting and scheming.
All ways of seeming are shown up for what they are by the light of truth
at the end of the play.

Developing the theme

At the end of the play, the revelation of Iagos

deception drives the villain himself into silence;
his tongue, the main instrument of deception, is
no longer of any use.
Yet until this moment, the theme of appearance
and reality is developed even at the height of the
heros crisis, through the language he uses.
Deceived by appearances, Othello is finally
stricken with the sight of his dead wife.

This final appearance is irreversible reality: she

is dead, despite the appearance of life when
Emilia enters.

Emotive imagery

The text is filled with images of darkness,

confusion, uncertainty and perplexity.
It is also full of violent oppositions: love
and hate; heaven and hell; light and dark;
life and death; black and white; blood and
stars; cruelty and kindness; guilt and

The conflicts of the play reflect the larger

oppositions of life itself.

Othello in opposition

In Othellos soliloquy at the beginning of Act V, Scene

ii, he is in a state of painful excitement a man used
to killing, but only in war.
He is still passionately in love with his wife and
acutely conscious of her physically, yet consumed
with jealous doubts.
Through the act of murder, Othello makes sure of his
wife. Once dead she cannot betray him any more.
Yet to kill her is to lose the very thing he values most.

To satisfy his doubts he must part with his most

valued object.

This is the plays most emotionally charged

moment. The involved syntax of Othellos speech
reflects the tormented twisting and turning of his
mind as he moves between pity and determination,
love and hate, desire and jealousy, all too aware of
the finality of the deed he proposes to commit.
The speech is full of those violent oppositions noted
Othello represents the human condition, when on
the brink of an inevitable and disastrous act which
he knows to be irreversible. He is drawn irresistably
to destroy his own happiness, driven to the final act
of murder by unbearable conflict.

Imagery through

Fatal sweetness, cruel tears, heavenly sorrow, murderous

love: these are all examples of oxymoron, a figure of
speech popular in 16th-century poetry, combining
contradictory terms.
Shakespeare explicitly uses this type of figure of speech
to attempt to reconcile or synthesise opposites. This is
especially noticeable in the speech of Iago.
It is in this spirit of contradiction that Iago infects Othello
and turns the generals reality on its head.
Thus, in the middle of the play Othello begins to employ
the animal and vermin imagery previously reserved for
Oxymoron is appropriate to a play full of
contradictions, but it is one of the most subtle
linguistic patterns in Othello.

Verbal echoes & repetitions in


Verbal echoes and repetitions are used to enforce the

plays many interlocked themes.
Images of poisoning, the marriage bed, wealth, buying
and selling, the devil, eyes and looks, the army,
sexuality and the fickleness of women, and of animals
Sometimes they are associated with one character: the
devil with Iago; purity and its opposite with Desdemona;
the monster of jealousy with Othello.
In this sense the imagery enforces the dramatic outline.
The imagery in Othello depends upon the
ambivalent nature of language as a medium on
the one hand common to all speakers, and on
the other used by individuals for their own