Today we received a really nice email from a follower of the blog. She also sent us a copy of her recent essay, about the power of language in Othello. It’s great, give it a read. Full credits to Anindita! x
Discuss the power of language in Othello.
Words in Shakespearean plays do not merely stand as words, but act as actions as well. This is mostly prominent in the play of ‘Othello’ where words are the very thing that leads to the tragic demise of Othello and Desdemona. Shakespeare builds up his characterisation through spoken verses, where even the construction of language is a key identifier of the character’s personality.
Othello’s language construction is very specific and in tune. His words are of authority where, with his first entrance, we are aware of his power as he calls for peace when Brabantio attempts to attack him, ‘Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.’ He presents both beauty and power within him, through the joining of ‘swords’ and ‘dew’ in the same sentence, which immediately adds to the characterisation. We can also see that Othello is a marvellous story teller from his retelling of how he had won the heart of Desdemona through stories, ‘My story being done,/ She gave me for my pains a world of sighs./ She swore, in faith, ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange,/ ‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful.’ The fact that he was an outcast in the white dominated Venetian stage rings through the stories that he tells of ‘Anthropophagi, and men whose heads do grown beneath their shoulders.’ Change in Othello’s language structure represents the change of personality in Othello, where as Iago sows the seeds of jealousy (Othello: Ha, I like not that), Othello’s sentencing patterns change as well as his use of words. Previously, he used to swear on ‘Heaven’ and ‘faith’, representing the goodness within him. After Iago poisons his mind, however, he begins to curse with ‘zounds’ as Iago does, almost as if the ensign has taken complete control over him, even with his vocabulary. After Othello kills Desdemona and then realises the wrongdoing of his actions, Shakespeare completely deters from the usual language pattern used by Othello, ‘Pish! Noses, ears and lips. Is’t possible?/ Confess? Handkerchief! O devil!’ Grief has mingled with the language making Othello’s speech rather incoherent, suggesting the degeneration of the hero.
Female characters hardly have the ability to construct their own power through speech. Desdemona uses the same meter of the iambic pentameter as Othello’s to illustrate their ‘well-tun’d’ relationship, yet her words are misconstrued and she is unable to present herself as a victim, as she is barely given a voice. Emilia seems to be almost the same – she is hardly given any information to even create an opinion. She does exactly what Iago tells her, without question. However, eventually Shakespeare allows the character of Emilia to disclose Iago’s tricks, being the only one who knew about the handkerchief truly, aside from Iago. She speaks despite being both threatened and insulted by Iago, ‘Villanious whore’ and is allowed to vocalise herself, ‘No, I will speak as liberal as the north.’ Female characters are underestimated in their power of language so much that even the one who mastered in the art of language forgot about his wife’s ability to speak.
The power of language, however, is significantly embodied through the character of Iago, who acts as a puppeteer in the play, manifesting power that controls almost every character in the play. Iago’s first entrance in the play is of a villain, him spewing words of hate against Othello and success in enraging Brabantio instantly makes the audience recognise that his power of words is a dangerous one. However, it’s the way he designs his sentences that is particularly alerting to audiences, where he swears ‘By Janus’, the two-faced Roman god and provides a biblical allusion, except for one-word alteration that establishes his destructive power, ‘I am not what I am’. He goes against the very saying of a Saint, and in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period where religion played a significant role, this fundaments his character as an anti-hero. Iago’s dialogues are much more prosaic, in contrast to Othello’s who uses the iambic pentameter to establish his nobility, whereas Iago inclines on clarity. His presentations are image-perfect; he is very evocative in his descriptions which allows him to give the horrific image of Othello and Desdemona to Brabantio, simply to promulgate his rage, ‘An old black ram is tupping your white yule’. He presents Othello as a beast to vilify him in the white society, and he presents everything in a very sexual and body-oriented manner – he possess the soldier bluntness in speech as Cassio alludes to Desdemona who is disgusted by his presentation of women, ‘He speaks home, madam. You may relish him more in the soldier than in the scholar.’ He talks about Othello and Desdemona’s sexual activities through connotations and food innuendos, where he assures Roderigo that Desdemona would need someone else to ‘give satiety a fresh apetite’ and that the ‘wine she drinks is made from grapes’, referring that all women are same in wanting to consume sex, an act that Iago believes ‘the Moor is defective in’. All these bring out a graphic picture of Othello and Desdemona, almost disgusting which promotes the audience to view Desdemona and Othello’s love in a completely different manner.
Shakespeare designs Iago in a very particular and profound manner; Iago’s structure and prefacing of words and sceneries project him as an ultimate villain, a classic Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ embodiment of Lucifer who hates God (symbolised by Othello) for expelling him from his position in Heaven, despite being the most devoted Archangel. Iago is particularly intriguing for his soliloquies which sculpts the dramatic irony in the play, where Iago shares his plan to destroy Othello to the audience in a way that breaks the fourth wall, as by the end of the play, audiences feel like they’ve had a part in the fall of Othello and his lover, Desdemona. Another irony that Shakespeare introduces are the words ‘Honest Iago’ which is repeated throughout the play through different characters, even by Iago himself as a verbal irony, and gives concreteness to Iago’s ability to deceive – he is a devil in disguise as a hero. All the characters in the play believe Iago to be a noble man and entrusts him for counsel which gives way to Iago to understand their breaking point – Cassio’s drunkenness which provokes him into attacking Roderigo and thus makes him lose his position as Othello’s lieutenant. Metaphorical language used by Iago also serves purposes of foreshadowing, where Iago calls Desdemona and Othello ‘well-tun’d’ referring to musical instruments that play in perfect harmony but which also gives them a vulnerability that Iago can use to break them apart, ‘But I’ll set down the pegs that make this music,/ As honest as I am.’
Iago is ultimately silenced in the end when his actions are revealed and he can no longer control anyone with his words, ‘Demand me nothing. What you know, you know./ From this time forth I never will speak word.’ The power of language diminishes with the fall of Iago, as from the silence of the antagonist follows destruction and death. Shakespeare excels at creating the most vibrant characters and Iago is one created with precise mastery, his taking control of the stage as well as audiences present him as a villain that no one has seen before. Othello is hardly a play of actions, but rather a play of words.