Imagery, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is the use of vivid figurative language to represent objects, actions, or ideas. In Othello, Shakespeare makes use of colors to represent ideas or to set the mood for the scenes taking place. The use of such color imagery enhances the play, causing the reader to look past the mere words and search for the deeper meaning behind the scenes. The predominant colors that Shakespeare makes use of are black and white; however, some symbolism is portrayed through the use of green and red also.
Throughout history, the color black has always been used to set the mood for evil and deceit. In Othello, Iago, the antagonist, construes most of his evil plans in the dark of night. The play even opens at night as Iago begins his wicked scheming (1.1). The play also ends at night as Othello smothers his innocent wife and, later, kills himself. In a soliloquy, Iago declares “When devils will the blackest sins put on,/They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,/As I do now” (2.3.315-317) and finishes with “So will I turn her [Desdemona] virtue into pitch” (2.3.324) This speech, using the symbolism implied by the color black, allows Iago to make known his malicious intents. Convinced, through Iago’s scheming, of Desdemona’s impurity, Othello proclaims that “her name, that was as fresh/As Dian’s visage, is now begrim’d and black/As mine own face” (3.3.387-389).
Shakespeare’s main character is the black Moor Othello. Here, black is not used to imply a sense of evil. In one aspect, it reflects the racism during the times of Shakespeare. Using a black character allows Shakespeare to put racial tensions into his play, placing an even greater weight upon the rifts that are created among the other characters. Throughout the play, several racial slurs are made against Othello’s race, especially Iago’s railings against him to Desdemona’s father Brabantio: “Because we come to do you service and you think we are ruffians, you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse” (1.1.109-111) and “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” (1.1.114-115). Othello’s black skin also isolates him from the other characters, allowing Iago to work his evil deeds without fear of Othello discovering them.
The color green is used mostly in reference to plants. Plants, in Othello, resemble characters in the play being products of certain inevitable natural forces which, if left unchecked, will grow wild. Iago, who considers himself a good gardener of himself and others (1.3.319-322), cultivates his conceits that they may grow into poisonous weeds.
Shakespeare also makes use of the color green to symbolize the jealousy that grows in Othello as Iago’s schemes unfold. Iago, pretending to be an honest and good friend, warns Othello of jealousy: “It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on” (3.3.167-168). It is among the greenery of the garden that Othello’s jealousy is first spurred when he sees Cassio with Desdemona (3.3.36).
In Othello, the color white is used most extensively to symbolize the virtuosity and innocence of Desdemona, the beautiful wife of Othello and the falsely-accused victim of Iago’s malicious lies. Many references are made to Desdemona’s “fair” skin, always a sharp contrast to her husband’s black skin (1.1.120; 1.2.66; 3.3.480). Towards the conclusion of the play, Desdemona asks her maid and companion Emilia to make her bed with the white wedding sheets (4.2.105) and even requests of Emilia, “If I do die before thee, prithee, shroud me/In one of those same sheets” (4.3.223-224). It is upon these very sheets that Othello smothers Desdemona, not wanting to shed her blood for fear of scarring “that whiter skin of hers than snow,/And smooth as monumental alabaster” (5.2.4-5).
Shakespeare evidently wished to emphasize Desdemona’s innocence and purity by using the color white as much as possible. The use of so much white to depict the purity of Desdemona adds a tremendous weight to the tragedy of the play; for, the audience, having been subjected to so much symbolism of Desdemona’s virtuosity, cannot help but be moved to tears at her unfortunate death at the hands of her own husband for crimes she had not committed.
Shakespeare does not make a tremendous use of the color red. It is mostly symbolized in the mention of blood. As with nearly all literary writings, the use of blood is meant to speak of life and death, mostly of the latter. As Othello passes by after Iago has stabbed Cassio, he hears Cassio cry out and assumes that he is dying. Satisfied that Iago has served justice upon Cassio, he sets his mind to killing Desdemona declaring, “Minion, your dear lies dead,/And your unblest fate hies: strumpet, I come./Forth of my heart those charms, thine eyes, are blotted;/They, bed, lust-stain’d, shall with lust’s blood be spotted” (5.1.33-36). Although he truly does not plan on shedding her blood, the reference to it allows the audience to fully realize his determination to kill her.
In regards to using the color red to indicate life, Shakespeare uses the symbol of a rose. As Othello enters into the room in the last act of the play and makes his long speech before killing his falsely-accused wife he remarks, “When I have pluck’d the rose,/I cannot give it vital growth again,/It needs must wither” (5.2.13-15).
Color imagery in Shakespeare’s Othello adds weight and meaning to the play. Many can read or view the play and simply enjoy it for its words and literary importance. Other readers or members in the audience enjoy searching deeper into the imagery, whether it be plant, animal, or color, to discover the hidden morals or meanings of the play. Not only do the colors make the play more visually exciting, but they allow the searching audience to add a deeper meaning, perhaps even a personal meaning, to the play.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. Literature and the Writing Process. Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X Day, and Robert Funk. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice, 2002. 830-915.