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In Elizabethan and Jacobean society, people depended on surprises in highly theatrical entertainment. The playhouses hosted popular theatre performances without stage-sets or props. Unlike today’s modern theatre, the simple ‘stage allowed for swift, fluid action and a concentration on language’. The Jacobean stage would have bought the colours of ‘language’ to life. For example, A vice figure like Iago would use exaggerated words and gestures to stress his strong feeling of antagonism towards Othello. Likewise, a melancholic Hamlet would experiment with words in an overstated manner (to show his conflicted state of mind).
The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (Act I, Scene I) and Hamlet (Act III, Scene IIII) directs the plays to there catastrophic endings. However, the language portrays the relationship between characters in different ways. In Othello, Iago exploits the power of language to manipulate his “family” and “friends” and make them puppets for his revenge plan. In Hamlet, the relationship is also one without trust, but it is presented in a quietly deceitful way.
The protagonist feels his private life being usurped by spies: Claudio and Polonius.
Act I, Scene I of Othello is striking for today’s audience, and the contemporary audience of the time, since it is abounded in coarse animalistic imagery. Iago uses crude language as a persuasive approach. He understands that Brabanzio embodies a Eurocentric view, so he speaks in offensive terms in order to tempt Brabanzio to believe his words. Derogatory references such as ‘old black ram’, ‘coursers for cousins’ and ‘jennets’ evoke a strong sense of hate and prejudice.
Metaphorical expressions like ‘coursers’ and ‘jennets’ completely dehumanize Othello.
They are also a reminder of the social context, since Othello would have been played by a white actor in the Jacobean period. Iago’s language is concentrated on the colour of Othello’s skin; he describes him as a ‘black ram’ that will breed a generation of horses because of his ‘black’ skin colour and African heritage. The Jacobean audience would have understood how Iago’s poisonous slanders are targeted towards ‘the Moor’, (because of racial differences). Therefore the audience may have shared a similar view on black Africans in Jacobean society. Iago expresses the stark contrasts between the colours ‘black’ and ‘white’.
In Shakespeare’s day, blackness was primarily associated with ‘witchcraft’ and ‘voodoo’ while a ‘white ewe’ would be representative of goodness and purity. Rather ironically Iago embodies these racial stereotypes: he does not refer to Othello by his name but as ‘the Moor’. This suggests how Iago exploits Brabanzio’s fatherly love and vulnerability. He is aware that Brabanzio finds it abominable that his daughter can be snatched away in the hands of ‘the Moor’. Consequently, he abuses the use of animal imagery and the conventional colours (‘black and ‘white’) to produce a desirable response.
Like Queen Gertrude who passionately cries ‘thou hast cleft my heart in twain’! Brabanzio is also moved by Iago’s lethal words. Powerful images such as ‘tupping your white ewe’ are highly sexual: they therefore have the capacity to cause an explosive reaction. Brabanzio panics frantically, ‘This incident is not unlike my dream; belief of it oppresses me already’. The other characters reactions are indicative of the inevitable destruction that follows as a result of Hamlet and Iago’s ability to influence their rivals through speech. Hamlet’s potent words are ‘like daggers’, thus they are likely to initiate a reaction.
However, he uses a persuasive approach that is different to Iago’s. In comparison to Iago’s spontaneous dialogue, Hamlet’s language is more meaningful because it carries the weight of truth. He does not talk figuratively, but uses simple and indisputable facts: ‘A murderer and a villain […] That from a shelf the precious diadem stole and put it in his pocket’. This approach is more likely to disturb the audience because it is full of Hamlet’s fanatical truth. The antagonist of the play (Claudius) is described as ‘A murderer and a villain’ who usurped the Kings position and ‘put it in his pocket’.
Unlike Iago’s vulgar language (that is only useful in influencing Roderigo) Hamlet’s use of imagery is effective in persuading the audience, himself, and Queen Gertrude that his rage and revenge is actually permissible. This is because Hamlets revenge is bound with the facts of reality and not with treacherous lies. However, Iago’s language is also effective in showing how his drive for revenge lacks true motive. Hamlet is an ambitious character, yet he feels his father’s cruel murder morally validates him to gain revenge.
Iago on the other hand, seizes the opportunity to tell his story of why he hates ‘the Moor’, but the audience find that there is no legitimate reason for him to plot against Othello. He bitterly argues that he deserves the position as ‘lieutenant’: ‘I am worth no worse a place’. Iago also wishes to settle scores with Othello ‘wife for wife’, because he imagines Othello to have had a sexual relationship with Emilia. This makes it obvious to the audience how Iago’s extreme jealousy and bitterness compels him to poison the ears of everyone with lies.
However, In Hamlet the audience feel the strong sense of betrayal and deceit, thus they sympathise with Hamlet’s plight because he (unlike Iago) is a genuine victim. Every time Hamlet answers his mother he clearly manifests the reasons for his hatred: ‘Here is your husband […] blasting his wholesome brother’. His words are like a passionate outcry, they desperately try to convey his true intentions. On a Jacobean stage Hamlet maybe erratically gesturing ‘Here is your husband’ to show a sense of connectedness to his fathers death and his revenge.
Hamlet is perceived as being mad, yet his words embody more philosophical meaning, truth and depth then Iago’s. The image he creates through his language indicates that his intentions are purposeful. For example, unlike Iago’s futile animalistic language, Hamlet’s words tell a story: ‘you have my father much offended’. The personal pronoun ‘my’ emphasises how he is trying to justify his anger and suggest that his acts and thoughts are occurring in response to the offence Gertrude and Claudius have caused. Similar to Iago’s fierce language, Hamlet’s words are also charged with violent energy.
He vehemently questions his mother: ‘Have you eyes’? […] have you eyes? The echo of the words ‘Have you eyes’ emphasizes a sense of deep contemplation and suggests how Hamlet is making a moral statement. Iago and Hamlet express their drive for revenge in passionate terms. Hamlet compels his mother to see how her marriage with Claudius is immoral, ‘where is thy blush’? This instigates the question of how a madman’s words can be deeply introspective. Hamlet is presented as an enigmatic chameleon because of the complex ambiguities in his language.
However, this contrasts to how defiant he sounds when he fearlessly answers his mother in this scene: Gertrude asks ‘what have I done’ and Hamlet bluntly replies ‘Such an act that […] calls virtue hypocrite’ II. 39-41. This evokes his sense of bitter resentment for being betrayed by his family. Similarly, Iago appears to be sharply responsive. The difference lies where Hamlet communicates the truth directly to his enemies, while Iago shrewdly conceals his true self. Iago shoots insults at Othello: (such as ‘Barbary horse’) so that he is reduced to the “savageness” of an animal.
A 16th century audience would have been animated and much more receptive towards such insults; consequently they were more likely to have responded to Iago’s crude puns. For example, the word ‘Barbary’ is associated with barbarism and the ferocious speed of a North African horse. (This can have sexual implications, indicating that the ‘white ewe’ and the ‘old black ram’ have eloped together, where they are said to be ‘making the beast with two backs’. Language also plays a vital part in demonstrating the relationship between characters in Othello and Hamlet.
Unlike Hamlet who is acting alone, Iago’s manipulative nature makes everyone partake in his scheme for revenge. His poisonous slanders seep in to the minds of his puppets, so that they feel bound to rely on his fabricated stories and the visual evidence that he presents. Iago understands that Roderigo depends on his support to win over Desdemona, he is also conscious of how Othello’s marriage with Desdemona will ignite Roderigo’s desire for revenge. He elaborately tells his tale of why he hates ‘the Moor’ in order to strategically plant even more hatred in Roderigo’s mind.
Iago acts sympathetic towards his plight: ‘Why, there’s no remedy. `Tis the curse of service’. Like Hamlet’s sharp “idle” tongue, Iago’s words are a destructive force responsible for his own downfall. Language such as ‘Why, there’s no remedy’ gives the illusion that his thoughts are pre-mediated in order to create a desired effect. He wishes to manipulate Roderigo by stringing him along with his shrewd words. Consequently, the audience see that Roderigo is easily moved: ‘I rather would have been his hangman’. His tone of voice foreshadows the turmoil that will unfold in the play because he is poisoned by Iago’s words.
Furthermore, Iago exploits the art of language to manipulate people and intrude upon their lives. He convinces Brabanzio that his daughter has in fact eloped with his worse fear, a black African. Iago’s astute nature means that he is aware of how to plot against Othello. Roderigo and Iago racially abuse him, calling him ‘thick lips’. However, Iago’s intrusive behaviour towards Othello contrasts with the ‘spying and surveillance’ scene in Hamlet. This is because Iago playfully experiments with words in order to cause hostility.
Whereas in Hamlet, the lack of trust means that the antagonists infringe upon Hamlets life in a secretive manner. This scene is a vivid example of how the characters are constantly observing each other, like a predator watching its prey. When Hamlet wanders in to his mother’s private chamber, the first thing he would expect is to be alone with her. However, the stage direction reveals how ‘POLONIUS hides behind the arras’. Like Iago’s destructive invasiveness, this act of intrusion instantly provokes fear. This is because the audience would be well aware of Hamlets inconsistent thoughts and erratic behaviour.
Hamlet’s relationship between characters can also be seen to resemble the nature of Iago. This is because Hamlet becomes a product of his own corrupt society: when he acts out of impulse his revenge loses all of its meaning. Hamlet is no longer a betrayed and lonely man (who the audience sympathised with) but a vice figure and a destructive force comparable to Iago. The stage directions suggest that when Hamlet thrusts his sword through the arras and kills Polonius he truly displays elements of insanity. He acts instantaneously, discarding the need to first check who is behind the arras.
Thus, after killing Polonius Hamlet displays no sign of emotion or disbelief. Hamlets act mimics the selfish nature of Iago (as he has no emotional attachment with other characters). In Hamlet and Othello, there is a major theme of deceit and betrayal that invades the plays scenes. Hamlet and Iago’s language reveals a lot about the social context and the motive driving their passion for revenge. By the end of the scene Hamlet is left completely isolated from his society, he does not feel inclined to show any sign of formal love for his family.
His lack of trust impels him to act erratically by blindly killing Polonius. In a similar way, Act I, Scene I of Othello begins with Roderigo questioning Iago whether he truly hates ‘the Moor’ :‘I take it much unkindly […] Iago who hast had my purse As if the strings were thine, shouldst know this’. This invokes the general theme of deceit in the scene, and establishes how Iago is duplicitous like Hamlet. The same way Hamlet conceals his sanity from the world, Iago exploits the power of language to disguise himself in order to continue controlling his victims.
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