How and why does Othello's language change over the course of the Play?

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Othello is a classical tragedy in the sense that it has a hero with many virtues who is brought down by a combination of an evil man and his own weakness, jealousy. This rise and fall is echoed in the language given to Othello by Shakespeare which moves from the confidence in front of Brabantio through the violent images and indecision of his undermining by Iago back to some nobility when he realises what he has done.

When Othello first appears on stage in Act 1 Scene 2 he has such confidence in his skill with language that he can claim that he is “rude” in his speech, knowing that no one will possibly believe him.

His well-chosen words “keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them” diffuse a potentially dangerous situation and atmosphere.

These first few lines create an image of Othello as confident and strong. It also shows that he has a dramatic impact on the other characters and the play itself.

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The situation arises with Brabantio and his men hold their swords up to Othello and his soldiers, but with those well-chosen words he tells Brabantio and his men to put their swords back in their sheaths. “for the dew will rust them” is just a bit of sarcasm. He is reminding them that they are merely civilians and policemen and Othello is a military officer and the men behind him are soldiers. It is impossible for Brabantio to win this fight.

Earlier when Iago asks Othello if he is secure in his marriage, he replies, “But that I love the gentle Desdemona I would not unhoused my free condition put into circumscription and confine for the sees’ worth” Here Othello is comparing the value of his freedom and his love for Desdemona to all the treasures of the sea.

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This is an image typically used by Othello. In scene 3 of the first act Othello is at the Senate, replying to Brabantio’s accusations of casting a spell over Brabantio’s daughter making her fall in love with him.

In his speech there is obvious irony and exotic language. Again typical Othello language, “Rude am in my speech and little bless’d with the soft phrase of peace” that passage is obvious irony as Othello is certainly not rude in his speech he is completely opposite to that. He speaks in dazzling blank line verses that amaze his audience. “For since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith, till now some nine moons wasted, they have used their dearest action in the tented field, and little of this great world can I speak, More than pertains to feats of boil and battle,”

The key test Othello faces is when he has to defend himself in front of the Duke in the council chamber. Brabantio has already accused Othello of witchcraft and the Dukes immediate reaction without knowing it is Othello is one of horror. “Whoe’e he be that in this foul proceeding hath thus beguiled your daughter of herself… the bloody book of law you shall yourself read in the bitter letter after your own sense, yea, though our proper son stood in your action”.

Potentially Othello the soldier is up against the ruling class of Venice but he doesn’t hesitate to challenge Brabantio head on. He is confident enough to suggest Desdemona should be allowed to speak for herself “Send for the lady to the Sagittary, and let her speak of me before her father”. While they are waiting for Desdemona to arrive Othello launches into a coherently argued forty-line speech.

He tells the story of how it was Brabantio himself who brought them together “Her father loved me, oft invited me, still questioned me the story of my life”. He goes on to describe his distinguished military career. Not only does this get the audience on his side but he is able to use the trick in speeches of describing things in three’s; “Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances, Of moving accidents by flood and field, Of hair-breadth scapes i’th’imminent deadly breach, Of being taken by the insolent foe, And sold to slavery,”.

In this section he conjures up a world dominated by nature and allusions to tribes from classical myths, “And portance in my travels’ history: wherein of antres vast and desert idle, rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven it was my hint to speak,-such was the process; and of the Cannibals that each other eat, the Anthropophagi and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders.”. Even here Othello is able to use words like antres instead of caves and talk of cannibals as Anthropophagi. The rest of the speech is used to show that Desdemona was indeed spellbound but from the story of Othello’s life rather than any magic. He ends triumphantly by rejecting Brabantio’s charge with the two lines “This only is the witchcraft I have used: Here comes the lady; let her witness it.”

After the Turkish fleet was beaten by the storm and defeated by natural rather than military might, Othello has no military duties left to do. Therefore the play now concentrates on the relationships and becomes a much more domestic tragedy. Iago becomes the new enemy not the Turks; he is free to indulge in the evil he has hinted at before. Readers become aware of his evilness as the play unfolds, “Make the moor thank me, love me, and reward me for making him egregiously an ass and practicing upon his peace and quiet even to madness”

Iago as part of this plan gets Cassio drunk because he knows that he can’t hold much drink. Cassio starts a brawl and as a result gets sacked by Othello. Iago then tells him to go and see Desdemona and ask for his job back.

Act 111-scene iii is one of the key scenes in the play. At the beginning of this very long scene Othello has complete control over his mind and actions. By the end he is on the edge of being completely insane and the revenge on Desdemona is looming, “I’ll tear to pieces.” And “Damn her, lewd Minx”. This is all because of the corruption and evilness of Iago. He has poisoning Othello’s mind.

At the beginning, Iago starts to introduce the idea that Desdemona might be unfaithful, as he does throughout the scene Iago exits just after this accusation to leave Othello to contemplate what Iago has just said. Immediately Shakespeare shows through the language that Othello is in two minds about what is going on. His first reaction is to use a bold, manly metaphor from falconry, which is meant to show that he is determined to do what a man must do. “Thought that her jesses were my dear heartstrings, I’d whistle her off, and let her down the wind.” Yet seven lines later he is using a much more negative image “I had rather be a toad and live upon the vapour of a dungeon, than keep a corner in the thing I love for others’ uses. Yet, ’tis the plague of great ones.” He rounds of this soliloquy with another phrase showing his confusion when he says “O, then heaven mocks itself!” before Desdemona enters.

At this early stage it is interesting to note that Othello is still able to use irony to put himself down as he did in Act 1 when he says “Haply, for I am black and have not those soft parts of the convocation that chamberers have,”

When Desdemona drops her handkerchief and Emilia finds it and hands it to Iago. He informs the audience of the plot by using a soliloquy. He is going to put it in Cassio’s lodgings to implicate him. Just before Othello comes back in Iago points out the torment that Othello is in, “The Moor already changes with my poison: Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons, which at the first are scarce found to distaste, but, with a little act upon the blood, burn like the mines of sulphur.” Othello immediately confirms this when he says to Iago “thou hast set me on the rack.”

Othello’s next soliloquy, while on the surface confident and coherent is in fact a realisation that the military life in which he has been confident in has come to an end. Although the language and structure hark back to his act 1 oratory, he is putting into words the change of scene that has taken place- the enemy has changed from the Turks on the battlefield to Iago in the bedroom.

When he is saying farewell to the military life, he not only uses a lot of military images but he also does it in a way that is very formal repeating the word ‘farewell’, “O, now, for ever farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content! Farewell the plumped troop and the big wars that make ambition virtue! O, farewell, Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump, the spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife, the royal banner, and all quality, Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!” Immediately the surface calm of this formal speech is shattered when Othello grabs Iago by the throat and says “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore.” He continues the violent imagery when he says “Thou hadst been better have been born a dog than answer my wsk’d wrath!”

When Iago threatens to go into a sulk at Othello doubting what he is alleging, Othello stops him from leaving but immediately reveals his indecision “I think my wife be honest, and think she is not; I think that thou are just, and think that thou are not.” This sense of turmoil is further underlined by the aggressive images he uses “If there be cords or knives, poison or fire or suffocating streams, I’ll not endure’t. – would I were satisfied!” which Iago confirms by saying “I see, sir, you are eaten up with passion.”

Iago then assumes control of the situation and extends the animal sexual imagery by talking about “Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys, as salt as wolves in pride, and fools as gross as ignorance made drunk.” He introduces the lie of hearing Cassio talk about his love for Desdemona in his sleep. The scene ends with Othello making one last attempt to speak formally with classical allusions “like to the Pontic Sea, Whose icy current and compulsive course ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on to the Propontic and Hellespont.”

Just before the end Iago and Othello kneel down together and Iago solemnly swears to provide evidence of Desdemona’s wrong doing to Othello. His real state of mind though is shown with the last four lines “Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her! Damn her! Come, go with me apart; I will withdraw, to furnish me with some swift means of death for the fair devil. Now art thou lieutenant.” Even in describing Desdemona as a ‘Fair Devil’ Othello uses an oxymoron to show his confusion.

Act 4 opens with Othello and Iago discussing the proof that has been obtained so far. It quickly becomes apparent that Othello’s mental state has rapidly deteriorated. When Iago starts to introduce the idea that Cassio has been sleeping with Desdemona with the key word ‘Lie’, the conversation breaks down in confusion over whether Cassio has been ‘lying’ with Desdemona or if Shakespeare is really drawing attention to the fact that Iago is telling a ‘Lie’. Othello’s response is one of total confusion; he abandons the well-formed blank verse he has spoken in for almost incoherent prose. Before he falls into a trance he is reduced to a series of short exclamations, “Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Is’t possible? – confess? – Hand-kerchief? – O devil!”

Cassio briefly re-enters and is told by Iago to come back after a short while. When Othello recovers from his fit Iago tells him to hide himself and listen to what Cassio has to say. Although Othello is at one level quite aggressive with Iago saying “Dost thou mock me?” and “Did he confess it?” It is Iago who is in charge of the situation and Othello is reduced to one or two line interruptions.

Just before Cassio comes back in Iago makes it clear how he will use the situation to deceive Othello: “As he shall smile, Othello shall go mad; and his unbookish jealousy must construe poor Cassio’s smiles, gestures, and light behaviours, quite in the wrong.”

Iago leads Cassio on just out of Othello’s earshot by clearly getting Cassio to talk about Bianca while Othello thinks he is talking about Desdemona. The deception is completed by Bianca herself comes in and displays the handkerchief that Iago had planted in Cassio’s room.

When Cassio and Bianca have gone, Othello comes back and in one speech shows that he can still hardly believe what has happened, “Ay, let her rot, and perish, and be damned tonight; for she shall not live. No, my heart is turned to stone: I strike it, and it hurts my hand. O, the world hath not a sweeter creature: she might lie by an emperor’s side and command him tasks.” On one level he is convinced of her unfaithfulness but on another he cannot completely let go of the image of the sweet and beautiful women he has married.

Gradually Othello overcomes his squeamishness and as he becomes more determined so his language becomes more violent. At one point he says “I will chop her into messes – cuckold me!” and in his next utterance he becomes very lucid because he knows exactly what might stop him doing what he thinks should be done, “Get me some poison, Iago – this night. I’ll not expostulate with her, lest her body and beauty un-provide my mind again – this night, Iago.”

When Lodovico and Desdemona come in with a letter re-calling Othello and appointing Cassio in his place as governor of Cypress, Othello’s speech and behaviour once again break down. He is reduced again to a series of exclamations: “Fire and brimstone … Indeed… Devil!” Culminating in him striking his wife. Lodovico is shocked by what he has seen ands heard, and after Othello has dismissed Desdemona with a series of jerky exclamations and departed himself with the outburst “Goats and Monkeys!” Lodovico expresses concern when he says “Is this the noble Moor whom our full senate call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature whom passion could not shake?”

The next scene opens with Othello questioning Emilia about Desdemona and Cassio. Despite the fact that Emilia protests that there is nothing untoward between them, Iago has poisoned his mind and he dismisses Emilia’s evidence with the lines “She says enough; yet she’s a simple bawd that cannot say as much. This is a subtle whore, a closet lock and key of villainous secrets; and yet she’ll kneel and pray; I have seen her do’t.” Othello now can only conceive his wife as a “Whore”.

When he is left alone with Desdemona she immediately senses something is wrong “I understand a fury in your words, but not the words themselves.” The imagery Othello uses in trying to get Desdemona to confess is that of heaven and hell: – “the devils themselves…double damned…thou art false as hell.” This imagery borrowed from Iago shows just what an extent Othello’s mind has been taken over.

Othello then embarks on a speech, in which he imagines all the awful punishments he might have to endure like the prophet Job. He realises that although he could cope with all that he cannot cope with the loss of Desdemona “But there, where I have garnered up my heart, where either I must live or bear no life, the foundation from the which my current runs, or else dries up- to be discarded thence!” The consequences of this bring about the imagery of toads when he had previously used in act 3-scene iii.

His most striking picture of how his view of Desdemona has changed comes when he asks Desdemona to look at him, he says “Patience, thou young and rose-lipped cherubin, ay, there, look grim as hell!” Othello uses an image worthy of Iago when he replies to Desdemona “as summer flies are in the shambles, that quicken even when blowing”. Yet even now he is aware of the power of Desdemona and dismisses the image with the confused exclamation “O thou weed, who art so lovely and fair and smell so sweet that the senses ache at thee, would thou hadst ne’er been born!”

His next speech re-introduces the cosmic imagery from earlier in the play when he describes his shame at the thought of what Desdemona has done “Heaven stops the nose at it, and the moon winks; the bawdy wink, that kisses all it meets, is hushed within the hollow mine of earth, and will not hear it.” However before he leaves, he virtually accuses Desdemona of being a common prostitute by describing her twice as a “strumpet” and once as “that cunning whore of Venice”.

He ends his part in the scene by using again an image of heaven and hell borrowed from Iago when he says “You, mistress that have the office opposite to Saint Peter and keep the gate of hell!” The powerfulness of the images in these lines shows the extent of Othello’s love for Desdemona and his pain at what he imagines has happened. The image of the fountain shows that he regards Desdemona as the source of his love.

The final scene opens with Othello going into Desdemona’s bedroom carrying a candle. His opening words “It is the cause; it is the cause, my soul. Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars! It is the cause.” are almost a means of ‘psyching’ himself up to do the deed. Othello repeatedly uses the word “cause” in his opening quote. It could mean one of three things: Desdemona’s infidelity may be the reason which propels his actions; he is also thinking that his actions are in a just cause; or he could be using it in a legal sense as the accusation brought against Desdemona in a court.

Either way Othello invents himself as the personification of justice, partly because he cannot bear to face up directly to what he thinks Desdemona has done. When he talks to her sleeping figure he imagines her already as a figure on a tomb and starts on an extended metaphor taken probably from the candle he is holding which has at least shown he has regained some of his composure.

Although he is determined to gain revenge he is also acutely aware of the finality of what he is about to do “yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men. Put out the light, and then put out the light … but once put out thy light, thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature, I know not where is that Promethean heat that can thy light relume.” His use of classical allusions shows that he has recaptured the fluency of earlier scenes but he still cannot bear to confront Desdemona directly. He compares her to a rose on a tree and when he kisses her he brings up again his image of himself as Justice. The confused state of mind is perhaps shown in his words “I will kill thee and love thee after”

When Desdemona wakes up, Othello, while still determined, is gentle with her. However once she starts protesting her innocence his anger returns and he starts calling her a “strumpet” and not even allowing her to say a last prayer. When Emilia comes in and draws back the curtains as Desdemona dies, she is appalled and summons Iago among others to witness what has happened. As Emilia starts to reveal what has happened Iago becomes more and more agitated and Othello begins to realise that he has been deceived. Iago stabs Emilia and she dies praising her mistress Desdemona “Moor, she was chaste; she loved thee, cruel Moor”. This is almost a parallel of Desdemona’s last words protesting her continuing love for Othello.

The truth is now out and Othello begins the process of trying to present himself in the best possible light. He begins by recalling his strong point- his role as a soldier “Behold I have a weapon: A better never did itself a sustain upon a soldier’s thigh.” Perhaps unconsciously Othello is also recalling his role as the agent of justice in his use of the image of the sword. As he regains his eloquence he begins to picture both himself and Desdemona as victims of fate. Probably he is trying to avoid admitting that they are both victims of his own stupidity.

Yet in the end the growing realisation of what has happened forces him to have to come to terms with two things. Firstly, he recalls his imagery of heaven and hell and uses it to contrast the innocent Desdemona with his own guilt “when we shall meet at compt, this look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven, and fiends will snatch at it. Cold, cold, my girl! Even like thy chastity.” This leads him on to an eloquent outburst against himself as he realises his role in the tragedy “O curs�d, cursed slave! Whip me ye devils from the possession of this heavenly sight!”

As the surviving characters come on stage Othello turns his language of delivery against Iago himself when he says to Cassio “will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?” Iago refuses to say anything and Othello embarks on one final, glorious speech full of poetry and memorable images.

He pictures himself as someone who has suffered because of his love for Desdemona “then must you speak of one that loved not wisely but too well” in explaining his murder of Desdemona he likens himself to quotes “the base Indian” who “threw a pearl away” He continues his startling use of imagery by picturing himself as grieving for Desdemona in a way that will heal the situation “of one whose subdued eyes, albeit unused to the melting mood, drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees their medicinable gum.” Finally he recalls his role as a Christian hero slaying the wicked Turk and his final words combine the themes of death and his love for Desdemona “I kissed thee ere I killed thee: no way but this, killing myself, to die upon a kiss.”

In Othello more than any other tragedy Shakespeare uses the hero’s language to parallel his rise and fall. At the beginning when accused of witchcraft by Brabantio, Othello is completely in control of the situation and his language reflects it. As Iago begins to poison his mind and the scene shifts from the battlefield to the bedroom his language breaks down and he is reduced to a series of exclamations of abuse. It is only at the very end when he knows what has to be done that he becomes calm again and his language regains all its beauty and poetry.

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How and why does Othello's language change over the course of the Play?. (2017, Oct 19). Retrieved from

How and why does Othello's language change over the course of the Play?

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