The Use of Irony in William Shakespeare’s “Othello” Essay
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Examine the way in which irony is used throughout “Othello” to produce a dramatic effect.
Iago is honest; Othello is the villain; Desdemona deserves her punishment. Most people would dismiss such statements as outrageous. And yet they are valid interpretations of a very multifaceted play. Whether these statements are Shakespeare’s intentions or not, they arise out of that powerfully dramatic device: irony. Verbal, situational, and dramatic irony are present in “Othello” in abundance. This essay will focus on the latter two, as well as analyse some general ironies present in the play’s background and setting.
Irony is employed in the opening scene to attract the audience’s attention. The first person to speak of Othello, supposedly the play’s protagonist, is the “villain” Iago. It is not a flattering picture, as Iago mocks Othello’s style: “But he (as loving his own pride, and purposes) / Evades them, with a bombast circumstance, / Horribly stuffed with epithets of war…” The audience, not yet able to evaluate Othello for itself, really has no choice but to accept this malicious remark at face value.
The irony here is that the audience believes Iago, much as Othello believes him throughout the play. It is almost a reversal of dramatic irony: the character knows the truth, while the audience is misguided. But it may be said that he is correct, as later, Othello does use metaphors of war, such as “plumed troops” and “neighing steed”. This takes the irony to another level: for once, Iago is telling the truth, and this is a particular flaw in Othello. But that is not to say that Iago is justified: he exaggerates Othello’s love of war to portray him in a negative light, and the audience has an ironically bad image of Othello before meeting him.
It becomes clear that Iago is the only character aware of the situation’s irony. On a numerous occasions he makes ironic references, and one imagines him giving a knowing smile. It is first evident when he says, “I must show out a flag, and sign of love”. This wonderful line refers to his job as ensign. The typical requirements of a flag-bearer are extreme loyalty and trustworthiness, since he leads the armies into battle. Iago is aware that he fulfils neither, and it humours him. He knows that he is scheming and ‘two-faced’ – he swears “by Janus”, the two-headed god. He relishes being evil, and the audience knows what he is thinking when he says such things.
Characters unwittingly make references close to Iago’s real personality. Most are directed towards him in good humour. An example comes in the strangest scene of all, when Iago uncharacteristically becomes a performer and starts entertaining. In response to his rhymes about women, Desdemona calls him “a most profane and liberal counsellor,” unaware that her remark is very true; but the audience is aware, and a sinister air permeates through the comedic front. Brabantio is close to the truth when he calls Iago a “profane wretch”. Ironically, this is said out of annoyance at being awoken rather than out of genuine belief. Of course, the difference between this remark and Desdemona’s is that the audience does not realize that Brabantio speaks the truth when he does; it is only when recalling the scene later that one realizes the irony of it.
It is not only that characters refer to Iago’s true nature unknowingly; the opposite is true. When they speak of Iago earnestly, they are far from the truth. Specifically, there is the famous reference constantly repeated by Othello: “honest Iago”. Cassio says “I never knew / A Florentine more kind, and honest”. The dramatic irony here is obvious. Othello trusts this “honest” man absolutely, believing him fully. At the same time, as his trust in Iago grows, his trust in his own wife diminishes until Iago becomes Othello’s “friend” and Desdemona is simply a “whore”. Othello makes other ironic comments concerning his wife. He tells Lodovico, “And she’s obedient: as you say obedient.” This is sarcastic, but the ironic twist is that the audience knows what he says to be literally true.
Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony here provides various interpretations. One may take the traditional view that Othello has been cruelly tricked by a calculating Iago, who has worked hard to get Othello to trust him, by providing such evidence as the handkerchief and his conversation with Cassio; or the alternative view that Iago merely plants the seed of doubt in Othello’s mind and that Othello does the rest. William Empson, in “Honest in Othello”, states that “everybody calls Iago honest once or twice, but with Othello it becomes an obsession”. Iago has to do little to make Othello believe him. Othello repeats it in his own mind, until there is no doubt. This is evident in his constant repetition of “honest” when talking to Emilia in the final scene. If this is the case, there is another irony: Iago never even had to try to make Othello trust him – Othello obsessively did much of Iago’s work for him.
This may also be said of other characters. In Agatha Christie’s “Curtain”, even Poirot argues that Iago is “the perfect criminal, the criminal who had invented such a technique that he could never be convicted of crime”. This is true, and Iago is only found out through sheer misfortune, which is very ironic. The audience is forced to watch and cringe as characters act as Iago’s ignorant agents; he is the master of indirect suggestion. One victim is poor Roderigo, who misguidedly believes that his actions, prompted by Iago, will result in Desdemona’s love. Cassio fits into Iago’s plans perfectly when talking to Iago about Bianca, unaware that Othello is watching. Later, he even reflects on his insobriety and despises himself for it, oblivious that the cunning Iago encouraged him to drink. Emilia and Othello actually commit crimes because of Iago: the ever-trusting wife steals Desdemona’s handkerchief (which, more ironically, was dropped by Othello); Othello commits the greatest crime of all: murder.
This climax is entirely dramatic because of its painful irony. Even the terrible act’s planning is ironic. Othello’s order is to “Get me some poison, Iago, this very night”, but Iago’s idea is better: “Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, / Even the bed she hath contaminated.” Othello is enthusiastic: “The justice of it pleases, good”. First there is the obvious irony that Othello believes Iago is helping him and being loyal. Secondly, Othello genuinely believes in the justice of his actions. He kills her to prevent others from being hurt: “…she must die, else she’ll betray more men”. This is ironic, since Othello has indirectly caused Roderigo’s death through his orders to kill Cassio (who, also ironically, is not actually dead).
The great irony, therefore, is that Othello, falsely believing that Desdemona has committed the crime of adultery, commits an even greater crime exacting her “punishment”. A final heart-rending irony comes at the very end of Desdemona’s life. In response to Emilia’s question, “Oh who hath done this deed?” Desdemona replies: “Nobody: I myself, farewell: / Commend me to my kind Lord: oh farewell.” The irony here is that Desdemona, Othello believing she is a liar, has never before told a lie until now, loyally protecting her husband. And there is also the ironic reference to Othello as “kind Lord” (although this is somewhat debatable, as it could be argued that Othello was kind, and merely tricked).
Perhaps the greatest irony in the tragedy “Othello” is that it is based on a melodrama, “Tale of a Moor”, by Giraldi Cinthios, and that it may therefore, in certain instances, be interpreted as a comedy. The best example is the opening scene. Obviously, nobody could ever think “Othello” a comedy today, since it is so famous, but to Elizabethan audiences, the scene’s opening was quite ambiguous. Barbara Heliodora C. de Mendonï¿½a maintains that “Othello” is “a tragedy built on a comic structure”.
She refers to commedia dell’arte as the technique Shakespeare used to make his play understandable to Elizabethan audiences. Regular theatre-goers would have been familiar with this popular form of drama. This explains the opening scene: two men in a street in front of a house (typical of commedia dell’arte’s standard plot outlines), one of them complaining to the other (reminiscent of stock characters in commedia dell’arte). The audience would have laughed at references to Othello’s colour, and the sexual metaphors. They may have been aware that some sort of tragedy would occur; but the first scene, on its own, without any prior knowledge of the play, is open to opposite interpretation.
The irony of tragedy based on comedy continues with Iago’s actions. In the opening scene he is nothing but a mischievous scoundrel, trying to cause trouble with Brabantio and Roderigo. This is supported by the situational irony of him responding to “Thou art a villain” with “You are a Senator”. This is wholly unexpected of a real villain, so one sees him as witty and mischievous – nothing more. Here, again, is the reversal of dramatic irony. It is the audience, with the characters, that has no idea that Iago’s naughty, humorous actions are actually the beginning of his master plan, and foreshadow the later tragedies.
It is possible here to suggest a further irony that Iago does not know himself at this point what it will all lead to, but I personally believe that Iago knew all along. At first, the audience is as much tricked by Iago as the characters are. This gives a further opportunity to use dramatic irony in his revealing soliloquies, where the audience is permitted to enter Iago’s mind and find out what he is planning – so now only the characters remain oblivious. The comedic aspect of the play goes into rapid decline as Iago makes fewer witty jibes and progresses with his plan – finally, the audience sees him for what he truly is. The pathetic and unfunny appearance of the clown in the middle of the play seems to signify the death of the comedy and the beginning of the true tragedy, and that is extremely ironic.
Much of the joy of “Othello” comes in the numerous ways in which it may be interpreted, and it is possible for a director to be quite ambitious. The lavish big screen version starring Kenneth Branagh stands out for its unique interpretation of Iago having a homosexual love for Othello. Although this may be seen as a motive, it is nevertheless bitterly ironic that Iago should deliberately cause the downfall of someone he loves. Desdemona, in this film, when with Othello, is extremely passionate, which evidently does not correspond with her usual, almost virginal nature, and is very different from other interpretations. Again, it is ironic, as one could say that when she is with Othello, she is not herself. It could therefore be said that even Othello does not know the true, almost timid Desdemona. He only the passionate one – and suddenly it becomes clear why he believes that she could have had an affair with Cassio.
Opposites are often discussed in relation to “Othello”. When analysing the play people talk of the ambiguity of language, such as the various double entendres; they talk about such opposites as good and evil, masculinity and femininity, black and white; and about the contrasts in setting. In my opinion it is the ironic nature of the play that allows all these discussions and the play’s possible opposite interpretations. At the beginning of this essay I gave some interpretations of various characters. They are perfectly valid, as are their relative opposites, but only through the ironic situations and occurrences outlined above.
For example, it is possible to see Othello as kind and honest, or as evil and villainous; it is possible to see Iago as misunderstood and lonely, or cold and calculating. Similarly, Desdemona may be commended for her loyalty to Othello; but perhaps her loyalty does not go very far, since she effectually betrayed her father and caused his death. Cassio may be a kind, respectable gentleman; but his rocky relationship with Bianca may contradict this view. It is these possibilities, brought about by irony, that not only make the play extremely intense and dramatic, but also provide the opportunity for a member of the audience to interpret it individually, and have an enriching and enjoyable experience while watching it.
“Magic in the Web: Action and Language in Othello” by R B Heilman, 1956
“Shakespearean Tragedy” by AC Bradley, 1981
“Shakespeare Survey 21: Othello” by Various, 1970
“Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case” by Agatha Christie, 1975