Music in Othello

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Music in Othello
In Cyprus, observing the joyous reunion of Othello and Desdemona, Iago says to himself that he will wreck the lovers' harmony: "O, you are well tuned now! / But I'll set down the pegs that make this music, / As honest as I am" (2.1.199-201). The "pegs" to which he refers are the tuning pegs on a stringed instrument. Their love is the instrument on which Iago is planning to loosen ("set down") the pegs until the harmony is turned into discord. [Scene Summary]

Because no one like to be a party-pooper, Iago sings drinking songs in order to encourage Cassio to get drunk. Drinking songs tend to be rollicking, jolly justifications of drinking. Iago's first song delivers the message that life is short, so you might as well drink and enjoy it: And let me the canakin clink, clink;

And let me the canakin clink
  A soldier's a man;
  A life's but a span;
Why, then, let a soldier drink.  (2.3.69-73)
Iago's second drinking song is a little more subtle. It's an old ballad which starts by making fun of a king who got angry because his cheap breeches cost sixpence too much. The song then goes on to say that the king was a man of high degree, but "you" (the drinker) are of low degree. But being of high degree isn't necessarily a good thing, because it's pride that ruins a country. The conclusion is that you should warm yourself in your old cloak, and drink. After all, no one's too good to take a drink. Here's the song: King Stephen was a worthy peer,

  His breeches cost him but a crown;
He held them sixpence all too dear,
  With that he call'd the tailor lown.
He was a wight of high renown,
  And thou art but of low degree:
'Tis pride that pulls the country down;
  Then take thine auld cloak about thee.  (2.3.89-96)
Iago's singing has the desired effect. Cassio, drunk, exclaims, "'Fore God, this is a more exquisite song than the other" (2.3.98-99) [Scene Summary]

Coming to Othello's residence to speak with Desdemona, the disgraced Cassio brings some musicians with him. He instructs them to play something brief, then bid Othello good morning. Apparently Cassio's idea is to soften up Othello for the time when Desdemona will ask him to reinstate Cassio in his lieutenancy. However, as soon the musicians begin to play, Othello's servant comes out to chase them away. The first thing the servant says is "Why masters, have your instruments been in Naples, that they speak i' the nose thus?" (3.1.3-4). Naples was supposed to be the home of syphilis, and the servant is scornfully asking if the musicians' instruments sound so horribly nasal because they have syphilis. After that, the servant makes a fart joke, and tells the musicians that Othello doesn't want to hear any music. Then the servant drives the musicians away. [Scene Summary]

After Iago has planted the seed of jealousy in his mind, Othello tries to convince himself that he's not the jealous type. He says, "'Tis not to make me jealous / To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company, / Is free of speech, sings, plays and dances well; / Where virtue is, these are more virtuous"(3.3.183-186). What Desdemona "plays" is probably a musical instrument. Being able to make music was a "virtue" -- an admirable social grace. Later in the same scene, when Othello's jealousy is full-blown, he had a speech so famous that it's often referred to simply as "Othello's farewell to his occupation." He says that even if Desdemona went to bed with the dirtiest, sweatiest soldiers in camp (the "pioners"), he would have been happy so long as he hadn't known, but now he can't be a soldier anymore: I had been happy, if the general camp,

Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O, now, for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed 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...
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