May 28, 2011
The Role of Irony in Shakespeare’s “Othello”
The most captivating elements of Othello are Shakespeare’s clever use of literary devices, such as symbolism (i.e. the handkerchief, a symbol of faith and fidelity) and metaphor (Iago’s vulgar animal references- Iago tells Barbantio: “…an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.88)). However, the most prominent literary device throughout the play is irony, especially surrounding the play’s villan, Iago. The central irony of the play lies in that Othello, Cassio, and other characters befriend and trust Iago, who, unbeknownst to them, will destroy their lives. Yet, the audience is aware of Iago’s malicious intent and the stark contrast of what Iago says versus what he thinks and does. Throughout the piece, while Othello continuously praises Iago for his honesty, Iago manipulates him into believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful, and the tragic irony of the circumstances lead to Othello murdering his own wife.
Almost most immediately, within the first few scenes of Othello, Iago’s deceitful, conniving manner becomes evident. In the opening scene, as Roderigo questions where Iago’s loyalties lie, with him or Othello, Iago responds that he must appear to be faithful to Othello, “for love and duty” (1.1.62), but, in truth, harbors much hate for him. Iago explains: “I follow him to serve my turn upon him” (1.1.35). This is foreshadowing of Iago’s plans to betray Othello. The first instance in which the irony of the play and Iago’s treachery become evident to the audience is when Iago convinces Roderigo to shout beneath Brabanzio’s window and inform him of his daughter’s secret marriage to Othello. From Roderigo’s point of view, Iago is making a bad name for Othello, and if he angers Brabanzio enough, he would force Desdemona to leave Othello, giving Roderigo the opportunity to seduce her. However, in truth, Iago shouts crude remarks, yet conceals his identity, making Roderigo look like a less than suitable suitor for Brabanzio’s daughter. Although Iago was, in fact, the one insulting Othello, essentially referring to him as a sex-crazed beast, once in Othello’s presence he lies and states that this was the work of Roderigo. On top of that, Iago proclaims his loyalty to Othello by telling him that he was so infuriated with Roderigo’s insults that he almost killed him. However, Iago claims that he is too good natured to do such a thing, as he explains his predicament to Othello: “Though in the trade of was I have slain men/ Yet do I hold it very stuff o’th’ conscience/ To do no contriv’d murder: I lack inquty/ Sometimes to do me service” (1.2.1). Iago attempts to anger Othello by telling him about Roderigo’s foul name-calling but Othello is not concerned with such trivial matters. This is one of the many scenes which depict the importance of irony in Othello, particularly in relation to these two main characters and who they seem to be and how they are seen by others versus who they truly are. Iago is indeed a villain, finding joy from destroying the lives of those who trust him, yet in his dialogue with others, he makes himself out to be an upright, respectable citizen of society. While no one doubts what Iago says, his words are only actually truthful in his soliloquies, in which he informs the audience of his true motives. Othello, on the other hand, is a skillful soldier and an admirable man, but is often looked down upon because he is different than most Venetians, who are of fair complexion. Although Othello doesn’t seem to be bother by this, Iago furtively provokes his feelings of inferiority and misleads him to believe that Desdemona has been unfaithful.
Based solely on Othello’s convictions that Iago is his honest ensign, it makes sense that he would believe Iago’s conspiracy- that Desdemona was in fact having an affair with Cassio. However, this ultimate conviction is...
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