Module B: Close Study of Literature – Othello


YEAR 11 – Module B 2018



How meaning is shaped and conveyed through characterisation and the nature of language.




How do we work out who characters really are?  The first thing Shakespeare does with his characters is that he places them in a world and gives us insight into their values, attitudes and their unique philosophic view of the world.


  • For Othello, it’s about loyalty and justice
  • For Cassio, it’s about the importance of reputation
  • For Iago, it’s about self -preservation.


  1. Generally speaking, we have some sense when we come across a character in a novel or in a play, and particularly in the case of Othello, of the values and attitudes which motivate him—we see a bit about their philosophy. What I mean by this is that we know how they see the world, their opinion on life, the nature of justice and much about their ethical and moral stances.
  2. We also need to infer what the characters are really like. What I mean by this is that Shakespeare doesn’t always explicitly state this – although he makes use of soliloquys. Quite often, he demonstrates the character’s values through their dialogue and responses.


Therefore, what people say and how they say it provides us with a window into their character and values.


Iago and Shakespeare’s use of characterisation

Iago as a foil.



Who is Iago? More than anything else, Iago is characterised as villainous and although somewhat obtuse; he is used by Shakespeare as a foil for Othello. Although Othello changes throughout the play and Iago’s villainy remains largely static, Iago nonetheless captivates our interest. Despite Iago’s unwavering villainy—he sustains our interest because we are unable to ever decode the true cause of his Misanthropy and villainy.


A foil may be understood as a character that not only creates an obstacle or frustrates a plan of action, but accentuates the protagonist’s frailty. Now if he’s just a character foil and if he’s largely static why is Iago seen as such an interesting character and more importantly, why has Shakespeare given Iago such a large role in the play?


As Othello may be interpreted as a psychological play, I would argue the interest of the play revolves around Othello’s demise and Iago’s contribution to it and, of course, the lives of others. The question remaining is: how is Iago able to ensure Othello’s downfall and why does he succeed? Iago doesn’t just succeed in seducing Othello, he succeeds in seducing a whole host of other characters.


Language shaping characterisation


Let’s look at some extracts to work out what we can infer of Iago’s character at the very commencement of the play.  Here we see Iago diminishing Cassio:


“…Mere prattle without practice

Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had th’ election

And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof

…must be belee’d and calmed

…He (in good time) must his lieutenant be

And I, bless the mark, his Moorship’s ancient.”

Act 1 Scene 1 Lines 27-34


Even if we don’t understand Iago’s language, we can impute that Iago is resentful through the tone of his delivery: “mere prattle without practice is all his soldiership”.


The fact that we can identify alliteration as part of the metalanguage or technique is all well and good, but what is important is why Shakespeare uses such harsh plosives, and what it conveys. The sound is important and created through Shakespeare’s use of plosives and Iago’s tone is undeniabally contemptuous. So now we can identify Iago’s misanthropy and we also have evidence of a sarcastic and jealous character who uses the name of God in vain: “And I, bless the mark…”


All of these components, work towards the creation of an antagonistic character that acts as a perfect foil for Othello. So, we can see that apart from being able to identify techniques, understanding the way characters speak, their tone and choice of words betray their attitudes and life philosophy.


The dramatic role of contrast


This is a play and we all know that dramatic effect is important. Consider what happens when we place black next to white. So, if we place good next to evil or any other binary, optimum effect is guaranteed. This creates dramatic tension, doesn’t it? If you were to see an evil person marry a good person what would be your reaction?  You might feel a bit stressed because you’d want to do more than just say “no!” .


Let’s take Roderigo and consider what the simplicity of his response betrays about his character:

“By heaven I rather would have been his hangman “


“I would not follow him then…”


Roderigo’s responses are simplistic and intended to showcase Iago’s obvious control. Roderigo is one of the many characters that Iago abuses. Shakespeare deliberately positions us to see Roderigo in this way and, by juxtaposing his response against Iago’s disdain, Shakespeare strengthens Iago and weakens Roderigo credibility as a complex character.


The role of audience – The Elizabethan context.


As I’ve already mentioned, characters are grounded. They are accessed through a world that is either created or reflected. When we explore characters, we measure them firstly against the authors world and sometimes against our own context depending on their credibility. To understand Iago’s treachery and the fear he inspires we also consider the symbolic power of his language and the ethical and moral implications that underscore his delivery.


“O Sir, content you.

I follow him to serve my turn upon him.

We cannot all be masters, nor all masters

Cannot be truly follow’d. You shall mark

Many a duteous and knee-crooking Knave,

That doting on his own obsequious bondage

Wears out his time much like his master’s ass

For nought but provender, and when he’s old,


…Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,

But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve

For daws to peck at. I am not what I am. “

Act 1 Scene 1 Lines 43-67


Let’s consider the impact of Iago’s words on an Elizabethan audience.


“We cannot all be masters, nor all masters

Cannot be truly follow’d”

Act 1 Scene 1 Lines 45-46


Why might the master-servant relationship be important from an Elizabethan perspective? The Elizabethan understanding of the natural order would have clearly influenced Shakespeare’s writings. In this way, hierarchical order becomes essential to the workings of the kingdom and the political and social backdrop of Shakespeare’s plays. So if everybody has a place in the hierarchy can the hierarchy work without order?


Let’s say I made a three-tiered lemon cake, sounds delicious, doesn’t it? But what if we just took out the middle layer? Then the cake would tumble or crumble and then what would happen to God’s universe if the order was upset? It would also crumble.


So, if a character in a Shakespearean play negates the social order, the kingdom is also in danger of crumbling. Potentially we could argue that Iago is a heretic or a contemporary anarchist! And what did they do to heretics during the medieval times? They burned them at the stake.


“You shall mark

Many a duteous and knee-crooking Knave,

That doting on his own obsequious bondage

Wears out his time much like his master’s ass”

Act 1 Scene 1 Lines 46-49


The language used by Iago clearly reflects his contempt of master servant relationships. The words, “duteous and knee-crooking knave” are listed in such a manner so that we understand that for Iago, loyalty is a weakness. Here we are shown the power of language used in tandem with characterisation. If we juxtapose the words “dutiful” and “knave” in the same sentence we create contrast and discord and we glean an insight into Iago’s irreverence for any established values of his world. In this way, we understand that we measure characters almost always in relation to their world.


If we think about Iago in terms of the Elizabethan context he is quite clearly represented as the antagonist; but if we remove Iago and say, put him in the contemporary context of the 21st century where he rejects the concept of being a slave or is irreverent in terms of hierarchy, we might even see him as an antihero.


I’d like to turn go back to our analysis so we can further decode not only the power of Iago’s language, but its symbolism.


“That doting on his own obsequious bondage

Wears out his time much like his master’s ass”

Act 1 Scene 1 Lines 48-49


We are all familiar with the meaning of the word “bondage” and its association with slavery, and “obsequious” means overly humble. Of course, Iago then compares the “duteous” as wasting their lives – like a donkey for nothing but food. Donkeys are traditionally used to carry goods. They are used and then abused and when it’s old; what happens to the poor donkey? It’s killed. Iago’s cynicism is unmistakable and his incapacity to see virtue in service establishes him as a sceptic and misanthrope.


The effect of language informs on our understanding of Iago


More than anything else, it is the flippancy of Iago’s language and his willingness to deliberately flaunt his villainy which allows him to take on the symbol which is ascribed to him as a demi-devil.


“Whip me such honest knaves. Others there are

Who, trimm’d in forms and visages of duty,

Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,

And throwing but shows of service on their lords,

Do well thrive by them, and when they have lin’d their coats,

Do themselves homage.”

Act 1 Scene 1 Lines 52-57


Iago’s language is provocative and shamelessly Machiavellian. Shakespeare clearly uses Iago here as an antagonist and foil. His antipathy is powerfully established to set up a powerful contrast with Othello who is the very antithesis of Iago.


Iago’s inconsistency


The interest of Iago’s character resides in the audience’s inability to understand his intrinsic motivation. What in fact drives his villainy is his inconsistency as a character which lends complexity to his role in the play. His advice to Roderigo in Act 1 Scene 3 reflects a character who prides himself on exercising reason in favor of passion:


“If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another over sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions. “

Act 1 Scene 3 Line 305


Iago’s words take on significance here; remember the humanist values of the Renaissance venerate will and reason as essential components of leadership. Once again Shakespeare underscores the importance of Iago’s lines as we the audience are compelled to hear the power of alliteration in the words “blood” and “baseness”. It is interesting to note that for Iago, passion is a quality he associates with baseness.


Perhaps the most important aspect of these lines is that although they foreshadow Othello’s frailty, on some level, they also stand in direct contradiction to Iago’s subsequent baseness and unreasoned and irrational impulses.


“That Cassio loves her, I do well believ’t

That she loves him,’tis apt and of great credit.

The Moor, howbeit, that I endure him not,

Is of a constant, loving, noble nature;

And I dare think he’ll prove to Desdemona

A most dear husband. Now I do love her to…

But partly led to diet my revenge,

For that I do suspect the lusty Moor

Hath leap’d into my seat, the thought whereof

Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards;

And nothing can or shall content my soul

Till I am even with him, wife for wife;

Or failing so, yet that I put the Moor

At least into a jealousy so strong

That judgement cannot cure.“

Act 2 Scene 1 Lines 211-227


Iago’s irrationality is palpable. In the opening lines he refers to Othello as being of a “constant, loving, noble nature”; only to dismiss him as having been with Emilia – “leap’d into my seat”. The reference to Iago’s soul, “And nothing can or shall content my soul”, seems disingenuous in view of Othello having been presented as “loving” and “noble”. The question remains as to whether Shakespeare intends Iago to be highly irrational, driven by debased instincts, or whether Iago has merely been used as a vehicle to drive plot and dramatic tension.


Perhaps Iago’s constant inconsistency ultimately contributes to his enigmatic nature. Like life itself, Shakespeare leaves us with unanswered questions and a sense of helplessness in coming to terms with understanding the human condition.

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