William Shakespeare

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Othello: Allusions 3 key examples

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Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Act 1, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Iago as Devil:

In the very first scene of the play, when Iago is complaining to Roderigo about being slighted by Othello, Shakespeare makes an allusion to the Bible which sets up Iago as the play’s clear villain. Explaining how he will “follow him [Othello] to serve my turn upon him," Iago says:

“I am not what I am”

This line is an allusion to the Book of Exodus in the Bible, when Moses asks for God’s name and God replies, “I am what I am.” While God’s reply signals a union between appearance and reality—God is how he appears to Moses—Iago’s phrasing inverts this meaning and highlights his duality and deceptive appearance. While Iago appears to the other characters as honest and honorable, in actual fact he is deceitful and spiteful. By making this distinction between appearance and reality in the opening scene, Shakespeare signals its importance, with the idea of things not being as they seem being one of the play’s defining themes.

The fact that Iago’s speech is an exact inversion of God’s in the Bible also clearly alludes to his evil nature and his role as villain in the play. Indeed, Iago is frequently associated with the devil. His use of deceit to trick his victims into doing wrong parallels how the devil is shown to trick his victims within Christian belief. Moreover, in the final scene of the play Iago is called both a "hellish villain" and a "serpent," the latter an allusion to the snake who leads Eve astray in the Garden of Eden. Shakespeare’s Biblical allusions thus serve to set up a dichotomy between good and evil in the play, with Iago being presented as a clear manifestation of evil.

Act 1, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—The Odyssey :

When Othello is defending his and Desdemona’s love to the Senate, he uses an allusion to the Odyssey to help make his point. Asked whether Desdemona married him by “forced courses” or “by request," Othello describes how he gained Desdemona’s affections through his stories:

It was my hint to speak—such was my process—
And of the cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. These things to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline. 

Here, the reference to the Anthropophagi alludes to the Odyssey, in which the Laestrygones, a tribe of man-eating giants, try to eat Odysseus. The allusion to the Odyssey, which links Othello with one of history’s most famous storytellers, Homer, emphasizes the power of language and stories that is one of the play’s central themes. Othello, after all, is talking about how he won Desdemona’s love through the power of his storytelling. 

The specific allusion to cannibalism is of further importance in linking the idea of storytelling with consumption, a link which is repeatedly made throughout ‘Othello’. Later on in this speech, for example, Othello describes how Desdemona would listen to his stories with a “greedy ear.” This connection with consumption, something which Shakespeare most frequently associates with female lasciviousness in Othello, emphasizes the potential dangers of language, with stories able to exert power over others. This danger will ultimately come to dictate the play's action, with Othello becoming consumed by the narrative carefully spun by Iago. Indeed, Othello’s downfall will ultimately be one of self-consumption. Jealousy, the monster that is “begot upon itself, born on itself,” is the monster that consumes Othello, and it is forged by language.

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Act 3, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Hero and Leander:

When describing his desire for vengeance for Desdemona’s infidelity, Othello makes an allusion to the Greek myth of Hero and Leander. After Iago suggests he may change his mind, Othello replies:

Never, Iago. Like to the Pontic Sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace
Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up.

The dangerous icy currents of the Pontic Sea and the Hellespont allude to the tragic Greek myth of two secretive lovers, Hero and Leander, who lived on opposite sides of the Hellespont. According to the myth, Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, would light a lamp at the top of her tower to guide Leander, who would swim across the Hellespont every night to see her. The union was kept secret because Hero, as a priestess, was meant to remain a virgin. However, one stormy night the light is blown out and Leander drowns; Hero, finding Leander’s dead body washed up the next day, drowns herself to be with him. The allusion to this myth, which warns of the dangers of love, is pertinent to the play, in which Othello and Desdemona’s love will also prove fatal. The allusion is also apt in its reference to secretive lovers. Just as social convention dictates the secrecy of Hero and Leander’s union, so too does the social stigma around interracial relationships initially motivate the secrecy around Othello and Desdemona’s match. While both tales explore the power of love that can transgress these boundaries, they also reinforce the idea that such unions are ill-fated and can be interpreted as cautionary tales for the dangers of breaking social traditions.

However, there is also more complexity in the way Othello aligns himself with this myth. The fact that Othello compares himself to the dangerous sea itself, rather than the ill-fated Leander, is telling and reflects the shift in Othello’s role from lover to villain. While Leander is a helpless victim to the storm, Othello plays a far more active role in his own tragedy. It is his desire for vengeance that will ultimately become the "sea" that swallows both lovers up. The allusion to the myth is thus ambiguous and explores the central questions of fate and agency in the play. While Othello aligns his own capacity for vengeance with the fatal powers of the dangerous sea, the myth of Hero and Leander itself is one that demonstrates humans’ helplessness in the face of the powers of nature.

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