Othello

by

William Shakespeare

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Othello: Irony 8 key examples

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Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Irony
Explanation and Analysis—My Life Upon Her Faith:

Irony is embedded into Othello right from the start of the play. In one of the earliest scenes, when Brabantio warns Othello that Desdemona may end up deceiving him, Othello gives a reply which proves to be ironic: “My life upon her faith!” The situational irony here is revealed in this line's double meaning.

While Othello means what he says in a figurative way, meaning that he has complete trust in Desdemona, it is the literal meaning of this line that will come to be true. It is Othello’s realization of Desdemona’s steadfast faith, and the consequent revelation of the horror of his own acts, that will ultimately cause Othello to take his own life. Othello’s life thus will rest upon Desdemona’s faith, but not in the way he means. The irony of the double meaning of this line also highlights the duplicity of language, with words' ability to deceive being a key part of Othello's downfall. 

Accordingly, Othello's speech is also an example of foreshadowing, with his words proving strangely prophetic. At this point the audience does not yet know too much about how the play will end, but the use of foreshadowing provides the audience with hints of the tragedy that is to come.

Irony
Explanation and Analysis—Iago's Honesty:

Iago’s reputation as a man of honesty and morality is a clear example of irony. Othello says Iago is “a man of honesty and trust,” Desdemona calls him “an honest fellow,” and Cassio says he “never knew a Florentine more kind and honest.” Iago, of course, ends up deceiving all three of these characters, making these remarks highly ironic. Indeed, part of the reason why Iago is able to manipulate these characters so easily is because he has so effectively cultivated this image of himself as trustworthy. 

The frequency of such remarks on Iago’s honesty— “honest Iago” becomes somewhat of an epithet in the play—is also an example of hyperbole, with Iago’s reputation for honesty being exaggerated for dramatic effect. Iago himself also ironically refers to his own honest character as part of his method of deceive others. “I am an honest man,” he says; “I protest in the sincerity of love and honest kindness.” Likewise, Iago constantly criticizes the supposed dishonesty of others. To Roderigo he berates Othello’s “fantastical lies” while emphasizing Desdemona’s supposed deceitful nature to Othello. That Iago lies about how others lie is, of course, greatly ironic.

By stressing Iago’s honest reputation, Shakespeare highlights how deceiving appearances can be, with this idea being a crucial theme in the play. The audience’s awareness of Iago’s actual dishonest nature while the other characters sing his praises—with Iago telling the audience as much in his soliloquies—is an example of dramatic irony, ensuring the discord between appearance and reality is obvious to the audience.

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Irony
Explanation and Analysis—Iago's Plotting:

By keeping the audience privy to Iago’s plotting throughout the play, Shakespeare steeps the whole of Othello in dramatic irony. Dramatic irony, a device where the audience knows more than the characters in the story, is a common device in classical Greek tragedy due to its ability to create tension. Likewise, in the play, it works as a powerful device that elevates the drama of the action. That the audience knows Desdemona is innocent, for example, makes the deception of Othello all the more frustrating and devastating to witness. Equally, the tragedy of the play’s ending is made even more acute by the fact that the audience knows it is coming all along. The imbalance in knowledge between the audience and the characters in the play emphasizes the ignorance and thus the vulnerability of Iago’s victims, strengthening the play’s emotional impact.

The use of dramatic irony also draws attention to the calculated nature of Iago’s plotting and allows the audience to see just how effective a villain Iago is. That almost exactly what Iago says will happen does happen allows the audience to see how it is Iago who holds the control in the play, making him an even more fearsome villain. Indeed, the drama of Shakespeare’s plays rarely relies on the tension of suspense, but instead the tension of dramatic irony. That the audience can see all the mechanics at work behind the play’s final tragedy is what makes the drama so poignant.

The play’s use of dramatic irony also highlights the fatal role of miscommunication in the play. When Iago sets up Cassio in earshot of Othello to make it appear as if he is talking about an affair with Desdemona, the audience’s awareness that he is in fact talking about Bianca allows them to witness how easily things can be misconstrued. Once again, appearance is shown to be untrustworthy, one of the play’s most crucial themes. 

It is also possible that the audience’s greater knowledge in this scene may be intended to create a sense of frustration, with the audience being able to see the relative ease with which Iago is able to mislead Othello. Such a factor may serve to emphasize Iago’s mastery, but it may also serve to expose Othello’s weakness. That Othello is so willing to trust Iago gives him partial responsibility for his actions. Indeed, that Iago’s lies take root so easily suggests that there is also an innate capacity for jealousy and violence in Othello that is responsible for his downfall.

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Act 2, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Iago's Soliloquies:

Iago’s soliloquies are used as a device to create dramatic irony by exposing Iago’s real intentions to the audience. The insights into Iago’s plotting emphasize Iago’s control and paints him unambiguously as the play’s scheming villain, weaving “the net that shall enmesh them all.” Iago’s seven soliloquies also add structure to the play. Littered throughout and structurally placed at the beginning or ends of scenes, Iago’s soliloquies signpost to the reader how the plot is progressing, making him a semi-narrator figure.

Indeed, the articulateness of Iago’s soliloquies highlights his mastery of language and indicates his capacity for storytelling. This is evident in Iago’s soliloquy in Act 2, Scene 3, for example, just after Iago convinces Cassio to ingratiate himself with Desdemona. It ends:

I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear:
That she repeals him for her body’s lust;
And by how much she strives to do him good,
She shall undo her credit with the Moor.
So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all. 

As this section of the soliloquy shows, Iago has a natural flair for language. Even in private, his speech is filled with figurative language and evocative images. Iago’s use of verse further highlights his sophistication, and the regular meter of his speech, written in iambic pentameter, reflects the measured and calculated nature of both his language and temperament. 

Iago’s frequent soliloquies also emphasizes his isolation as a character. Iago does not confide his plan in anyone else; he devises the plot on his own terms, something which indicates his cynical and suspicious nature towards others. However, it also works to create an intimacy with the audience, Iago’s lone listeners. Such intimacy draws the audience in as Iago’s accomplices, with only them being privy to the machinations of his deceit. The resultant dramatic irony creates an imbalance of knowledge between the audience and the other characters in the play who will become Iago’s victims, a perhaps intentional attempt to implicate the audience themselves in the actions of the play. By telling the audience what he is going to do, Iago forces the audience to shoulder some of the burden. The audience itself cannot avoid Iago’s manipulation.

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Act 3, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Iago as playwright :

Iago, a character whose tendency to lie and manipulate is clear to the audience, is an unreliable narrator. While the play does not assign an official chorus or narrator, Iago’s regular soliloquies, in which he often recounts the actions of the play and foretells what will happen, gives him the function of one. His narration, however, is clearly biased, with Iago’s agenda against Othello made clear to the audience. The disparity between what Iago says in private to what he says in public—for example saying in private that he hates Othello, but in public that he loves him—unambiguously highlights Iago’s duplicity. Knowing this, Shakespeare indicates that Iago’s commentary on the events is unlikely to be trustworthy. 

Iago’s function as an unreliable narrator has metafictional implications in how it draws attention to the power of language to manipulate. Iago’s power over the other characters in the play is achieved through his mastery of rhetoric, with him able to trick others by weaving convincing narratives. Iago manipulates Othello, for example, through his careful choice of words, a fact that Othello ironically alludes to:

And for I know thou ’rt full of love and honesty
And weigh’st thy words before thou giv’st them breath

Othello’s awareness of how Iago “weigh’st” his words before he speaks them is surprisingly insightful. Iago has of course very carefully constructed what he is saying to Othello, but in a way not done out “of love and honesty” but, on the contrary, out of malice and deceit. Nonetheless, the attention that Othello draws to the considered nature of Iago’s words reminds the reader of how Iago manipulates his listeners through language. Words are Iago’s weapon of choice. Consequently, the audience is reminded that they too are subjects of Iago’s contrived speeches. Iago’s soliloquies, for example, in which the audience is the sole listener, can also manipulate.

By drawing attention to this, Shakespeare highlights the manipulative power plays in literature more generally. Iago himself is portrayed as a kind of secondary playwright in the way he sets up scenes for other characters to witness. He manufactures the scene of Cassio talking about Bianca in earshot of Othello, for example, but tricks Othello by framing it in a way that makes it seem that Cassio is talking about Desdemona. As such, Iago skillfully chooses what to show and what not to show in order to get the audience to believe his chosen narrative. That Shakespeare allows the audience to witness this acknowledges his own potentially manipulative role as storyteller, with his play also carefully and deliberately manufactured to craft a particular narrative.

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Explanation and Analysis—Foreshadowing and Fate :

Foreshadowings of the play’s tragic ending can be found multiple times in Othello’s speech. Before he is fully convinced of Desdemona’s alleged infidelity, Othello exclaims:

Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul
But I do love thee! And when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again 

The last part of this speech, when Othello says Chaos will come again when he loses his love for Desdemona, foreshadows the play’s ending, when chaos and mass tragedy will ensue as a result of Othello’s turn to hatred. 

The effectiveness of such foreshadowing as a device is strengthened through the simultaneous use of dramatic irony. Though Othello is unaware how prophetic his words will prove, the audience at this point has already been privy to Iago’s private plottings and knows that he plans to tear Othello and Desdemona apart. This dramatic irony ensures that the audience can spot when Othello’s words are foreshadowing the play’s ending and heightens the play’s dramatic power. Othello’s obvious ignorance to the ending that will befall him elevates the tragedy of the play and creates sympathy for him. 

That the audience knows more than Othello also complicates the audience’s relation to the play, as they feel forced to become part of Iago’s plotting yet helpless to stop it. This feeling of helplessness reinforces the exploration of the idea of fate in the play, with the use of foreshadowing presenting the play’s tragic ending as inevitable and predetermined. Othello’s speech has a prophetic quality, even if Othello himself is not aware of it. That what he says will come to pass potentially alludes to the idea that language is determinative. Such an idea proves central to the play, not only in it being Iago’s mastery of language that determines the characters’ actions, but also in a broader, meta-textual way. The actions of the play have, of course, been predetermined by Shakespeare himself. The use of foreshadowing reminds the audience that the play has been carefully and deliberately constructed, an awareness that reminds the audience of the power of language.

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Act 5, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Marriage Bed as Deathbed:

Othello and Desdemona’s marriage bed becoming their deathbed is an example of situational irony which highlights the play’s central theme of love’s fatal potential. 

By having the marriage bed become the bed in which both lovers will die, Shakespeare perverts the marriage bed’s symbolism of love and fertility. Indeed, instead of bringing about new life, the marriage bed will come to bear only death. That Desdemona makes the bed that night with their wedding night sheets emphasizes the link and reinforces the irony. The perversion of this symbol emphasizes the disturbing nature of the violence that has taken place. In the final speech of the play, Lodovico commands Iago to look on it:

Look on the tragic loading of this bed.
This is thy work. - The object poisons sight.

Lodovico emphasizes the image’s disturbing quality, so sinister it “poisons sight.” It is important to remember how striking this image would also be to the audience, with the bed likely to be very prominent on the stage. That this is the final image the audience is left with when the curtain goes down highlights its significance.

The irony of the fatal nature of love in Othello is further reflected in the imagery of blood which is associated both with lust and violence. Othello draws this connection in Act 5, Scene 1 when he says:

Thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust’s blood be spotted.

Here the image of the blood-stained sheets invokes both the loss of virginity and the loss of life, linking passion and violence in a way that stresses the play’s central theme of the dangers of lust. Desdemona’s handkerchief functions in a similar way in the play, with the handkerchief, a usual symbol of love and courting, coming to be the fatalistic object that convinces Othello that Desdemona has betrayed him. The imagery of the handkerchief, which is white with red embroidery, mirrors the image of the blood-stained sheets. Indeed, we are told that the handkerchief has been dyed with virgins’ blood, a detail which ironically foreshadows the tragedy the handkerchief will play a part in.

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Act 5, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Marriage Bed as Deathbed:

Othello and Desdemona’s marriage bed becoming their deathbed is an example of situational irony which highlights the play’s central theme of love’s fatal potential. 

By having the marriage bed become the bed in which both lovers will die, Shakespeare perverts the marriage bed’s symbolism of love and fertility. Indeed, instead of bringing about new life, the marriage bed will come to bear only death. That Desdemona makes the bed that night with their wedding night sheets emphasizes the link and reinforces the irony. The perversion of this symbol emphasizes the disturbing nature of the violence that has taken place. In the final speech of the play, Lodovico commands Iago to look on it:

Look on the tragic loading of this bed.
This is thy work. - The object poisons sight.

Lodovico emphasizes the image’s disturbing quality, so sinister it “poisons sight.” It is important to remember how striking this image would also be to the audience, with the bed likely to be very prominent on the stage. That this is the final image the audience is left with when the curtain goes down highlights its significance.

The irony of the fatal nature of love in Othello is further reflected in the imagery of blood which is associated both with lust and violence. Othello draws this connection in Act 5, Scene 1 when he says:

Thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust’s blood be spotted.

Here the image of the blood-stained sheets invokes both the loss of virginity and the loss of life, linking passion and violence in a way that stresses the play’s central theme of the dangers of lust. Desdemona’s handkerchief functions in a similar way in the play, with the handkerchief, a usual symbol of love and courting, coming to be the fatalistic object that convinces Othello that Desdemona has betrayed him. The imagery of the handkerchief, which is white with red embroidery, mirrors the image of the blood-stained sheets. Indeed, we are told that the handkerchief has been dyed with virgins’ blood, a detail which ironically foreshadows the tragedy the handkerchief will play a part in.

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Explanation and Analysis—Female Honesty:

The constant references in the play to female dishonesty and women’s dangerous bewitching powers prove to be ironic, with it being the female characters who turn out to be the most honest. Othello and Iago’s repeated emphasis on Desdemona’s deceitful nature, for example, is steeped in irony, as she turns out to be the truest character in the play and faithful to Othello to the last. 

This irony is picked out by Emilia in the final scene of the play:

Othello: She’s like a liar gone to burning hell!
’Twas I that killed her

Emilia: O, the more angel she, and you the blacker devil! 

Othello: She turned to folly, and she was a whore. 

Emilia: Thou dost belie her, and thou art a devil! 

Othello: She was false as water. 

Emilia: Thou art rash as fire to say
That she was false. O, she was heavenly true!

Here, Emilia emphasizes the irony of Othello falsely calling Desdemona a liar. Her comment “the more angel she, and you the blacker devil” emphasizes this, with Othello’s misrepresentation of Desdemona’s honesty actually making him the more dishonest. Emilia’s remark that Othello “dost belie her,” meaning to give a false impression of her, further stresses that it is Othello who is the dishonest one. Furthermore, Emilia’s linguistic mirroring of Othello in the final part of this exchange— “she was false as water,” “thou art rash as fire”—turns Othello’s rhetoric back on itself in a way that inverts its meaning and further emphasizes the irony of his insistence of Desdemona’s falsity. That the truth of what has happened is revealed by a woman, Emilia, at the end of the play further stresses the proven honesty of women, adding an extra hint of irony.

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