Othello

by

William Shakespeare

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Othello: Metaphors 4 key examples

Read our modern English translation.
Definition of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor can be stated explicitly, as... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other... read full definition
Metaphors
Explanation and Analysis—Webs and Weaving:

The comparison of Iago’s plotting to a spider spinning its web forms an extended metaphor throughout Othello that highlights the intricate and deliberate nature of Iago’s scheming. 

The image is first introduced by Iago himself, who, when he observes the effectiveness of his manipulation of Cassio, remarks: “With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio.” Iago similarly refers to making “the net that shall enmesh them all,” and Othello later decries how his body and soul have been “ensnared” by Iago’s scheming. All these images emphasize the idea of entrapment, with Iago’s victims depicted as his helpless prey. Meanwhile, the depiction of Iago as the spider denotes him clearly as a villainous predator and reflects his power and control over the plot. 

The metaphor of spinning is also significant in its relation to the idea of storytelling. Weaving, like writing, is a creative act and can be compared to the art of storytelling. Just as a spider carefully spins its web, so does Iago spin his through his careful weaving of words. The way Iago’s forged narrative will come to dictate the destinies of the characters in the play reflects the skill of his weaving. Indeed, the metaphor of Iago as spinner may also be an allusion to Greek mythology, in which the Fates, the divinities which ascribe humans’ destinies, are also spinners. Iago, like the Fates, is a holder of knowledge and a figure of control. Iago knows the other characters’ fates before they do.

Act 3, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Sexual Appetite:

Metaphors of consumption are repeatedly used in the play to denote the dangers of sexual attraction and over-satiation, specifically in regard to women. 

When Othello is talking about how he first gained Desdemona’s love through telling her stories, he uses language of consumption to describe how she would come “with a greedy ear” and “devour up my discourse”. However, such descriptions of female appetite soon become more negative. When Iago first suggests the possibility of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness, he explains its inevitability for “her eye must be fed.” Similarly, in Act 3, Scene 3, the pivotal scene for Iago’s persuading Othello of his wife’s infidelity, Othello cries:

O curse of marriage,
That we call these delicate creatures ours
And not their appetites!

Here the reference to the female appetite again centers consumption around female lust. Moreover, the relation of such appetites to women’s infidelity reaffirms contemporary misogynistic beliefs around women’s lack of constraint and the evils of female sexuality. This idea, however, is later inverted by Emilia in Act 3, Scene 4, in one of her most outspoken moments, when she talks about male jealousy:

’Tis not a year or two shows us a man.
They are all but stomachs, and we all but food
They eat us hungerly, and when they are full
They belch us.

Here Emilia turns the play’s discussion of gender and consumption on its head, with it being the male appetite that proves so uncontrollable and harmful. Emilia’s words also further the depiction in the play of the “green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on,” with jealousy being an all-consuming force.

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Explanation and Analysis—The Green-Eyed Monster:

Shakespeare’s “green-eyed monster” metaphor is one of the most evocative images in Othello. The idea of jealousy as a monster that preys and feeds upon its victims is a vivid one that hooks the audience’s imagination. In Act 3, Scene 3, the most pivotal scene in Iago’s manipulation of Othello, Iago cautions:

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. 

While Iago’s use of this metaphor is tinged with irony—he is, after all, the one feeding this "monster" at this very moment—its description of the nature of jealousy is very pertinent to the way it manifests in the play. The description of the monster as “green-eyed,” for example, is pertinent to the ideas of vision and blindness that run through the play. Jealousy’s ability to taint appearances—for example, Othello seeing every action of Desdemona as confirming her infidelity—is its most potent weapon. 

The metaphor of jealousy as a monster is also important in that it makes it an external creature, which emphasizes the helplessness of its victims. Othello, therefore, may be seen as a victim of jealousy, not an agent, a fact which perhaps relieves him of some of the responsibility of his subsequent violent actions. It is the “monster” that is powerful and in control. 

However, it is also possible to interpret this another way, with the monster being part of Othello himself. Emilia later also describes jealousy as a monster, but in a way that places more of the blame on Othello. When Desdemona says she did nothing to cause Othello’s jealousy in Act 3, Scene 4, Emilia replies:

They are not ever jealous for the cause,
But jealous for they’re jealous. It is a monster
Begot upon itself, born on itself. 

Emilia’s description develops the idea of the green-eyed monster to emphasize its self-consuming nature: it is jealousy itself which breeds its own evil. The jealous “monster” that infects Othello is thus only able to take hold because of something intrinsic in Othello that sustains it.

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Explanation and Analysis—Words as Poison:

The repeated comparison of words to poison and illness forms an extended metaphor throughout the play that emphasizes the dangers and infectiousness of language. In one of Iago’s asides, when he is reflecting on how his deceit is already proving effective on Othello, he remarks:

The Moor already changes with my poison;
Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons

Here, Iago’s direct description of his words as “poison” shows his awareness of how harmful words can be, with them infecting people from the inside out. The difficulty of tracing poison is also apt, with Iago never having to physically enact violence himself, making his crimes very difficult to detect. The choice of the word “conceits,” which is a term that refers to fanciful metaphors, also adds a metafictional element to Iago’s speech, drawing attention to the fact that just as Iago carefully constructs his language for a particular effect, so does the playwright. While the audience watches Othello fall victim to Iago’s mastery of language, they are also being manipulated themselves by Shakespeare’s careful choice of words. Furthermore, the double meaning of “conceit,” which can also refer to excessive pride, adds a further layer to Iago’s metaphor, with Othello’s pride arguably being part of his undoing.

The play contains many other incidents of poison imagery. Iago says how he will “pour pestilence into his ear” to poison Othello’s mind and refers to his method as being “by wit and not by witchcraft." Othello similarly refers to the way he won Desdemona’s love through his storytelling as “witchcraft.” That language has its own dangerous material power is a truth widely acknowledged by the play. 

The association of language with poison and illness is also apt in its connection to the idea of infection. Iago’s reference to the “pestilence” (the plague), for example, alludes to the idea that the poison of his words is able to spread and infect. He need only drop a few suggestions into Othello’s ear for the poison of his words to take effect and spread to infect the whole of Othello’s mind. Likewise, he need only poison Othello for the effects to spread to bring around the whole play’s ruin, with Desdemona, Emilia and Cassio all also ultimately becoming victims of Iago’s poison.

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Act 3, scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Sexual Appetite:

Metaphors of consumption are repeatedly used in the play to denote the dangers of sexual attraction and over-satiation, specifically in regard to women. 

When Othello is talking about how he first gained Desdemona’s love through telling her stories, he uses language of consumption to describe how she would come “with a greedy ear” and “devour up my discourse”. However, such descriptions of female appetite soon become more negative. When Iago first suggests the possibility of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness, he explains its inevitability for “her eye must be fed.” Similarly, in Act 3, Scene 3, the pivotal scene for Iago’s persuading Othello of his wife’s infidelity, Othello cries:

O curse of marriage,
That we call these delicate creatures ours
And not their appetites!

Here the reference to the female appetite again centers consumption around female lust. Moreover, the relation of such appetites to women’s infidelity reaffirms contemporary misogynistic beliefs around women’s lack of constraint and the evils of female sexuality. This idea, however, is later inverted by Emilia in Act 3, Scene 4, in one of her most outspoken moments, when she talks about male jealousy:

’Tis not a year or two shows us a man.
They are all but stomachs, and we all but food
They eat us hungerly, and when they are full
They belch us.

Here Emilia turns the play’s discussion of gender and consumption on its head, with it being the male appetite that proves so uncontrollable and harmful. Emilia’s words also further the depiction in the play of the “green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on,” with jealousy being an all-consuming force.

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Explanation and Analysis—The Green-Eyed Monster:

Shakespeare’s “green-eyed monster” metaphor is one of the most evocative images in Othello. The idea of jealousy as a monster that preys and feeds upon its victims is a vivid one that hooks the audience’s imagination. In Act 3, Scene 3, the most pivotal scene in Iago’s manipulation of Othello, Iago cautions:

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. 

While Iago’s use of this metaphor is tinged with irony—he is, after all, the one feeding this "monster" at this very moment—its description of the nature of jealousy is very pertinent to the way it manifests in the play. The description of the monster as “green-eyed,” for example, is pertinent to the ideas of vision and blindness that run through the play. Jealousy’s ability to taint appearances—for example, Othello seeing every action of Desdemona as confirming her infidelity—is its most potent weapon. 

The metaphor of jealousy as a monster is also important in that it makes it an external creature, which emphasizes the helplessness of its victims. Othello, therefore, may be seen as a victim of jealousy, not an agent, a fact which perhaps relieves him of some of the responsibility of his subsequent violent actions. It is the “monster” that is powerful and in control. 

However, it is also possible to interpret this another way, with the monster being part of Othello himself. Emilia later also describes jealousy as a monster, but in a way that places more of the blame on Othello. When Desdemona says she did nothing to cause Othello’s jealousy in Act 3, Scene 4, Emilia replies:

They are not ever jealous for the cause,
But jealous for they’re jealous. It is a monster
Begot upon itself, born on itself. 

Emilia’s description develops the idea of the green-eyed monster to emphasize its self-consuming nature: it is jealousy itself which breeds its own evil. The jealous “monster” that infects Othello is thus only able to take hold because of something intrinsic in Othello that sustains it.

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