Othello

by

William Shakespeare

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Othello: Situational Irony 3 key examples

Read our modern English translation.
Situational 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.

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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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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