‘With specific references to three key speeches examine how Othello’s use of language reflects his changing state of mind In the play’
‘Othello’ a play written by William Shakespeare, is a tragedy and was written in the 17th century. The main character Othello, a moor, has a fluctuant mind which changes throughout the play. Due to the period in which the play is set there is a large influence on ethnic and moral background. At this time England was a Christian country, all children were baptized and soon after they were born into the Church of England, they were taught the essential rules of Christian faith. By such means the authorities were able to keep check on the populace, recording of births, marriages, and death, being alerts to any religious nonconformity, which could be politically dangerous. The plot of the play is set in motion when Othello, a heroic Moorish general in the service of Venice, appoints Cassio and not Iago as his chief lieutenant. Jealous of Othello’s success and envious of Cassio, Iago plots Othello’s downfall by falsely implicating Othello’s wife, Desdemona, and Cassio in a love affair.
With the unwitting aid of Emilia, his wife, and the willing help of Roderigo, a fellow malcontent, Iago carries out his plan. In brief, Desdemona cannot produce a handkerchief once given her by Othello; thanks to Iago’s machinations, it is later found among Cassio’s possessions. Overcome with jealousy, Othello kills Desdemona. When he learns, too late, that his wife is blameless, he asks to be remembered as one who “loved not wisely but too well,” and kills himself.
The deep love between Desdemona and Othello is immediately evident. Again and again the moral and intellectual stature of Othello is emphasized. He quells tumults in the streets with a few words; he bears himself with dignity before the Venetian council, defending himself compellingly from bitter accusations by Brabantio and accepting his military burden with quiet confidence. Even Iago, in the opening scene of the play, grudgingly admits the dependence of the Venetians on his valour. After his terrible murder of Desdemona, Othello’s contrition is agonizing enough to swing the sympathies of the audience back to him.
The quote ‘She loved me for the dangers I has passed, and I loved her that she did pity them’ is part of Othello’s explanation to the Senators of Venice for his success in winning Desdemona. Othello relates to them Desdemona’s behaviour during their courtship, where, like most of the characters in the play, she accepts and acts upon second-hand knowledge gained through listening, without the backup of evidence. The tragic action in Othello unfolds based on Iago’s exploitation of this over-reliance on hearing.
He seems to be the only one who perceives that people often interpret words based on what they want to hear, or through their underlying fears. This citation also is in iambic pentameter, this shows that at this part in the play Othello’s mind is still fully as it was at the start and Iago has so far had no influence on the mind. Usually Iambic pentameter and verse is used by higher classes in society, this also shows that Othello has not been dragged down to the evil level of language which involves prose.
Even without Iago’s interference there are potential problems in how Othello and Desdemona relate to each other through hearing. Othello betrays his fear of Desdemona listening ‘with a greedy ear’ by saying that she would ‘devour up my discourse’. As all she knows of Othello is his discourse, this is the same as devouring him. Her active listening betrays her non- passive character, which is threatening to the male role Othello is trying to adopt in Venetian society. Desdemona has also perceived who she thinks Othello is through his discourse – I saw Othello’s visage in his mind which has perhaps caused her to only half perceive his colour and otherness, and the potential male opposition to their marriage.
What she has heard is his version of events, and she appears to have fallen in love with his exotic past through this discourse. We can wonder how well she knows Othello the man in the context of Venetian society. In the citation ‘Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven’, Othello refers to heaven which is usually associated with the Hero and good people of the play. In this quote Othello also uses lots of punctuation showing that he is in verse which is normally associated with the more intellectual and upper class society this would also show that he has a good state of mind.
As Othello continues, we can see why Brabantio, who has probably lived all of his life indoors, liked to hear Othello talk. Othello has had a life of adventure. He has fought many battles and often barely escaped death. He has been captured and enslaved, then ransomed out of slavery. He has found himself in immense caves and empty deserts. He has seen cannibals and “men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders”. Later in the play, Iago will characterize such tales as lies, but they are certainly not. In Shakespeare’s time more than half the world was unknown to Europeans, and the reports of men whose faces were in their chests were as believable as reports of huge beasts who noses dragged on the ground, elephants.
“These to hear Would Desdemona seriously incline”.) says Othello. However, no matter how much she was interested, Desdemona could only hear parts of Othello’s stories because household duties came first. There is no mention of Desdemona’s mother, and it appears that Desdemona was the woman of Brabantio’s household. Othello noticed Desdemona’s interest, and says that he “found good means to draw from her a prayer of earnest heart That I would all my pilgrimage dilate”. “Prayer” means “sincere request,” and “dilate” means “tell in detail.” Othello doesn’t say exactly what his “good means” were, but it’s clear that he used words, not drugs or magic.
She wish’d That heaven had made her such a man” does not mean that she wanted to be such a man; it means she wished that heaven had made such a man for her. She then told Othello that if he had a “friend” that loved her, all he would need to do to for his “friend” would be to teach that “friend” how to tell her the stories he has just told her, and that would make her love that “friend.” “Upon this hint I spake,” says Othello, but editors of the play often put in a nervous little footnote saying that “hint” means “opportunity,” so we shouldn’t get the idea that she is dropping a hint.
Overall in this scene that I have just examined Othello has a very strong state of mind, he is not influenced by Iago in any way, this is shown by the fact that Othello’s language is permanently of a higher class, he speaks in iambic pentameter and verse which is shown in the lines ‘ She loved me for the dangers I have passed, and I loved her that she did pity them’.
The eloquence of the play is characterised by Othello’s language. His eloquence in the opening Act contrasts sharply with the short sentences of the other characters. He claims that “Rude am I in my speech/And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace” but this is recognised by the audience to be modesty. The audience is not alone in noting the beauty of Othello’s language with the Duke stating that Othello’s “tale would win” his daughter as well. Indeed the quality of Othello’s language has been labelled as “Othello music” by one critic and if it is worthy of such a label it is in the opening Act. For Othello the “tented field” is something characterised by romanticism and heroism. He talks of “Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven” mixing the military world with imagery of heaven. Equally Desdemona is the “fair warrior” and his “captain’s captain”. This shows how he not only considers Desdemona to be his equal (something which none of the other characters do with the “maiden never bold”) but how he has moved his affection and preoccupation with his career on to Desdemona.
For Othello, who is undoubtedly a character of extremes, this is an unsurprising transference of affection but it is also one which creates an ideal of Desdemona which she has little chance of living up to. The audience knows that in terms of idealism they are separated from the more brutal world but, crucially, Othello doesn’t. For him the world is one coloured, like his language, with extremes. ‘Extremes of perfection, extremes of evil. There is no room for shades of grey in such a world and this is why he is able to dramatically state “my life upon her faith” without realising the implication of such a statement. Equally he can talk of “my soul’s joy” and can state “If it were now to die/ ‘Twere now to be most happy”.
This is indeed the peak of his life, the peak of his relationship, the peak of his “music” but in such a world, for such a person as Othello, a peak is unsustainable, merely an illusive picture which is open to his own dramatic interpretation as much as Iago’s untuning. When the breakdown of Othello’s language occurs it is as dramatic as his former eloquence. Again the dramatic nature of his language is shown in his comment of “Tis the plague of great ones”. He may swear by “heaven” to know “thy thoughts” and then talk of the “monster” in them, demanding proof but he is unable to recognise that he is jealous, ironically stating “Think’st thou I’d make a life of jealousy”. During his conversation with Iago in Act 3 Scene 3 he talks as if he is addressing a captive audience and yet there is only him and Iago present, and then just himself. For Othello his language is shaped by his life experience. Every aspect of it is elevated, powerful, as if he is telling one of his stories which he previously told Desdemona.
This leads to his dramatic “farewell” speech: From this point in the play it is indeed farewell: farewell to the “Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war” in Othello’s language; farewell to heaven which is now made of “marble” and farewell to his “music”. Earlier in the play Othello ironically states “when I love thee not/ Chaos is come again”. As Othello’s love is so absolute it is unsurprising that when he no longer loves Desdemona the chaos, in both his life and language, is also absolute. Imagery of heaven is replaced by imagery of “hollow hell” and “sweating devil[s]” and his language becomes more sexual: “Hot, hot moist”. His speech on the importance of the handkerchief in Act 3 Scene 4 shows how his origins colour his language. He states that “there’s magic in the web of it” and that his mother received it from a “charmer” who “could almost read/ The thoughts of people”. The speech is designed to make Desdemona realise the importance of the handkerchief and it undoubtedly does this, however it also prevents either of them escaping from the situation they are in.
Whether Othello actually believes in the superstition or is exaggerating to impress the importance of it on Desdemona is unclear but again it is an example of the dramatic nature of his language. With such a powerful story Desdemona has little chance of revealing the truth, especially after his rejection of her in the previous scene. After this Othello’s language rapidly disintegrates. In Act 4 Scene 1 he has lost all sense of reason stating “first to be hanged and then to confess”. His language breaks up further as he stops talking in verse and finally is no longer able to communicate even in sentences: “Noses, ears, lips. Is’t possible? Confess! Handkerchief! O devil!” Desdemona is now the “devil” who is as “false as hell”. Equally he has adopted the animal imagery of Iago: “Goats and monkeys!”. For Othello the accumulative nature of the brutality and ugliness which he is surrounded by has undermined his language. Othello’s world, and his language, has been untuned by an “eternal villain” and his own nature.
By the end of Act 4 Scene 1, Othello’s state of mind has partially changed, this is due to the fact that he has been influenced by Iago that Cassio has been shagging his wife behind his back. This is shown by many of his sentences turning into short snappy sentences which are in prose such as ‘Zounds’, this shows a decrease in social status and his state of mind will have decreased due to this.
Act 5 Scene 2 however opens with a soliloquy that is filled sensuous imagery of Desdemona’s “whiter skin…than snow”…”smooth as monumental alabaster” and her “balmy breath”. She is no longer the “devil” having regained her former status of the “light” which Othello will put out. Othello still sees the murder as being a “sacrifice” and this is another of his attempts to justify what he is doing (which is the very thing that preoccupied Iago in his early soliloquies). Once he has murdered her however Othello recognises the impact of what he has done: “Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse/ Of sun and moon”.
This may well be over dramatic but for once Othello’s dramatisation of his life seems appropriate. Even in Othello’s world of extremes Desdemona’s death makes its impact on him. His conversation with Emilia after the murder is characterised by the repetition of the word “husband” as realization begins to dawn on Othello. His final speech, which is effectively his epitaph, shows a return to his “music” of the opening Act. It contains a list of similes to describe his condition, in which we encounter the “base Indian” and the “Arabian trees”.
This again shows how his language is coloured by his origins. After the first-person opening however Othello stands back from himself and speaks in the third person of “one” who has done all these things. His judgement on himself is “Of one that loved not wisely, but too well”, which may suggest that even at this point our tragic hero is deceiving himself. It also has to be noted that Othello is conscious that this is his epitaph and it is therefore worded accordingly. Othello is a highly introspective character who creates images of beauty and elegance in a way which none of the other characters do and yet, his final speech gives a clue to the problem of such a style of language. It is not only his language which is coloured by his dramatisation but his life as well and this undoubtedly leaves him open to having his poetic talents used for negative effect on both his life and language.
I believe that by now Othello’s state of mind has decreased so much that is has caused him to kill himself; this is due to Iago pressurizing him into Killing his wife due to the unlawful experience. The language that Othello uses here is mainly prose which reflects his state of mind.