Written by, Kelly Blake
We all know what it is like trying to convince someone to see things our way. Very often, people do not understand what our words mean, so we must be creative. The use of figurative language to represent objects, actions, and ideas appeal to people’s physical senses. These specific sets of words help us express thoughts more vividly or bring out an emotion. Animal imagery is arguably one of the most potent tools in literature. Animal imagery makes use of particular words that create a visual representation of ideas in our minds. William Shakespeare uses animal imagery throughout The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice to describe the characters’ emotions, moods, and attitudes throughout the play, demonstrating that the art of persuasion sometimes takes creative measures.
Animal imagery is displayed throughout the play by using metaphors to portray people and events in a crude, demeaning, or derogatory way. By comparing the characters to animals, one can get a clear description of what the character is doing or saying. One of the earliest examples is, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” (I, i, 85-86). Iago is using the words “black ram” to describe Othello’s darker skin, and the “white ewe” is young, innocent light skinned Desdemona. These descriptions are dramatic, and they give the readers a more vivid image of what the characters’ actions are. The idea of the two of them together seems much worse when Iago uses animal imagery to point out their wide-ranging differences. Iago hopes to reduce Othello and Desdemona to the level of animals by manipulating the language of animal imagery and race. Furthermore, the use of animal imagery and race intertwined is what disturbs Brabantio the most. Early in the play, Brabantio speaks unapologetically about his feelings of disgust towards Othello by saying that his blackness is a dirty coating that will soil Desdemona’s purity. This can be shown by his words to Othello, “Whether a maid so tender, fair, and happy / So opposite to marriage that she shunned / the wealthy, curled darlings of our nation / Would ever have, t’incure a general mock / Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou / to fear, not to delight” (I, ii, 65-70).
Throughout the play, Iago uses many words with racist overtones to insult Othello. For example, he says to Brabantio, “Because we come to do you service and you think we are ruffians, you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll have coursers for cousins, and gennets for Germans” (I, i, 106-109). Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, also refers to Othello as a “thing” in scene one. “ Of such a thinng as thou” (I, i, 70). Many of the insults in the play are based on the notion that black men and women are inhuman. In Celia R. Daileader’s book, Racism, Misogyny, and the “Othello” Myth: Inter-Racial Couples from Shakespeare to Spike Lee,” She argues that Othello’s narratives of interracial relationships are tolerated while others are not because it gives a broader, more positive look into interracial eroticisms. The horrifying reference that Daileader returns to throughout the book is, “All cows are black at night” (13). With this crude description she is lending argument that racism should not be a factor because we all look the same in the dark. However, Iago relies heavily on the racist undertones throughout the play to destroy Othello.
Iago conniving actions are not usually appreciated. In act one, scene one, Brabantio was annoyed that Iago arrived in the middle of the night to say that Desdemona eloped. He tells him that his house is not an ordinary farm. Iago continues to tell Brabantio that Desdemona is having sex with a “Barbary horse” and, as a result, Brabantio will have relatives that will also be animals. This statement is evidence that Iago thinks Othello and those who resemble Othello are nothing but animals. A more modern axiom of this passage could be, “If you lay down with dogs, you’ll wake up with fleas.” Iago is quite cunning in the fact that he knows how to phrase his words to create uncertainty and disgust toward Othello. Iago reveals early in the opening scene that he will manipulate and act deceptively if it suits his motives: “I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at; I am not what I am” (I, i, 64-65). The audience should immediately understand that Iago cannot be trusted because he himself states that he comes off loyal and genuine, when he is not.
Another ugly bestial image is used when Iago further elaborates to Brabantio about Othello and Desdemona having sex. Iago says, “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs” (I, i, 111-112). By comparing Desdemona and Othello to beasts, Iago hopes to reveal the evilness of their physical acts by using the same tricks he used on Brabantio about Othello and Desdemona. Iago continues referring to Othello and Desdemona as animals when he says, “It is impossible you should see this, were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys, as salt as wolves in pride, and fools as gross as ignorance made drunk” (III, iii, 399-402). This example is Iago’s way of describing how difficult it would be to prove Desdemona’s infidelity. He explains that Othello would have to catch them in the act, behaving like animals. Iago enjoys invoking the image of Desdemona and Cassio being hot-blooded like animals, specifically goats, monkeys, and wolves. The power of this mental image is crucial, and Iago uses it to drive Othello mad. The style of animalization in Shakespeare’s Othello forces us to think of race in connection with early dialogues of being “human” versus acting like and “animal.” Human nature often echoes nature, so it is easy to see the kinship that we share with creatures around the world. In the play, animal imagery is used by many characters to illustrate the darker parts of humankind. Even Roderigo uses animal imagery when Iago stabs him: “O damn’d Iago! O inhuman dog!” (V, i, 62).
After Othello and Desdemona receive her father’s reluctant blessing, feeling suicidal, Roderigo complains to Iago, only to be ridiculed: “Ere I would say I would drown myself for the love of a guinea hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon” (I, iii, 310-311). In other words, if he were to kill himself over the love of a woman, he might as well be like an ape, because a man with will and intellect would not do that. Iago is not a believer of love, and he thinks it is just a ploy for people to get what they want. He believes all women are unfaithful witches. Iago has little regard for humans and animals alike and he demonstrates that with his statement to Roderigo: “Come, be a man. Drown thyself? Drown cats and blind puppies!” (I, iii, 331-332). The animal imagery in Othello also sets the tone for the play. When we hear of lions prowling in the savannah, we think of violence, cunning, and strength. When we imagine pigs wallowing in mud, we think of laziness, uncleanliness, and ugliness. These images remind us of the people’s dishonorable characteristics and cause the audience to look for the characters’ flaws instinctively, whether it is the jealousy of Iago, the naivety of Othello, or the inexperience of Desdemona. In a way, it puts the reader into a state of anticipation; they are just as quick to see the beast in Othello as Iago is, and just as doubtful as Othello of Desdemona when she pleads to Othello to reinstate Cassio.
As Iago continues to make implications about Desdemona’s disloyalty, Othello insists that he reveals what he knows, but Iago tells him not to give in to his jealousy. Of course, Iago’s warning is meaningless because his entire goal is to cause Othello to lose his temper and descend into jealousy. He knows that the word jealousy will invoke an offensive visual image that will intensify Othello’s anxiety: “Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy! / It is the green-eyed monster / Which doth mock the meat it feeds on” (III, iii, 165-167). The green-eyed monster is an idiomatic expression used to describe an overwhelming sense of jealousy. The use of this phrase shows jealousy as a destructive beast. Iago continues to goad Othello by insinuating that the information he is holding onto has something to do with Desdemona being unfaithful, and Othello says that if Iago is a friend, he should tell him. Instead, Iago continues to play with Othello’s emotions. He tells Othello that he needs to beware of jealousy because it could tear him apart. Iago also says that if she is not cheating with his friend, he can still be happy with Desdemona. Unfortunately, Othello’s jealousy has taken him too far, and he cannot see anything beyond that. Othello says to Desdemona, “If that the world could teem with woman’s tears, each drop she falls would prove a crocodile” (IV, i, 142-143). These words reveal the truth to Desdemona that Othello does not believe her tears; he thinks they are fake. Some believe that crocodiles use artificial tears to trick their prey, but Crocodiles use tears to lubricate their eyes. So, crocodiles do weep, but not because they are remorseful. The previous statements give credit to why crocodile tears are considered fake tears.
After Iago plants lies about Desdemona and her relationship with Cassio, Othello begins to change from good to evil, and then he starts using animal imagery. The following is a perfect example: “O curse of marriage, that we can call these delicate creatures ours / And not their appetites! / I had rather be a toad and live upon the vapor of a dungeon than keep a corner in the thing I love for others’ uses” (III, iii, 267-272). Which explains that he would choose to be an ugly, slimy creature locked away rather than share his wife with others. It appears Othello starts to believe that he might be incoherent and brutal. He realizes that he is not a smooth talking man of leisure but he had never thought of himself as a brut until Iago convinced him otherwise. This is the first time that Othello calls negative attention to himself. The animal imagery depicted earlier by Othello and Iago reaches its ugly end in the Moor’s definition of himself as a “circumcisèd dog.” As he awaits imprisonment for the murder of his wife, Othello appears to be telling the story of an instance when he saw a Turk attacking a Venetian, and defended him: “I took by th’ throat the circumcisèd dog, / And smote him, thus” (V, ii, 351-352). With those words, Othello stabs himself. He appears to be horror-struck by his nature and the cruelness that has overcome him. In killing himself, he finally redeems his humanity and kills that animalistic temper, which Iago worked into an inferno.
Othello’s skin color plays such a significant role throughout the play because hatred and racism are two of the oldest weapons used against humanity. Although some may argue that Othello was intense and exotic, others would say he was brutal and barbaric. Iago uses the fact that Othello was a black man in white Venice in order the carry out his manipulative plans. His use of animal imagery to spread lies and disgust is what eventually destroys the love and loyalty between Desdemona and Othello. Iago ultimately convinces Othello that it is indeed the color of his skin that makes him barbaric and less than human. The many examples of animal imagery throughout the play have only given credit to the argument that through creative and dramatic measures, you can convince people to see things your way. The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice is overly dramatic and controversial, but it leaves the audience with the notion that the mind can be manipulated. Appealing to a person’s physical senses is a creative and dramatic way to convince them of something. The use of animal imagery in literature can be crude and tragic, but it gets the reader’s attention.
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