In Othello, Iago uses his many asides and soliloquies as opportunities to tell the audience exactly what he is planning to do. He outlines his entire scheme early in the play, explaining in no uncertain terms how he plans to exact his revenge: “Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me/ For making him egregiously an ass/ And practicing upon his peace and quiet/ Even to madness” (II.i.). We can also find many instance of subtle foreshadowing of the play’s tragic ending from the beginning, as all the characters speak rhetorically about the deaths they eventually come to suffer.
Two significant moments point toward the inevitability of Desdemona’s death. The first comes in Act III, scene iii, after Othello has evaded Desdemona’s attempts to designate a time to dine with Cassio. Once Desdemona exits, Othello utters to himself: “Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee! And when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again” (III.iii.). Here, Othello indicates the nature of his affection: either he loves her intensely and feels protective, or else he feels scorned and succumbs to an emotional “chaos.”
Another moment that foreshadows Desdemona’s death comes in Act IV, scene iii, when she sings for Emilia a song called “Willow” about a lover who becomes mad, foreshadowing Othello’s madness. Desdemona says her mother’s maid died while singing the song, further foreshadowing that Desdemona will soon die as well. She misremembers one line, singing “Let nobody blame him; his scorn I approve.” This misremembered line foreshadows Desdemona’s dying words, in which she attempts to take the blame for her own murder. Following her mistress’s death, Emilia recalls the song and asks, with the clarity of hindsight, “What did thy song bode, lady?” (V.ii.).
The audience knows from the beginning that Iago is not the loving friend of Othello that he claims to be. But several other characters foreshadow where the play is going as well. When Iago tells Roderigo that Othello gave a promotion to Cassio and made Iago a lowly ancient, Roderigo says “By heaven, I would rather have been his hangman,” (I.i.) meaning if he were in Iago’s place, he’d rather kill Othello than serve as his ancient.
Iago does exactly what Roderigo says, by convincing Othello that Desdemona has cheated on him. Even Othello seems to subconsciously understand that Iago is not who he seems: he says “By Heaven, thou echo’st me/ As if there were some monster in thy thought/ Too hideous to be shown.” (III.iii.) Without consciously being aware of Iago’s treachery, Othello describes Iago’s truly monstrous character accurately.
Emilia’s role as a truth-teller gradually increases over the course of the play, culminating in the moment when she reveals Iago’s plot to Othello and dies as a consequence. One of the earliest moments when she speaks her mind comes in Act III, scene iv, when she bemoans the social hierarchy that places men above women: “They are all but stomachs, and we all but food; / They eat us hungerly, and, when they are full, / They belch us” (III.iv.). In saying this line to Desdemona, her social superior, Emilia demonstrates her willingness to risk censure in order to speak the truth.
Emilia’s outspokenness becomes more acute in Act IV, where in Iago’s presence she defends Desdemona against Othello’s claim that she is a “whore.” In response to Desdemona, who declares that Heaven should pardon the man who planted the idea in her husband’s mind, Emilia makes a foreboding substitution: “A halter pardon him, and Hell gnaw his bones!” (IV.ii.). A halter is a noose, and in using this word—in front of Iago, the villain himself—Emilia not only foreshadows her role as the ultimate truth-teller, but she also foretells Iago’s probable future execution.
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