Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Sight and Blindness
When Desdemona asks to be allowed to accompany Othello to Cyprus, she says that she “saw Othello’s visage in his mind, / And to his honours and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate” (I.iii.
The beginning of Act II consists entirely of people staring out to sea, waiting to see the arrival of ships, friendly or otherwise. Othello, though he demands “ocular proof” (III.iii.
Iago is strangely preoccupied with plants. His speeches to Roderigo in particular make extensive and elaborate use of vegetable metaphors and conceits. Some examples are: “Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme . . . the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills” (I.iii.
The first of these examples best explains Iago’s preoccupation with the plant metaphor and how it functions within the play. Characters in this play seem to be the product of certain inevitable, natural forces, which, if left unchecked, will grow wild. Iago understands these natural forces particularly well: he is, according to his own metaphor, a good “gardener,” both of himself and of others. Many of Iago’s botanical references concern poison: “I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear” (II.iii.
Iago calls Othello a “Barbary horse,” an “old black ram,” and also tells Brabanzio that his daughter and Othello are “making the beast with two backs” (I.i.
Like the repeated references to plants, these references to animals convey a sense that the laws of nature, rather than those of society, are the primary forces governing the characters in this play. When animal references are used with regard to Othello, as they frequently are, they reflect the racism both of characters in the play and of Shakespeare’s contemporary audience. “Barbary horse” is a vulgarity particularly appropriate in the mouth of Iago, but even without having seen Othello, the Jacobean audience would have known from Iago’s metaphor that he meant to connote a savage Moor.
Hell, Demons, and Monsters
Iago tells Othello to beware of jealousy, the “green-eyed monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on” (III.iii.
Likewise, his vision of Desdemona’s betrayal is “monstrous, monstrous!” (III.iii.
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