Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
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. 250–252). Othello’s blackness, his visible difference from everyone around him, is of little importance to Desdemona: she has the power to see him for what he is in a way that even Othello himself cannot. Desdemona’s line is one of many references to different kinds of sight in the play. Earlier in Act I, scene iii, a senator suggests that the Turkish retreat to Rhodes is “a pageant / To keep us in false gaze” (I.iii.19–20). 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.365), is frequently convinced by things he does not see: he strips Cassio of his position as lieutenant based on the story Iago tells; he relies on Iago’s story of seeing Cassio wipe his beard with Desdemona’s handkerchief (III.iii.437–440); and he believes Cassio to be dead simply because he hears him scream. After Othello has killed himself in the final scene, Lodovico says to Iago, “Look on the tragic loading of this bed. / This is thy work. The object poisons sight. / Let it be hid” (V.ii.373–375). The action of the play depends heavily on characters not seeing things: Othello accuses his wife although he never sees her infidelity, and Emilia, although she watches Othello erupt into a rage about the missing handkerchief, does not figuratively “see” what her husband has done.
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.317–322); “Though other things grow fair against the sun, / Yet fruits that blossom first will first be ripe” (II.iii.349–350); “And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand, / Cry ‘O sweet creature!’, then kiss me hard, / As if he plucked kisses up by the roots, / That grew upon my lips” (III.iii.425–428). 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.330); “The Moor already changes with my poison. / Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons, / . . . / . . . Not poppy nor mandragora / Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world / Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep” (III.iii.329–336). Iago cultivates his “conceits” so that they become lethal poisons and then plants their seeds in the minds of others. The organic way in which Iago’s plots consume the other characters and determine their behavior makes his conniving, human evil seem like a force of nature. That organic growth also indicates that the minds of the other characters are fertile ground for Iago’s efforts.
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.117–118). In Act I, scene iii, Iago tells Roderigo, “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.312–313). He then remarks that drowning is for “cats and blind puppies” (I.iii.330–331). Cassio laments that, when drunk, he is “by and by a fool, and presently a beast!” (II.iii.284–285). Othello tells Iago, “Exchange me for a goat / When I shall turn the business of my soul / To such exsufflicate and blowed surmises” (III.iii.184–186). He later says that “[a] horned man’s a monster and a beast” (IV.i.59). Even Emilia, in the final scene, says that she will “play the swan, / And die in music” (V.ii.254–255). 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.
Iago tells Othello to beware of jealousy, the “green-eyed monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on” (III.iii.170–171). Likewise, Emilia describes jealousy as dangerously and uncannily self-generating, a “monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself” (III.iv.156–157). Imagery of hell and damnation also recurs throughout Othello, especially toward the end of the play, when Othello becomes preoccupied with the religious and moral judgment of Desdemona and himself. After he has learned the truth about Iago, Othello calls Iago a devil and a demon several times in Act V, scene ii. Othello’s earlier allusion to “some monster in [his] thought” ironically refers to Iago (III.iii.111). Likewise, his vision of Desdemona’s betrayal is “monstrous, monstrous!” (III.iii.431). Shortly before he kills himself, Othello wishes for eternal spiritual and physical torture in hell, crying out, “Whip me, ye devils, / . . . / . . . roast me in sulphur, / Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!” (V.ii.284–287). The imagery of the monstrous and diabolical takes over where the imagery of animals can go no further, presenting the jealousy-crazed characters not simply as brutish, but as grotesque, deformed, and demonic.