Othello is a play primarily concerned with language’s ability to conceal the truth, and the play’s style reflects the duality of speech. From the opening scene, Iago uses language to manipulate others and disguise his true intentions. When Iago tells Roderigo “I am not what I am,” (I.i) he is actually showing the audience just how duplicitous he is. Iago shifts registers depending on who he is talking to: When he warns Brabanzio that Othello is having sex with his daughter, he uses coarse, crass language, saying, “an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe.” (I.i.)
But when he is talking in asides to the audience directly, Iago uses poetic, metaphoric language: “Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons/ Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,/ But, with a little act upon the blood,/ Burn like the mines of sulphur.” (III.iii). This line suggests that Iago uses vulgarity more as a rhetorical device to anger his listener, than because it truly expresses who he is. Iago’s facility with language reveals his cunning and intelligence, and makes his manipulation of Othello believable.
If Iago is able to manipulate language to get others to do what he wants, Othello is manipulated by language. The style of Othello’s speech reflects how he is manipulated. Othello begins the play speaking in a lofty register. Although he protests that war has made him ineloquent, he proves the opposite as he accepts a mission against the Turks: “The tyrant custom, most grave senators,/ Hath made the flinty and steel couch of war/ My thrice-driven bed of down…” (I.iii.) However, as Othello descends into jealous reveries, he begins repeating himself, as when he says, “Oh, blood, blood, blood!” (III.iii.), or “But yet the pity of it, Iago! O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!” (IV.i.) This repetition suggests that he is so overwrought he has lost control of his words. He also may be repeating himself in an attempt to convince himself that what Iago says is true, and that murdering Desdemona is the only acceptable course of action.
Once Othello resolves to kill Desdemona, his speech becomes poetic again, heavy with a sense of the inevitability of what he is about to do: He kisses the sleeping Desedemona, saying, “So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,/ But they are cruel tears. This sorrow’s heavenly;/ It strikes where it doth love.” (V.ii.) As Othello is always honest in his speech, he is unable to detect the dishonesty in Iago’s words and emotions.
Prose vs. Verse
Shakespeare intermingles verse and prose frequently in Othello. In a general sense, Shakespeare uses prose as an expression of debasement, as in the cases of Cassio’s drunkenness (Act II, scene iii), the Clown’s bawdiness (Act III, scene i), and Othello’s rage (Act IV, scene i). More specifically, Shakespeare often shifts from verse to prose in order to shift emotional registers. This shift occurs in Act IV, scene i, when Othello responds to Iago’s confirmation that Desdemona and Cassio have had sex. He begins the scene using verse to create a metaphor (“As doth the raven o’er the infectious house”) but devolves into prose once Iago has made his case for Desdemona’s infidelity. Othello ends the scene falling into a speechless fit, having moved from poetic language to inarticulate rage in a few short minutes. Iago, on the other hand, has no trouble moving between poetry and prose more frequently than any other character, which indicates his facile use of rhetoric to manage the appearance of honesty.
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